The Macedonian Traverse is a hiking trail through the mountains of Western Macedonia. It runs from mountain hut Ljuboten to Crvena Voda or Ohrid if you don’t mind a road hike at the end. Some see it as an extension of the Via Dinarica or promote it like that, but the Macedonian Traverse has an history of its own. In 1975 a bunch of Macedonian mountaineers set the trail as the “First Macedonian Traverse” or “Prva Makedonska Transverzala”. There’s a documentary of their undertaking where they (try to) hike the traverse in summer ánd winter.
Later it has been repeated by other Macedonian mountaineering clubs and I believe PD Transverzalec has an yearly “Traverse” event. Although it’s not technical demanding, there are several challenges such as the altitude, the exposed terrain, lack of water and the absence of facilities during the first half of the route that make it a tricky trail after all.
The Macedonian Traverse passes through arrays of Shar Planina, Rudoka, Vratsa, Bistra, Stogovo through Karaorman to Ohrid, with a total length of 225 kilometres. Characteristic of the first half of the track is relatively high altitude, the lowest point is 2,100 meters above sea level. ~ Ski Macedonia
I wanted to follow into the footsteps of those first Macedonian mountaineers, but as I came from Kosovo, I started in Štrpce. After a few days I had a friend from The Netherlands joining me, so I went down to Popova Shapka to pick her up. Since we were already a bit “off route” I thought it would be nice to include Titov Vrv, the highest peak on Shar Mountain. After Titov Vrv we had to change our plans because of bad weather. Instead of the original Traverse towards Mavrovo, we made several day trip on Shar Mountain. After one week together I had seen a whole lot of Shar, but still had a job to finish. Hiking the Macedonian Traverse.
A mountain pathway
The Macedonian Traverse is a mountain pathway which follows the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. Generally the trail is well marked, but there were some parts I could use an extra waymarks or two. The tracks on my GPS didn’t make it easier since they all slightly differ. No biggie though, the only thing you have to do is follow the ridge (and don’t fall down). Doesn’t really matter where you go, every step is beautiful.
This hike is part of my trekking through the Balkans where I’m trying to connect all Via Dinarica Trails. Route reflections of previous sections I hiked this year:
- Hiking the Jahorina Trailrun Track from Sarajevo to Višegrad
- Hiking from Višegrad to and through Tara National Park
- Via Dinarica Green Trail in Serbia
- Via Dinarica in Kosovo
- Kosovo extension beyond the Dinarides
My favourite mountain in Macedonia. I reached Ljuboten via a beautiful route from Štrpce to Liqeni i Livadicës, perhaps the same as Strbačko (j)ezero. From this lake the trail goes up to the border. It follows the border on a brilliant ridge and then tada, Ljuboten! Ljuboten totally blew my mind. What a beauty. At the foot of Ljuboten I realized that I again made it to a new country. A country where I’ve never been before: Macedonia.
At the foot of Ljuboten I had two options. 1) hike up and down to the peak without backpack 2) walk a round tour up, over, around & underneath – with backpack, but also with a stop at the mountain hut.
I choose the second. More Ljuboten = is more better 😉
The stop at the mountain hut turned out not to be a brilliant idea. Fellow hikers kept me (despite my earplugs) up with their music (why do people bring (techno) music to the mountains?!? – don’t you wanna hear the silence?) and then at 1.30 they start packing (?!) and left an hour later. No idea what their plan was – they haven’t talked to me at all – but for me this wasn’t exactly a great night. Luckily the morning hike made me forget all that.
Damn, it’s so beautiful here.
On Piribeg I met about 300 sheep, 5-6-7-8 scary dogs and their shepherd. Yeah, I’m not dog lover and I’m easily afraid when day start barking, but those sheep dogs are not just barking dogs. If the shepherd would not have been there, they could have attacked me. That’s basically their job. It was this close, oeff! Doesn’t help to get over my fear of dogs, but well, I survived.
Still full of adrenaline I walked across Piribeg until I saw something indescribable impressive rising up. Another mountain that looks like a massive hill, a steep unapproachable hill. On my GPS it doesn’t even have a name and the photos I took doesn’t show it’s majesty, but my heart skipped a beat or two. Funny thing is that once you start walking, it’s not that steep at all. A nice hike with great views. Has something to do with perspective (and state of mind?).
One hill after another showed up, rocky peaks and sketchy climbs alternated with wide saddles and gentle grassy tracks. The mornings are sunny, then the clouds come, but around 4-5 the sky clears up again. And in the evening there’s wind. With the sun on my face I reached another peak, Bistrica. And another one and one more until I found a saddle to put up my tent. First night on 2600 meter!
The Macedonian Traverse stays above 2100 meter, but you can include as many peaks as you want. I only do peaks when they’re on my way, as in, if I can continue hiking and don’t have go the same way back. On this trail you can walk across almost all the peaks, but you can also leave them. I do a little mix. If the sky is clear I go up and take the high route, when cloudy I take the lower variant.
Near Kobilica I heard sheep again. Don’t be a afraid. Don’t feel afraid. They smell it. But this time it wasn’t the dog that scared me. Once the shepherd saw me, he picked up his bag and started to walk along with me. Wanted to know how old I was, if I had kids, a husband etc. This is nothing new, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel right. Some guys are too pushy, stand too close and even when they don’t have bad intentions, they scare me. This one did for sure. He left his flock and walked with me.
For almost an hour he joined me. He carved my name in his walking stick, drunk my water and until I made the promise he could come to Belgium. He kept on confusing The Netherlands with Belgium just like he kept on asking to add him on Facebook. I nodded, smiled and kept on walking. My heart again beating like hell.
Sometimes I feel so scared and angry that all I want to do is cry. I didn’t. Tears are stuck.
I decided to go down to Brodec to get rid of the shepherd and hitchhike to Popova Shapka. In a few days a friend was coming to join me to Mavrovo. I might as well take a few zero’s and prepare for the next week I figured. And so I did. In Popova Shapka I found the perfect place to hang out for a few days: Konak Popova Shapka.
I’m reading, writing, eating and sleeping. Didn’t hike for three days. Tears are gone. Fear is gone and Rosa is on her way, joehoeeeeei! Rosa came, we hiked for about a week, but didn’t get to Mavrovo. We actually never left Shar mountain. And we actually ended at the exact same place where we started, Popova Shapka. Here you can read about the week I spend with Rosa.
After a major gear exchange and good breakfast at Hotel Scardus Rosa left Popova Shapka and I was back on my own. I cried. Luckily I was in good hands. I bumped into the owner of the mini market who opened the shop for me so I could get a good dose of chocolate. He drove me to his weekend house and gave me the keys. How sweet?!
I’m not a big fan of ski-towns, but Popova Shapka and the people I met got a special place in my heart. Big big thanks for making me feel so welcome.
At 9.30 I left Popova Shapka, crossed the ski slopes and walked to Bogovinjsko Ezero. This route goes more or less parallel from the hiking trail to Titov Vrv. It’s way less demanding and much more “in the fields”. And thus there are sheep. Sheep and dogs. Arhh.
At Bogovinjsko Ezero was another sheepfold. It could have been a great place to camp, but I wasn’t in for sleepless night and also it was only 2 in the afternoon, so I continued. A little hour later I was back on the Macedonian Traverse. Still too early to make camp. I went on and on, crossed the border to Kosovo and went on. The scenery changed, sort of a plateau with round hilly mountains. Covered with grass like a tapestry. Usually it only looks soft, but today I walked mostly barefoot because to my surprise the ground was really soft indeed. Never thought I could walk without shoes for over 15k, but I did.
Before Mramor peak I had another scary dog-encounter. The shepherds were somewhere inside milking the sheep, it took ages before they came out. Although the dogs didn’t bite, they made these attack moves, circled around me, came closer and closer, growling, barking, showing their teeth. I hit two of them with my hiking poles, but it only made them angry. I almost started to cry when finally one of the shepherds came to safe me.
Shaking from head till toe I thanked the shepherd and hurried away. From the hill top I could see another sheepfold, but decided to leave that one for the next day. Pitched my tent below Mramor and fell asleep almost instantly. It was such a quiet night. One of the best sleeps I had so far. I’m a light sleeper, I wake up all the time, but this night I didn’t. Probably because it was quiet. Very quiet.
First I had to tackle was another sheepfold. I hoped the trail would curve around it, crossed my fingers and started to walk. My hope faded away, I was going straight towards it. I didn’t see people around. It was too early I guess. The “road” went to the other side, not my direction, but I followed it anyways. Made a big loop around the sheepfold, climb a hill, went down to the river and climbed up again. It took me two hours to get back on track, but I didn’t see a sheep or dog.
The trail went back into Macedonia, a nice and easy walk more without gaining or losing too much height. On the right I could see Korab mountain, an impressive massive. Korab is the highest mountain of both Albania and Macedonia. It’s not on the Macedonian Traverse, but I figured out a way to go there after Ohrid. I know it’s weird to go back, but I believe it will be worth a detour. More about that later.
All day I’ve been loosing the trail due to poor marks, but mostly because of my dog-avoiding-hiding-behind-hills tactic. At one point I climb straight up a steep, grass slope back to the “ridge” when I saw something bigger than a dog. I stopped. It was a bear. The bear looked up, saw me and turned around. Believe me, I rather have bears than dogs.
On Lera peak I finally took a good break. From there on the descend to Mavrovo would start and would leave Shar mountain behind me. It almost felt like a goodbye, finished another chapter. But not before another dog-encounter. I heard them barking, but so far away I hardly payed attention to it. When I realized the barking was coming closer, coming in my direction I looked up.
A group of dogs came running towards me. Why? The sheep were at least 1500 meters away and I wasn’t even going in their direction. Were they going after something else? Nope, within 10 seconds they crossed a distance that takes me 10 minutes. Again I changed direction and disappeared on the other side of the hill. Immediately dogs on that side started to bark. I gave up. I sat down and closed my eyes. I heard a shepherd shouting. The dogs kept quiet. Fioeww, these were well trained dogs. There really is a difference. Some recognise me a human being (I think) and although they do bark, they don’t attack. They bark to warn, but don’t seem to see me as a threat.
I stayed on the wrong side of the mountain, made another detour before I hit the unpaved track down. The track went into a forest, took me back up to an power station where I saw the lake. Mavrovo. Although it was getting dark, I decided to go for the last bit of the descend. Probably not my smartest move, the track is steep, partly overgrown or blocked with fallen trees. It is marked, but hard to spot when there’s almost no daylight. 200 meters away from the road I slipped and fell on my butt. In the mud. After more than 35 kilometres I think I was too tired to care. Go go go.
At the end of the forest track I had someone waiting for me. He barked and whistled his tail. Then he turned around and showed me the way, carefully checking if I was following him. I did. Halfway two of his buddies joined, together they walked me to my destination for the night, Skihut Gorica. A little heaven between mountain and lake.
At Skihut Gorica I enjoyed a really slow morning. The hut/guesthouse/climbers hostel is located in the forest, but has a terrace with a nice view on Mavrovo Ezero. There’s a garden camp, a campfire pit, a slackline, a yoga platform, a kitchen and a cosy common room. Not exactly what I pictured a ski hut to be like, so I was happily surprised. Definitely a great place to have a slow morning.
Didn’t plan to hike very far, but I did want to tackle the 7k (or so) asphalt road. I walked the road next to the lake, bought chocolate in a mini market, went on to the ski piste to check the hiking trail that was shown on my GPS, came to the conclusion that I didn’t feel much for hiking up on a steep ski slope and made my way back to the lake. I had seen a good place for my tent, only needed permission to put it there. I got it without asking. “Where are you staying?” “In my tent.” “Want to put it up here?” And so I did.
The rest of the afternoon I spent (spend? I never know) snoozing, writing, reading in front of the lake.
The next stretch of the Macedonian Traverse took me to Galičnik, a beautiful, little town on Bistra mountain. The trail took the regional road which was a bit boring for hiking, but the scenery is absolutely fantastic. It looks really dry, but oddly enough there were some springs. It gave me a bit of a cowboy/Western movie feeling, although I have to admit I’ve never been in cowboy country. Anyhow, Bistra mountain was impressive.
Around noon I arrived in Galičnik and never left the café at the foot of Medenica peak. Physically I can easily hike 30k a day, but every day is full of impressions, encounters and mini adventures that need processing time. I don’t want it to become one big blurry journey. So I took the afternoon off. Finally catched up with my diary – I was over three weeks behind.
Turns out that there are more cute villages in this area. The next day I passed by Selce, Tresonče, Lazarapole and called it a day in Gari. It’s holiday time, think it’s holy Mary’s assumption they celebrate, like the Catholics do on the 15th of August. Gari was full with people and music. I could up my tent next to the old school and stay to party along. I’m not much of a party girl, but it’s fun to witness this “event”. On Monday there’ll traditional music and other festivities, perhaps I stay…
I stayed 🙂
Last day on the Macedonian Traverse. Maybe I stayed three days in Gari to pospone the moment it’ll be over. I might have been crying about the dogs a bit (a lot), but honestly Shar and Mavrovo, Bistra, these Macedonian mountains are insanely beautiful. One of a kind, definitely.
From Gari I started to climb to Babin Srt, the last peak on my route. As usual first a few kilometres through the forest on an unpaved road. A nice and easy beginning of the day. Then a sheep track joined my route, jep I had to pass a sheepfold. Luckily there were people to shout away the dogs. Nevertheless scary.
I continued climbing up, avoiding the other two sheepfolds while heading for the peak. I’m still surprised that there are no other hikers. On the whole Macedonian Traverse I only saw a few hikers at Leshnica, other than that I’ve been alone. Or with Rosa. It surprises me, because there’s so much to see. So many different routes and peaks, I could easily spend days exploring. But I didn’t. Instead went straight to Babin Srt.
Unfortunately it was a bit hazy, I couldn’t see Ohrid lake, but got a good view on Stogovo (Doruk) mountain. Also very very beautiful. Good for rock climbing too I guess, saw some really great walls that scream “climb me!” Perhaps next time.
Then the final descend started. A path over the mountains lead me to the the forest. A forest road took me to Crvena Voda where I walked the asphalt road down to a gas station on the A2. That was it. That was my Macedonian Traverse. At the gas station I got a ride to Ohrid which I happily accepted. 25 kilometre along the main road is no fun and nearly impossible for me after a 35k hike.
In Ohrid I found a great place to stay, “Villa Ohrid Anastasia” had a bed in a dorm for a bit more than €6,- It was pure luck, I saw it on the map and went to check it out. I liked the neighbourhood, the street and the building immediately. Super friendly people, super clean bathroom and there was a balcony that looks out on Galičica. Yay!
Map of My Macedonian Traverse
Apps & Maps
The Exploring Shar Mountain application helped me finding alternative routes on Shar, it has maps, description of hiking trails and shows several points of interest. Unfortunately the Balkan Hiking Adventure application isn’t working on my phone, but you can find a good dose of information (downloadable PDF) on their website.
I used the “Exploring Shar Mountain” app in combination with my GPS – which showed me the Macedonian Traverse – and MAPS.ME, an application with offline maps that shows many hiking trails. I downloaded additional GPX (KML) tracks from Wikiloc and Staze i Bogaze and uploaded them on MAPS.ME to get an idea about other possible hiking trails on close to the Macedonian Traverse.
For Mavrovo National Park there’s a hiking/biking map available, but I didn’t use it. It’s good to get an overview, but in my opinion the map is not detailed enough for serious navigation. And on this website you can find more hiking trails in Mavrovo, might be handy in case you would like to avoid the road hike up to Galičnik.
Special thanks to De Trek Barefoot
This year I’m sponsored by De Trek Barefoot, an barefoot minded outdoor store in Amsterdam and Hoorn, The Netherlands. Since I’m hiking on Vibram FiveFingers for years now, De Trek Barefoot is a perfect match. This winter (17th February) I’ll give a presentation about long distance hiking on Vibram FiveFingers. It will be about the how’s and why’s of barefoot style hiking just as much as it will be about my trekking through the Balkans itself. Keep you posted!
Besides barefoot style shoes De Trek Barefoot provided me with clothes and gear. I’m working on a blogpost, but for now I just like to say thanks for supporting me and my journey.