As a place, Macedonia is a land of rugged beauty with sharp, vertical mountain peaks, agricultural areas that are mostly pasture, a mild summer climate, and a place of meager rainfall. Within this region of the Balkans, Macedonia has been a crossroads for several thousand years; it has been settled, resettled, and fought over long before history was being written down. Even the name Macedonia has been a source of contention because Greece, behaving like a pettifogger, has blocked Macedonia from being formally called Macedonia. The word “Macedonia” is thought to mean either “the tall ones” or “highlanders.”
This is a small nation, both in physical size and population, but in the northern end of the country, about 10 miles west of the capital, Skopje runs the Treska River. There you will find Matka Canyon. From the air, the canyon looks as though a giant red-hot knife sliced a jagged gash through the steep mountains. The river is narrow enough that in a few places you could hurl a stone from one bank to the other. Several things make Matka Canyon special, and it is well worth a visit for anyone who loves nature, history, and is lucky enough to be visiting Macedonia.
The river was enlarged when the Matka Dam was constructed in 1937, making it both the oldest artificial lake and first hydroelectric dam in Macedonia. The canyon is 12,300-plus acres of steep hillsides covered with trees. It is one of the most popular spots in Macedonia for rock climbing and trail hiking. And to add to the sense of antiquity there are several chapels and monasteries dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.
The canyon also is home to several caves. The most famous is Vrelo Cavern and underwater cave (the only cavern in Macedonia that is a tourist attraction). It is relatively small compared with other caverns around the world, and its underwater cave is thought to be one of the deepest, extending down nearly 1,100 feet. It is the deepest underwater cave in the Balkans and the second-deepest in Europe. But for the less adventurous (underwater cave diving is a high-risk endeavor that should be done only by highly skilled divers), a visit to the cavern offers a cool respite and interesting sights.
The cavern has some impressive formations. One of the prime elements is located near the center and it is called the Pine Cone, thanks to the erosive effect of water and limestone. And tour guides are sure to point out one of the small pools of water is named “Russian Beach” because a Russian ambassador to Macedonia insisted on swimming in the pool during a visit there.
However, it is only possible to visit Vrelo Cave by way of a river boat. The cavern is about 1.5 miles from Matka Dam and tour boats that hold about a dozen or so passengers gather near the restaurant and bar not far from the Matka Dam. The boat ride is peaceful, and in the summer months you often see kayakers idling along, soaking in the tranquility of a languid day.
Apart from the cavern you can visit the chapels and monasteries, and access prime rock-climbing areas on foot. One chapel, St. Andrew’s, was founded because of tragedy, an event that also illustrates the complex relationships that occurred in this region of the Balkans.
In 1389 King Marko and Prince Andreash (Andrew) were returning from a battle and stopped at a tavern at the end of the day (very near where the present-day chapel now sits). The king tended the horses while the prince went to get food and refreshments. Inside the tavern were some Ottoman Turks. They argued with the prince. A fight broke out and they killed Prince Andrew. Enraged, the king killed the Ottomans and vowed to build a chapel to commemorate the bravery and loyalty of his friend and liege.
Given Macedonia’s location (landlocked between the Adriatic and Aegean seas), overall size (slightly larger than the state of Vermont), relatively small population (approximately 1.2 million people), and the location of Matka Canyon, it’s no surprise this natural beauty is not better known to those other than Macedonians. But since fewer than 900,000 tourists visited the entire country in 2016, Matka Canyon is a beautiful, unspoiled place to visit.
For more information about Macedonia, Matka Lake and Vrelo Cavern, click over to these websites: