Welcome to Day #2 of 100 Days of Travel. It’s a new world and a new type of traveling. For the next 100 days I’m exploring Macedonia and Albania as safely as possible.
This stunner of a hike is a wonderful introduction to the Matka Canyon nature area just outside Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. The short trek features scenic views of the Treska River, a welcome mid-hike respite at the charming monastery of St. Nikola, and adventures on the crystal blue-green waters of Lake Matka.
A Short History
Shrouded in mystery, not much is known about the origins of this monastery. The first mention of it is from the 17th century during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, the small monastery has seen periods of total desertion followed by rehabilitation. When I visited, it seems to be in decent condition and looked after, although the doors were locked and I could not go inside.
Type of Hike: Dirt/rock/paved
Distance: 4 kilometers
Time: 3 hours for the full circuit
Starting Point: https://goo.gl/maps/bkbbZLzP5JmHWxi88
Finding The Trailhead
As you’re driving or riding the bus into Matka Canyon, keep an eye for the “house on the rock”. From here a mysterious metal man points the way to a bridge and on the other side of the river is an info station. The hike to St. Nikola is clearly marked and from here it’s about 90 minutes of mostly uphill climbing.
On the Hike: The Upward Climb
Dipping into the forest for less than ten minutes, the trail quickly climbs up the side of the mountain. The views from here are quickly impressive and I found myself continually reaching for my camera. Have some patience as the switchbacks offer plenty of viewpoints as you make the climb. It’s a mostly dirt trail, so I would be wary if rain is in the forecast for slippage. On southern facing slopes, the environment is almost a dry grassland like I saw in Spain, switching to semi-dense and shaded forest as you wander into the northern sections of peaks.
St. Nikola Monastery
You can’t get much more tranquil than this spot. The peaceful monastery sits in a small green field located in the saddle between two peaks. There are picnic tables, a natural spring, and bathrooms up here. A local translated the sign as “don’t waste the water,” although that wasn’t the problem as it seems the spring was dry this time of the year. Even more impressive is the creaky lookout with more picnic tables and the barest glimpse of the Matka Lake down below.
On the Hike: To the Lake!
This section is straight down and took me less than thirty minutes. You will want to watch your step here as it’s far more treacherous than the other path. There are fewer switchbacks and lots of loose rocks. I would even consider doing the route in reverse. Coming down this side, you’ll start to see why Matka Canyon is the rock climbing mecca of Macedonia.
At the bottom is Matka Lake along with this insanely pretty view.
And here is where I ran into an issue. There’s no way across. I took some photos, walked around, and realized I was stuck. I started to climb back up to the monastery to retrace my route when I ran into two locals from Skopje. They seemed confident that there was a solution, which came in the form of a rusted metal rod fused to a metal plate. One of the girls banged the rod loudly against the plate three times, the clanging echoing loudly across the canyon. Within moments, a boat was dispatched from the far side of the lake to pick us up. It cost 30 denari ($.60 USD), so you will want to make sure you have a small bit of money on you.
This area is super accessible to all tourists and is quite busy. There’s a hotel, cafes, kayaks, and boat trips up the canyon so after leaving the peaceful solitude of the monastery, it feels a bit like walking into an amusement park. The afternoon had become warm and a few kids were taking advantage of the last days of summer to cliff jump into the waters below.
From the other side of the lake, there’s a really nice view of the forest you just came down. If you squint, you can just make the lookout platform sitting in the saddle.
From here, it’s just a twenty-minute walk past the Matka Dam and back to the starting point!
Details, Details, Details
Where to Stay: Matka Canyon is serviced by the Skopje city bus line so you have the option of staying anywhere in the capital of Macedonia.
How to Get There: Pick up the bus route 60 from most points in the city. It takes about half an hour depending on where you are staying in town and the first departure is at 7:00 am. One thing to note is that the bus drops you off closer in the morning, but as the day goes on, the drivers become lazier and stop at a turn-out up the road.
When to Go: This is definitely a weekend warrior area for Skopje, so in the mornings during the week would be a great time to go. If you go early, this could easily be a half-day activity. There can be snow in the winter.
Supplies and Stocking Up: There are cafes and restrooms at the beginning and end of the hike. I filled up water from the sink at the public restrooms at Lake Matka.
Obviously, hiking is a very safe activity and I ran into a few people during the main part of the hike. Walking from the lake to the parking lot is busy and I passed about two dozen people on a narrow pathway. I kept a mask on for this part of the hike.
The major issue for this hike is transportation. While most people in Skopje are wearing masks, only about half are wearing them correctly including on the bus. Even more worrying is that both bus drivers wore their masks around their chins for the entire thirty-minute journey. One kid never wore his mask, only putting it on when we got off the bus at the canyon.
Located so close to Skopje, this is a gem of a nature spot with a bunch more opportunities for hiking and exploration. On Wednesday, I plan to return and explore the canyon itself. This time, I’ll pack my swimsuit so I can take a swim.