I remember returning from Interrailing a couple of years ago, absolutely shattered and yet still with the energy to tell every one of the thousands of stories to just about anyone ready to listen. They all greeted me with the same questions: how was Budapest? Amsterdam? Berlin? Every single one of these European hotspots received avid attention, unsurprisingly so. Yet the one place I wanted to talk about more than any other, the place that surprised me so much, was the one place no one had even considered. Macedonia.
Sandwiched in the midst of Europe, this small, overlooked nation revealed unto me and a few friends the wonders in which it beholds. Hot weather, a view, and a massive lake- what more could you want? How about a four-star hotel? Well then, you’re in luck.
Much like a mirror of the country itself, the hotel ‘Canyon Matka’ finds itself hidden amongst surroundings receiving little, if any, attention from English tourists. We ourselves were not exempt from this. Before embarking across Europe, we did some, but not a lot of planning when it came to the route. Essentially, we had a list of the major places everyone wanted to see, the others we figured we could just wing while we were out there; if anyone had heard of something worth seeing then we could deviate from this route and go and see it. It was very liberal. Fortunately for us, this led us to Macedonia.
On a train in the middle of Eastern Europe, we came across a page in a guidebook we had ‘acquired’ from a hostel detailing this lake, ‘Matka Canyon’, that was surrounded by mountains and some medieval heritage. Perfect.
Having arrived in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, rather late in the evening, we had to spend the night there in the part of the city known as ‘shanty town’- a pretty sketchy experience with a story to be told another time. As soon as morning broke, we were keen to find our way out to Matka and so asked the lady at the hostel for the different ways in which you could get out there. Luckily for us, there was a regular bus that left as early as 7:00AM and was only the equivalent of around fifty pence for a one-way journey. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the canyon.
The very early stages of our planning foresaw us staying in what were described as wilderness refuges along the sides of the lake, presumably designed for small groups to camp in. However, as we scaled the incline up to the dam and moved beyond it, we were hit by the sudden emergence of a medieval monastery, next to which was the hotel ‘Canyon Matka.’
The initial approaches by the concierge to entice us in to stay were rebuffed in favour of finding these lakeside retreats- admittedly because it sounded like a pretty cool thing to do. The more he spoke, the more we were swayed, and as soon as he mentioned that we could get it at a cutthroat price because today was the last day before the start of the season, we were sold. He also mentioned something pretty amazing- we would be the only guests.
The exact figure in Macedonian Denar escapes me, but I know we were paying around the same price as we would have in a hostel, but instead we were getting a four-star hotel in a canyon. That’s £7-£8 and we had upgraded to first class. Result!
The rooms here were all totally unique in size and style and each offered different views of either the lake or the mountains. With only ten rooms to offer to guests, the hotel was a quaint little retreat more suited to the likes of the Caribbean as opposed to central Europe.
The hotel itself had a wide range of activities they offered as well as others that they liaised with the local community living beside the lake. The first of these we chose was a monumental hike across the mountains upon direction from the hotel. As mentioned, beside the hotel was a medieval monastery, St Andrea’s. This was but one of a number of identical monasteries scattered throughout the gorge. The hotel gave us the directions to a route that wound around the mountains and led us to a few of these. After nearly four hours of climbing in the blistering heat, we decided to stop after reaching one on a peak directly opposite the hotel. From here, you could look right down upon the hotel itself. We even managed to somehow connect to their WIFI and attempt to facetime one of our mums- if only she’d picked up!
That evening, after a much needed shower, we found that the hotel’s claim about us being the only guests there was indeed true as we ventured down for dinner in their restaurant for a three-hour stint in which no one else was seen or heard. This of course meant we were truly treated like kings. We ordered all manner of freshly caught main courses- the most memorable being a fish literally scooped out of the fish net aquarium that was right next to the veranda our table sat upon.
The setting would have been perfect had it not been for the Enrique Iglesias CD that the hotel had on loop. Turns out there is a limit to the amount of times you can listen to Hero. It was clear though that all the staff were glad we were there as they kept bringing out complimentary food and drink for the four of us. I believe by the end of the night we had had two free bottles of wine, three free shots of vodka, and two bowls of homemade crisps. This was probably of course to keep us well topped up so we would keep spending money but we didn’t seem to care. In comparison to the UK this was all still pennies. We ordered more drinks and snacks and even left a decent tip to which the waiter’s face lit up- money well spent!
After a rather ropey morning, the second day was spent doing activities that were again on the hotel’s recommendation. A local Macedonian who spoke absolutely no English offered us a boat ride downstream to a collection of deep caves. Keen to check them out, we of course accepted and set off. This time, it was to be the four of us, and some rather quirky Argentinian guy who just wouldn’t stop taking selfies.
The boat ride was outstanding. We drifted on down the river not only soaking up some incredible views, but also seeing how the peoples lived within the canyon; the rickety wooden houses even had small balconies held up with wooden beams that extended into the lake.
Though I was quite keen to see the depths of these caves we were headed towards, my enthusiasm was soon sapped when the guide mentioned to us that it housed rather a lot of bats. I hate bats. Though I found myself ducking down repeatedly in fear from the over flying bats, I did manage to see the cave from all sorts of angles. Every cloud.
The day, and our time at Matka canyon, was topped off with us kayaking back towards the hotel. Though I can’t claim to be very good at this, as I’m sure my friends can attest to, it was a great way to see a large part of the river at our own leisure. The water was practically crystal clear and we were informed it was actually safe to drink, which we took full advantage of. Matka truly did have a wide variety of adventures to fit all kinds of interests and needs.
So, as a final note, whether you’re looking for seclusion, a holiday of activities, or just a relaxing stay without breaking the bank, the Hotel Canyon Matka is more than the perfect place. We found our stay to be the highlight of what was an exciting two and a half months across Europe. It’s somewhere that I’ve recommended to everyone I’ve met about to go Interrailing, and it’s somewhere I shall keep on recommending to those I meet in the future. I cannot stress enough, It’s quite simply amazing.