With Dr Felicity Nicholson
Make sure you get health insurance that is valid for North Macedonia before arrival, unless you are prepared to pay for any mishaps yourself. Macedonian doctors and hospitals expect to be paid in cash on the spot by foreigners seeking treatment, and once furnished with your receipt, appropriately translated, you can reclaim your money back from your insurer. Most travel agents abroad will be able to sort you out with the appropriate health insurance, and some give a good deal, combining health and travel insurance with insurance against theft.
It is usually a good idea to get any treatment that you need before you go travelling. Compared with some countries, medical treatment is cheaper in North Macedonia than in, say, the US, and standards can be as good as at home. Most doctors speak English. Nevertheless, it is always more comforting to get treatment at home.
Common illnesses can be treated in North Macedonia by the pharmacists in any local pharmacy (apteka). Many have English-speaking staff, and they can also advise you of the nearest family practitioner if you are in need of a doctor. If you need hospitalisation, this is best left till you get home, unless it is an emergency, in which case either call 194, or it may be quicker to get a taxi to take you to the nearest hospital (bolnica). In Skopje, City Hospital (Gradska Bolnica), the red-brick building on 11th Oktomvri opposite the parliament, deals with all emergencies requiring anaesthesia. The emergency outpatients’ entrance is around the back. There are several 24-hour pharmacies in big towns. In Skopje there is one on Dimitri Čupovski between McDonald’s and the traffic lights.
The security situation in North Macedonia has calmed down significantly since the end of the hostilities of 2001 and foreigners have never been a target. In fact, you are undoubtedly safer in North Macedonia than you are in most major Western cities, from both theft and terrorism.
To be on the safe side, avoid areas known to be unsafe and large public demonstrations which may get heated. The website of your embassy in North Macedonia will usually carry the most up-to-date information on the security situation, and the US embassy site also has comprehensive security and safety advice on their Consular Information Sheets at www.travel.state.gov. Many embassies advise their citizens to register at the embassy if they intend to stay in the country for any length of time, and to phone for the latest security advice on a particular area if they are going off the beaten track.
Sexual harassment is not usually a problem in North Macedonia, and women here dress as skimpily as in the West. Macedonians think it is a bit strange, however, to travel on your own, especially as a woman; and keeping in mind the high level of trafficking in women which has gone on in North Macedonia in the past, you’d better have your wits about you if you travel alone as a woman in out-of-the-way places after dark. There are no obvious red-light districts in North Macedonia, as prostitution is illegal, but there are bars and hotels and parts of towns that service this trade.
As with anywhere in the rest of the world, if you are a single female driver and an unmarked police car indicates that you should pull over, you should turn on your hazard lights and drive slowly to a public area such as a petrol station before stopping. You could also phone the police on the number: 192 to check if the police car is genuine.
The gay and lesbian scene is very limited in North Macedonia and it would be considered most strange if not offensive for same-sex couples to walk hand in hand down the street, never mind kiss in public. Booking into a hotel would not be considered so strange unless you insisted on a ‘francuski krevet’ (double bed), as double rooms normally come with twin beds.
When being gay was decriminalised in 1996, the gay community in North Macedonia cautiously took steps to promote greater acceptance. That trend has ground to a halt over more recent years, however, and LGBT United Macedonia is currently one of the only organisations in Skopje working on gay and lesbian issues. There are currently no venues openly welcoming gays and lesbians in North Macedonia, although private parties in some public venues do take place.
Travellers with a disability
Disabled travel in North Macedonia is very challenging. Pavements are uneven and often completely blocked by parked cars. Wheelchair accessibility is poor even in Skopje. Most big shopping malls, museums and many government buildings have wheelchair ramps. Some buses in Skopje operate wheelchair lifts, but at the time of writing it’s not known whether such buses will be available in other towns around the country. Local municipalities are working hard, however, to catch up to ensure better access for wheelchair users. The Holiday Inn and Aleksandar Palace in Skopje, and the Ramada Plaza outside Gevgelija offer rooms equipped for wheelchair accessibility.
For the visually impaired, most of the traffic lights are accompanied by a fast beep for red and slower beep for green. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – many Macedonians, at least in Skopje, speak English. The staff in some SP (СП) food stores are trained in sign language but, of course, this won’t be helpful if you’re not familiar with Macedonian sign language.
Travelling with children
Visitors to North Macedonia will quickly realise that the country is very accommodating towards children. Macedonian attitudes towards children are tolerant and relaxed and Macedonians themselves are exceptionally welcoming to families with children. Safety standards will not be up to US litigious culture, but costs are low, making a family holiday less of a shock to your wallet.