Road tripping around the Balkans has become one of my all-time favorite things to do in life, so after surviving the streets of Kosovo, Albania, and Montenegro, I decided it was time to head south and explore a bit more of my southern neighbor, Macedonia. Although I’ve visited this Balkan country more times I can count at this point, I never really saw much east or south of Skopje since I have always been at the mercy of the bus system which can be quite limiting.
Blessed with a fresh set of wheels at my disposal, some Macedonian version of turbofolk blaring on the radio, and the wind in my hair, I finally made my way down from where I was hanging around in the northeast to Povardarie, the country’s central wine region. The mission was plain and simple: to get better acquainted with the land I have been drinking so much from over the past few years.
First stop on my excursion and where I would be basing myself while in Povardarie was Popova Kula, a boutique winery with attached hotel and restaurant that opened its doors in 2009. It was late when I arrived, but a fierce tasting was there waiting for me along with the manager, Lazar Petrov, ready to brief me on the history of Popova Kula and what I had to look forward to the next day.
Popova Kula is located just west of a town called Demir Kapija and 60 km from the Greek border. It sits on some of the most historic vineyards in the country with its name (which translates as “Priest’s Tower”) deriving from a nearby tower that no longer exists, but was an important checkpoint on an old Roman road that ran nearby, as well as where King Aleksander Karadjordjevic, King of Yugoslavia from 1921-1934, decided to plant his first grape seeds in Macedonia. There is evidence wine has been produced around the Tikvesh region since 13 B.C., but it was in the 20th century when Macedonian wine started to really make a name for itself in the Balkans. By 1980, two-thirds of all wine produced in Yugoslavia (which let’s not forget, also included Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro) came from Macedonia.
Though its production sort of hit a wall after the breakup of Yugoslavia, these days, it remains on the up and up with more of a focus being placed on branding rather than bulk sales, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before you start seeing Macedonian wine getting more international press. With that, no doubt there will also come a surge in wine tourism and Popova Kula is already at the forefront. Relatively new to the wine scene, the winery’s first harvest only took place in 2005, but what it lacks in years behind some of the bigger wine producers, it more than makes up for in quality. As I mentioned before, it is a boutique winery so only produces about 200,000-300,000 liters a year and mostly for export.
Popova Kula has 23 different labels from 11 different grape varieties, either grown onsite or purchased from local families growing grapes in the surrounding area, and can all be sampled with a few different tasting options in their restaurant or tasting room. In their vineyards, you can find Cabernet Sauvignon, Vranec, and Stanushina. The Cab needs no introduction and if you’ve spent any time in the Balkans then you are probably familiar with Vranec, but Stanushina is the exceptional one. Indigenous to Macedonia, Popova Kula is the only place in the world at present that produces wine from this grape and any wine lover should not miss the opportunity to try (or purchase) it.
Wine aside, Popova Kula is just an all-around lovely place to spend some time and they offer a ton of different activities/day trips that can easily occupy you for an entire week. It’s one of the best hotel experiences in the country for sure, and basing yourself here for a couple of days not only positions you to visit some other great wineries, but also to explore the surrounding region which is incredibly rich in history and nature.
Down the hill from Popova Kula is the small town of Demir Kapija, 106km south from Skopje on the E-75 highway. If you don’t have a car, you can reach it by bus or the train that runs from Skopje to Thessaloniki. There didn’t seem to be all that much to do there to be honest, but there are a few cultural sights that might tickle your fancy such as the Dormition of the Theotokos Church or Museum of Wine (which I didn’t actually have time to visit, but if you did make sure you drop a comment down and let us all know how it went).
By far, this area’s greatest draw has to be its natural beauty and quite possibly Macedonia’s best kept secret in terms of where to go for outdoor sports and adventure. The Demir Kapija Gorge on the other side of the highway is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the country and apparently perfect conditions for rock climbing which I’ll take their word for. I already paid my rock climbing dues a long time ago. Or you can just ask this dude from Kazakhstan about it.
Demir Kapija literally translates as “Iron Gate” in Turkish, not hard to see why, and around the gorge you can also find some awesome spots for hiking (like to Prosek Fortress), mountaineering, birdwatching, kayaking, etc. There’s an interesting tunnel just off to the right that was built by the Germans in 1912 as well, so if you’re into tunnels…
Back over by Popova Kula, you have some marked trails for hiking and biking if you feel like wandering through some vineyards and fields. There’s also a really cool fish farm/recreational park situation going on where you basically pay five euros to fish for trout in their artificial ponds, and five euros per kilo for whatever you catch. They then provide you an outdoor cleaning station and grill to cook it up for your crew to feast on. Pretty clever, guys.
After not nearly enough time spent getting my nature and wine on in Demir Kapija/Popova Kula, I had to start making my way back home, but not without a stop first in a place I thought I was already quite famiiar with (though actually not): Stobi.
As it turns out, Stobi is a lot more than just a pretty (and very tasty) Macedonian wine brand. It’s actually one of the most important archeological sites in the country and it’s only 80km south from Skopje. An ancient city with a rich history that dates back to 3 B.C. and spans over 500 years, Stobi was an important trading center during Roman times as it was located on the road that connected the Danube to the Aegean Sea and the one that connected Via Egnatia to Serdica aka Sofia.
My photos didn’t really capture how large the site actually is, but it seemed to go on forever with its amphitheater, basilicas, multiple palaces and residences, colorful mosaics, baths, fountains, forums, and even a synagogue. I kind of got the feeling that there is probably a lot of excavation work still to be done, so you never know, you could be looking at next Pompeii here if they stop working on Balkan time (not that different from “island time”) and start to get a move on. More funding love from the government might also help as well.
The best part of the whole experience is that I was wandering around for about an hour and didn’t run into a single person, so in that regard, maybe it’s even better than Pompeii. Or maybe all of the tourists were smart enough to hit up my next destination prior to throwing themselves deep into archeology: Stobi Winery.
This was the Stobi I had in mind and although I didn’t have enough time to tour the facility, I knew I had to at least make a stop in their restaurant for a glass of white and appreciate their label designs even more than I had before. It’s one of the largest wine producers in Macedonia regardless of the fact that it’s also the newest – opened in 2009 – and they offer a few different tasting and tour options as well. No doubt I will be back to sample more.
Overall I was really impressed with what I found in Povardarie and its potential to become some sort of “Napa of the Balkans”. Macedonian wine is ridiculously good, ridiculously cheap in comparison to other parts of Europe, and produced in a ridiculously good-looking part of the world where you have everything from outdoor adventure to ancient history to keep you busy when you’re not drinking. While for this particular itinerary it was necessary for me to have a car due to time constraints, it’s actually pretty easy to get to both Demir Kapija and the town of Stobi with public transportation. Taxis are not all that expensive to then move you on to the wineries and archeological site – and also most likely will be blaring Macedonian turbofolk.
Anyone every spent time in Povardarie and have other recommendations on things to see? I know I’m leaving out a big one, Tikves, which is the largest wine producer not only in Macedonia but actually Southeast Europe – but more on that one soon.