The Balkans are one of my favorite regions ever and even if I’ve been there numerous times, there are still so many places I would like to visit. One of them is Gevgelija, North Macedonia located right at the border with Greece.
I’m very glad that Amber from Thessaloniki Local blog has decided to share the best things to do in Gevgelija here with us so both I and you will be prepared for a possible trip there. Read on to find out all about visiting Gevgelija and what to do in Gevgelija!
Crossing over the southern border of North Macedonia, coming from Greece, time slows agreeably down. North Macedonia is beautiful and unspoiled in every sense. The first town you come to is Gelvgelia, right at the border and on the banks of the Vardar river.
If you’re traveling from Belgrade or Skopje down to Greece, this is an ideal place to stop. Gevgelija is also one of the most interesting day trips from Thessaloniki – a change of scenery and mood – and country – just an hour away.
Gevgelija is a great place for anyone looking to relax, hike, soak in a thermal spa, and enjoy quality local cuisine and wines.
First impressions of Gevgelija
Honestly, if you’re just passing through Gevgelija as you make your way north (Gevgelija is on European corridor 10 – a route starting in Salzburg, Austria and ending in Thessaloniki, Greece), the first impression is not stellar.
Unless, of course, you gamble. Several large casinos greet you at the border along the highway.
The charming town of Gevgelija itself is just west of the highway, and easy to miss if you’re just driving through on your way between Skopje and Thessaloniki.
Once you pass the casinos, you enter the gentler landscape of the past, driven by the rhythms of the seasons and agriculture.
Staying in Gevgelija
However, those flashy casinos you see from the road have luxurious and inexpensive accommodations. We found they were a great place to stay.
Unlike in Las Vegas, these are hotels with a casino attached – instead of giant casinos you need to cross through like a maze in order to find the lobby. It’s like any other glitzy hotel, just much cheaper.
You’ll have a choice of places. We liked our large comfortable room at the Marriott, and also enjoyed their pool and elegant spa facilities. It was an easy on-and-off the highway and lots of parking, making it a very convenient home base for our explorations.
This clean and quiet town has a lovely town center with a couple of pedestrian streets with cafes and restaurants.
It also has a lot of dentist offices. Many people cross the border from Greece for less expensive dentistry. This is probably a good opportunity to get a dental check-up if you’re on the road a lot.
Dining in Gevgelija
This region has excellent, honest food – the best fresh local produce, and quality meats – lamb in particular.
Gjoko Javor Mrzenci
This family restaurant is on the road between Gevgelija and Negorski Banji. The grilled lamb chops are superb. For a typical meal, don’t forget to have plenty of fresh salads – lots of cabbage, and they do it well. In summer, the shopska salad – which is tomato, cucumber, and onion chopped into small cubes and showered with a mountain of grated tangy feta-style cheese.
This is the most highly rated restaurant in Gevgelija, and has a more chic international mood than the homier Gjoko Javor Mrzenci, with a menu to match. Elegant platings, good seafood.
Dessert and Drinks in Gevgelija
These local specialties round out the dining experience:
North Macedonian Coffee
The classic coffee in the former Ottoman lands is what much of the world thinks of as “Turkish Coffee” – in other words, finely ground coffee grains gently boiled with water and served unfiltered, with a thick head of froth.
The North Macedonian distilled spirit is a refined version of Raki. While in Greece the major distilled spirits – tsipouro, ouzo, tsikoudia, and raki are all clear, North Macedonia’s Rakija – a distilled spirit of grape marc – is aged until mellow and nuanced.
Unlike many other Raki types that are white, Rakija is golden and rich. It goes down more like a brandy.
Local pastries are simple and delicious and fall somewhere between the syrup pastries of Greece and the pies and strudels of Serbia.
Try the Trileje – a local version of a pastel con tres leches – sponge cake soaked in sweet milk.
Local wines are delicious, based on indigenous grape varieties.
For a robust and smooth red with a deep aroma of ripe red fruits, try a Vranec – the word means “Black Stallion” and it’s apt – there’s plenty of bold character. This goes great with the grilled lamb chops at Gjoko Javor Mrzenci.
For white wine, you could select a Smederevka. This is one of the oldest indigenous grapes of the Balkans. It makes a light, fruity white with low alcohol content, and it’s very nice with some of those fresh trout from Lake Dojran.
A Short History of Gevgelija
You’ll have a sense of the many eras of the long history of the region, from the most ancient to the most recent. Here is a brief synopsis of the history of Gevgelija.
This area has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, and as such there are a lot of archaeological findings from successive civilizations, from the Iron Age and onward through the Roman eras.
Gevgelija is first mentioned in documents from the 17th century when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. From the late 17th century around 1665 – through the early part of the 19th century (1835), Gevgelija was involved in the production of silkworms, like other cities in the region such as souffle, in Greece.
In the 19th and early 20th century – the last years of the Ottoman Empire – Gevgelija belonged to the Vilayet (administrative region) of Salonica (Thessaloniki).
With the opening of the railroad linking Skopje with Thessaloniki in 1877, the population and prosperity of Gevgelija grew further.
From 1929 through 1941, Gevgelija was part of the Vardar Banovina of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After the second world war, Yugoslavia became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito until his death in 1980.
During this period, the region to which Gevgelija belongs became known as Makedonia. After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, an independent nation was formed from the former Yugoslavian region.
This led to tension between Greece – which has a large province called Macedonia – and the new nation to the north, which was for years officially called FYROM – Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. Only recently was the name North Macedonia decided on.
Things to Do in Gevgelija
There’s an archaeological excavation on a hill by the banks of the river Vardar and directly next to the highway E75 called “Vardarski Rid.” The excavations show a forum, a monumental stoa (arcade), and an acropolis.
Rich findings from the site date from the 13th century BC through the 2nd century BC – the early Hellenistic period. Many of the findings date from Ancient Macedonia, before and after the reign of Alexander the Great.
The National Museum of Gevgelija
Many of the findings from the excavation of Vardarski Rid are in the Museum of Gevgelija. The building itself dates to 1900 and houses thousands of artifacts.
A permanent exhibition – “Vardar Hill with Surrounding Sites” showcases about 350 objects from the Neolithic period through Roman civilization.
Address: National Museum of Gevgelija, Marsal Tito 26, Gevgelija. Open Daily 8:00 – 16:00
Smrdliva Voda – Curative Waters
Voda means water, and North Macedonia has unbelievably delicious and high-quality natural waters – both to drink, and as we’ll see later on to bathe in.
One of the therapeutic drinking waters of the Gevgelija region is in the foothills of the Kosuf mountains, which straddle both North Macedonia and Greece. A 25 kilometers drive rises steadily through the unspoiled countryside along a small but adequate road.
After a little over half an hour, you’ll come to Smrdliva Voda, at an elevation of 746 meters. This tiny settlement has an Orthodox church of St. Elijah, a tiny mom & pop cafe to stop in for a traditional coffee (with the grounds boiled in – like Greek coffee or Turkish coffee), and some of the strangest, sourest water you have ever tasted.
The therapeutic water flows from its spring through taps into basins in a small house. The house has a sharp, mineral scent to it, with some sulfur, as the water flows in.
Smrdliva water is a little effervescent, quite sour, and has a mineral tang. It’s thrilling to taste and a little addictive once you get over the shock. Locals claim it’s excellent for the kidneys.
Smrdliva Voda Hiking
This lush forested area is just calling out for some exploration on foot. Locals recommend a trail linking Smrdliva Voda and the spring Asan Cesma, with a rise in elevation of about 1000 meters. But there are plenty of less demanding paths around the woods here.
Negorski Banji – the Negorska Spa
This serious spa and physical therapy center is just three kilometers from Gevgelija, set in a 22-acre forest of Ash trees. The spa dates from the 1950s and the style is simple and utilitarian. It has a cheerful and positive mood – unpretentious, and very much a slice of former Yugoslavia in spirit and in style.
Three small hotels are connected to the spa center. This is not a luxury spa where you get a chocolate body peeling or an aromatherapy massage, but rather a functional, no-nonsense municipal wellness center.
Doctors will advise guests on a course of therapies after an examination and consultation. In addition to physical therapy and massage, they offer phototherapy, electro-therapy, ultrasound, detoxification, and many other treatments.
Even if you aren’t in need of any therapies, you can still enjoy the spa.
The center of the spa is its pools of therapeutic natural waters. There are 2 pools – one is 37 degrees C, which is like a pleasant soaking temperature. The other is 40 degrees. Those extra three degrees make a huge difference – you can only stand the water in shorter doses and need to take breaks, but it feels wonderful.
Women and men bathe separately, and the pools switch between men and women for both the morning session and the afternoon session.
The pools are clean but very basic, with a high roof and plenty of natural light. There is an excellent chance you will be the only foreign visitor. Bathing suits are worn in the pool, and one showers beforehand.
The price of using the baths is very small – we last paid the equivalent of 10 euros for two people to bathe, and for one of us to have a 15-minute massage.
Massage at Negorski Banji
The massage is given in a simple facility with curtains between the massage tables. No irritating spa music, just local music from a small radio.
Despite the decidedly no-frills ambiance, do not skip the massage if a time slot is available. These are wonderfully skilled masseuses.
One of the three hotels – the Bozur – also offers massages in a fancier setting. Starting at 20 euros for half an hour, these are also a great bargain.
Dining at Negorski Banji
A chic modern restaurant opens onto a view of the park and forest. There are excellent salads and main dishes, and also delicious local wines. The prices are very reasonable, and the service is excellent.
Negorski Banji – Negortsi, 7-mi Noemvri, Gevgelija 1480. The Baths are open for a short session in the morning and another in the afternoon: 7:30 – 12:30, and 14:00 – 16:30.
Visit Lake Dojran
Called Doirani in Greek, this lake is shared by both nations, divided in the middle. It’s just a half-hour drive from Gevgelija to Star Dojran, a town by the Greek border.
Star Dojran is a popular summer resort for locals, set on a glassy pristine lake. Locals enjoy swimming and boating, and there are some beach bars where you can relax with a cocktail.
Lake Dojran is a popular dinner destination, where diners enjoy fresh lake fish – trout and carp mainly, with excellent salads, as they watch the sky reflected in the lake’s glassy surface. Try stopping at the restaurant with the most local license plates parked outside.
Getting to Gevgelija
This sleepy town is actually very central and easy to reach. Coming from Skopje, you just take the A1 south. It’s about 150km – an hour and 45 minutes – along a recently upgraded road through some lovely scenery and cities like Veles.
From Thessaloniki, it’s just over an hour, going north on the E75. It’s very easy to miss the turnoff and keep going south if you’re driving from Thessaloniki. You’ll be looking for the sign that says “Evzoni.”
There are two trains daily from Skopje to Gevgelija – one is in the early morning and the other in the afternoon. The trip takes about 2 hours and 24 minutes. There are also several buses daily.
From Thessaloniki, there is one train departure daily in the early evening, and the trip takes about an hour and a half. There are also two buses daily, and the trip is about two hours.
Final Thoughts on Gevgelija
Right at the border with Greece and with the large casinos to announce it, Gevgelija is an easily misunderstood destination. In fact, it offers a great deal, especially for those interested in hiking and in wellness tourism.
About the author: Amber Charmei, originally from Manhattan, has been based in Greece since 2000. She writes on Greek culture and cuisine, and on travel destinations – both in Greece and throughout Europe – at www.provocolate.com. You can follow her casual travelogue on Instagram for more.
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