Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, is on the banks of the Vardar River in the historic core of the Balkans. Disasters have historically beset the city, none worse than the earthquake of 1963, which destroyed much of Skopje. But there is still much in the rebuilt city to admire, with its minarets, mosques, and Turkish-style domes in the old town.
All the major sights unfold as you make your way out of the train depot, walking northwesterly toward the old city, with its 15th-century Turkish Baths and other attractions. The ancient Oriental Bazaar is worth an hour of your time, as you shop for regional handicrafts or watch them being made at this atmospheric souk.
Near the Turkish Bridge is Skopje's best museum, the Municipal Art Gallery. The Museum of Macedonia, filled with regional artifacts, is also worth a visit. The Church of Sveti Spas is visited mainly for its impressive collection of icons, many from the 1700s, and there is also a local mosque, Mustafa Pasha, where you can scale the minaret for the most panoramic view of Skopje. Across the street from this mosque lies Fort Kale, now in ruins but dating from the 10th century.
Outside the capital, the most scenic rail route is a 2-hour trip to the town of Bitola , which is relatively undiscovered and well worth a night or two. You'll definitely feel you're in Turkey here, and there are many relics to explore, including the Roman ruins of Heraclea along with an early Christian palace. Other highlights -- all on Marshal Tito Square (named for Yugoslavia's former dictator) -- are the Mosa Pijade Art Gallery, installed in an old mosque, and the 16th-century Bezistan Bazaar. Wander at your leisure through the district of bazaars known as Stara Charshiya, making your way to the city market.
The greatest attraction of Macedonia is not on a rail line but can be reached by frequent buses from Bitola. The old town of Ohrid is a charmer filled with red-roofed houses, sidewalk cafes, and rustic fish restaurants surrounding the world's second deepest lake after Lake Baikal in Russia. Ohrid is acclaimed as one of the true beauty spots in all of Europe, and UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site. Trip time from Bitola to Ohrid is 90 minutes (via bus).
Although you'll want to spend most of your precious time on the lake, you can stroll the streets of Ohrid for hours, taking in such notable churches as Sveti Kilment and Sveti Sofija before heading west to the Amphitheater constructed by the Romans. After a visit, walk over to the walls of the old citadel for a panoramic view of the district before continuing south to the ruins of an ancient basilica whose mosaics can still be seen.