I desperately needed a break from the city. My travels for the past few months through the Balkans had been fascinating but exhausting – just trying to wrap my brain around the convoluted history of the ex-Yugoslavian countries made my head hurt. Fortunately, Matka Canyon was an easy day trip from Skopje.

I’d learned about the canyon on my very first day in North Macedonia. Posters showing gorgeous photos were plastered over the walls of my hostel, and the owner urged me not to miss it. So, after several days of wandering around the squares and sights of Skopje, I hopped on the number 60 public bus, paid my 60 cent fare, and settled back for a relaxing 45-minute ride to the end of the line.

Access to Matka Canyon begins along the Treska River, below a dam that provides hydroelectric power to the city of Skopje

Access to Matka Canyon begins along the Treska River, below a dam that provides hydroelectric power to the city of Skopje

The bus dropped us off below the dam on the Treska River, where I followed a dirt road up past the hydro-power plant. At the dam, the path narrowed to a stone-paved trail carved into the face of soaring cliffs that bracket Lake Treska, said to be the world’s oldest artificial lake. Half an hour later, I rounded a bend and stood before the Monastery of St. Andrews. Built in 1389, it is one of several historic churches, monasteries and old fortresses that can be viewed along the trails. I ducked inside for a gander at the ancient frescoes that adorn its walls, astonished by the deep blue pigment and the remarkable details that have been preserved.

Stunning frescoes inside St. Andrews Monastery

Stunning frescoes inside St. Andrews Monastery

Monastery of St. Andrews, built in 1389, is perched on the canyon lip at the edge of Lake Matka

Monastery of St. Andrews, built in 1389, is perched on the canyon lip at the edge of Lake Matka

Just beyond the monastery, rising on a rare niche in the canyon walls, was Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant. Frankly, I had no idea this complex even existed within the canyon. As is my norm, I did no research about the site before going, preferring to have no expectations. I could not have been more pleased. My previous week in Skopje had been fascinating but tiring, as I battled some of the hottest summer temperatures ever recorded in Eastern Europe, at one point nearly succumbing to heat stroke. The cooler temperatures in the canyon were a godsend and, rather than hit the trail, I gratefully grabbed a lakeside table and ordered lunch.

Canyon Matka Restaurant

Canyon Matka Restaurant

Lake Matka, behind the dam that created the world's first man-made lake. Kayaking is a popular activity in Matka Canyon

Lake Matka, behind the dam that created the world’s first man-made lake. Kayaking is a popular activity in Matka Canyon

More than an hour after finishing lunch I was still dawdling. Though I had little motivation to tackle more of the trail, I had come for the hiking, so I relinquished my table and headed uphill. Stone pavers gave way to sharp-edged stones jutting through mud, and in places the trail narrowed to a width that made it difficult to pass trekkers coming from the other direction. As I rounded a sheer rock face, the retaining wall was replaced with an iron railing that provided little protection against a fall. I refused to look down and doggedly moved on. A short distance later, parts of the trail had washed away, leaving holes that plunged to the lake far below. Nervously, I tried negotiating the first one, but I hadn’t worn proper shoes and I slipped in the wet earth.

Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant occupies a shelf carved into the sheer rock walls of the canyon. Day trippers and guests of the hotel can enjoy swimming, kayaking, and even diving in the canyon.

Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant occupies a shelf carved into the sheer rock walls of the canyon. Day trippers and guests of the hotel can enjoy swimming, kayaking, and even diving in the canyon.

A well maintained stretch of the trail along Matka Canyon

A well maintained stretch of the trail along Matka Canyon

Common sense prevailed and I turned back, instead opting for a boat trip to the far reaches of the canyon. Verdant forests and soaring granite outcroppings flew by until the boat pulled up to a tiny concrete pier, where I scrambled up a hill to the entrance to Vrelo Cave. One of many caves found along the shores of the Treska, Vrelo is a wonderland of stalactites and stalagmites, the most famous of which is a dripstone pillar dubbed “Pinecone” for its distinctive shape. Stairways led deep into the interior, where interior lighting revealed one of two lakes inside the cave.

One of two lakes deep inside Vrelo Cave

One of two lakes deep inside Vrelo Cave

The "Pinecone" formation inside Vrelo Cave, one of many caves along Lake Matka, is easily seen on a day trip from Skopje, North Macedonia

The “Pinecone” formation inside Vrelo Cave, one of many caves along Lake Matka, is easily seen on a day trip from Skopje, North Macedonia

Back at Canyon Matka Hotel, I reluctantly headed back to catch the last bus of the day. I passed boys diving off cliffs into the lake, kayak rental stands, and people sunning on broad flat rocks along the shores of the lower river, all of which I might have tried on days when I had more energy. I never saw any of the other historic sites and I probably didn’t even hike a mile, but a lazy day was just what I needed. All those other things will just have to wait for a return visit.