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Where to Eat, Drink, and Dance the Night Away in Macedonia

August 8, 2014 at 2:19 PM | by | ()

Yours truly at a Macedonian "meana," also called a "kafana" by locals

When I went to Macedonia, it was the first time I’d been to that region of the world, and I was desperate to experience a massive dose of its culture. I knew there were coffee and rakija bars, traditional dances, and loads of local culinary treats, but I wasn’t sure exactly how, or where, to have the ultimate Balkan experience.

This is, of course, a problem that presents itself to every traveler visiting a place for the first time. My solution has always been to be relentless about seeking advice. The moment I hit the ground in Macedonia, I made my quest known to everyone, from the cab driver to the front desk clerk to the waitress at breakfast. Where can I get the best splash of old-world Macedonian culture in a single evening? Finally, from a man in his mid-twenties, I was told the answer: A kafana.

In the Balkan past, a kafana was a place for men to gather and have a few drinks. As time went on, food service was introduced, as was live music. Nothing wrong with that, but pop culture did the establishments dirty in the 70s and 80s when the lyrics of folk singers painted them as establishments for low-class people with their heads in their glasses.

Today, that reputation has improved thanks to the fact that Macedonians use the term "kafana" interchangeably with "meana," the conventional Macedonian word for a cultural restaurant. By definition, a meana (derived from the Persian word "meyhane," which means "winehouse") is a place that serves traditional food and drink. In Macedonia's case, that means different variations of ajvar, fresh veggies, meat, and seafood to go along with beer, wine, and rakija.

The food is excellent, but it's only half the experience. Throughout the night, a live band circulates the room as you eat at a leisurely pace. At various times, though, the band encourages everyone to get up and dance. What results is the joining of a restaurant full of strangers, each taking another's hand and revolving around the tables, a few steps forward, one step back, a few steps forward, one step back. Don't worry - you'll catch on pretty quickly.

The meana/kafana attracts people of all ages, typically groups of friends out for an evening (i.e. not many families with children). They are a popular place to celebrate birthdays or other special occasions and also a great place to meet people, as the dancing makes them a social affair even though the tables are arranged separately as they are at a regular restaurant.

But clearly, this is no regular restaurant, and when you visit Macedonia or another Balkan country, a night out at a meana is an absolute must.

[Photo: Will McGough]

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