Leaving Sofia by bus I was treated to another exciting adventure in Balkan driving. As we whooshed through the scenery I couldn’t help but be amused by the sheer number of traffic cops discretely hidden bloody everywhere. I suppose it’s rather like the Polish system and they have a quota to fill, but it seems insane that there can be so many of them and yet also so many terrifying drivers on the roads. I guess for every officer there must be at least a hundred fearsome Balkan drivers. Hence, I suppose, the “Save the Child!” written on crosswalk signs.
After the lovely wait for passport control and an extra stop at customs where we all had to pile off the bus and defend our luggage, we picked up a border guard and headed off into the mad mix of latin and cyrillic letters that adorn every shop and sign in Macedonia.
Tumbling out of the bus into Skopje with phone signal but no ability to text, call, or use data, I hunted down my hostel where I found myself in the company of the friendliest of hosts. Valentin lived in Canada and then in the USA for a few years when he was younger and now runs two hostels: one in Skopje, one in Ohrid. After a brief chat, I changed into more temperature appropriate garb and set off to find the Skopje aqueduct.
Google maps told me that it would be a fairly straightforward two hour walk and so off I went. Passing a shopping centre and crossing the river, I soon found myself skirting around the old bazaar on the business end (as opposed to the pretty tourist bit) which meant cars, cleaning supplies, cheap clothes, and rather a large Muslim population, which was only a tiny bit awkward as I strode along in my cutoffs. Thank goodness my lack of clean laundry had left me with only a shirt that covered my shoulders.
Passing out of the bazaar area I crossed the highway and headed off on the next leg of the journey. I was wearing my (nonprescription) sunglasses so my vision was not exactly 20/20 which might partly explain how I got so close to the gate before thinking “hmm, that man over there looks rather like he’s holding a gun…oh and might also be in fatigues…” So there I was with the sudden realization that Google maps was trying to direct me directly through a military base, so I swung a wide U-turn looking for alternate routes and was nearly back at the highway having found no options when I was stopped by a piercing whistle. Your man in the fatigues was coming towards me looking rather stern. I tried to gesture that I was leaving but he didn’t seem to like that idea so I walked towards him instead. I guess I might have looked a touch like a spy with my camera out, carefully peering down every laneway. Either way we soon established that fact that I was merely a well meaning idiot trying to find an “aqueduct” and he confirmed that Google’s suggestion was a no-go and sent me briskly on my way.
Looping around the military base, I crossed through a delightful neighbourhood where the main industry seemed to be selling found objects from the landfill. Joy. After that I was back on the highway walking stubbornly down the sidewalk along to a chorus of honking and shouting. There are times when I am delighted that I do not speak the local language. This was one of them.
Walking through the heat, I soon found another dubious little neighbourhood just to the rear of the rather expansive military base I hadn’t walked through. Through this little cluster of shacks, I found a dirt track which lead off through some fields to my much anticipated aqueduct. I’d never seen one before and I was quite delighted by all the arching brickwork. To be honest, I was rather more excited than the thing itself warranted but I accept that I am a child about somethings and for me it was entirely worth it.
As I moseyed about examining the thing I spotted an older man sitting on a little chair beside one of the pillars. As I was turning to leave he got up and began to walk shouting something. I decided that he must have been walking his dog and that he was just calling the rogue mutt back. I will admit that I saw no dog, but that belief and some speedy walking was far preferable to any available alternative.
Back at the main road, I decided to loop down around the other side of the military base. According to my map it was the continuation of the road I’d been following when I first reached the military base and that had a sidewalk so I figured I’d be grand. Some ten minutes later, the sidewalk ended. I do so love walking along the edge of roads with no shoulders and insane drivers zipping down on me. I especially love all the “friendly” honks, whistles, and shouts that accompany these adventures—especially when I’ve had the forethought to show off my legs. It was extra special fun when I found a path along the the side of the road which seemed like a great idea until it lead me through a messy tangle of old mattresses, plastic bags, and discarded automobile glass.
When I finally reached the massive American Embassy across the road from the entrance to the military base, I breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of blessed sidewalks. Apparently the embassy is so large on account of Skopje’s strategic location for missile defence facing east. And then I was back in the hostel, a hot, sweaty, satisfied mess watching the communication theatrics of two old Slovenian travellers speaking their own languages and not exactly understanding the host’s responses in either English or Macedonia.
Waking up the next morning in my cozy little curtained bunk, I actually felt refreshed! That little sheet of cotton made a shocking amount of difference in my quality of sleep. In the hostel I fuelled up on bread and nutella but wasn’t quite brave enough to attempt making Turkish coffee so I headed out, uncaffeinated, to find my walking tour. Naively, I thought I could easily find a coffee on the way, but Sunday in Skopje is a quiet affair. I eventually found a little bakery which fed me a frighteningly saccharine macchiato and then was engulfed in the mayhem of the finish area of the Skopje Marathon. Apparently the marathon was meant to be held in May but then there was a bit of protesting about something or other and so the marathon was rescheduled.
When I reached the walking tour meeting point for the second time (the first time was 25min early and even I knew that was excessive), I found a random collection of tourists from Germany, Ireland, Turkey, the USA, Britain, and who knows where else and an energetic 48 year old tour guide who had more stories than time to tell them. For about 4 hours we wandered around the city hearing the history and the curious modern occurrences that have shaped Skopje. From the old railway station which remains forever as a monument to the golden age of Skopje’s architecture and to the 1963 earthquake which destroyed it, to the nostalgic red double decker buses acquired as an ode to the donated London buses that were delivered in the aftermath of that same earthquake, to the ridiculousness of clothes greek statues and neoclassical facades on striking modern buildings. It seems that the current mayor of Skopje has decided to borrow all the best bits of Europe’s major cities and transplant them into Skopje, the effect is ridiculous and the number of sculptures knocking about is simply staggering.
After we wandered through the touristy bit of the old bazaar, climbed the half restored fortress (restorations were halted by violent protests a few years ago), and explored the most beautiful mosque west of Istanbul, we were all starving so a few of us banded together to follow the guide back to the restaurant where we had our mid-tour rakia shots for lunch. At my table sat a friendly Berliner, a chill fellow from Portland, and a somewhat peculiar Russian guy. We chowed through the meatiest of meat meals mixed with all manner of good conversation. I had a burger patty of sorts stuffed with cheese and paired with a spicy pepper, a pile of chopped white onion, and a stack of fries.
After lunch, our German friend departed to nap off the night bus exhaustion while the American and I were joined by a young British couple for a bit of a wander. We delivered the Brits to an orthodox church with a famous iconostasis (that’s what I’ve been calling an altarpiece is meant to be called in orthodox churches) and the American and I continued to ramble, until it began to pour. As the thunder, lightening, and rain began to really heat up, we settled ourselves into the nearest cafe and ate ice-cream and talked history and politics until the storm had passed. Who’d’ve thought I’d be discussing the American political candidates in a cafe in Skopje eating kiwi flavoured ice-cream? For the record, the ice-cream was very tasty.
Heading back to the hostel for a rest and some more grocery store food, I stumbled across yet another wedding party out taking photos. I begin to think that the wedding gods are haunting me at this point.
Sometime later after resting and refreshing ourselves, the tour posse of two Brits, one American, a German, and yours truly, met up on the stone bridge to go for drinks. While waiting for everyone to arrive, the American and I played a bit of currency musical chairs swapping Croatian money for Swedish and a promise of drinks paid for and then as the last of the party arrived we set off towards a recommended brewery. Not everyone was in the mood for beer however so we changed course for a winery where we were blessed by the Real Adulting(TM) skills of the American who successfully selected two very nice white wines for our imbibing. And so passed my last night in Skopje, chatting and drinking with a mixed bag of students of all ages and nationalities. It was pretty great craic.
Early the next morning, I rolled out of bed and through the rain to the bus station. Destination: Kosovo.
Our driver pulled into the station like a dog with its tail on fire and, after a brief delay at the gate to the station, left in similar fashion. The ride was a wild mix of Albanian club music and insane driving as our driver sucked back cigarettes and swerved out to pass 3-8 cars at any given run. Balkan road rules continue to be either incredibly lax or utterly unenforced. In fact, if I hadn’t seen the churches fly by outside the window, I might have thought my fellow passengers were crossing themselves out or fear rather than devotion.
As an extra special bonus, once we were across the border into Kosovo I noticed a charming little relic of the days of NATO intervention. At various intervals on the highway there are speed limit signs which list four possible speeds. One for cars in one-way traffic, one for cars in two way traffic, and one for tanks in each of one and two way traffic respectively. As an interesting piece of trivia, it’s 70 and 100 respectively for the tanks in two and one way conditions.
Once we finally reached Pristina (somehow still alive no less) we found ourselves surrounded by urban birdsong in the pouring rain. Not to be deterred by inclement weather, though nearly undone by a lack of data and petulant Google maps, I set off towards the city and my hostel. Once again there was honking and shouting and everyone wanted to say hello. Some even had the “chivalry” to shout “HELLO PRINCESS” as I passed by wrapped in my hood, soaking wet, and cursing everything. I do so enjoy being obviously non-local, it’s just the best, especially the shouting.
I did eventually reach my lovely hostel however where I took a brief break before braving the rain once again to explore the city. To say that Kosovo has an American fetish would be a grievous sort of understatement. There are Route 66 restaurants, burgers absolutely everywhere, and American flags and emblems on any surface that will fit them. I guess you can’t blame them for loving the country that bombed away a bit of Serbian genocide.
As I strolled through the Americana I also came on some very interesting and intensely modern with a capital M buildings. From the youth centre which is meant to look like an eagle taking flight to the library sheathed in a exoskeleton of geometric iron gridwork and topped by milky little glass domes, it is all quite the thing. Amusingly the first thing you see upon entering the library is “America Corner” swiftly followed by a horrendous deluge of far too many styles of modernism all enthusiastically pasted together to make up the interior of the place. I was also entertained by the Mother Teresa Cathedral which is definitely modern and unashamedly concrete and metal but which still seems to aim for classic shapes and forms and is adorned in a heavy dose of old fashioned stained glass. It’s only half finished so it might be less dissonant when there are pews not plastic chairs but I just couldn’t decide what I thought of it.
Leaving the modernism behind I headed off to the old town which was full of dilapidated shops, oodles of mosques, and most of the town’s high school students. The girls appear to have to wear uniform skirts but that obligation has not stopped any of them from having their own taste in fashion. The skirts were worn over jeans, leggings, other skirts, basically anything you could imagine. My impression was that they chose an outfit, put it on and then as they were running out the door pulled the skirt on as a belt of sorts. I guess the goal is school identification more than dress control.
The highly recommended ethnographic museum was unfortunately closed while I was there but I did manage to slip into the National Museum. It’s a very odd sort of arrangement where it appears to be under construction but also open to the public. There are some displays out of doors but inside the building it all appears to be a rather slapdash exhibition on concrete, wood, plaster, and plumbing appliances. I couldn’t tell if the workers were all on lunch, somewhere deeper in the building, or just gone entirely having given up the project.
Wandering my way back to the hostel, I stumbled across a cute cafe with a wood panelled solarium out front. Peering inside I spotted a cat on the counter and I was sold. When I stepped inside I found a vegetarian menu and the entire hipster population of Pristina. I was in Dit’ e ‘Nat home of cats, veggie food, a whole library of design publications, and all the laptop toting, cafe inhabiting freelancers around. It was a delightful place and I sat there reading for as long as I could justify filling a table on the price of cake and coffee.
After returning to the hostel to dry out, I found a cheap meaty dinner of beef, baked potato wedges, cheese, and tomato sauce for €3.50 and then gave up on the wet world outdoors to cower in the hostel. I was being my normal anti-social self, but then I went to the kitchen for tea and found free beer and conversation and soon the owners of the place had packed me into the full booth at the table and equipped me with a big glass of cheap beer. We were an eclectic mix of a Spanish girl who liked to say she was from Pluto, a Croatian-German guy who was cycling all over the Balkans and also liked to claim Plutonian heritage, the two owners of the place, an American journalist who didn’t last long in our company, a Latvian with a man bun, and the giant Manchesterian Russian he was travelling with who sported a man bun and the surname Kalashnikov. We were later joined by a French girl and a New Yorker with proud Montenegrin heritage. It was quite the motley crew and the conversation was equally wide ranging from politics, to travel stories, to the fact that our hosts had established one of the first successful satirical political parties: The Strong Party.
The next morning, I got up, enjoyed a hot shower with real water pressure and then headed to the kitchen for breakfast. My bowl of muesli was enriched by an apple from the Croatian-German and then I was gone back to the bus station to take myself back across the border to Macedonia. On the way there I spotted the Bill Clinton statue and nearly slid into traffic on account of the thrilling quantities of very slippery mud which slicked the roads and sidewalks towards the bus station. It was altogether a thrilling walk.
Managing to catch the bus just as it pulled out the station, we drove through the empty plains decorated primarily with a thin strip of warehouses along the highway selling all the things you could ever need to build a house. It rather reminded me of Sumatra in ways—civilization clinging to the main arteries in a land yet to be built.
As we swerved through the mountains we spotted a small pack of stray dogs bounding across the road up the hillside, and then it was border time. We seemed to have a rather large Albanian contingent on board who faced some challenges getting into Macedonia. It probably only took about 20 minutes to get them all cleared but it felt like forever!
When we reached Skopje, I queued for another ticket and then bounced onto a minibus bound for Ohrid. Our bus had an adorable Turkish family composed of a father, mother, and young son who was almost cute enough to make me think I might be starting to like children, but then he got noisy and I was relieved to find that I am not suddenly starting to have nesting instincts.
Sometime in the late afternoon we arrived in Orhid, I checked into my hostel (owned by the same family as my hostel in Skopje), and headed down to the lake. The entire region of Orhid is a UNESCO world heritage site both for its natural wonders and its historical structures and it is no wonder why. The lake is a large ancient body of crystal clear water fed by a myriad of springs and the town itself has beautiful little byzantine churches on ever corner. There are, in fact, enough churches in Ohrid that you could pray at a different church everyday for over a year without ever leaving town.
As I wandered along the boardwalks at the lake’s edge I watched fishing boats and clouds drift lazily over the water. Eventually I reached the end of the walkway and the beginning of my hunger and so I stopped in at a lakeside restaurant where I ate a plate of savoury rice and beef stuffed peppers followed by Ohrid cake which is a rich chocolate torte with caramel and walnuts between the layers. As I ate I eavesdropped on the table next to me where a Macedonian couple were entertaining a Norwegian-Brazilian couple. Apparently the Norwegian once travelled two weeks entirely for free by relying on his bicycle and the bottle return system in Norway. I feel like he must have also relied a bit on the lower prices of everything 30 years ago when he was young.
As I listened to the multinational chatter, I watched the sun turn the clouds pink and orange. I watched the fishing boats drift back to their docks as the bats flew out from the cliffs over the lake. Wrapped in my blanket, it was a magical few hours of sensory pleasure.
The next morning I woke up and headed to the bakery for breakfast. The standard Macedonian breakfast is a burke. A burek is a round pie sort of thing composed of layer upon layer of filo pastry with a bit of filling tucked somewhere in the middle. By a bit of a miscommunication I ended up with a piece of meat burek and a piece of ‘pizza’ burek rather than cheese as I had hoped. The meat one was an orgy of grease, protein, and carbs. The pizza one? Not so much. The pastry was still good but the filling was a little to close to the pizza pops I remembered kids having in school lunched back in 5th grade.
Filled with calories, I set off into the old town to further explore the historic side of Ohrid. It was sunny and warm and there were adorable little lizards everywhere racing away from my passage into every crack and crevice.
I strolled through narrow lanes, climbed stairs, visited artisan shops, and saw oodles of churches. From the St Sofia church covered in beautiful old frescos to the picturesque byzantine church on an outcrop towards the edge of the old town it was an endless stream of beauty. Along the way I also stopped to dip my feet in the lake where I made friends with a large school of curious little fishes, visited the site of the world’s first university which is now a field of low ruins over which a new university is being built, and eventually ended up at Tsar Samuel’s Fortress.
Once I’d taken in the views, I picked my way back down the hillside through stairs, laneways, and hoards of German and Japanese tourists until I reached the main pedestrian street and fell victim to the siren song of ice-cream. With a lemon gelato and my book, I camped out on a shady bench by the lake until I felt sufficiently revived to explore the promenade.
The hot, sunny promenade eventually lead me to a gravel beach where I enjoyed the sun for a while before adventuring off to find what my map promised me would be the site of one of the many springs which feeds the lake. It was more of a fountain park than a peaceful spring, but it was pretty enough for a short stop though there was no tap to refill my water bottle nor anywhere to taste the water as it gushed towards the lake.
As I headed back to the hostel via houses decorated with fig trees, heavily laden kiwi vines ripening clusters of grapes, it dawned on me that I ought to drop by the bus station and confirm my transit on to Montenegro. I had heard from a fellow at the hostel the previous night that there was a direct night bus from Ohrid to Kotor but upon arriving at the bus station I found that that bus only ran on even numbered days which was a wee bit awkward given that I’d planned to leave Ohrid on the 25th. So as I sulked over the bus situation, I wandered back into town and found myself a bar with a second story terrace where I sipped a smoothie, read my book, and watched the world go by. When I found the temptation to have another smoothie growing too strong, I changed scene for a traditional Macedonian restaurant recommended to me by my host.
I ordered a glass of white wine and a bowl of fish soup, anticipating lake fish. When the bowl of creamy soup studded with pink fleshy salmon chunks arrived I will admit to slight disappointment. Nonetheless, the soup was rich and delicious and the wine was pleasantly sweet. And then somehow I ended up ordering a pancake filled with walnuts and soaked in honey for dessert. Somewhere between watching the local cat bully the neighbourhood dog and watching a local girl try to enchant the neighbourhood dog with her big pink pinwheel, I was also subject to the amorous intentions of my waiter. He was grey haired, potbellied, and at least 40 years old but that didn’t stop him valiantly attempting to talk me into joining him for a drink when he got off work at 10. Either I was looking old, he was feeling ambitious, or he just tried that line on every foreign woman he served. Needless to say, I declined and headed on back to the hostel.
Having decided to get the bus a day early rather than a day late, the 24th was my last day in Macedonia and it began with more burek. This time I managed to convey my desire for cheese, but I will admit that the cheese filling was a touch too sour for my taste. For me it seems to be meat burek or no burek.
After eating my feast of calories, I hopped on the minibus to Sveti Naum where I encountered another delightful Macedonian man. He appeared to be another bus driver just taking the bus as far as town but the instant the actual bus driver boarded and I stood up to pay my fare, he put a rather heavy hand on my arm and sat me back down. He then asked me something which I realized after was “Sveti Naum?” but I begged out on account of not understanding. And then once the queue cleared he said something to the driver and pointed to me at which point I had to stand up and pay anyway. I do so hate when strangers touch me, especially with the intent of controlling my movement.
After a 45 minute wind down sinuous lakeside roads, we reached the monastery where I found myself the first tourist of the day. Some staff were about, but other than that it was just me and the serenity of the lake and the monastery complex. The church at the centre of the complex may very well be one of the holiest places I’ve ever been. The floors are stone worn smooth and sway backed, there are pillars holding up the cupolas and each little room feels more sacred than the last. Most of the frescos were still intact though many have their eyes scratched off and even though it was dark, the arch of the cupolas, the light of the candles and the softness of the stone kept it from ever feeling heavy.
Outside the church I began my adventure in water tasting with a little hut amongst the garden of fountains which was labelled “This water is good for drinking” and of heavens help me it was! The water was so sweet and cold and delicious. It was the perfect fuel to send me off along the path past a little modern church and onwards into the forest to the heart of the springs. I wandered along the crystal clear stream overhung with trees and flanked with rich green foliage. As the path swept away from the water it strayed into sunnier spaces populated by bushes more than trees. Along the paths tiny purple cyclamen clustered like fairy flowers, and I finally understood the meaning of a “bee loud glade” as described by Yeats in his famous poem on Innisfree. I could hear their merry buzz on all sides as I made my way to the Holy Mother of God chapel which is built over a point where three springs meet. The centre of the chapel is a round pool cut in the floor over the meeting of the springs. The water is reputed to help women conceive so I only took the tiniest of sips but it was so tasty! If I weren’t so definitely not interested in children, I might have helped myself to a taste or two more.
The trail continued passed another church which was not open to visitors and emerged at a tantalizing map showing all the trails in the park. Alas most were quite far from where I was and appeared to be on roads not paths so I elected not to play in the traffic and headed back to the main monastery complex.
I waded in the lake and sat by the water reading before heading over to the shore where the boat trips up the springs depart from. Alas with the shortage of anglophone tourists, the price of my taking a tour all by my onesie was not exactly in the budget. So I settled for lunch and coffee in a restaurant overlooking the water.
I made another attempt at fish soup which was very much the same as the last with perhaps a bit more trout and a lot less salmon. It was also lukewarm. The coffee however was hilariously strange. I ordered a cappuccino and was handed a cup of espresso topped with a mountain of whipped cream. It served its purpose though and revived my bizarrely exhausted self.
I spent a bit more time up on the cliffs near the church meditating on the view before taking another tour of the grounds tasting every tap and spring I could find. Each and everyone had a different flavour and as a result I got entirely carried away and ended the day with a stomach ache on account of too much cold water. Someday I will be a responsible adult, but not anytime soon.
As I was heading for the bus, I passed a wedding party just arriving and was rather glad to avoid that particular brand of chaos. Our bus began by heading down to the Albanian border where we traded a bus load of Albanians and their shopping for a border guard before wending our way back up to Ohrid.
Back in Ohrid, I watched the crashing waves in the harbour before just beating the storm back to my hostel where I lurked about all evening listening to the crash of wind and rain outside. Blessedly the weather had calmed down by the time it was time to head out for my bus. It was especially fortunate as I ended up waiting nearly two hours on account of my own particular brand of bus paranoia. Can I be blamed for neuroses when my ticket, three websites, and one traveller each told me different times for the bus?
As I waited, I sampled (and then threw out) a repulsive bar of bargain bin chocolate and watched the little munchkin doggie that appears to reside in the bus station. He was built like a corgi but looked like a golden lab puppy and he was all sorts of feisty, trotting here and there surveying his territory, barking ferociously at any dog who dared venture near, and wagging optimistically at any person who happened to come near. Predictably the bus was late but by 11pm I was on the bus and off to Montenegro with the warmest recollection of Macedonian hospitality and natural beauty.
Barrelling through the Balkans,