Skopje, was the second destination on our three week tour of the Balkans – Part One (Sofia) can be found here.
We’ll actually start this blog post from the same point we ended the last. So, without any further ado, let’s get the night bus from Sofia to Skopje out of the way. This was pretty much our attitude at the time, as they’re rarely a relaxing experience and never result in a good night’s sleep. The journey to Skopje was scheduled to take six and a half hours, but when the ‘bus’ (and I – Matt – hesitate to call it that… I’m not sure it would be road legal in the UK) parked in front of us, it became quickly apparent that hardly any sleep would be had. Almost all of us at some point will have had to endure a journey in an overcrowded and crumbling school minibus – think of that, but travelling from Bulgaria to Macedonia in the middle of the night. Yeah. All 15 seats were taken, and there was even a woman who had to stand for the best part of an hour – to our great amusement – before getting dropped off/giving up.
As well as the dreaded border crossing, where we were frog marched off the minibus and made to stand in the freezing cold whilst holding our baggage for inspection by guards who almost certainly got the job through their ability to wordlessly intimidate tired young travellers, we had to endure a couple of cigarette breaks. One of these breaks, a mere hour and a half into the journey, managed to last for thirty minutes – with the entire minibus bar us disembarking to smoke. Needless to say, these conditions weren’t conducive to decent sleep – and we weren’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed when we rocked up in Skopje three hours earlier than expected. You might not be surprised to learn that there isn’t much to do at Skopje bus station at 3:30 am. Apart from gamble your next bus fare away at “Admiral Casino”…
We had planned to leave the bus station when it got light outside. So we waited and waited, commenting on how sunrise seemed to be later here than in Sofia, before Lucy ventured round the other side of the building and discovered that we’d been looking into an underground bus bay and that it was, in fact, actually sunny outside. Like, really quite pleasant – almost t-shirt weather for the English!
We headed towards the main part of town, which was deserted at 6am bar a few stray dogs. The city centre, especially along the river front, was under construction/renovation, and we were met with a series of very impressive and imposing buildings which housed government departments, museums, opera, theatre etc. They’re built in a classical style which makes it look more like London or Vienna – but they’re all brand new. Some weren’t even open yet.
Even the lampposts and benches were ornate, whilst the walls and bridges were punctuated by a plinth and statue combo of a famous Macedonian every few metres. Much to our amusement, each of these new buildings had numerous plaques with Mother Teresa’s face (Skopje is her birthplace) and an accompanying quote. If there’s one thing that we learnt about Skopje, it’s that they absolutely love Mother Teresa. And, let’s face it, who can blame them?
We walked over the old stone bridge and made our way to the stadium. No prizes for guessing whose idea that was! [Lucy – I was thrilled.] On the way, we passed a massive campsite in the middle of the road opposite the presidential palace, which we named ‘Occupy Macedonia’. A month before our visit (June 2015), Skopje ground to a halt as thousands of people took to the streets to protest against government corruption – Occupy Macedonia is home to the remaining hardcore. We walked along the river on the way back from the stadium (which we obviously couldn’t get in to), and nearly fell asleep when we sat on a bench. The temptation was genuinely overwhelming.
It was clear that the night bus was beginning to take its toll, so we decided to go for coffee and breakfast at a restaurant in the square. On the way, we were followed by a stray we named “Skinny dog” – who was so relieved to find humans who see him as a novelty rather than a pest that he followed us in to the restaurant. Normal service was resumed as he was chased away by a couple of locals. [Lucy – I am scared of dogs so normally find strays terrifying but not even I was scared of Skinnydog].
Breakfast confirmed what we’d read during our research into Macedonia. It was cheap. Incredibly cheap. Good quality scrambled eggs and fresh pesto on nice bread, as well as a cappuccino, in a nice restaurant bang in the middle of the city centre, for £2.20 each.
Feeling temporarily refreshed, we headed to the Mother Teresa Memorial House and Chapel. This is a small but very interesting building dedicated to her life story and containing a good collection of letters, photographs and other personal items. The chapel itself is a peaceful, intimate room with a stained glass window which gives a blue tinge to the light – we wondered how often it gets used. Overall, the site is well worth a visit.
After going back to the bus station to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s journey to the lakeside town of Ohrid, we headed to our accommodation – Aloha Apartments – optimistically hoping we might be able to check in 45 minutes early and have a much needed nap. We couldn’t see anyone around, so we wandered through the one open door we saw and asked a woman if she could help us. The welcome was frosty, as she barked “this is not the reception” before coming to the conclusion that we couldn’t check in and insisting that we sit on some plastic garden chairs in the garden for an hour whilst our room is prepared. Our British awkwardness/politeness shone through here as we accepted the ‘offer’ of the chairs – we should just have asked to leave our bags and gone for another explore. Oops.
The apartments were far from the ‘luxury’ they were advertised as. Without wanting to bore you with the details, these were the problems when we were finally allowed in to our room: immediate power cut (toilet breaks had to be taken in complete darkness or with the door wide open), no WiFi, the television wasn’t working (weren’t going to watch it anyway to be fair), the door wouldn’t lock or shut, live wires hanging from the wall, and the spiral staircase up to bed felt very unstable indeed. Some were fixed, some weren’t – but all we needed was a bed to nap in. It was also wonderfully cheap, so we couldn’t really complain.
Post nap, we headed back into town – via a lunch break at a riverside restaurant. Once we’d sat down, we waited for thirty minutes for the waiter to come back and take our food order before realising that we said “yes” when he asked “just drinks?”. Oops. When food came, it was in massive portions and once again an absolute bargain. Both of us were starving when we sat down, but neither of us could finish off the mountain of food on our plates. Kudos, Macedonia. Kudos.
Food stocks replenished, we headed to the fortress – which is up a steep hill past the old town. There, we had the pleasure of following a couple around the walls who insisted on taking the most ridiculously posy photos we’ve ever seen every few steps. I’m sure they looked great on Instagram. Needless to say, the walk around the walls took a while. There were also countless wedding photo shoots taking place around the fortress and the riverfront – wherever we go, they seem to follow us around.
On the way down from the fortress, dehydration had got the better of us – especially Matt – and so we decided an emergency drink stop (and preferably a toilet break as well) was in order. The lack of public toilets in the centre was incredible, so we were forced to trek to a shopping centre near our accommodation. By this point, it was getting late – Skopje’s sights had been seen (as much as was possible in a day, anyway) and so we accepted defeat, limping back to our “luxury apartment” for an in room picnic dinner and hopefully a decent amount of sleep before our 07:00 bus to Ohrid. It had been an exhausting start to the Balkans tour – but we were looking forward to having two nights in Ohrid to let us relax and catch up on sleep…stay tuned for more!
So long, Skopje/Vegas/London/Vienna! You’ve been fun!