Setting my sights on Macedonia

Skopje- More than statues

There are a lot of statues here in Skopje, Macedonia. It cultivates mixed feelings among my fellow travelers. Some say it’s too much, but I personally like it. It gives the city a personality. Another friend called it Disneyland 2.0. And in a way, it is like Disneyland. There are different sections of the city like the different sections of the amusement park. There is the old Turkish section, there are a bunch of new modern buildings, and there are buildings that have the classic Roman pillars.

Just like Disneyland as well, in different parts of the city, there are speakers that play related music. For example, around the opera/theater there is classical music. Each bridge over the river is a different theme as well.

When I first arrived into Skopje, I just thought it to be any normal capitol city, but as I walked and the sun started setting, I fell in love. The city lights started to come on and I realized how beautiful it is. I stood at the Bridge of Civilizations and took so many pictures of it and the Stone Bridge and Fortress in the background. I found this view the most beautiful even though I went up to the Millennium Cross earlier that day and saw the whole city with snow covered mountains in the background and the sunset at the Fortress.

To get to the cross, one takes bus 25 and then at the last stop, one can go on the cable car to the top, runs every hour for half an hour, or take one of the hiking paths to the top. I was with a German from my hostel and we flipped a coin to decide what to do. We ended up hiking and picked the hardest fastest path. It was 2.2 km with a 22% grade and it took us about 50 minutes with stops for pictures. We then walked around on top and even ran into two other Germans he knew from a previous city then in good German fashion, we drank a beer before heading down in the cable car, free for the ride down.

I met a local Macedonian on the bus to Skopje and met up with him a few times during my stay to get the local perspective. He brought me to two local food places and I tried an assortment of food- none of which he helped me eat so I was stuffed. One of things I tried was boza. I have no idea how to describe it, but it’s made with yeast and it’s this chocolate coffee color, but it has no resemblance to that taste. Apparently you love it or you hate it. I really liked it, I recommend trying it if you get the chance.

I later went to a bar with this local and recognized one of the songs playing.

“Is this Soba 23?” I asked.

“I don’t know…” He paused and listened, “Yeah, I think it is. Wow, you knew a local song before I did!”

I was quite proud of myself. Well, after spending almost a collective 3 months in this area, I would hope that I have picked up a few words and recognize some songs.

I also took a trip to Canyon Matka. You need to get bus 60 and ride it to the last stop and follow the road up a bit then you are there. It was beautiful! The sun was shining and warm and the water was a mixture of blues and green. The canyon walls reminded me of a scene in the Lord of the Rings. I saw a man walk along the stream from the lake and decided to follow him because I thought he knew where he was going. Well, I lost sight of him and came to a dead end. I turn back and see a long line of people.

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My followers

“Um, do you know where we are supposed to go after this?” I called out. There was a collective no and shaking heads.

“Were you guys just following me?”

“Yes.” They responded. I laughed and we turned around to follow that road.

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When I returned, I explored the Old Bazaar. I also saw the Museum of Macedonian Struggle. You can only see this with a provided guide. I had my own personal one as he took me through the pretty big museum full of wax figures of famous people in their history. Though Macedonia is a country now, when they refer to Macedonia in the past, it was a huge area- pretty much most of the Balkans. My guide was very informative and the displays were very well done- with appropriate music as well.

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Going away from the massive statue of Alexander the Great and the Stone Bridge, one will past the memorial house of Mother Teresa. She was born in Skopje, but at a very young age moved to work in India. This is not the house she lived in nor born. It was specifically to be a memorial to her. It was free to enter, but there isn’t much to see. There are a lot of photos, but I felt like the photos were just downloaded from the internet and not originals.

Further, there is the old train station that got his by an earthquake causing its clock to be permanently around 5:18. It reminded me of Back to the Future where the clock gets struck by lightning and its permanently at one time.

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My bus to Tirana, Albania was at 21 or 9pm so I had another day in Skopje. I was able to organize my bag and lounge about and enjoy the sun before shopping for food on the bus to use the leftover denar and then go to the bus station.

 

Day trip to Bitola

Lesson learned: it is best to go to the bus station to ask about times and not rely online as I was expecting to get on the 10 bus, but the next one was 11. This caused me to only have 2 hours in Bitola. But no matter. This also applies for buses that aren’t on online like my bus to Tirana, only one is listed online while there are 3 options.

Some Balkan people have asked me what cultural differences I’ve seen that I either liked, or what they are more curious about, disliked. And I would have to say queueing, to be very British about it. They just don’t like to stand in line. It’s everyone for themselves getting on a bus or whatever. And, because I stick out as a non-local, they have a habit of trying to get in front of me. Everyone will get on the bus. It will be ok. It’s actually a bit comical. I can see them checking me out out of the corner of their eye and ever so slightly step in front of me. I’m not going to fight my way so I just let them go and I can see a slow grin on their face as they beat the tourist. I can only roll my eyes. It’s not that big of a deal guys, but if it makes you happy, by all means.

The bus ride is about 3-3.5 hours from Skopje. It’s not an ideal day trip travel time, but it saved me from finding a new hostel and moving all my bags. The scenery is pretty barren, however, the closer we got, the more mountainous it was, which was pretty.

A young woman sat next to me the last hour and I started asking her questions of Bitola and the archaeological site I was interested in, Hercalea Lyncestis. She lived near it and walked me almost there. She was quite excited to meet me and was asking me so many questions about my trip and life back in the States.

Of course the big question came up, no, not on Trump, the other one,

“You’re traveling by yourself?” With the tone of why.

I just shrugged it off and we continued to talk about something else. I told her that part of the reason I came to Bitola was because of my friend whose family is from here. She asked his name and I told her, she didn’t know him.

She was also telling me that there were some problems within the Balkans and recognizing Macedonia as a country. I know there are issues with Kosovo and Serbia, but Macedonia is pretty solid in its statehood, but she was saying that Greece was having issues, claiming them to be theirs.

I suppose Bitola receives a lot more of this than the rest of Macedonia sine it’s close to the border.

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The archaeological site was pretty cool (100 denar to enter and it closes at 5pm even in the winter). I’m always amazed on how open the ruins are. There were some chains roping off sections, but for the most part it was free for all. They even had wooden planks for people to walk over the walls. It had quite of bit things such as a theater, two basilicas, and a thermal bath. The view of the mountains there was incredible as well as the view from the top of the theater.

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Due to my earlier lesson, I wasn’t sure when the last bus back to Skopje was. I went back to the bus station to ask. Online there was one at 7. The lady firmly told me that the last one was at 16.30. Right. It was 15. I had an hour to see the rest of the city.

Luckily, it’s pretty small. I raced to the old part or city center in order to work my way back at ease. One of the main attractions is this pedestrian shopping street. It is filled with cafes. I read that the cafe culture is strong here and they were right.

It was such a beautiful day that everyone was sitting outside with their drinks. They all sat to face the street and watch people walk by. These people were very dressed. Even the young girls had make up and heels on. It was definitely an event.

I passed a street that the info panel said used to hold a bunch of national consulates. I walked down and one can still see the old grandeur, but the mansions are not well kept.

Another attraction is the clock tower. It’s nice enough and of course there were several churches and mosques.

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On my way back to the bus station, I walked through the park, enjoying a bit of nature before sitting on the bus for another 3 hours.

I originally paid for a round trip ticket- 630 denar or 10 euros/dollars approximately. When I tried entering the bus the bus driver shook his head and that was it. I was a bit confused, but then thought it had something to do with my return ticket side.

I went back to the ticket counter and saw the locals exchanging their return tickets for another. They had to give you a ticket with a date and time, not just an open one. I waited my turn then proceeded to exchange. For this, one needs to pay 30 denar extra. So in total, the trip was 660.

 

Day trip to Ohrid

Because I decided to spend a few more days in Skopje, I had to find things to do and though it was counterproductive to go to Ohrid then back to Skopje just to go to Albania the next day, it was worth it. This place is the only thing Macedonians can agree on- how beautiful it is and how worth it is.

For Bitola, I had people from there say how nice it was and then I had people from Skopje tell me that it wasn’t worth a trip. I found it nice and pleasant, but not worth more than one day. I am glad I went. For Ohrid, depending on what you want to do, the day trip was plenty for me. But I can easily see spending a couple of days exploring the different winding roads and during the summer, enjoying the beaches and the lake.

I went with a Canadian woman, C, that I met at my hostel. We got the 7am bus and got in at 10am. The bus drives by Mavrovo National Park so the scenery was pretty nice around the mountains. The first bus back to Skopje was at 16.30, giving us plenty of time to explore. We casually made our way to the lake and were stunned at the beauty. It was a clear sunny day and quite warm- I didn’t have to wear my ski jacket. We then stopped in a café for a drink to wake us up and sat at their deck, which gave us great views to the lake.

We followed a path up the hill to the castle, but managed to find a back entrance to one of the church sites. When we were exiting, we thought we were paying to enter the castle, but instead we bought an admission ticket for the church we just saw! This church is also next to an old basilica with awesome floor mosaics so we took time looking at those since we ended up buying a ticket.

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At this site, we also picked up a stray dog that we decided to call Charlie. She followed us everywhere and was very loyal. At the castle, we picked up another one, naming her Speedo because she would run in circles and run by us to race up or down the castle stairs.

The entrance to the church is 100 denar for regular admission, there is a student price of 30. For the entrance to the castle, it is 60 for regular and 40 for students. The castle offered great views of the lake and the old city. It was so beautiful.

One the way down the hill we also saw the amphitheater left by the Romans, but now it is still being used.

We bought some souvenirs and walked along the lake promenade for a bit before heading back to the bus station. We saw some other churches because, besides the lake, the numerous churches are also an attraction, but to me the main point is the lake and everything second.

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We stopped at another café to get a bite to eat before the bus and then headed back for another 3 hours.

Post note: I stayed at Get Inn Hostel and it was awesome! The hostel is very comfortable and the staff so friendly! It’s close to the bus station, the grocery store, and the city center. 🙂

Macedonia was beautiful and the people are so friendly and warm. Next post will be on Tirana, Albania!

More pictures here

Daily Instagram photos here

 

 

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