Skopje – North Macedonia
I need to break this down into three parts because the country is wonderfully strange, but first the political house keeping. North Macedonia, a country of only two million people gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 followed by almost 20 years of arguing with Greece over the fact that the Macedonia region is also part of their territory. Finally, it was agreed that the country of Macedonia would be formally known as North Macedonia and so implying there was a southern part, the part that belongs to Greece. I don’t know the full argument but we can all agree that Alexander the Great came from Macedonia, hilariously, born in central Macedonia in an area now part of Greece but so close to the North Macedonian border one would assume it’s constantly up for debate. Not that I give a damn as an outsider because if a country doesn’t have a territorial dispute these days, what else is there to do!?
Our first destination was Lake Ohrid, apparently one of the deepest and oldest in Europe and straddling the border with Albania. On one hand it’s stunning, on the other it felt like arriving in Blackpool for that’s what Lake Ohrid is, the local tourist destination of choice full of not very much other than ice cream and shops selling nothing in particular. I did stumble across one unique item that I devoured with joy; a burger that looked like it was suffering from the Black Death, oozing a white goo in between pieces of protruding fungus. Of course it was a huge beef patty stuffed with cheese, mushrooms and bacon for good measure, quite extravagant yet delicious alongside fries and a cold beer. As well as the lake, the town boasts a church for every day of the year because religion isn’t about money and power remember. The reason for this is largely because of the town’s position on ancient trade routes, and churches range from the size of a living room to that of a, very big church, I suppose. A boat trip on the lake was met with trepidation after a surprisingly late night fuelled on rakija, a particularly potent solution served in small jugs and drank by the shot glass. Why this was allowed to happen the night before boarding a small boat I shall never know because the last time such a thing happened to us resulted in a God awful snorkelling trip the following day. On this occasion we were spared, maybe because of rakija’s purity, maybe because this time we were on a flat lake in a boat going nowhere in a hurry, or maybe just because the jugs were a lot smaller than I remember. Either way, a Turkish coffee on the boat followed by a dip in the fresh, clear, snake infested waters of the lake was a delightful way to spend the morning before sitting down for lunch and unnecessarily devouring yet more food.
Squeezed into a public minibus with no air-conditioning we spent three hours driving through North Macedonia’s stunning mountain countryside before arriving in one of the more bizarre capital cities of the world. Home to a quarter of the nation’s population one would be forgiven they have arrived in central London with grand buildings, many statues, and red double decker buses cruising the streets, with an atmosphere almost like an abandoned European city but not. Apparently, over the past few decades, Skopje has been transformed through projects attempting to display an image of grandeur as so many cities like to do. A bridge copied straight out of the Prague playbook has been reproduced and with a water fountain in the middle just because they could. Many neoclassical buildings have sprung up, only they haven’t in the normal sense. Facades have been bolted onto old communist buildings or built up to encase them, a scheme I find both bizarre and ingenious. Two oversized galleons sit bolted in the river, having never been anywhere and never will, their purpose is mesmerising and appears to be nothing more than somewhere to get food. Alexander the Great of course sits high and proud riding a horse over the main square. Alongside all of this, graffiti covers the buildings, rubbish lies in the murky waters that flow under the grand bridges, and the poor and homeless seek help throughout. This in part explains how such a small country can afford the illusion but why they need it is another matter, especially considering how beautiful their countryside is. Matka canyon is a perfect example of this, albeit people have had a role to play in its creation also. Half an hour from Skopje, the canyon sits in the mountains and boasts a large narrow reservoir created by the construction of a damn where visitors can opt to take a boat trip up the waterway to visit a cave or hike up to a monastery. We gave the boat trip a miss and opted to hire a kayak for an hour which was lovely except for our soviet era piece of plastic taking on copious volumes of water each time a boat passed us. As my arse got wetter, we upped the pace in an effort to get back to the jetty before our time ran out and before sinking which inevitably caused the kayak to take onboard more water. Finally coasting alongside the jetty, the young lad responsible was horrified to see our kayak barely sitting above the waterline and jumped into action instructing us to get out before the unlikely event of our vessel sinking to the bottom with us still in it. Leaving him and his assistant to empty the kayak, we paid up, threw on our hiking shoes, fought past the Insta-tourists, and hiked back up the canyon where we were able to take in the incredible scenery and the narrow stoney path with unguarded 40 feet drops but without the risk of sinking.
Close to the border with Greece is Pelister National Park, reputedly full of bears, wolves, wild boar, eagles and pixies according to our well-travelled taxi driver who used to work on cruise ships and holds the ladies of the Dominican Republic in high esteem. It’s worth noting here that the taxis in this region resemble something along the lines of 50 shades of yellow with each taxi apparently constructed from many other bits of taxi of all types and ages. No taxi is the same, they all work at various levels of performance yet all are able to do their job to a minimum standard, that is to deliver someone to a destination of their choosing at some point in time. We drove for 20 minutes up into the park along a winding road through a never-ending sea of pine trees and past snow ploughs parked up for the summer, until we reached a standard looking ski hotel at the foot of a Soviet-looking ski lift. I don’t know if Soviet-looking is accurate or even acceptable these days but the chairs were painted red and yellow and looked to be rusting as they hung, lifeless from the cable that carried them up the mountainside. Images of Chernobyl spring to mind, yet this tiniest of ski resorts springs to life in the winter under a mountain of snow that seemed unlikely considering the summer heat we were experiencing in the moment. Our hike took us further up the mountain at a steady pace in the late afternoon with the temperature becoming more tolerable and helped with the shade of the trees. Alongside the ski slope ran a downhill mountain bike trail but the mountain was empty of people, the forest eerily yet wonderfully quiet apart from the odd stream. We trekked lazily for a couple of hours, covering a five kilometre circuit, stopping to take photos of the views far below that occasionally opened up between the trees. The Balkans hasn’t exactly been taxing to travel but Pelister National Park offered an atmosphere that brought a strange peace and feeling of relaxation that left us all walking for long periods in complete silence and utter happiness. We may have seen bugger all of the wildlife that the park has to offer but that didn’t matter, knowing it was out there somewhere and not seeing hoards of people was good enough for me. It’s taken me a long time to get to this area of the world and I’ve spent so little time here, but I can confidently say I will eagerly return one day. The Balkans is full of history, castles, breathtaking mountains, wine, beer, and meat! What more could anyone need for a holiday?
Check out the tour here.