I knew I was going to like Macedonia’s capital Skopje as soon as I got in the bus and the driver handed me a chocolate bar.
To say I was happy to see the bus was an understatement. I had left it rather late in the day to visit the St John the Forerunner Bigorski Monastery but was under the impression you could stay the night there. Certainly you had been able to in the past but a fire that destroyed most of the buildings (but not, thankfully, the church itself) caused them to stop, and even through the place has been completely rebuilt it seems they have not re-started. The lad who showed me through the incredible frescoed church was pretty nonplussed about my situation. Having just lugged my pack 1km uphill from the highway I was slightly disappointed I would have to lug it straight back down again, but then he told me I had also missed the last bus for the day. “What am I meant to do?” I asked (hoping they may make an exception in such dire circumstances). He directed me to the next village – 5km away down the hill I had walked up and then up an even steeper one on the other side. This idea definitely did not appeal, so I raced around the church rather than taking my time and legged it down to the highway, hoping there may yet be a bus but, if not, figuring I would just hitch a ride. To be honest I wasn’t actually that thrilled about hitching. Years ago I had one of only 2 negative experiences I have ever had hitching around the world, while going to another magnificently frescoed monastery – that time in Bulgaria (Rila). Somehow the delivery guy I was hitching with got it into his head that I was a prostitute working at the girlie bar near the Monastery (great positioning eh?) and when I wouldn’t ‘pay for my ride’ as it were, he unceremoniously dumped me and my pack at the side of the road, where I was eventually rescued by a busload of vomiting carsick children on a school excursion. But I digress..
I couldn’t believe my eyes when, no more than 10 minutes later, I saw a minibus, flagged it down madly, and asked if he was going to Skopje. He wasn’t but he made a quick call, got some sort of affirmative response before indicating for me to jump in. I did think it was strange I was the only passenger. Well, long story short, turns out this guy was finished for the day and going home, so he organised for someone to meet us in the next town and take me to the bus station in the next big town from where I could catch a bus to the capital. All this and chocolate too. Maybe I need to marry one of these guys!!
In Skopje the finding of a suitable hostel turned out to be a challenge. I asked a taxi to drop me at the one I had in mind but it turned out there was some huge gathering going on right outside with very loud clubbing music. Not just any gathering either. As the driver explained it is a protest/sit in type of caper. Sure enough there was row upon row of tents shuddering to the fully sick beats. Mmmm…maybe not. So I tried to walk to one that looked close but despite standing where the dot on the map said it was I couldn’t find it, and when I asked a shop keeper he had never heard of it (I discovered the next day it was right opposite!!!). It was about 9.30 or 10pm at this point so I was really keen to put my pack down and my feet up. So I grabbed a cab and got him to take me to another hostel that was further out. I stayed the night and it was ok…well other than the fact that I had managed to pick a hostel right across from a beautiful tranquil park which just happens to be hosting a summer festival. At about 11pm all hell broke loose and if I thought the protest was noisy it had nothing on the doof doof shaking me to sleep in my bunk. Plus next morning the guy on reception was drunk at 8am because he was going home to California the next week and was ‘preparing his body for the time change’. Really.
So I figured ‘4th time lucky’ and set out to find another hostel. Luckily I hit pay-dirt this time – a lovely quiet place with a really nice owner and gorgeous staff. Those familiar with my $35 washing bill story on Facebook can be reassured that the guy who owns the place is so nice that he actually covered the cost in the end.
Skopje itself is rather sweet, with incredible looking monuments, bridges, and a ‘frozen in time’ old town where men still sit and drink coffee and play cards in front of cafes that haven’t changed in donkey’s years. Behind the city is a cable car that takes you up the mountain for a fabulous view, and a short bus trip away is a very impressive canyon with a pretty little church…unfortunately now completely swamped by a noisy bar/restaurant which has also seen fit to block off the start of several hiking trails that start there. Other than that though Skopje is not particularly touristic and is a lovely green city with a nice vibe and lots of outdoor spaces.
On my last day I pondered whether to accept my government’s travel advice:
“There has been an ongoing political crisis in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia since February 2015. Several people were injured during violent protests in Skopje on 5 May. Further protests should be expected in Skopje … You should avoid all political rallies, demonstrations and large crowds as they may turn violent.”
I didn’t (of course) and have since emailed Jules Bishop at Foreign Affairs with some updated words and pictures more in line with what I found there:
In summary – Macedonia is awesome. So awesome in fact that I am proposing a solution to their dispute with Greece over ownership of the name “Macedonia” (this is why they have the ‘just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it’ compromise name of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). I think they should rename themselves The Republic of Awesome. Because who wouldn’t want to say “My country is awesome and I am Awesomer”? And in their case it would be true.