Instead of walking back Bulgaria I decided to go west again and discover new countries in the Balkans like Makedonia (Skopja)
Skopje is the capital city of Macedonia. It is a barely new city as result of the several destructions of the original one along the history. Located sever kilometres away from the first roman city it accommodates half of the population of Macedonia. With one million inhabitants is the bigger city of the country.
As it lacks of a great historic past, the government is building it, filling the city with statues and monuments. The old town is one of the little vestiges together with the castle that remains.
Getting to Skopje from Sofia
I took the midnight bus from Sofia to Skopje. I was told that the bus takes 5 hours between the two capital cities. That day it took just 4 hours. I expected to spend the night in the bus, but at 3:00 am from Macedonia I was at the bus station of Skopje. Yes, Macedonia is UGT+1 as the rest of Europe. I forgot that fact as well.
The bus station was an old station under the train station. At night, it had a look of an abandon building. At the main room of the station there were some other travellers accommodated in the chairs. Some of them in group other individually. I found a place for me and seated I hugged my best friend, my backpack and try to get a nap.
It was not comfortable at all, but nap by nap the clock got to 6:00 am. As I couldn’t sleep more I decided to go to the city centre and look for a coffee shop. It was still night and the streets were barely empty of cars and people. Everyone was sleeping. I walked next to the river and get my first big impression of Skopje.
On both sides of the river I could see the neo-baroque buildings lightened, the new bridges full of statues. The bridge of culture with all kind of artists, and the bridge of history with kings and heroes. I wondered how was possible that a country barely born from the division of Yugoslavia in 1991 that had no precedent as an independent country in history could have all these historic celebrities.
Following the river, I get to the old stone bridge and the mayor square. I was already surprise of the megalomaniac investment to create a capital symbol of the nation, but I end up wordless when I found myself in front of the fountain of Alexander the Great. Far from a beautiful monument it was the most megalomaniac statue of the modern times I had ever seen.
What a surprise when I get to the hostel, the staff told me that I was about to stay there on my own. He showed me my room, the facilities and gave me the key of the hostel before leaving me on my own. I had a full hostel for my own!!
I was tired but decided to join the Walking free tour at 10:00 so I had a fast shower and went out. The walking free tour of Skopje might be one of the funniest I have attended so far. The guide, a real entrepreneur that started the business in Macedonia by his own was polite and critical. Probably sometimes a bit too much subjective. The tour started with a fast overview of the history of the territory now called Macedonia and how it belonged to several cultures and nations. The result is a multicultural country where different cultures and religions live in peace most of the time. The country is mostly Slavic orthodox, but there’s a big Muslim community as an Albanian in the southwest.
During all the walk around the new centre of the city the guide showed us his disagreement with the governments investment on monuments and statues. He agreed that the country had not that much to presume. As the colour revolution supporters, less than one year ago, he considered that this investment would be more useful in sanitary, education or other social aspects.
The colour revolution was a demonstration of the citizens of Skopje against the monuments. For showing their disapproval, they painted statues of monument in colours. You can still see the traces of the revolution. Personally, I think that it might be the only original trace of history in all the monuments. How sarcastic!
With the guide, I discovered how deep gets to be the arguments between Greeks and Macedonians. As I’ve been told and confirmed in my research, Macedonians had to change their original flag design due to the Greek pressure. Greeks claim that Macedonia and all what is related with the classic Macedonian culture, including Philip II, Alexander the great and his empire are Greeks, no Macedonians and they are fighting for it. They even blocked trades with Macedonia due to the flag design.
Now a day the fight is focus in the name of the country as Greeks are blocking Macedonian progress to be member of the European Community if they don’t change the name of their country. How crazy!
Among these monuments, we visited the Memorial House of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was born here in a humble house next to were now is located the big horse of Alexander.
Mother Theresa Memorial
In the Old Town, where the old medina was, we learnt about the history of the people that use to leave here, no matter the country who they belonged to. The old town is like an Arabic medina on one side of the hill that goes to the fortress. From the old fortress, there is a nice panorama of the city and the new national stadium – another polemic investment of the government. Unfortunately, all these historic buildings are not restored neither well preserved. It is ironic to me, or I don’t get to understand properly, the intention of the investment in creating a new past but not investing in the real one.
The Mosque of Skopje
During the tour the guide offered to us some local Rakia in the restaurant we came all together to eat. Having lunch was where we get to meet each other of the travellers. We arranged there to meet again in the afternoon for a drink together.
The night, I went out of the hostel to meet the night life of Skopje. Together with some friends, we had a drink in a cosy bar out of the city centre that we had been suggested and then went to the old town. The old town I must say is always full of life. During the day like a medina, with restaurants and shops and during the night with bars and tea shops.
We ended the night on top of the medina in a craft beer bar with live music and Tabaco smoke everywhere. Yes, in Macedonia there is no restriction concerning smoking cigarettes.
The following day, I went to the bus station to figure out how to get to Matka.
The bus was supposed to pass by at 13:50 but it never appeared. Lucky me, I start talking with two other guys that were there waiting for the same bus. As the bus was not coming we decided to share a taxi ride to Matka as I did already in Neuswanstein Castle.
The gorges of Matka are located south of Skopje and are worth a visit. As we were told by the taxi driver, Matka means “vagina”. There in the gorges there are the caves considered one of the largest caves in Europe and probably of the world. It seems that there still places to discover inside them.
To get to the caves you need to take a boat next to the restaurants and the monastery. We chose to go for a hiking along the river instead. Together with my new friends, a polish guy and a Belgium one named Piotr and Jonathan respectively, we went for a walk. We walked all the way until the end of the path. We get to see the entrance of the caves, but from the other side of the river. YOU CAN NOT GETT TO THE ENTRANCE OF THE CAVES BY FOOT!
The walk was full of anecdotes and stories with my two new friends. Piotr works as a journalist in Poland and he taught me about the Polish and Ukrainian history and current situation. He’s been working in Donetsk were now a day is the Ukrainian conflict. As a speaker, and I believe as a journalist also. He was very objective always showing the positions and ideas of both sides of the conflict without judging.
We went back to Skopje by bus, the bus station is at the entrance of the parking, in front of a restaurant. The crew of the restaurant knows perfectly the timetable of the buses and hopefully, this time the bus was there on time. I would not be surprise if I meet again Piotr on the way. He seemed to have such a free soul as mine.
While having a beer back at the craft beer bar at the top of the Old Town is when we get the news that Motorola, a well-known soldier of the independentism faction in the Ukrainian conflict. Taking about him I realized how important might be that he passed away for the history of the conflict and how irrelevant it is for the rest of the world.
Have you ever heard about him?
Alexander the Great
Ohrid is a little village in the south of Macedonia. In the banks of the lake Ohrid, is the summer holydays village of a country without sea. It is also visited in summer by Germans, Turkish and Netherlanders. You can feel that the city might change a lot from high to low touristic season.
It is located in the border with Albania, which is in the other side of the lake. It is also here where Macedonians claim that Naum, student of Cyril and Methodius created the Cyrillic alphabet.
It is pretty easy to get to Ohrid from Skopje, there are several buses along the day that cover that distance and they are pretty cheap.
Once you get to Ohrid, the bus station is away from the city centre, but if you ask the driver he can stop next to the city centre before continue all the way to the bus station.
I had no accommodation booked in Ohrid, but I wasn’t worried at all. Jonathan and Piotr told me that here is common that people approaches you to offer an accommodation. So that is what I did. Not far away from the bus stop where I get out of the bus a man asked me if I needed a room. His English was basic but we get to understood each other. He offered me a one bed apartment. The price he was asking for it was reasonable, but in my long trip I need to save money. I just need one bed and a shower, so I believed I could get something cheaper or a hostel. I rejected his offer, before leaving he stopped me and called a friend. His friend showed me a little studio, after burgling we get to an arrangement.
Naum happened to be a friendly old man, electric engineer retired that had always left in Ohrid.
At 8:30 I was in the laundry with the intention of catch later the earliest bus to the Monastery of Saint Naum and visit in the afternoon Ohrid. However, after leaving my clothing on the laundry at the bus stop I found out that the bus was at 8:30 and the next at 11:30 as I had to be back to pick up my clean clothing at 14:00 I thought that missing the Monastery was the only option.
I had the full day to visit Ohrid which is a little village, so I took my time to walk around all the little streets if the old town. The main sightseeing are the Castle on the top of the hill and the Monastery of St. Clement and Panteleimon. Near the lake is also the Church of St. John the Theologian. In the old town, there are several orthodox churches a byzantine basilica and a roman theatre. At one end of the main street of Ohrid is the mosque and there a perpendicular street with many Turkish tea and pastry shops.
Old Port of Ohrid
Monastery of St. Clement and Panteleimon
Church of St. John the Theologian
After a long day walking I went to enjoy the sunset at the old port of Ohrid. Then I meet a couple of couchsurfers and travellers. She from Bulgaria and he from U.S.A. they were also traveling around the world doing volunteering work. In Ohrid, the showed me the little hidden treasures of the village: Some mosaics next to the old theatre that I didn’t find on my own and a paper store with original gravures. We ended the walk at one of the tea shops having Turkish tea along the secondary street of Ohrid. The main is a commercial pedestrian street that goes from the port to the mosques are. The second one is perpendicular to the first on near the mosques and is full of tea shops and Turkish pastries.
Nest day I had the idea of leaving my studio to go to Tirana, Albania, as I had planned. But at the same time, I had this feeling of tranquillity and peace inside of me telling me to stay and relax here a little more. So I checked hostels in Tirana and Vlora. The prices where more or less the same that what I was paying for an studio for my own. After that I decided to contact my landlord and ask him if I can stay two more nights. He accepted with pleasure.
I went to visit the village of Struga nearby. This village is like Ohrid, a touristic summer destiny for Macedonians. The main difference is that here there are almost no historical remains. It is mostly a new city.
As Struga is the main city in the area and is few kilometres away, there are buses every 20 minutes from the main roundabout near the city centre that goes straight to Struga. However if you want to go to Struga bus station, you better tell the driver in advance as he won’t go there if no one ask for it.
When I get there I went to the bus station from where I have to departure to Tirana to get the information about the journey. Thanks to doing this I get to know that the bus station was far away from the city centre and quite hidden.
From there I walked the canal of Struga until the lake side where I encounter a lovely French old couple travelling in a caravan. In the city there was nothing really interesting to see. As I visited it, the greater attraction was the main commercial street and walking along the canal.
Visiting the city, I get to one of the orthodox churches they have. As I approached to the entrance an old man said me something. As I couldn’t understand him I continued. He raised his voice and pointed a bunch of bills he had in his hand. I assume that he wanted to charge me an entrance fee, but I nodded my head saying “no” and continued. He started yelling to me, but I peacefully continued in my way in. Most of the Orthodox churches I’ve visited you cannot take pictures inside, so to admire them you not need to act like a tourist. When I was getting in I felt how the old man did stand up in my direction. I already was getting in the church. Once inside I step in the middle and prayed at the time I was looking around me. I might not be Orthodox but after visiting so many churches I learnt how praying works.
The old man stayed out of the church at the door. When I left the church in rehabilitation he did say nothing to me.
The way back to Ohrid from Struga is the same as coming to Struga. There is a bus every 10-20 min that goes from the city centre of one village to the other one.
Monastery Saint Naum
I woke up early to catch the 8:30 bus to the Monastery of Saint Naum. The Monastery is located 30km. from Ohrid on the border with Albania. The monastery is a byzantine orthodox monastery next to natural water springs. It is there where Cyril and Methodius are buried.
During the high season, there are several buses that goes from Ohrid centre to the monastery. However, out of tourist season, they get reduced to 3 or 4. The best was to catch the earliest bus at 8:00 am to so you can get the one back at 13:00 having time enough to visit the monastery and the surroundings. There are also taxis and shared taxis that will charge you more, even more if you don’t speak their language.
Waiting at the bus stop at 8:00 a man approaches to the locals waiting there. He told me together with them to join in his car. From the previous day I knew that there were taxis that try to pic people from the bus stops to their destiny for a bit more than the bus price. This car was not a taxi and the people that came in were locals so I felt confident and joined. He dropped people in the way and picked others. He was doing a service as a taxi and people were paying him. Normally about 40-50 denars.
When we get to the monastery I asked him how much it was and he asked me for 20€, what in terms of denars was 1200. I told him that this was a robbery that I can only afford the price of the bus, 150 denars. At that time, I had no idea what was the real price of the bus. He asked me for 300 both ways, I ended up giving him 200 and I will give him 100 more when he picked me up from there at 10:00.
The monastery is a small orthodox monastery on top of a little promontory over a port. It was beautiful and the views of the Ohrid lake and the mountains from there are amazing. At around 9:50 I was ready. Waiting to the car driver to come I asked the time and price of the bus. It was 110 denars. While waiting, I thought that it was early in the morning, too early to come back to Ohrid to do nothing, looking around I found that I could visit the water springs by foot hiking around the little lake. Considering than taking the bus will be only 10 denars more than what I was about to pay the driver at 10:00 I started walking. In the way, I discovered a spring inside of a little chapel and walked in the nature in the only sunny day I had in Ohrid. There were also a little chapel and another monastery in the other side of the springs. In the way I could see snakes and lizards.
At noon, I took the bus back to Ohrid where I had lunch at the port. Next to the centre of Ohrid, along the lake there are several restaurants with terraces. If you pay attention to the pricing and the look of the food in other tables you might find a good deal as most of them have prices for tourists.
I spent the rest of the afternoon chilling near the lake. Next step was Albania.