Days: 517 (24 November2015)
Total distance travelled: 131,811.8 kilometres (81,870.69 miles)
Our journey from Ohrid to Skopje was made on an overcast, but thankfully dry morning, the few hours the trip would take seeing us through relatively rural countryside.
At times we were even subjected to low cloud or fog, although given our drivers disregard for the rules stipulated for his own bus (such as no smoking), it is entirely possible that our visibility was hampered from within the vehicle!
Right there is a snapshot of Balkan culture, where at least nine out of ten people are (seemingly) not just smokers, but probably several packs a day smokers…
From the outskirts rolling in, Skopje felt a little grim (I’m sure the grey skies didn’t help), but in truth this is what I’d always imagined this region of the world to be like (much like my first impressions of Belgrade).
Run down, drab, these are all the images I’d pictured as a youth, when this part of Europe was staunchly communist and on the other side of Churchill’s metaphorical ‘Iron Curtain’.
We had hostel beds booked, and fortunately for us, both for our arrival and onward journey, it was probably three or four minutes from the bus terminal (which was oddly situated beneath a large railway bridge).
I just so happened to be wearing a T-Shirt sporting the crest from the Albanian flag, which upon seeing our host kindly pulled me aside and suggested I remove it as it might make me a little unpopular here in Macedonia.
It was news to me, but not wanting to offend the local populace, I quickly changed into something else.
* Update on this. No other Macedonian I spoke to about this had any issues with Albania or Albanians, so it seems likely that this was complete bullshit and he just had some personal issues he decided to make sound general.
Having only budgeted a day here, two at most, we then decided to head out and explore the capital with the skies more white now than grey, and even the odd smidge of blue about.
I’ll cut in with a quick warning now, for if statues aren’t your thing, busts and figures of people in bronze, gold (possibly) or who knows what, then Skopje probably isn’t the city for you.
After a day of explorations, we’re still completely unsure if it’s even a city for us either…
Recently, the whole downtown area has been the recipient (or is possibly still in the process of receiving), a two hundred and seven million Euro makeover (from what we’ve subsequently read, some speculate the figure could be over five hundred million).
Is this a good thing? Well not having seen the before and after, it’s hard to truly say, but from what we saw, it doesn’t appear that the money has been very well spent.
Like most good cities, this one too has a waterfront, the river Vardar snaking its way through the heart of the capital, which is seemingly the epicentre for this new century revival of this historic city.
A series of bridges criss-crossed said river, a couple dedicated to vehicular traffic, a couple of others devoted to a series of statues, one for Macedonian artists, the other for theologians and statesmen.
Not a horrible idea, but it’s something taken to the extreme here, with statues even plonked right atop museums, everywhere on both riverbanks… basically anwhere!
The fact is, there were quite a few we actually liked… but many more that we didn’t.
The quirky and interesting get us thinking, but of course if there are going to be statues in Skopje, then there’s not a hope in hell they’re going to ignore the two most famous Macedonians of all (before anybody interjects here, I totally understand there is a division between Macedonia, and Greek Macedonia, I’m just telling you what we saw and what they’ve claimed)!
Alexander the Great holds prime position in the heart of the city, an immense pedestal upon which stands his equally large statue came as little surprise.
That other famous Macedonian, why that would be the loved or loathed figure (depending what side of the fence you sit on this one), Mother Teresa.
This is the woman who remains revered, despite running squalid hostels and denying medicines to the poor in need (and in her care) and came out with rubbish like “The greatest threat to world peace is abortion!!!”
For someone to say this and yet also be on the fast track to sainthood suggests that she had, and the Catholic church still does, have a few screws loose…
I guess you can tell where I sit in this debate!
Our explorations continued, and the chance to merge two interests suddenly appeared in the form of the old Skopje railway station.
A building half ruined and sporting a clock stuck at a little past five fifteen since a 1963 earthquake (the cause of the ruin), this place is also the cities museum, although it was disappointingly closed when we approached it.
Whether temporarily or permanently, we were unsure…
We wandered on, along streets and through parks, before finding our next stop.
Appearing before us, like some sort of nineteen eighties styled hyperdome supermarket, this curvaceous lady was in fact a church, dedicated to Saint Clement of Ohrid (once again cue the Oranges and Lemons tune).
Whilst a little different from without, the ceiling within was a stunner, so we took a few snaps and wandered on to the next monument to grandeur.
We thought it was possibly the presidential palace, or perhaps home to the Macedonian parliament, but the only information we could glean (okay, so we didn’t really try all that hard), was that this was the Macedonian government building.
What this actually means, I have little idea, however if the average resident is to be believed, it’s probably excessive functions and planning for indulgent projects, without thought towards the actual betterment of the people and city.
Another example of this was the already spied, but not yet photographed piece which entices thoughts of Paris.
I think such comparisons would be misplaced, as again I can’t help but think of a cheap (or in this case, not so cheap with its four point four million Euro price tag) casino and that aforementioned Las Vegas feel.
This was the Porta Macedonia, a celebration of the countries twenty years of independence, and just another piece of the grand plan to apparently regenerate the city.
For all the new money spent, the heart of the city felt cold.
At least we had a cosy hostel, and by the time we cooked ourselves a feed and had a couple of beers, we felt decidedly warmer…
* Ohrid to Skopje by bus, set us back 500.00 Denar per person.
* For another take on the ‘NEW’ Skopje, check out James and Terri from Gallivance and their adventures here…