We left the hotel at 6:30am; we just had time for a quick breakfast – boiled egg, bread, and a good coffee.
We got into taxis and headed to the railway station. One of the taxi drivers was puzzled when we told him we were getting the train to Skopje and said he could drive us there in an hour.
Ah. The romance of rail travel.
Ivan had told us that the station was something special. It was.
The decrepitude was an indication of the state of the railway and the many trains we would take today.
We boarded the train, the engine switched round and we were off. Two stations later – at Fushe Kosovo – we got off and boarded a smaller train. This one was more crowded.
Very quickly, the scenery became more rural but even then, houses scattered the landscape and you do feel that you’re never far from people.
Past Kacanik, a series of tunnels and bridges took us further into the hills. The train emptied, and there were only a handful of us left on board.
We followed streams. There are signs of progress in the distance – a new road, a new bridge.
The train was constantly blowing its whistle.
We stopped at Hani i Elezit and were told to get off the train. So we did. We used this opportunity to stretch our legs and use the bathroom.
A new Macedonian engine arrived after about 20 minutes. We boarded and departed.
Andy and I had our own cabin. We looked out of the window – very green – and read our books.
The only reason we knew we’d crossed the border is when the train stopped outside abandoned buildings which – a sign told us – were the border police. After 10 to 15 minutes, a police car arrived. The officer got on board, asked for our passports, got off the train and drove away. We all stayed on the train apart from two men who went into one of the buildings, got up on a desk and took two fluorescent tubes down and boarded the train again.
The officer came back after another 15 minutes or so. He handed all the passports and identity cards to a passenger who was having a cigarette and left.
That was all a bit funny.
At each station, I made sure to wave to the station masters – most waved back; one winked… and one was obviously too cool to acknowledge my wave.
We continued on to Skopje. As we got nearer, we could see the Millennium Cross on top of the hill. And a driving school where all the cars go round a course – a beginner’s off road driving course. Another funny thing.
As we got further into Macedonia, we really began to appreciate how poor Kosovo is. Everything is just a touch smarter in Macedonia.
When we got to the station, it felt like it was only us in what must have been at one time a huge busy intersection. Either that or the dream never realised. The platforms were all overgrown with weeds.
A quick taxi ride took us to our hotel. We checked in, handed the laundry in and left for lunch.
It’s about 15 minutes walk to the ‘centre’ of town. The first thing you see – and you cannot not see it – is a statue of Alexander the Great on Macedonia Square. It dominates the landscape, and we later found out it cost €35 millions. Crazy. Most Macedonians hate it. We also found out that the two lions at the end of one of the bridges cost €1 million each.
We had lunch on the square. We picked a branch of the first craft beer brewery in Macedonia – Temov. The food was excellent. We had tasty salads, and a traditional platter of cheese, garlic paste, bread, red pepper tapenade and olives. I tried a pilsner, and a smoked beer (my sample was almost as big as my beer!).
Getting going was tough. The temperature was well over 40c today, and shade was tricky to come by. But we knew we had to make the most of our day here so we soldiered on.
We walked along the river bank and crossed the Vardar river. The buildings on the other side of the river are insane. A modern ancient Rome is maybe the best description we can come up with. Andy’s going for ‘neo-classicism gone mad’. Ostentatious.
The other thing that struck us was the amount of statues and sculptures everywhere. Classical, historical, fun, tragic, arty. They’re everywhere. And as we crossed the bridge, I heard a noise. I turned to a local woman who was standing next to me and asked ‘music’. She replied ‘yes’. Classical music was playing in the street. When we passed by later on, it was Christmas music.
Three of us struggled up the hill. The heat was relentless. We made for the Contemporary Art Gallery but it’s Monday so it was shut. To the security guard’s dismay, we still went through the door and refilled our water bottles at the water cooler. Not wanting to waste a trip up the hill, we went to the fortress.
The fortress is the city’s highest point. It dates back to the 6th century AD, and underwent many changes throughout the years. It afforded us great views of the city, and in particular the national stadium.
Our travel companion started chatting to two young Turkish guys who were travelling. I noticed that they were carrying a musical instrument – a cumbus – and I asked them about it. One of them took it out, tuned it and started to play… and sing. It was a special moment.
We made our way to Čaršija (the Ottoman bazaar). A series of narrow streets – initially filled with tourist shops, and then further in with bars and cafés and then further on with local shops. We stopped for cold drinks and drank those quickly. We chatted some more, trying to gather the courage to stand up again. The local cafés furthest away were busy with men drinking coffee and playing dominos. We visited the big mosque on top of the hill. An older man inside delighted to see us waved us in. Back in the narrow street, I bought a syrup donut from a local woman, and it tasted heavenly. I tried to work out in my head how many more times I could ‘walk past’.
As the local mosques started the call to prayer, we made for a tea shop and had cold handmade lemonades.
Back on the main square, we met the rest of the group for a small orientation tour.
Dinner at Pelister was both fun (the company) and a little disappointing. It is the best restaurant in town, but the salads were not a success at our end of the table. We tried three different Macedonian white wines (taking our research seriously) and they were okay. I have a feeling that the reds would be better… but this is not red wine weather.
We had no expectations of Skopje. It turned out to be a fascinating, richly varied, historical and crazy place.