Having rolled over the border in about 30 minutes (literally nothing more to say on that!) we are just beginning to put the Turkey border issues out of our minds.
As we continue our eyes widen and we stare at the magnificent view in front of us. It already feels amazing. Running out of patience with the lack of GPS map coverage from the Greek border it is clear we are on our own; AA roadmap and compass is all we have to navigate a whole nation!
Taking the main border crossed (avoiding Bitola) adds an hour but meant we could see more of the country as we cut up and then over to Ohrid. We actually pass Bitola and see rubbish Strewn over the hills from the small village at the top of the hill – clearly a place the bin collection ends.
The choice of Lake Ohrid came as a last minute change to plans where we decided to use one of our “banked” days to add a stopover there, and then on to Skopje. The roads are not fast, 80km max, due to the winding routes and the fact the major highways are still being constructed but the view and heat make it perfect!
Our journey to Ohrid is indescribable. Sheer beauty that must be seen by all of Europe, but, that I dare to write about so as to keep it all for us!
Part 1 Thessaloniki to Lake Ohrid
Our journey is smooth until 40km from Ohrid on one downhill section where the limit drops from 100kph to 60kph. I am caught! 104kph in a 60kph zone and in the hands of the Macedonian law enforcement.
The policeman knocks on the window and asks me things in Macedonian that I am unprepared for. He repeats in swift fashion in at least 3 languages before English as if to reinforce the fact we are now aware of; British don’t do multiple languages quite like Europeans!
He asks if I know why I was stopped, for our documents and for me to step out of the car. Walking me to their camera I can see my error as the sign I pass at 104kph says … 60. Busted.
I offer my apologies and accept the €45 fine. There is a catch however, the fine must be paid at the post office in Resen and my documents collected at the police station once paid. He tells me that this can take a while and we cannot proceed further.
He asks me to wait as some Greek vehicle commits the same offence and simply says “we are late, keep the passports” before taking his ticket and speeding off. Returning to me he sighs and tuts at the Greek snub to their authority and I once again ask if I should go now or later to Resen.
Passing back my documents and asking that I promise to stick to the limits he insists; “as a gift from Macedonia for your visit and behaviour” we are free to go. No fine, no more delay. Even gives us map directions to our destination. Our hearts melt at his generosity and kindness and we make off slowly!
We have arrived! Okay, so our directions courtesy of the local police get us to a small series of medieval streets no wider than our car plus 6 inches. Add to that the thousands of tourists and we knew we were in a world of hurt.
Trying to navigate I give up in a small full car park (complete with Yugo and a horse cart) at the top off a hill and literally grab a cross and pray for it all to be over! Mercy has us, as Kat finds the hotel. Just 100m away. The catch? We have to go back round the one way streets and loop around. I execute the most expletive ridden 9 point turn ever, cruising the streets at a modest 2kph. It takes us til nearly sunset to make it that 100m.
A wonderfully eccentric evening of wandering like wide eyed kids, seeing the sunset over the church overlooking the lake, and ending with a romantic candle lit dinner opposite the Church of St Sophia (opposite our hotel the “Hotel Sv Sofia”), completed a perfect evening in a stunning lakeside city, that we will never forget.
Was it worth it? You decide:
The next day we awake feeling like we have just seen a great secret place that we must never share so as to not spoil it. We feel maybe it was just a mirage from travelling too much and being typically enthusiastic people. Perhaps, but the views disagree – we have found a little paradise.
We now set our sights on Skopje and eat an omelette as we decide the best route. We feel like the adventure of road maps coupled with the lack of reliable sat nav makes for a better time if we just figure our own way. After all, who wants to find themselves on a mountain pass after dark in an area riddled with mines still following the Balkan crisis due to a sat nav sending us down the equivalent of the B769 to Little Irchester?!
The views get better as we walk 10 miles around the city twice before leaving. We set about to see every church and sight we can including the amphitheater (where I obviously perform Shakespeare loudly announcing “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your Ears”). And finally our journey would not have been complete without seeing the obligatory Yugo parked on a dodgy hill in a side street of Ohrid next to the least tempting seat I have ever seen.
Ahead of us lies 3 hours of roads to Skopje the capital and close to 20km with the Kosovo border. The excitement builds!
Part 2 Skopje
The road to Skopje is slow but steady and remarkable countryside keeps us occupied for hours. Listening to Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello is fitting tribute to the magnificent sights we see. 3 hours of relatively straightforward mapping we are close.
Okay so we arrive easy enough to Skopje but to get to the hotel? We find instructions online that say to stay on the main highway which we do. Of course that then starts declaring “Border Zone”, “Military area”, “Prishtina Crossing”. Did we miss a turn? Nope, Skopje really is that close!
We book in and head out via the Old Bazaar. We are given directions that seem crazy long given in hindsight “head through the bazaar, cross the stone bridge, walk 500m and you are in the centre” would have sufficed! It is true once you have your bearings Skopje is the easiest city in Europe to navigate.
We find ourselves presented with the latest collection of neo classical monuments and architecture I have seen outside of traditional Europe. We marvel at the facades of marble that are warm to touch and the statues that make the dulcet tones of fibreglass, not cast bronze.
We feel eerie as it seems to be closer to Disneyland in December than a capital city at 4pm on a Sunday. The fakery only broken up seeing a stray dog sprint into the only road for miles and getting hit. He runs yelping into the arms of locals who spirit him away to get treatment.
We cross the 15th Century stone bridge (this one is real) and head into the centre.
We see a mystery about the place but start to warm to the charm and obvious attempts to rebrand a city that has real life to give. Once you get over your disappointment that most of this is 5 years old at best not 5,000 you can start to see why this was done.
The cast bronze bull. A symbol seen in London, New York, and yes even Birmingham. Here it seems to represent everything Skopje has tried to do.
It is a city deeply affected still by decades of stagnation and soviet brutalist architecture. It has no national identity in the once great buildings it was famed for. There was a great earthquake in 1963 that destroyed 80% of the city and left it without a heritage that London, New York and Birmingham have taken for granted.
Below are the images before the 1963 earthquake and the buildings it took from their heritage.
So how has Skopje lived up the the “Skopje 2014” vision (that PM Gruevski pushed forward)? Well, delivered a year late and some say still not totally complete, at a cost of €350 billion, I would say Yes. Whilst the political rumblings and Greek sentiments will no doubt echo in the chambers of the European Union, national newspapers and in the protests on the street, for its part Skopje has made a fine home for us during our stay.
Here is how the cityscape looks when it comes fully alive – evening!
Truly stunning and obviously keeps us occupied (perhaps the beer does that?) but this is one mysterious and magical place. When we settled it felt more like a great effort at national pride than a dodgy Disneyland whitewash of history. And so it should, this is Macedonia and they have rich history (even if the link to Alexander the Great is as tenuous as my driving at times). This is one hell of a country.
Bottoms up for up next is Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. 8 hours of driving some of the most challenging roads with zero sat nav. Madness. But we love it.