Couchsurfing Macedonia and lazing it on Lake Ohrid

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September 22nd 2010
Published: September 23rd 2010
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After about a week of fun in with Cvetko in Sofia I headed westwards to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The reason for the convoluted name is that Greece - good old fashioned nationalists that they are insist on it because they believe it implies territorial claims over Greek Macedonia - which they obtained in 1912 in a carve-up of Macedonia post defeat of the Ottoman Turks.

I was headed to the capital of Skopje, about 220 kilometres away and after six uneventful hours on a bus and 1 easy border crossing later - I was there at the bus station. The ‘Tourist Information’ sign frustratingly only led to led to an empty room so I ignored all the cab drivers stood outside trying to rip me off and in the wilting heat (this blog should be renamed, ‘I left the bus station/train station/hotel in the wilting sun and walked’) indeed walked the journey to the centre of town. Some Macedonian bloke stopped me on the way, asked where I was from and told me to check out the church because ‘I am a member and it is very nice’ - I think he was some evangelical or something.
1 Skopke couchsurfing - 29 Aug '101 Skopke couchsurfing - 29 Aug '101 Skopke couchsurfing - 29 Aug '10

couchsurfing host's gaff
I smiled politely and despite the weirdness was glad for some friendliness in a new and strange city/country.

I crossed the river and walked into Carsija, a neighbourhood of the historic Turkish bazaar where I got a room at Hotel Santos and had a shower. Afterwards I popped out and had a wander around the streets. There wasn’t much of a feel for the old world Ottoman bazaar but there were a few nice old mosques at least and a few women wearing Islamic headscarves. I sat down for some food at a restaurant and had a few beers along with so-so carbonara. As the young waiter took my plate away I asked him a simple question: ‘what’s thank you in Macedonian?’ which got a strange response: ‘I don’t know - I’m not Macedonian’. This threw me momentarily - who the heck are you then, and why don’t you speak Macedonian? It was at this point that I remembered seeing Macedonia in the news from some years previously. There was some considerable but brief inter-ethnic fighting back in 2001 when a full-blown war between the majority Macedonians and the minority Albanians was narrowly avoided when the latter were given much more political and educational rights in the country. Ethnic Albanians were involved in another ethnic conflict about rights in Kosovo/Kosova a few years previously.

Skopje was therefore a bit of a strange place and personified by the person of Mother Teresa herself - an ethnic Albanian (Catholic - not Muslim) and born not in Albania but in Skopje, Macedonia. I went to her house, or rather the museum that has been built over her now demolished childhood home. There’s a fair few statues of her around but the museum was disappointing - lots of photos of her meeting famous people and biography in hard to read miniscule writing. Little did I know that she trained as a nun in Dublin - I don’t think she kept but I don’t think she ever adopted the brogue or had any sort of role in Father Ted. There are quite a few Irish pubs in Skopje - all Macedonian owned and I visited one, having some kind of an attempt at an ‘Irish Breakfast’ - it was nice to have fried eggs though.

The Museum of Macedonia was both humorously bad and sad - the ticket booth was from a time when this place was worth going to - it was no longer in use. So I was shooed in by what I presumed was a security guard who went back to sitting around with five other guards chatting and drinking coffee. My eyesight deteriorated whilst walking around dimly lit rooms full of Roman artefacts and medieval and Byzantine pottery and ‘stuff’. There were a few posters of descriptions of archaeological digs but for the vast majority of things it was a date, location note thingy in English. I was bored and upstairs wasn’t much better; an EU funded room chock full of painted religious icons - some of them very beautiful but most of the lights were off or broken and so I again my eyesight was strained. The rest of the rooms were outlining Macedonian history - none of it in English sadly and then quite a few rooms just in complete darkness. It was such a disappointment because I genuinely wanted to learn about Macedonia so I used the visitor’s book to alert somebody about how bad my experience was.

I had a quick visit to the castle overlooking the city but it was so baking hot so I soon retreated back across the Vardar River and popped into a barbers. It was here that I was given a Macedonians haircut - short back and sides and blended - I looked like I was back in the 1940s or something.
That night I had arranged to stay with a couch surfer host but for some reason she wasn’t answering her telephone so I ended up staying one more night in another hotel and got the bus the next day to Lake Ohrid in the south of the country.

Four hours later I arrived and at the bus station I got the tourist information people to look for a cheap room in town somewhere. Some bloke then picked me up in his car and a woman then took me to her house in the old town. Cobbled streets and picturesque churches - the town overlooks the beautifully calm lake. It’s an interesting place, it’s where Macedonians come on holiday and so is full of restaurants and tourist shops but it’s not over the top in any way, pleasant in fact. I spent a couple of days relaxing around the old town; I went for a walk in the early evening and took in the 11th century cathedral of Sveti Sofija which had lovely frescoes inside of it. I continued along the lake and the beautifully located Sveti Joran at Kareo which overlooks it and on the way back I dropped in on the Roman amphitheatre. As I returned home through the town I then fell upon a stage which had groups of kids performing folk dances - Ukrainians and Turkish. I stood there transfixed by the dancing and the music and the clapping, it was awesome to see something so unexpected.

On my last day there I got a share taxi to the monastery at Sveti Naum with its beautiful frescoes and also the burial place of Saint Naum himself (Macedonian Church). From here I was going to walk across the border to Albania and then catch a bus but my couchsurfing host had contacted me again and apologizing for giving her home number as opposed to her actual mobile phone number invited me to a pool party she was organizing back in Skopje. I hate backtracking on trips and I thought I’d ‘done’ unexciting Skopje so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. However, two English university students suddenly turned up at the bus stop having crossed from Albania and we got talking and that sort of decided that I’d go back to Ohrid with them and onto Skopje.

So I got on a bus and returned to the capital Skopje, arriving at about 9pm in the bus station. It was a bit of a problem contacting my host Lydia, mainly because I didn’t have a mobile phone. I’d lost my Nokia on the plane on my last weekend I was in Australia - having bought it on the first couple of days I was in the country - 11 months earlier. Fatima had given me her spare phone to use and well i didn’t really use it very much and well, I lost that too somewhere. On the other hand I’d been to so many countries that I’d have had to get a separate SIM for each one - so perhaps I was better off. Anyway, here I was in the station, trying to make a phone call to my couch surfing host without a mobile phone - the pay phones are all card operated but from my last experience here hardly anyone spoke English so I was a bit stuck. So I used some of my rudimentary Macedonian and hoped I didn’t run into another Albanian refusnik. I asked the woman behind the ticket desk if I could make a call on her mobile phone which she agreed to (for a fee) but even thought Lydia had provided a mobile phone number, again there was no answer. Frustrated I asked about an internet cafe so I could use Skype instead but the upstairs place although having headphones didn’t have any working microphones. So the best I could do was to repeatedly call Lydia and if she picked up rush back downstairs and hope the woman behind the counter was still there and call Lydia. This is what happened; the taxi driver ripped me off and couldn’t find the address but I was eventually in Lydia’s apartment overlooking the city.

Despite the late hour and her long working day Lydia was a gracious and generous host; quickly opened up the sofa bed in the living room, put on the TV for me and allowed me to take a late shower. The next day would be the party and we both needed rest. However, by the time I had woken up, Lydia had already returned from a 5.30am bike ride up the mountain behind the apartment. She was a bit of a fitness fanatic, as well as an architect, freelance too and a rock climbing instructor - amazing woman as my host.
Anyway, the party; we walked a fair bit through the city, non-descript apartment blocks and disfigured pavements, buying about ten beers from a shop on the way. When we arrived at the house about 20 people were in the garden drinking and jumping into an inflatable swimming pool. The music was loud, coming from two large speakers commanded by a couple of geezers on the balcony with a lap top. There was decent food on offer from the barbeque and a strange low-alcohol punch from a large bowl; the sun was shining and then the drum and bass started booming; things were good, then I got picked up by some guys and thrown into the swimming pool with my t-shirt on. Marvellous. More drinks were had and then it was time to watch the dare devils go across a climbing rope from two trees in the garden. They were attached but you had to keep your faculties together which is why when I was encouraged to go across I didn’t - I’d fail miserably at it and I knew it. I’m not fun apparently.

People started dancing on the dry earth and then Lydia as president of the rock climbing association there ordered a whole load of Brit Pop for the party to dance to; Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Primal Scream that kind of thing - it brought me back to my youth - I was glad Lydia was a fan. More dancing ensued and it got dark and this place was rocking, I was really enjoying myself and then the music went a bit shit with random music being played and we’d had our fill. Lydia’s friend and his girlfriend asked us if we wanted to go for a mountain bike ride through the mountains, so we left at around 9ish and returned to the apartment - we were to meet them the next morning at 7am.

Suffice to say, despite the early night, we didn’t meet them, our bodies needed rest not more exercise. The next few days were not doing a whole lot; Lydia took me out rock climbing on an outdoor thing and despite my nerves and being shite at it, I managed on my second attempt to get to the top triumphantly having not done it for a few years now. I did it twice more and sat back on the bean bag and looked up as her and her mates just went up and down and tried more difficult routes and replaced old notches with new ones. They even did the hanging loose upside down climbs - Lydia being the star to the passers by coming down from the top of the mountain that overlooks Skopje. It was all good fun but I was pretty exhausted, just goes to show how out of shape you can get whilst travelling.

Skopje is rubbish for internet cafes; I walked for ages trying to find one in central Skopje and even the tourist office directed me to a place that was closed during the day. Grrr. Anyway, it just so happened as I was eating some lunch Frank’s girlfriend who Lydia and I were meant to be mountain biking together spotted me outside the cafe and sat down to talk. She’d just come out from an interview for a job to teach English to kids at a local college. She was keen to practice her English with me as she had just spent a few weeks with her sister who was studying at LSE in London. So, as I planned to visit the nearby Lake Matka and its national park, my new friend decided to accompany me. Her boyfriend Frank offered to skip work and take us because it would take a long time to get there by bus but three’s company and I actually wanted to get there by my own means, so I declined. It didn’t take hours either, we managed to catch two marshrutka Ford vans, bemusing the locals as we bounced around the back.

It was a strange day I couldn’t remember the last time it had been overcast and actually a ‘bit nippy’ on my trip - so I was glad to bring my jacket with me. We had a nice walk along the river and lake - formed by the damming of the river Treska and admired the steep ravines along with the interesting 16th Century Macedonian church by its waters. After a couple of hours of walking along the lake we returned on a bus and said our goodbyes. My last day in Skopje and Macedonia was turning out to be very nice because to top it all off my couch surfing host decided to take me out to dinner along with another female friend. The restaurant in question was and this time it was a Marshal Tito themed restaurant called Restaurant Kaj Maršalot. Very nice local Macedonian grub it has to be said and funny communist handkerchief wearing waiters. This place was on me as a thank you for the days I had spent with Lydia and for such a wonderful couchsurfing host. It really felt that we had become friends and indeed Lydia told me later that the apartment didn’t feel right without me. Awww Благодарам (bla go da ram) Lydia, it was a pleasure…’Благодарам’ is thank you in Macedonian 😉

Anyway, the following morning I took a cab to the bus station - making sure that I wasn’t ripped off again. My next stop was

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