Escape to the Balkans - Part 1 (Macedonia + Albania)


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August 8th 2013
Published: August 8th 2013
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Being a travel agent in London, I get so sick of sending my clients to Tenerife or Malaga. So when I organise my own trips I am immediately drawn to the lesser known, more adventurous places. So for a couples weekend, rather than go to Paris or Rome I decided that we’d go to the Balkans – starting and ending in Macedonia. Macedonia is one of these places that is misconceived as being a terrible holiday choice. For that reason I obviously wanted to go, as I knew I would be able to avoid the average British tourist.

We flew into Skopje, the capital of what is technically called the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. I know this because every time I called the country simply ‘Macedonia’ my Greek friend would kick me and then correct my mistake. He also gave me some less violent information about a cave close to the airport that I wanted to explore as soon as he mentioned it.

A point to note is that if you hire a car in Macedonia you need to read the fine print about crossing borders before you go. The majority of hire companies don’t allow border crossings, and believe me this is not what you want to find out the hard way – as I did the night before our flight. Luckily we booked and picked up a replacement rental car without a hitch which dispersed my mounting panic attack.

We drove towards the caves, a looming thunderstorm following us. It was beautiful weather in England, so of course it was threatening to rain here. It held off for a while but as soon as we got out of the car and started hiking the trail along the Matka canyon towards the caves, the skies opened up. We ducked into sheltered, rocky alcoves which briefly saved us from the downpour. The thunder echoing off the hills had deterred a lot of other hikers and we had the path to ourselves a lot of the time. We walked in hope of finding the caves but then gave up and walked back, drenched and caked in mud.

Back near the start of the canyon there was a boat that looked like a Vietnamese fishing boat that did guided trips into the Vrelo caves. Of course we only spotted this now, of course it stopped raining and of course it was very cheap – only 519 MKD (about 10 pounds). It was a 15 minute ride through the gorge which was so fresh and alive following the rain. The caves turned out to be on the other side of the canyon to where we had been walking. Thank God we’d turned back.

The guide took us up to the caves and turned on the generator, which powered the internal lights. Lights in a cave? This was new to me; I was used to crawling around with a head torch in caves. There were lakes inside, and the actual cave itself is the 3rd deepest in the world. It was stunning, and I had the feeling that we had just left the real world outside. It was absolutely massive; a giant gaping hole with bubbly stalagmites and stalactites. Stalactites are growths beginning on the ceiling and hold on ‘tite’ and by process of elimination Stalagmites grown up from the ground. That information will be useful one day, I swear.

That little adventure concluded our first day of our trip and we didn’t come back to Skopje until 2 days later on our way back from Montenegro. Another bit of advice – it is extremely difficult/impossible to get from Montenegro to Macedonia via Albania. We tried. We failed miserably. Upon entering Albania we were confronted with dead end roads only suitable for 4x4’s. We tried our damndest to get through. Unfortunately we had to face the fact that our car just couldn’t do it. We turned back, having spent about 45 minutes in northern Albania, which was very beautiful, with the added bonus of having proof that we were there, in the form of an Albanian stamp on our passports. I can officially scratch that country off my map now!

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11th August 2013

Oh Katy. I can't wait to come over to London and explore Europe with you XOXO GBFF

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