Intrepid Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia - part 3 Macedonia

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September 17th 2016
Published: September 25th 2016
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We have parted ways with Intrepid. Our Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia expedition has finished. Officially today on paper, but really yesterday was the last day with a farewell dinner. Me and Bill have made our way through 3 countries and its not even midday – Albania, Slovenia and Germany. Early morning flight from Tirana saw us leaving in the wee hours of the morning, connecting a flight in Ljubljana to Frankfurt. We currently are on the ICE train to Nuremberg. So I need to recap the last country of our intrepid adventure – Macedonia!!

We left Pristina early in the morning to catch a ‘rustic’ train over the border to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Apparently the train, which takes longer, is much more scenic and beautiful. Honestly, it was a rust bucket of a thing – windows so murky and full of smashes (hopefully from stones not bullet holes!) I slept all the way to the border and missed the scenery. Apparently I didn’t miss much. Got on another train at the border and were stamped out of Kosovo. About 2km on we were stamped into Macedonia! Our hotel, the best of the Intrepid hotels on the trip, was a short walk away from the main square. Reception kindly informed us they had 9 earthquakes the day before. 9!! What?! So with that in mind, after checking in and freshening up we went for an orientation walk to the main square and Nir showed us the sheer volume of statues that Skopje has. No reason, just because. The biggest one and the centerpiece complete with fountain, lions and music is ‘The Warrior’ or otherwise known as Alexander the Great. But they can’t call him that as it would upset the Greeks who claim the great warrior was from Greece. Now this is just the tip of the iceberg with the 2 countries as Macedonia, the region spans Northern Greece as well as parts of Albania and Bulgaria too. So the nation of Slavic people, Macedonia, has been given the mouthful of an official name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). I had always wondered why Macedonia had the full title, while the other ex-Yugoslav countries did not. Now I know why! After a massive lunch (one of the tastiest pastas I’ve ever had and nice and spicy) we proceeded to look at the dizzying amount of statues and colour -splashed arches and buildings. Again, I don’t know the significance in why everything was splashed in colour but our taxi driver said something about a ‘colour revolution’. We walked through the bazaar where Nir said there were a lot of Albanians in this area of Skopje, so a large Turkish influence . As it was Eid al-Adhr (sacrifice after the Haj) everything was closed in that area. So after the orientation walk finished, Bill, Joe, Shona and I went for a walk up to the fortress overlooking Skopje. Not a whole lot of money has yet been invested into the fortress so half of it was sealed off. Still, lovely views of the city. Later we had beers at a nearby craft beer brewery in the bazaar and Ernestine joined us after she went tot the fortress. For dinner, we went with Joe back into town and as we walked by Alexander the Great, the ground started shaking! Earthquake!! People started running out of the nearby restaurant. We later learned that some of the others from our group were in the restaurant and I guess glasses shaking on your table is more freaky than just the ground moving! Anyway, it was over as soon as it started. We proceeded across the bridge to the bazaar where it was still a ghost town. Few little restaurants were open and we opted a busy little restaurant that just served kebabs and bread.

The next day, after everyone had shared their earthquake stories from the night before, the group headed in taxis to Matka Canyon, Europe’s largest manmade canyon. It was only half an hour away, and a beautiful retreat from the city. As we got there early we seemed to be the only people around. Beautiful rock faces dotted the waters and lovely flowers encased the little restaurant and café area. There was an option to go for a boat ride, or, as me and Bill , Jess and Ernestine opted for, kayaking! We had given our valuables to Shona to take on the boat which is just as well as I was nicely in the front of the kayak Bill stepped in the back and……capsized us! I couldn’t believe it! He went under but I quickly grabbed the deck so only got soaked from below the chest down! And my sunglasses and hat remained intact. Take two, after being fished out of the water, Bill got in the front and I in the back. So off for a paddle down the canyon – it was beautiful! Despite the rough start it really was the best way to see the canyon. And a gentle kayaking race with the girls got me worried that we’d capsize again in the middle of the river! Anyway we were fine, I even sat back for a bit and let Bill do all the work haha! So we waited until the group boat got back and paddled to shore. Our taxis waited for us (at no extra charge) and we went back to the hotel (wet bums and all). The elevator at the hotel still have the ‘earthqueke’ sign on it so it was still out of order. More exercise going up and down the stairs then! So we went to the local shopping mall with Ernestine and Michael for lunch and so Bill could buy a new pair of shoes as his got absolutely soaked in the lake! Mismatched shoe laces and the drama ensued I’m going to call #lacegate. We found white laces (for black shoes) in the supermarket, and Bill changed then before we went back to the bazaar. As we were walking through the main square…..lo and behold we found a guy with a SHOELACE STAND! Quite funny, of course these laces had to be changed (thanks Michael for buying the laces!) So after yet another lace change, we went walking though to the bazaar to the Mustafa Pasha mosque. It was another very beautiful mosque – the design and decoration inside isn’t as ornate as Turkey’s grand mosque of course, nonetheless I enjoyed this one very much and we made it in before prayer time which is important! We decoded to catch the cable car up the large mountain overlooking the city so while the others called a cab I quickly went to a fabric shop in the bazaar (€35 a metre I don’t think so) so I ticked it off the list! We got in a taxi to where the cable car starts. It’s a lovely picnic area about halfway up the mountain. We got in a cable car (which had magnificent views) to the top and wow! Fantastic views stretching across Skopje and beyond! Mountains encased one side while the metropolis views on the other side. There is a giant cross on the top of the mountain (think of the large Jesus in Rio, but smaller) which is viewable from across the whole city. It is also lit up at night. After we took photos we waited awhile to go back down (cable car decided to stop for awhile). We got back to the hotel and relaxed before joining the rest of the group for our last dinner in Skopje!

The next day we went by public bus for lake Ohrid. A 3 hour journey away, lake Ohrid straddles between Macedonia and Albania, though most of it is in Macedonia. It is a beautiful lake, with a charming old town full of cobbled stone streets, 365 churches (one for each day of the year) and a fortress overlooking the town. After lunch we went on an orientation walk around town and went into one of the little orthodox churches overlooking the water. Later, Bill, Ernestine, Joe, Shona and I went for a walk uphill to the fortress. Walking through a little forest to get there, we could see that the weather was progressively getting cloudier and cloudier. Halfway walking around the fortress, yup it started to rain! So we made a dash for it back to the hotel. On the way we noticed the very pretty streets with houses lining the small cobblestoned streets back to town. All the houses had pretty flowerboxes so it was a colorful journey back to town! As Bill wasn’t feeling well we stayed in that night and I binge-watched Jane the Virgin on Netflix!

The next day we went for an early morning boat ride in the lake. As there was another Intrepid group at the hotel, there were two boats and our group was split between the two (we were in the smaller boat). Our ‘captain’ could speak German so Nir could translate for us. After about 45 mins the boats stopped in the middle of the lake so people could have a swim. Our group wasn’t told about this otherwise I would have brought my bikini! Anyway Joe was the only one organised so he jumped in the water with the other group while we all had Turkish coffee (Joe took his in the water!) We declined our captains kind offer of homemade Raki as well! 40% or so he says….. So we went around the lake again and stopped at a small junction where boats and small yachts were moored and people fishing. We got off to look at the oldest trout farm in Europe and did a small walk around. We continued back to shore on the boat without Shona as no one could find her. The other group leader said she was on their boat but that was incorrect. Anyway back at shire lo and behold the most intrepid traveller or the group walked back to shore herself! So the afternoon was ours. Me and Bill went for a walk through the bazaar – I was looking for Ohrid pearls. They are available on every street corner, ranging from jaw-dropping cheap to expensive. From my readings, the Ohrid pearls is man-made, however the outside of it is coated with a particular fish scale, the fish of which can only be found in lake Ohrid. There are two families who have been doing this for generations so their shops are legitimate pearls. Streets sellers, selling a pearl pendant for 100 denars ($1.50) I think not. There are a lot of cheap imitations coming from Italy and China apparently. So after looking at the shops, we went to a lakeside restaurant where I had ‘small fish’ which I assumed would be a small fish but it was small fish plural! Very hard to eat and reminded me of our experience in Ayvalik in Turkey where we made the same mistake! After lunch we went back to the hotel to relax. I went out for a little while later on and walked the backstreets and went into another church. Afterward, I went back to get ready for dinner and saw Joe who suggested we share his last bottle of wine from Visoki Dečani. I got Bill and a glass and we went to the shore to watch a last beautiful sunset in Macedonia while drinking wine. Michael joined us too. So that was a good appetizer for dinner and we went to a local restaurant for our last dinner in Macedonia.

The next and final day of Intrepid we went via mini-bus back to Tirana. Through the border crossing again we finally got an Albanian stamp in our passports!! Back in Tirana, the weather was nice and hot again. For lunch, Bill, Ernestine, Joe, Michael, Shona and I had lunch at our local. Cheap chevapi kepaps, salad and beer! Afterwards Bill and I went for a frappe at our local café (like how I say our local now?) and then went back to our attic of a room to rest in the air conditioning before dinner. Nir had another group starting the next day (same trip) and two of Ernestine’s trip mates from her G Adventures trip to Georgia were on the next trip! So it was nice to meet them and they came to the same restaurant as us for dinner. We went to Blloku again, this time to a nice little restaurant in the backstreets. Not traditional Albanian food, but Italian fare with a masterchef flair. We toasted to a good trip and reminisced on the last 2 weeks, and said our goodbyes to Ernestine who was dining with her friends. As it was a Friday night, the streets were pumping full of people out to have a good night and the Tirana beer festival was on too! Alas we had to leave at 2.30am for our 5am Frankfurt via Ljubljana. We said our goodbyes to everyone at the hotel. What a wonderful trip – fascinating countries, and honestly I did not know what to expect. But was pleasantly surprised at the level of development particularly in Albania so the journey is well worth it. Be like us, be intrepid and explore the Balkans!

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