We arrived in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje at 5am after getting a night bus from Tirana. The journey was smooth and we passed through some amazing snowy mountains. However, as with many long coach journeys, I often find it difficult to sleep. Therefore, arriving at 5am, Mitch and I were both a bit tired and simply wanted to crawl into a bed.
Although we knew we’d be arriving early, we hadn’t arranged early check in at our apartment/guesthouse. So instead we thought we’d wonder around the city. Even though it was 2 degrees, it looked pretty damn beautiful at that time in the morning while the city was just beginning to stir.
The first two things you notice about Skopje are the buildings and the statues; they are both impressive and frequent – the statues in particular are everywhere. Along with all this grand and new infrastructure, ranging from government buildings to museums, the river is lit up by old fashioned style lampposts making it look marvellous. Although we were shattered, it was a lovely way to be greeted by Macedonia’s capital city.
We ended up spending more days than intended in Skopje because we really loved it. It was slightly more expensive than Albania, with a few more stylish bars lining the river to give you a grand view of all the new architecture.
The city itself is divided into the old and new. The old part is across the river where you find the fortress, some tall mosques and a beautiful part-underground church, because during the Turk’s reign churches could not be taller than mosques. This part of town also has some good bars and some of the best kebabs we’ve ever eaten. I am a big lover of cheese, so you can imagine my delight when I ordered a cheeseburger and the cheese was inside the burger, not just a slice on top. Cheese and meat were becoming staple to our Eastern European diet. I genuinely don’t know how vegetarians would get by here.
One of the highlights of Skopje is definitely Mount Vodno. The mountain overlooks Skopje and the surrounding area and has a huge cross on the top that was built in the early 21st Century, hence the name ‘Millennium Cross.’ Luckily it was a clear day when we went up and the ground was covered in snow, making for some very pretty pictures. The view over the city is stunning and it was busy with locals and tourists alike, ogling at the view and chatting over a coffee.
We really did feel quite at home in Skopje but the next place on the list was Ohrid, famous for its lake. The lake is on the Albania/Macedonia border, with two thirds of it being in Macedonia and the rest in Albania. Being the season that is it, Mitch and I really stick out as tourists, with massive backpacks and not looking quite as switched on as the locals. However, this can sometimes lead to people being extra friendly. On the bus journey, one local Macedonia girl noticed us tourists and acted as a translator for us (so that we knew when we were stopping for a toilet break and where we were going). Just before we arrived, and before she got off at her stop, she came over to us and gave us a list piece of paper listing places to eat/drink in Ohrid, saying how much a taxi is and telling us to give her a message on Facebook if we have any more questions. We ended up going to a lot of the places she recommended (go where the locals go is what we like to say). It was a kind gesture and one which we really appreciated.
The lake is beautiful. In the summer, it’s filled with people splashing about and doing water-based activities. When we were there it was a chilly -2 with a bitter wind making it feel like -10. The snow did make the city look magical and was apparently quite rare, so I’m glad we got to see if during the winter season. Despite the cold we did manage to see a lot of the sights: churches with stunning views, a monastery and most impressively, and the massive fort overlooking the lake.
We loved Ohrid but made one final stop in Macedonia before leaving. A place called Bitola, we only stayed one day there but it was enough to see everything we needed to: primarily an archaeological site called Heraclea Lyncestis. The town was also covered in snow and looked charming – it made the excursion around the town that little bit more exciting.
One day was definitely enough there to see everything. After that, we headed back to Skopje where we spent our last afternoon in Macedonia before catching another night bus; this time to Serbia.
The only other place we were keen to visit in Macedonia was the Tikves region, famous for its wine. However, the hotel selection was slim and they were all slightly out of our price range as budget backpackers. If we’d have paid for a tour of the winery, then would have racked up quite an expense. Perhaps we missed out by not going but, overall, we loved Macedonia – Skopje and Lake Ohrid are a must see if you visit the country.