Lake Ohrid & Skopje, Macedonia
We made some friends at the border crossing. While waiting in line we met a young couple who were hitch-hiking to the same town we were heading for, so we offered them a lift. The girl was Romanian, the guy had a British accent but we weren't sure where he was from. They had been to Macedonia a few times and could tell us almost everything about the town. It was nice to have company for a while, even though I was slightly embarrassed by the state of our van (including the bed that we never fully pack away each day). As soon as we arrived in Ohrid they jumped out and were jumped on by five different men offering them accommodation for the night. We heard the touts offer private rooms for €10 per night, which was the cheapest price I had come across in Europe. They tried to hassle us too, but when your accommodation is attached to your transport they really can't sell you much.
It was getting late when we arrived, so we didn't have a chance to see much of the town. A quick stroll up and down the main pedestrian street and to the popular Lake Ohrid showed that the area was overrun with shops, restaurants and boat tour operators. Chocolate-flavoured popcorn seemed to be a local specialty. The old town was beautiful, full of narrow, twisting lanes and white buildings with brown wooden trim. Oddly the higher floors of the houses were larger than the lower storeys, resulting in the dwellings converging towards each other overhead. It was quirky, but I liked the haphazard nature of the place.
The nearest campsite was about 15 km out of town, and I'm not convinced it was worth the drive. Squat toilets, the oldest showers in existence (that smelled like sewerage), no laundry, no internet and frustratingly, no drinking water (which we desperately needed). We weren't sure what we were paying for exactly.
It was slightly cooler the next morning, the first break from the heat in over two weeks. We headed back into town and immediately went our separate ways. Danny underwent a lesson in the wine of Macedonia, drinking three glasses and returning with two bottles. I took a healthier option, exploring the old town and the dozens of tiny churches it held. The first one I entered contained an icon gallery, and I somehow got roped into a tour on the different murals painted on the church walls. I didn't understand much of what the lady was saying, and spent most of the time wondering when it would end. As soon as it was over I made my escape, making sure to keep my head down so I couldn't be enlisted into any further informational sessions.
Next I walked up to a castle on top of a small hill, thinking this would be a highlight of Ohrid. There was absolutely nothing to see inside the castle, but there were great views over all of the old town and the lake below. After taking the obligatory photos I then sped past three more churches, plus some extensive church ruins, before heading back down to the centre. Here I caught up with Danny, who had just returned from a quick swim in the lake. The water was way too cold for me, being freshwater and one of the deepest in Europe (around 300 metres in some parts). As it wasn't as hot today, I didn't mind missing the swim. Overall, Ohrid was one of the more charming towns I had visited in a while.
Our next destination was Bitola, driving along potholed roads most of the way. At least it was paved and we could go the speed limit. The view out the window was much greener and more mountainous than anything we saw in Albania or Greece. Bitola is supposedly the prettiest city in Macedonia, however I thought it had nothing over Ohrid. There didn't seem to be any significant sights to see, so we spent our time casually wandering along the main street. There were a few photo-worthy buildings, plus a grand centre square, but nothing else sustained our attention.
Finally we drove to Skopje, the nation's capital, although the drive wasn't without drama. We had Garmin issues. Again. To fix the problem we jumped on a toll road, which cost us a whole €0.65 for the 20 km trip. It had to be the cheapest toll road in all of Europe. If there was one place where Garmin was going to fail us, I'm glad it was here.
Overnight we had parked near a few trucks and buses in Skopje, close to a main road, and had experienced a restful sleep (it helped when it wasn't a billion degrees inside the van). In the morning we walked the short distance into town and started with the north side of the river, known as the Čaršija area. I felt like I had stepped back in time. It had a country town feel, with dusty streets lined with shops selling old clothes and work tools. The longer we walked around the more the place grew on us. At the top end of town was a bazaar with loads of fresh food, which looked immaculately neat and clean – even Danny was surprised by its hygienic appearance. We tried to visit a fortress but a sign saying 'Closed to visitors' halted that idea. Instead we found a partly underground church, full of murals and wood carvings that were so intricate it took seven years to complete them. Up close the amount of detail that went into each one was incredible.
Skopje is a city of two halves, the old and the new, with a river and a construction zone in between. Having finished with the old town we headed over the water, the bridge taking us to the main square (that was also being renovated). All we could see was the top of a huge statue/fountain, which I guess was more than we saw in Albania's centre square.
After leaving the dirt and machinery behind, Skopje became more modern and attractive. One highlight was the post office, which doesn't sound exciting but it was one of the stranger buildings we had visited. The exterior looked typically communist-era (lots of drab concrete), but with weird projections that protruded from the building here and there. Inside it looked like a spaceship, except for the murals painted on the walls. We couldn't make any sense of it.
New town was all about statues. Walking down the leafy pedestrian street we must have passed at least 20, and the street wasn't that long. They were located everywhere and depicted everything – people, animals, abstract art - you name it, there was a statue for it. Artists must do well in this city.
Once we had passed all the monuments, we visited the Mother Teresa Memorial House and Chapel (she was born here), which looked unexpectedly modern. Afterwards, we visited an old hamam that had been converted into an art gallery, one of five galleries in this relatively small city. We didn't spend much time looking at the art (mostly small wood carvings and more statues), but instead admired the building and how it had been refurbished from a public bath into a museum. While the walls were covered in white plaster, the roof had been kept in its original condition. Some of the intricate stonework still remained, as did the star-shaped holes carved through the bricks, allowing the light to shine through.
On the way out of Macedonia we found a service station with a tap, finally allowing us to fill up our van with water. We had no idea if it was safe to drink, but at least we had a supply for cooking and cleaning.