20th August (Cont.):
Yesterday was a far different experience for me. Away from the city and a few tentative steps into the countryside. A walk up Vodno, the mountain that dominates half of the Skopje skyline. The Millennium Cross sits on the crest next to a new development that’s too early in its construction for me to identify it. I hadn’t planned to commit to the full walk up, but I didn’t know what else to do with myself after the guided tour. One of the other hostel residents was taking a day trip t see a lake, and whilst I toyed with the idea, I decided to spend some more time catching up on this journal. Since the cross had been ever-present (“it’s the second biggest in Europe!” the guide had mentioned) I decided it was the best bet.
Let it be known here that climbing up a mountain in a white shirt on a hot day without breakfast and little water is not the most comfortable method. As I found my way to the start of the trail, I noticed a woman sweeping rubbish with a witch’s broom; simple fibres tied around a pole. In the grand scheme of things, it was probably not the most significant thing to comment on, but it did stick out to me. That, and the graffiti. As is the case with everywhere I’ve been so far (except for Heraklion), the street art here is wonderful. The mixed emotions on display – youthful rebellion, sky-high commissions, self-promotion – were diverse in style and subject. A few more garish neo-classical facades were littered here and there, but before long they had receded from view and been replaced by the smart gardens of suburbia. Between the houses and hedgerows, you could glimpse an increasingly picturesque view a city nestled between the nothing and nowhere of Macedonian countryside. I began to understand that Skopje is long, but not wide.
Before I knew it, I’d missed my final chance for supplies. All I had to see me thorough was a tiny bottle of water and sheer force of will. Nevertheless, utilising my trademark determination accompanied by stunning good looks, I persevered. Once I had finally arrived at the beginning of the mountain trail, I saw had two paths to choose from. I checked the handy map beside me to see which way was the long route.
“Vodno Gandalf, is it left, or right?”
So began a day of pain. This was not the way up the mountain. Google Maps had lied to me. No easy footpaths for me, oh no. This would be proper cross-country stuff across rocks and pine forests, and with old-fashioned trespassing sprinkled in for good measure. The increasingly nice view compensated somewhat for my screaming quadriceps as I climbed, and mercifully I reached a plateau where the cable car could take me up the rest of the way. I found a spring to replenish and took a break to recover and assess the route ahead. As far as I could tell, the cable car was closed, and so began the second hellish section of the walk that destroyed me, body and mind. It didn’t help that the day had heated up considerably, which forced me to strip off my rotting white shirt and immediately put me at the mercy of stinging insects and mosquitoes. I started to use trees to propel myself forward where my legs would not go by themselves. Soon the tree-cover became sporadic, and the undergrowth sharper. Small bushes stripped of leaves left sturdy twigs to catch my ankles as I walked by. Sudden jumps in elevation helped me practice my vertical lunges. I slugged onwards, weaving this way and that, and stopping occasionally to take photos of the stunning countryside below and away from the mountain.
Finally, I made it to the top. I passed the building site I’d seen the day before from the centre of Skopje, and it appeared to be a taking the shape of a second, more modern cross, though couldn’t confirm it. The one builder onsite looked a little confused to see me and made no reply to my exhausted wave. I understood his confusion once I reached the Millennium Cross and found it totally abandoned. Nobody had been there in some time, at least in any organised sense. The doors were locked with rusted padlocks, there was broken glass on the ground, paper-covered windows, chairs chained together outside, faded advertisements; this place had been out of use for a very long time. At night, the cross glows with white light, so I’d assumed there would be something – or someone – there to monitor the electrics. As it was, there was nobody. The cable car was out of service forever, not just because of the pandemic. Thanks to broken doors I was able to continue further up the cross and could have climbed up the evacuation route to the very top of the structure if I’d chosen to (I didn’t).
The views over the city were fully realised, and over the other side I could see more of the exquisite scenery of North Macedonia. Smoke rose from a few distant crests, carried by the slight wind across the bumpy green landscape. There was a smell of warm concrete and dust in the air. I stayed for a while, savouring the reward of my hard efforts before walking back down. But first, I had to try out the abandoned slide in the playground. The wooden steps were falling apart, the nails weathered so much that for a moment I thought I might fall through. Then I slid down the slide. I also noticed see-saws missing one half and leaving only one seat. You could only sit down and stare ahead at a trite metaphor for romantic relationships. It was a long way to climb to be alone.
The descent was much faster due to taking the correct path this time, and I emptied out back at the start. It took me another hour to walk back to the hostel, and after a roundtrip of around 5 or 6 hours, I fell utterly exhausted into bed. My day was done.
Yesterday, I did nothing but write all day. The only time I stepped outside was for food in the Bazaar, “the second biggest in the world after Istanbul’s” the guide had said.
Although I had briefly returned with someone at the hostel to explore after the tour had finished, it hadn’t inspired me. Not enough to write about, anyway. Which is a shame because there were a few fun features. The small university at the entrance reminded me of the shingled wooden planks in Hastings Old Town. The guide had provided a discount card to use at the suggested restaurant, so I naturally went to find it. It was cooler now in the early evening, and the light was starting to wane when I sat outside. Next to me were two other tourists: a couple, husband and wife. They didn’t seem to be paying their food much attention as they grumbled in a language I couldn’t place, but I could tell by the tone it was not positive. The waiter, when I asked about how covid had affected the business, complained that the constant shifts between opening and closing the hospitality industry had made running the business extremely difficult; he wouldn’t be surprised if they had to close by the end of the year. He recommended an order that looked like it was simply a burger patty with cheese on top, but I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was a local variation? The picture may have been misleading. But no, it arrived as a burger patty with a slice of cheese on top, with a very generous quarter of a raw onion cut into cubes, root and all. Devastating.
Most importantly, I’m finally up to date again! I made the time back after falling behind so far! Now I can slow down the pace without feeling guilty for skipping different events!
I’m getting dinner.