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North Macedonia 2021: Part 3

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

22nd August:

Even with just one day to write about, I still find myself remembering details I should’ve included in earlier entries. Things like the flight to Skopje, for example, where at 7am after a 14-hour layover with no sleep a child started screaming like a banshee on the flight, which nearly broke me. Or, alternatively, how the tour guide gave the official population of around 2 million, but the actual number is closer to 1.5 thanks to outward immigration to Western countries, or how religiously tolerant the country was thanks to its cosmopolitan history in the Ottoman Empire, or how Rebecca was held up at Istanbul airport because the border guard couldn’t identify her as a French citizen. After half an hour and several levels of security, she may have come out of the experience as a Turkish citizen.

Back to the present, or near present. My coach was booked for 11am, so I was ready to find food and go by 8:30. I thought the builders had started early as the noise in the common room was quite loud, but outside a monsoon had apparently hit Skopje. Over a month of rain fell in 3 hours and hadn’t stopped when I went to walk the 15 minutes to the station. No taxi would agree to pick me up as it was too close to be worth it. In the end, in an incredibly generous act of kindness, the hostel manager held an umbrella over my head as we dashed to the bus station. He works in a circus as a juggler, and more than once I saw him returning from a cross-country trip on his unicycle. His earlobes hung in big loops, and he had a heavily tattooed face and several complimentary piercings. To all intents and purposes, he was a cool dude. Streets were flooding as we ran, and every awning was a brief relief. By the end, we were both totally soaked, and my clothes bag was waterlogged. All my freshly cleaned clothes were soddened. We couldn’t get any wetter, which was good as it meant the goodbye hug wasn’t dampened in any way.

I watched him run back out into the rain before I headed inside the drab station. I went to the bathroom to change into some drier clothes, had an argument with the man asking people selectively for a ден10 payment to enter, then decided it wasn’t worth it and paid him. I had a terrible breakfast of whatever I could find at the small shop inside and looked around at the other similarly soaked passengers. One man was leaning forward and letting the rainwater drip onto the floor. Another was trying to sleep despite the din of coach brakes and announcements. A child began to scream, prompting her mother to pull her in sharply and tell her off, presumably. I didn’t see anybody go in or out of the betting shop.

The bus turned out to be a cosy minibus, and wouldn't you believe it, there was a different screaming child here too. This trip has turned into Europe’s Crankiest Kids. 3 hours it took us. For 2 of those hours the baby screamed. The gorgeous sweeping scenery of North Macedonia, the forested hills and plunging valleys, were the only relief. Then the hills gave way to fields, and fields gave way to houses, before we finally arrived in Ohrid. The minibus stopped at the side of the road without any clear indications of where to go from there. I knew where my destination was, of course -a little hostel in Lagadin, just outside the city – but had no idea how to get there. From my surroundings, I wasn’t even entirely sure where in Ohrid I was. I was standing on the side of a wide road just off a roundabout, with nobody else around except the other passengers slowly filtering away. I decided to follow them and hoped they were going somewhere more promising.

Luckily, they were! I followed a few of them down a paved street lined with pretty shops and dead-eyed mannequins in the windows. It seemed that you could buy any kind of food you wanted, if what you wanted was exclusively meat and chips. After a few more minutes of urban exploration, the strip eventually gave way to the portside avenue. On first impressions, and perhaps predictably, Ohrid was an entirely different atmosphere once again. Unlike Skopje, there had been no devastating earthquake to brutally rip out 80% of the city’s soul. The historic charm had been preserved. Ancient churches and ruined fortresses juxtaposed by modern bars and lakefront pathways marked this place as a tourist hotspot. It is the birthplace of the Slavic alphabet and accessibility of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. When looking out over the lake whilst I ate lunch, I could understand why so many people felt drawn to it.

However, the town was not overflowing with tourists. There was a steady stream of people going to and from the harbourside green to relax, just as there were a few coming the other way. The restaurants were all full, the umbrellas up to provide some shade from the summer sun. Yet there was a cool breeze from off the lake, which sparkled and rippled as a few small boats disturbed its stillness. Perhaps I’m simply in the mood for waterfronts as opposed to cities right now. I think I was too harsh on Skopje.

I grabbed a taxi for ден400 to take me to Lagadin, which was a few miles south. I was dropped off opposite a small beach with a quickly climbing hill encroaching on it. My accommodation was halfway up, but I was underprepared for the steep incline. I was breathing heavily by the time I reached the pretty garden gate at the end of the stone path, and when I arrived, I was met with an ambiguous reception. I could see no one, and no obvious 'front desk’. It appeared, to all intents and purposes, to be a private home with an extension for visitors. I’d been in wet clothes now for most of the day and was 3 hours late for my scheduled arrival time. The pollen began to tickle my nose.

Suddenly an old lady jumped out from behind a door and greeted me hurriedly, as if she knew she’d missed me. We had the usual hostel exchange: passport? Payment? Booking? Honestly, I was more concerned with finally being able to dry out my clothes. I salvaged the driest ones from my bag and hung up the rest around the comfortable wooden cabin, before joining an American biker for a drink and to watch the sunset over Albania on the other side of the lake. Sam was midway through a trip through the Balkans on his motorcycle and would be moving on to Bulgaria the next day. He told me that despite the covid restrictions, it hadn’t been hard to negotiate the different borders. He could not recommend the route he’d taken enough; nothing had been as enjoyable as riding across Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and now North Macedonia. So ended a very long, very damp day.

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