Skopje was my last stop in the Balkans before Istanbul. My day there wasn’t nearly long enough, but still adventurous.
Macedonia was also the last country I visited that was not covered by my international data plan. So when I arrived off the bus from Kosovo, I had no idea where I was going.
I started off by walking around town looking for some free wifi. I finally found some in a big shopping center and used it to locate a hostel. It turns out the best hostel was only a few meters from the bus station, so I went back to drop off my bag and then set out to explore the town.
Skopje is primly known for its plethora of statues. They are everywhere, and many are quite impressive. My favorite was the one in the center of Macedonian Square next to the Stone Bridge. I particularly enjoyed dunking my head into the water to cool down from the heat. There are also many important buildings around the city. The only problem is that out of the 34 buildings to see, more than half of them were under construction. And at night, not many of the buildings were open. So I only saw a few from the outside.
I was amazed at the integration of old and new in the city. The central square and connected mall looked like they were straight out of Anytown, USA, plus a whole lot of statues. There is an interesting story behind this. It’s actually part of a project called Skopje 2014. After about 80% of the city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963, they needed to rebuild, But it wasn’t until just a couple years ago when they finally put the plan into action. The only problem is that it’s now 2015 and they’re nowhere near to complete, and the €50 million project has increased to over €500!
From the central square I cross over the Stone Bridge to explore the Old Bazaar. This bazaar was similar to others I had seen throughout the Balkans, but a little more of everything. They even had a large selection of fireworks for sale. Someone actually managed to surprise me slightly when they set off a big one right above my head. Macedonian humor?
Then I went to explore the fortress on the hillside. This one was not like the ones in Kotor or Prizren, but rather a large, squat structure overlooking the river and town. This too was under construction. The adventure became interesting when I found my paths continually blocked by makeshift walls. I kept changing my course to go around them. Finally I was close to the exit, after walking a narrow catwalk across a several-meter drop, when I came to my last wall. I decided to jump over this one instead of going around. That’s when I found the military police watching me as I landed on the other side. But they turned a blind eye as I left and headed back to the hostel.
The next morning I had planned to take the free walking tour around town, but the managers of my hostel convinced me to visit Lake Matka instead. The lake was also rated #1 on TripAdvisor. A bunch of hostel guests and I set out to see what was so special.
The lake turned out to be an artificial lake from a dam on the Treska River, about an hour outside of Skopje by bus. Once there, we had the option of hiking along the cliff trail along the river for about six kilometers, or getting a boat trip for €6 to the Vrelo Cave. We opted for the boat trip. Not the most impressive cave I’ve been in, but it turns out the exact depth of the cave is unknown and it’s suspected to be the deepest cave on Earth. Cool!
When we got back form the cave, I decided it was time to cool down. At the base of the river by the dam it was only about 50 meters across, but the water wasn’t much above °0. So notwithstanding that everyone else could only stand being in the water for a few seconds before scurrying out from the cold, I swam across. That got a little exciting about three quarters of the way across when I found myself unable to catch my breath from the cold. So I just held my breath and made it to the far side. I sat on a rock for a little while to recover and then swam back, using up my remaining energy.
Then it was a nice lunch by the river with my new friends, and a bus ride back to the hostel. I picked up my bags and went to the bus station to catch my overnighter to Istanbul. Once again I’ve made the mistake of not staying in a place long enough to truly experience it. I really wish I had done the walking tour, and the only Macedonian food I really got to try in the town were the mini donuts a Macedonian friend once recommended that I get. So Skopje goes onto the list of cities I need to revisit, and someday I’ll see the other places in Macedonia I missed as well, such as Lake Ohrid.