February 2 – March 2, 2018 (Winter)
Greeting: Здраво (Zdravo)
Gratitude: Благодарам (Blagodaram, but Hvala works too)
Currency: Denar (ден)
Visa: 90 days RR
Cost of living: Low
Leaving an island near-paradise is never easy, but one way or another we had to move on. Skopje singled itself out as our next destination based on its low cost of living and reputation for wine. Plus we could fly there for cheap. Visiting in winter rarely shows off the best side of a place, though. This was definitely the case in Macedonia. Snow-painted peaks ringed our valley, giving a taunting air of regality to the otherwise dreary city between them. Snow and chilly weather confined us to the lowlands, and the relentlessly gray days felt suffocating after weeks of Maltese sun. Even the food seemed dimmer, less joyful and life-affirming. But for all that, it was still a pleasant enough place to settle for a month. In a better light it might even shine.
Where we stayed
Skopje had the dubious honor of being the first place we had to back out of an Airbnb↗ due to issues with the flat. Our booking was itself a replacement (the host of our first reservation decided to delist her property) but seemed a fair mix of acceptable quality and affordable price. However, our host informed us just days before we arrived that there “might” be some construction noise. Quite the understatement. The neighboring property was in the midst of a major building project.
Now, spending as much time as we do in developing countries, we don’t usually complain about the sounds of a country actually… developing. Okay, that’s not entirely true. We complain about it a lot. But we accept it as coming with the territory. This was a bridge too far for us – we decided to reach out to Airbnb. They required video evidence to corroborate our story but ultimately persuaded our host to cancel and helped us rebook another place on short notice. We hurriedly researched and asked around, earning a rapid response from an excellent-looking place to the southeast, tucked on the sides of Vodno hill. A quick turnaround on their end and a taxi on ours, and our first day in Skopje ended with us exhausted, but with a roof over our heads, no construction noise, and one hell of a view.
Our new home was pretty roomy and had a nice bedroom with a desk and a decent kitchen. The living room tables stacked into a serviceable standing desk, plus the entertainment center let us catch the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl. But the fireplace was easily our favorite feature on cold February nights.
Downsides? The low-clearance arched ceilings were cute but also a serious impact hazard. The internet was spottier than we’d like, but from what we gathered that was a Macedonia problem and not specific to our rental. And as in Sarajevo↗, lots of people still primarily burn wood for heat which results in smoky/smoggy air. The valley setting sure didn’t help, trapping the pollutants nearby with an inversion layer. But some days treated us with just enough wind or precipitation to scrub the skies clean.
What we did
Skopje is a moderately-sized capital of a fairly small country, but standing in the city Centar, we could just as easily have been on the road to Vaes Dothrak. In 2010 the then-governing party announced a controversial and expensive project (possibly half a billion euros or more) to fill the city with grand buildings and monuments. It would be bold and classical, a symbol of Macedonian might and a rallying point for national pride. The results speak for themselves. Buildings were built, corners were cut, and less than half a decade post-completion many are already showing signs of decay. It’s not uncommon to see them defaced by paint bombs in protest of the wasteful spending. Three (3!) novelty pirate ships stuff the Vardar River in a city where some still get around by horse and cart. Skopje is now a city overburdened with busts and columns. Backlash to this swept the opposition party to power, which has halted construction and is currently mulling a plan to redistribute the abundance of statuary around the country, wisely alleviating the near-comical concentration in the capital while simultaneously generating good will all around.
Meanwhile the city’s authentic artifacts were already impressive. Stone Bridge is a historical icon more than 500 years old. Memorial House Mother Teresa, while a more recent addition, demonstrates true care in its construction. Skopje City Museum repurposes the rail station damaged in the city’s devastating 1963 earthquake↗. And the narrow lanes of the old town and bazaar stand in stark contrast to the sprawling grandiosity below. Our favorite was Saint Clement of Ohrid, which blew away our expectations of what an Orthodox church could be with sweeping lines and graceful arcs.
Above all the architecture new and old, Kale Fortress is still the most prominent and impressive landmark in town. We picked an especially clear day and trekked to check it out for ourselves. There is no admission fee; we were free to wander the grounds and climb the walls at our leisure. Some of the views – overlooking the city, or to the distant snow-capped mountains – were truly incredible. But the castle itself is an odd combination of still-impressive exterior structures and neglected-feeling interior. Several half-constructed buildings seemed like they’d been intended for cafés or exhibits. Now they rusted away near ditches littered with discarded bottles and bags.
The winter weather cramped our style a bit, but we couldn’t forgive ourselves if we left without spending an afternoon hiking on Vodno. Our journey started simply enough – we walked out of our house and started uphill. When the road ended we kept going. There are plenty of trails on the hill but, as in Croatia↗ and Romania, they were steeper than we were used to. No switchbacks, just a straight shot up the mountain. It wasn’t long before we were towering over Skopje. We popped out of the woods at a small overlook park. The sun was getting low; we could see the shadow of the very mountain we were standing on creep across the city, so we started making our descent. We rejoined civilization about a kilometer from home by a small football field and playground, winding our way through the upper echelons of our neighborhood trying to find our way home. And we did find it, eventually.
Staying in Skopje afforded us a unique opportunity to visit another notorious Balkan locale. Priština, Kosovo was just two hours away by bus, a small price to pay to learn more about the place we basically only knew by name and controversial status. NATO intervention helped to end the Kosovo War in 1999. When the disputed territory declared independence in 2008, the United States was among the first countries to recognize it the very next day. The Kosovar people were grateful, and after 10 years of independence, Kosovo remains one of the most consistently pro-American countries in the world. Our bus dropped us off just blocks from a statue of Bill Clinton, neighbored by a women’s clothing shop named Hillary. The tributes are nonpartisan, too. Major boulevards are named for both “Klinton” and “Xhorxh” Bush. After indulging in that brief bout of patriotic narcissism, we set about scratching a little deeper exploring Pristina.
The National Library is probably the city’s most famous landmark, alternately the world’s coolest or ugliest building depending on who you ask. The National Museum turned us away as they were temporarily closing for a private event, so we grabbed a coffee and visited the Ethnographic Museum instead. The Heroinat Memorial remembers the more than 20000 ethnic Albanian women raped during the war. Every point of the face is a metal representing one of those victims. Other landmarks that stood out were Mother Teresa Cathedral, a deserted Serbian Orthodox church, the Youth and Sports Center for its cool shape, the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning for its giant flag banner, and this awesome mural outside the university’s chemistry department.
We went back to the National Museum at the time they were told it would reopen, only to discover something major going on. A group of dancers and musicians entertained a large gathering on the museum steps. After a few minutes the festivity seemed to break up, so we headed in with everyone else. The collection was small but very nicely laid out, covering the region’s history from Neolithic artifacts on up to Madeleine Albright’s cowboy hat. Looking around, we noticed that the well-dressed crowds included diplomats and news crews, and the tables of hors d’oeuvres and live music implied we may yet have been intruding. Indeed, later research confirmed that after years of renovation, we’d stumbled into the museum’s grand reopening!
Our stay in Skopje coincided with the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. We were really looking forward to it after how much fun it was to watch the Summer Olympics in Warsaw↗, and Macedonia did not let us down. Unlike NBC’s awful coverage with frequent commercial breaks, inane and unnecessary commentary, and an excess focus on American athletes and their “backstories,” MRT’s coverage was refreshingly straightforward. The opening ceremony was aired live, with only a single set of commercials during legitimate downtime. Every last country in the Parade of Nations was shown. And the commentary (not that we could understand it) was succinct and unobtrusive.
Even the sports they chose to air were different. Universally popular choices like hockey, figure skating, and alpine skiing still got the most coverage, but when it came to the obscure ones, there were a lot more Nordic skiing and shooting events than we expected. And they usually played the whole event though, even the hours-long endurance ones. On the other hand, we didn’t see a single curling match, so there is still room for improvement.
We were amused to find MRT, the main national broadcaster, still shut down their stations overnight. It was a bit of a surprise to doze off to Olympic coverage and wake up to a test card at the bewildering hour of “not long after midnight.”
Food & Drink
Like every other Balkan nation, ajvar, burek, kajmak, and peanut crisps played an outsize part in our diet. Our nearest groceries were KAM (a discount market with rock-bottom prices but few options), Reptil, and the supermarket at Ramstore Mall. Green markets dot the city and were the best place to pick up quality produce at a fair price.
Our main courses were fairly standard for winter, stuff like roasts, chicken, pasta, more chicken, and pasta with chicken in it. We were surprised that landlocked Macedonia produced some okay seafood, especially a particular strain of trout that was both ubiquitous and delicious. The frozen vegetable selection was among the worst we’ve had though. The local Ledo label was Frikom, like in Serbia, and like in Serbia they offered a bastardized Mediterranean veggie mix that was nothing like the kind we so loved in Bosnia and Croatia. Where was the zucchini? Why did it have corn in it? Disgraceful.
Burgers were a popular fast food option. Fast Food 7 served up a tasty burger stuffed with fries that was a whole meal in one. Tetek’s kiosk near the Holiday Inn always had long lines for cevapi and a similar fry-burger to go. Both were good, but had a distinctly sausage-like flavor that grated our perceptions of what a hamburger should be. Like, it shouldn’t actually taste like it has ham in it!
Snack food hunting also turned up a couple of happy finds. Taco Doritos and hot chili Patos Rolls were the perfect junk foods for critiquing the performance of the world-class Olympic athletes from the comfort of our living room. For dessert, Štark chocolate-and-peanut wafer cookies were one of Kevin’s rare favorites.
A big reason for our interest in Skopje was the wine. Many of our favorite value wines in neighboring countries turned out to be from Macedonia, so we figured they’d be even better at the source. Yes and no. The biggest brands – Tikveš, Stobi, Bovin, Skovin, Popova Kula – were indeed everywhere, and good wines could be had for $2-3 a bottle. Vranac was by far the most common varietal, but we also sampled two true Macedonian originals, Kratošija and Stanušina, and a few imports. But the stuff in this price bucket didn’t always hit the mark, and there was basically no such thing as a middle tier. We splurged once on a Private Reserve from Stobi that turned out to be the standout of the stay. All in all a decent month for wine, but not the quality-to-price promised land we were hoping for.
Temov Brewery is the only game in town (actually, country) for craft beer. We shared a couple of pints on Macedonia Square (they also have a location in the Old Town) that were easily the best brews of our stay. Skopsko dominates the local macrobrew market, with Krali Marko and Zlatan Dab at least contending. They generally follow the Balkan beer model of quantity over quality.
Uber↗ wasn’t available here yet, but our host strongly recommended a different app called Global Taxi Skopje. It hails a cab and records the journey, though payment was still expected in cash. Hailing a cab off the street could result in extortionary fares, even for locals.
Skopje actually has a pretty good bus system. They even use a bemusing but charming collection of London-style double decker numbers. We declined to take advantage only because they require a local transit card for payment, which involves a buy-in above what we were willing to spend for how little we would use it. Instead, we simply walked everywhere. Unfortunately this was made harder by Macedonians’ frustrating habit of parking on the sidewalks. Oh, and there were a surprising number of American license plates around, a factoid for which we have no explanation.
A shuttle bus was the best way to get downtown from the airport. That set us back only 180 denar (about $3.60) per person, payable to the driver on the bus. Our outbound flight was very early on a day forecast to have bad weather, so we decided not to push our luck with the bus and booked a transfer from Skopje Airport Taxi for €14.
Round trip bus tickets to Pristina cost about $10 per person. Intercity buses left from the Skopje bus terminal, directly under the main rail station.
Stuff of interest
Our SIM cards↗ came from T-Mobile. We paid about $10 each for the chips and 5 gigs data.
Visitors to Macedonia are required to register with the local police within 24 hours of arrival. This just meant we had to head down to a police station with our host and fill out a form. The policy is common in all the neighboring countries, but enforcement can vary wildly. Our host confided that none of his previous guests had bothered. But we’re glad we did. On our trip to Pristina the border guards actually did check and take them, so we had to register a second time when we returned!
The Republic of Macedonia has been part of a heated naming dispute↗ with Greece since its independence, though tensions stretch back even farther than that. Greece has used this dispute to hinder their ascension into NATO and the EU and to force them to adopt the provisional moniker Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedona (FYROM) in the UN and Olympic Games. Somewhat in retaliation, Macedonia responded by naming everything they could after Alexander the Great, including Skopje’s airport and their main highway to Greece. But during our stay there was a miraculous thaw in the almost 30-year dispute. In a show of good faith, Skopje removed Alexander’s name from the airport and renamed their road connection the Friendship Highway. By the time we left the signs were already gone. There is yet hope for a peaceful resolution in our lifetimes.
However, we were a bit sad we weren’t consulted first. The addition of a comma would have been just as effective with far less effort. Who wouldn’t be exited to land at Alexander, the Great Airport?!
The Cyrillic alphabet is the official alphabet of Macedonia, and Macedonia is the only former Yugoslav country to exclusively use Cyrillic script (in most of the rest, it is co-official with the Latin alphabet). We had gotten a taste in Serbia↗, and by the time we left we could puzzle out at least a few of the basics.Our replacement apartment solved our noise issue, but it wasn’t entirely without its own issues. The hot water heater exploded► in a cloud of steam► and spraying water… on Valentine’s Day. We were understanding, but after Buenos Aires↗ and La Floresta↗, we were starting to wonder how we ended up with such bad H2O mojo.
Perhaps the most confusing part of the ride to Kosovo was discovering their seemingly-infinite retail highway. From the very edge of Pristina, the road south to Skopje is lined with commerce and industry. It’s nothing but strip malls, car dealerships, and so, so many outlets and houseware stores. They just keep going, almost a quarter of the way to the Macedonian border. The rest of the country was normal, exactly like any of its neighbors. This stretch would hardly be out of place in the US of A, but here in Kosovo the endless monuments to consumerism (but not any, you know, consumers) was straight out of The Twilight Zone.
What we learned
Skopje was dealt a bad hand from the beginning; few places look their best in February. Mountains and stunning natural beauty beckoned, but with the cold temperatures and occasional snowfall we could hardly enjoy them. Perhaps another time.