Extravagant public art and a stoned hostel owner: my adventures in Macedonia.

Cities stayed in: Ohrid & Skopje

Other places visited: Pristina, Kosovo

Stayed at: Hotel Super 8 in Skopje (I won’t name the hostel in Ohrid as it was awful, and I’m going to give it a thorough roasting later).

Best thing I ate:My favourite meal was in Skopje, in an Italian Restaurant called Bella Vista, where I ate saffron risotto on a sunny terrace. Extra brownie points to them for being the first restaurant I’ve been to so far with allergen information on the menu.

Transport: Buses x 6, taxis x 7

The lowdown on veggie/vegan/special diets: In Ohrid veggies will probably be limited to basics like margarita pizza if they want to eat out. Vegans will really struggle – self catering would be a better option but none of the supermarkets I went into had free-from sections.

Skopje is much better, lots of restaurants have the menu outside with English translations, though you might have to cobble together a meal from sides and starters. Definitely try Bella Vista, the food and location were great and allergens were listed on the menu.

The large supermarket at the Vero Centre has an excellent free-from section and another health-food section with products for special diets. It’s near the bus and train stations, so a good first port of call. There’s also a branch of DM in the same shopping centre and one near the Old Town area, always good for special diet products.

What I read/listened to: More of ‘Moranthology’ by Caitlin Moran.

Next stop: Serbia

28 April 2018

I said I wasn’t going to write about travel days, but this one was so spectacularly awful that it deserves a special mention.

The day involved several encounters which deserve the accolade of ‘Europe’s worst’, which I’d like to award to various lucky recipients:

  • Europe’s worst waiter
  • Europe’s worst hostel
  • Europe’s worst hostel owner
  • Europe’s worst Irish pub

Congratulations to all the winners.

Before I get into the unfortunate details of the above, I shall start by recounting the journey from Tirana to Ohrid. I buddied up with some fellow travellers (a Chilean girl, a Yorkshireman and a guy from Tenerife), whom I’d met at the hostel, and who were keen to save some pennies on the journey. I was also pretty keen on this plan: rather than taking a more expensive bus directly to Ohrid, we’d take a bus to a border town, then a taxi to the border, then walk across the border and take a bus to Orhid once we were inside Macedonia. It was all going fairly smoothly, and after a taxi ride with a guy who I believe had learnt to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto, we arrived at the border. Crossing into no man’s land was a slightly surreal experience; we saw a wild tortoise and what looked like an abandoned caravan park full of rusty, moss coated vehicles: Pontins had seen better days.

The problem was that once we came out of no-man’s land we just kept going, and going, and going. There was no sign of any civilisation (a crispy dried snake stuck to the road doesn’t count) and certainly no bus stop. Wheeling my bag behind me, I certainly put the wheels to the test. Eventually, at least 45 minutes after we crossed the border, I spotted what I thought might have been a bus stop (there was a bench, and a sign which *could* have had bus times on it). Stopping to catch my breath I also spotted the only taxi driver in the whole region (possibly), and after some intense negotiations we decided to hop in.

The driver had several other fares in the car, one of whom he was taking to the border crossing: after all that walking we ended up (briefly) back where we began. We also had to stop off to deliver cakes to a local restaurant, to chat to some of the driver’s buddies (this guy reminded me of my Grandpa, in that he literally knew everyone in the whole area over the age of 50) and to collect more fares. I was so relieved when we finally arrived in Ohrid.

Hair slick with sweat and feeling extremely grimy, I couldn’t wait to get to the hostel for a nice warm shower, and a sit down in a friendly lounge or terrace. Unfortunately the hostel seemed to be going for a crack den sort of vibe, rather than a nice, chilled place for weary travellers. If you’ve ever seen a documentary about drug addiction you’ll know the sort of place I mean. A general air of squalor pervaded.

There was little to show that it was a hostel apart from a scrap of paper on which was (handwritten) the wifi code and bus times to Skopje. There was also a lot of marijuana paraphernalia about, and before long the hostel owner appeared and asked if we wanted a spliff (!). I declined, because a shower seemed a better option, but one of my fellow travellers did partake, and was also given a ‘roll your own joint’ starter pack by the host, in a handy plastic bag. I guess a chocolate on the pillow just doesn’t cut it anymore.

After some obligatory shots of rakija, we ventured out for dinner. There was no map or recommendations from the hostel, so we just opted for the first fairly decent looking pizza joint we found, confident that there would be a veggie option. I opted for the margarita, and one of my fellow diners asked the waiter for his advice on what to order. Here’s what followed:

‘What’s on the seafood pizza please?’

Waiter: ‘Seafood’

‘What sort of seafood?’

Waiter: ‘I don’t know, I’m not the chef.’

‘Hmm, okay is there anything else on the menu you’d recommend?’

Waiter: ‘I just work here, I don’t eat here.’

If the dodgy hostel had set the tone for the evening, the restaurant experience had cemented it.

We decided to try the Irish Pub (creatively named: Irish Pub) for a drink after our meal, to drown our sorrows. We really should have known that this was also going to be a shambles. Other than the name and two (small) Irish flags, this pub didn’t have anything in common with any pub I’ve ever set foot in in Ireland. For a start: they didn’t serve a single Irish beer. Secondly: it had the atmosphere and decor of a low-rate conference centre adjacent to a motorway service station. Thirdly: the staff had no clue about alcohol.

The bartender refused my friend a mojito on the grounds that he didn’t have any pineapple juice(!). Instead he insisted on giving her what looked like a Wetherspoon’s blue lagoon-type cocktail, that tasted of sugar syrup and not much else. I’m pretty sure my G&T was in fact a G&S, the S standing for soda water.

At the very least, I was by now rather tipsy and ready for bed, and I figured that although the hostel was weird, I’d at least get some rest. BUT I WAS WRONG!

When we got back to the hostel there was a couple in a bunk opposite. I want to say that they were just cuddling, but they weren’t. There was something going on under the duvet.

I ended up sat on a broken sofa on the balcony until the beer-bellied guy, who was wearing sweatpants and had long, greasy hair held back by a hairband, eventually left her alone. In the end they disappeared to another room, and in the morning he came back in and told us that he’d ‘slept like an American movie star’. I still don’t know what that means.

Every time I went back into the shared areas of the hostel more people had appeared, and were dozing or lounging about, all looking very stoned. At one point the hostel owner (who was absolutely off his face), told me he was going into town ‘to find love’, and asked me if I wanted to join. You won’t be surprised to learn that I declined, and we later found him asleep on the floor, draped in a towel.

Clearly he didn’t find love.

29 April 2018

The next morning we got the hell out of there, to an airbnb which usually I would have deemed fairly average, but by comparison to the hostel it could have been the Ritz.

Ditching our stuff, we headed to the lake, which is pretty much the main attraction. You walk through the old town to get to it, which has an amphitheatre and some very steep and windy cobbled streets, leading down to the water. There’s also a lovely boardwalk which follows around the coast, and a walk up past a monastery until you reach some quieter coves. It’s very scenic, but in the hurry to get to the water I didn’t really explore.

Below: Ohrid’s Old Town

The woman who owned the airbnb had been quite shocked that we planned to swim, but I’m a hardy Brit who will happily splash about in the Irish Sea, even if it is February Half Term and most beachgoers are in coats and bobble hats. A bit of cold water doesn’t bother me, so I quickly peeled off my layers to get to my swimming cossie, my pasty skin (default shade: Fromage Frais) showing some slight signs of a farmer’s tan. Actually it might just have been dirt. Hard to tell.

The water was, admittedly, freezing but it did warm up slightly. We were the only swimmers in that particular cove, and several bemused boat tours went past, perhaps gawping at my pale British face and blatant stupidity at swimming in such cold water.

Below: Beautiful, if somewhat chilly, Lake Ohrid.

Eventually I stopped being able to feel my feet, so we dressed and headed back to town for lunch. We picked a different mediocre pizza joint this time, and on the way home grabbed nibbles for a Balkan buffet later in the evening. And beer. And rajkia, of course.

I remember napping and feeling very, very cold when we got back (that’ll be why the locals don’t swim in the lake until June), and then everything becomes a rajkia-induced blur. There were several games of cheat (the card game), which I’m TERRIBLE at, and I think at one point the owner of the airbnb told us off for being too loud. I’m also fairly certain I made an absolute tit of myself, because I always do when drunk, and being drunk on rakjia is a whole new level of inebriation.

I’m never drinking it again.

30 April 2018

The next morning, feeling extremely fresh, alive and full of joie-de-vivre (ahem), I climbed aboard a minibus to Skopje, and spent most of the journey asleep. Lucky for me I got a seat; 2 latecomers had to sit on plastic stools in the aisle.

My afternoon in Skopje consisted of buying some new trousers to replace a skirt (the one that got gum on it from sliding down Hoxha’s pyramid), eating and then napping to recover from the previous nights shenanigans.

I know how to live.

1 May 2018

The first thing that struck me, emerging into the sunshine in Skopje, is that there is absolutely no shade, and everything seems to have been built in a yellow-hued stone, which makes the city seem even warmer and sunnier.

Then there are the statues and monuments for which Skopje has become infamous, a garish medley of styles, all entirely ostentatious and located pretty much everywhere you look. The only thing I can relate it to is Donald Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower, which I once saw on the US version of ‘The Apprentice’, back when old Donnie was just an eccentric millionaire with no taste, and not the President of a superpower.

Most people who know me will know that I love public art, and I suppose all the kitsch did have a certain appeal in that it was so hilariously tasteless, if not worthy of any serious artistic merit. Here are just a few examples:

(The one above was titled ‘homeless’)

Unfortunately for me it turned out that today was a public holiday, and the museums were closed, so my day was limited to wandering about the city, gawping at the statues and such bizarre attractions as three pirate ships/faux galleons moored in the river, each housing a restaurant. The river itself had a quite a large amount of rubbish in it, and there were a lot of unfinished projects on the go, but as bizarre as it sounds there was a certain charm to the place: it was certainly unlike anywhere I’d been before.

Below: The Mother Teresa Memorial House, galleons on the river and a mysterious caravan.

The Old Town is very picturesque, with lovely, shaded courtyards and traditional shops such as bakeries, confectioners and antique dealers.

The colourful Old Town:

There are also lots of options for food both in the Old Town and on the banks of the river, with some great sunny terraces which are ideal for taking in the atmosphere of the city. There’s a nice, relaxed vibe about the place and I think this was increased by the fact that it was public holiday. There were few tourists but lots of locals out enjoying themselves: children eating popcorn and riding the carousels, people out for bicycle rides and families dining out or eating ice creams in the city’s squares. I managed to hit the jackpot with my choice of restaurant for lunch. Not only was the food good but it was the first place I’ve been since I’ve been away with allergen information on the menu.

Below: Restaurant Bella Vista

As well as all the neoclassical kitsch there are also some brilliant examples of brutalist architecture in Skopje (of which I’m a huge fan), the headquarters of the Post Office being particularly interesting.

Below: Awesome brutalist design

As there wasn’t much open to occupy me due to the public holiday, I spent the evening in my room watching ‘The Death of Stalin’, a very bizarre film which suited the oddness of the location.

2 May 2018

Today’s adventures took me to Europe’s newest country. Having not long celebrated its 10th anniversary as an independent state, Kosovo is still finding its feet. I took the bus into Pristina, to find a young city that was bigger and much busier than expected. It’s not the most obviously beautiful city, but if you know where to look there are some real gems.

The Old Town is a rabbit warren of streets, in which I found two of the National Museums. Both are undergoing significant refurbishment projects, and when I asked a curator when the works were scheduled to be completed his reply was along the lines of ‘in the Balkans projects don’t have end dates’. Nevertheless both are well worth a visit – the main Kosovo Museum has been recently refurbished and the interior, display and general aesthetics are really modern. I noticed that they had a loan from the British Museum too, a small bronze figure, and so the museum’s standards of conservation and security must also be of a high standard. When the works are complete it will be a really excellent institution: in many ways the museum reflects the city as a whole, in that it is still under development and renewal, but will no doubt one day be on the tourist map.

The other museum, based in an Ottoman era house, is called The Ethnological Museum, and shows how people lived during the period of Ottoman reign. The museum’s curator gave me a tour – he told me that he had been to the UK on a work trip, and without prompting told me that the V&A was his favourite museum! He couldn’t believe it when I told him that I had worked there, and we had a great chat about museums and the challenges he faces in his role.

One of the highlights of the trip so far has been talking to other museum professionals to hear their passion for what they do, and to understand the different problems they encounter, some of which are the same as the ones we face at home and some of which are very different.

Below: The Ethnological Museum in Pristina, Kosovo.

After wandering through the Old Town, with its ancient mosques and sprawling bazaar, filled with locals selling fresh produce, I headed back to Pristina’s modern and buzzing city centre. I took an obligatory photograph of the ‘newborn monument’, Pristina’s iconic statue, erected when the country gained independence, and made my way to the National Library, considered by some to be the ugliest building in the Balkans.

Below: The newborn monument and the modern city centre.

I’d read a lot about the National Library building, and being a fan of brutalism I couldn’t understand the general condemnation of the design. I absolutely loved it. The unusual shape, raw concrete and steel cladding make the building look like a socialist vision of the future, and it stands out as being a brave and unapologetic piece of design. The interior is equally futuristic, and provided shady respite on an unrelentingly hot day.

Below: The National Library of Kosovo.

The last stop before I headed back to the bus station was the new (and as yet unfinished) cathedral, which the curator at the museum recommended I visit. For €1 you can take a lift to the top of the bell tower, for amazing views over the city. Apparently hardly any tourists know about it, but it’s a great experience and was the perfect end to my brief visit to the city.

Below: Views from the Bell Tower

Kosovo may be young, but she’s bold, friendly and exciting, and I hope one day that Pristina will be as well-visited as some of the other Balkan cities. Her moment in the spotlight beckons, and this time for a positive reason.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s