Day 19 – Tuesday 16th August – Skopje to Blagoevgrad (225km)
Today was – maybe for the first time in a while – a rather quiet day regarding visits, excursions and exploration. We rode up the hills on the south of Skopje before leaving the city to see the sights from the Millennium cross, a huge 66-metre high cross built to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity. To our disappointment, the cross could only be reached by cable car, not by road, but there was a good viewpoint from the car park where the road ended and we had a beautiful view of the city that added one more item to the list of places my impressions of Skopje drank from – Barcelona seen from the hills of Collserola.
We left the city via the motorway and on the dashboard I saw something I had not seen in quite a while – 6th gear! We covered quite a lot of (boring) distance before running out of motorway, which by the way was not in great condition for what it cost us in tolls. The motorway ended in Kumanovo and from there a regular road, culminating in a really nice stretch of long sweeping corners up a hill, took us to the border with Bulgaria.
Of all the borders we had crossed I was expecting this one to be by far the easiest and fastest – leaving a country usually takes no more than a couple of minutes and then we were re-entering the EU with EU passports and an EU registered vehicle with EU insurance, but for some unknown reason the Macedonians took ages to check each of the few cars on the queue and their occupants paperwork, and it was even worse on the Bulgarian side. I was tempted to do that thing you see in movies, where whenever Americans are abroad they shout ‘I am an American citizen!’ at the first sign of bother, and start shouting ‘I am a EU citizen, let me in!’
Once on the other side we still had quite a way to go before our chosen destination – Blagoevgrad, a small city located between the natural parks of Rila and Pirin. At first this was only a one-stop place before we could find information about the area and decide where to go next, but the hotel turned out to be really nice and cheap, and we saw that the trek we wanted to do the following day was only about an hour away, so we decided to stay a couple of nights.
In the afternoon we went to visit the city and get some provisions for the trek, and Nat got another good dose of working-class Eastern European neighbourhoods.
Day 18 – Monday 15th August – From Skopje to Matka canyon and back (37km)
The effects of the floods in the city centre were barely visible other than on the river banks, where lots of debris and tree branches could be seen. Aside from visiting the city, the other thing that had brought us to Skopje was Matka canyon, which we wanted to explore by kayak.
I was afraid that it might be dangerous due to the floods, but it turned out that there is a dam which forms Matka lake and regulates water flow, together with the fact that the floods had affected the north part of the city and the canyon was to the southwest, so Goran assured us that there was no problem. He also told us something we did not know – the lake is home to Vrelo cave, a big cave with very interesting stalactite formations and two lakes inside. He also gave us directions to the entrance of the canyon, which was only 18km from the city.
A short while after leaving the hostel I remembered Goran’s directions – ‘straight ahead, you can’t miss it, you can’t miss it’ – while the GPS took us through a narrow road that crossed a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Skopje where we saw exactly zero signs pointing to the canyon. The only sign I saw was when we were already there, so once again I was very glad to have the GPS.
The road ended in a small car park where we saw no signs of a place that rented kayaks (or the lake), but there seemed to be a narrower road going on from the further left corner of it, so up we went on the bike. It became a lot narrower a few meters down, and we realised it was a pedestrian path, so I parked the motorbike on a space by the path and Nat went ahead to ask about the lake and the kayaks.
It turned out that the dam was right round the next corner, and the kayak place five minutes further up. As we were changing out of the motorbike clothes, a security guard, presumably from the dam, walked past, and I asked him whether it was OK to park the bike there. He gave me a thumbs up and pointed to a security camera I had not seen.
After a short walk we reached a place where the walls of the canyon opened a bit wider and found a restaurant and a small wooden hut with a flight of wooden stairs leading down to a jetty where three boats and several plastic kayaks were moored. They told us that two hours were enough to reach the caves, visit them and come back by kayak, and that they also offered tours by boat. Seeing that the kayak was only marginally more expensive and would not only last longer, but give us more freedom, we rented one.
This was the third time that Nat and I used a kayak, and I am happy to say that after being able to go on shopping trips to IKEA without getting into an argument, managing to row a kayak in a straight line without shouting insults at each other is a clear sign that our relationship is solid.
The journey through the canyon to the cave provided great sights, and we reached our destination faster than we were expecting. After some amateurish manoeuvring, I tied the kayak to the stairs that led to the cave and we got off just as a boat with a small group was also arriving.
That was quite good timing, as we had no flashlights and the guy in the kayak hut had told us that the caves were illuminated but the generator was only turned on by the guides on the boats. We joined the group and profited from light and a short explanation.
The caves were amazing, and it seems that there is a lot more underwater, at least three other caves from what we were told. Not everything has been explored, and they said that it might be the deepest underwater cave in the world. I can only imagine how claustrophobic it might be to dive in those conditions, swimming forward into the unknown through narrow gaps knowing that there is no air to float up to if something goes wrong.
We took the way back a lot easier, knowing that we had time to spare, and when we reached the hut they told us that the short journey across the canyon to the other shore, from which a path went up the mountain and to a church, was free for customers who had rented a kayak, so we took the chance to go visit the church. When we got off the boat after the short crossing, the guy warned us about the steep walk in the midday heat and pointed at a metal plate and a hammer hanging from a tree and told us to bang on it to call for the boat back.
I am a keen hiker, but I almost had a heart attack on the walk up to the church on that heat… at least the visit was worth it, the church was on a small col where there was also a fountain and what seemed to be some picnic and camping facilities for the people who were hiking the trail that reached the canyon from Skopje, about 16km across the mountain.
We made our way back down, I stopped to collect my underpants, which had got wet in the kayak and I had left drying in the sun on the way up, and when we reached the shore I used the high tech intercom to call the boat.
The GPS took us on a much more direct route back to the city in the afternoon, which I imagine was the one Goran was telling me about the day before, and we went back to the same restaurant for a very late lunch, since the service and the food had been excellent the previous day. There we had a long chat with Ace, our waiter, who told us he was volunteering to help the flood victims, and complained that aid was being distributed unequally depending on the political party the victims were members of. If you are in Skopje, do not miss this restaurant – Etno Bar Grill, by the river in the centre.
Day 17 – Sunday 14th August – from Prizren to Skopje (104km)
A week ago, while we were in Dubrovnik, we had heard news that a flash flood had affected Skopje, leaving at least a dozen dead, over 60 injured and damaging the roads in and around the capital, and that the government wanted to declare a state of emergency.
After that the news in international outlets went quiet about the matter and the time came for us to make a decision whether to go there and spend two days as planned or skip Macedonia and go on to Bulgaria. We had a booking for two nights in a hostel in Skopje, so we wrote to our host to ask about the situation, and he promptly sent us a reply assuring us that there was no problem in the city nor in the roads leading to it.
Instead of leaving Prinzen on the main road to Pristina and then turn south towards Skopje, we took the R115, a small regional road that followed a canyon starting right behind the city fortress where we had seen the sunset and then climbed to well above 1000m through the Malet e Sharrit natural park.
On the other side of the park we joined the main road from Pristina to the border, where we found a lot of traffic and an endless queue at the border crossing.
After that the ride to the capital was quite fast and uneventful, but the first impression I got from Macedonia was the worst so far these holidays – after everything we had seen, the landscape was featureless here, dusty and scorched by the sun, with scattered factories and warehouses here and there. At least the traffic was good, and funnily enough we entered the city and rode to the hotel practically without stopping. Not bad for the only capital city we have visited so far.
My bad first impressions went out the window the moment we entered the hostel and met Goran, our host. He let me park the motorbike inside the house garden, offered us a much better room than the one we had originally booked (which was the cheapest one, we are travelling on a budget) with no extra charge and gave us a very comprehensive explanation of the best things to see in and around the city, with recommendations for the best bars and restaurants included. Having absorbed all that information, and after a shower and some lunch, we went to visit the city.
Skopje turned out to be rather more interesting than I was expecting – it gave me the feeling of a city in a state of flow, quickly transforming itself, and it seemed to have a bit of several different cities thrown together in the same place.
Walking from the hostel to the centre I saw Warsaw as I imagine it must have been some years ago, with big grey buildings left from the communist era and empty today, waiting to be torn down or renovated, half of the building that used to be the main train station already demolished, the other half hosting the city museum, and the old rail yard, shorn of its tracks, waiting for its future use.
I saw Berlin in the frantic pace of construction in the centre, modern buildings creating new city centres. I saw a wink to Prague in the many statues that lined the two new pedestrian bridges and the river banks in a homage to the most prominent figures of the Macedonian arts, culture, education, politics and religion.
I saw Sarajevo in the old town, walking along cobbled streets lined with tiny wooden storefronts, men sipping tea in street cafés and the sight of a mosque rising above the tiled ceilings.
I even saw a tiny bit of London in the red double decker buses that run around the city.
We took all this in, we knew absolutely nothing about the city and we arrived here with no expectations or pre formed notions, so we were blank canvases for the city to paint itself on us in its purest form. We gazed at another sunset form another old fortress and then had an absolutely delicious traditional Macedonian meal at a restaurant Goran had recommended.
I have always said that each and every capital city has its own very strong personality, and this was no exception. We strolled back to the hostel leisurely, glad that we had decided not to skip the visit.