To Skopje or not to Skopje?

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.

20160814050122Instead 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.

20160814062021After 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.

20160814112842Walking 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.

20160814110335I 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.

20160814120404I 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.

20160814123619I even saw a tiny bit of London in the red double decker buses that run around the city.

20160814110347We 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.

20160814131208I 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.

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An old ferry and a young country

Day 16 – Saturday 13th August – From Shkodër to Prizren (140km)

Lake Koman is not a natural lake, but a reservoir with at least two dams and power stations. After they were built and a vast valley area covered with water, a ferry service was established to serve the local villages. Now, it is important to put that statement in the right perspective – this is Albania we are talking about, so when I say ‘villages’ I mean one or two houses at most and the ferry itself was quite an adventure.

20160813035453We had seen that there was only one ferry per day to Fierzë, leaving at 9:00 and we made it to Koman with about 20 minutes to spare. The road there had been a similar affair to the one in the natural park the day before, only this time it did not turn into a dirt road even thought it was so damaged at some points that it was close to it. At the foot of the Koman lake dam it went into a tunnel cut in the rock which according to the map lead to the reservoir and the ferry docking point. Just before the end of the tunnel we saw cars stopped and a van that was blocking the way out onto the dock and seemed to be unloading passengers, so we stopped and waited for it to finish.

Before I had time to go and have a look outside the tunnel a guy who seemed to be working for the ferry walked up to us and asked whether we had booked tickets for the crossing. Erm… no, we did not know that we could or had to book in advance, but seeing that in about five minutes six or seven more cars had arrived and parked behind us in the tunnel, I started to worry about it.

DCIM123GOPRO‘No problem, no problem, I find you place, I call you’ said the guy and went out of the tunnel again. The van had finished unloading passengers but it was not moving, so I decided to go out onto the dock and see what the situation was like.

DCIM123GOPROI walked out of the tunnel and found myself in the middle of complete and utter chaos. The dock was tiny, and there were more than a dozen cars and vans with whole families and even animals in them, parked with no apparent order at all, pointing in all directions and covering every inch of space available, it was like a Tetris game gone very, very wrong. On the water there were two car ferries and a passenger one, half full of vehicles that wanted to get off but could not, and I was standing right in the middle of all this, watching the scene in motorbike clothes and eating a banana we had just bought from a street vendor. I could not have looked more out of place.

In what can only be described as the most amazing combination of life-size tile puzzle and logistics, the ferry guys, moving one car at a time into gaps they made out of nowhere managed to get the cars off the ferries and down the tunnel, some of them in reverse until the other end, no mean feat considering that the tunnel was long, steep and with corners inside, and started loading the waiting cars.

The dock itself was very basic, the ferry loading ramp was very narrow and there was a huge gap between the both that some guys had tried to cove with an old mooring rope. Cars went on board bumper to bumper, and the staff even lifted the back of a VW to push it closer to the railings and make room for one more car that went on sideways and with one wheel left on the ramp.

Most people were locals and seemed used to it, but this last car belonged to an old Swiss couple that nearly had heart attack trying to get it on board.

Once the operation was complete the guy from earlier came to find me and said that there was room for the bike. I looked and the only room was a tiny gap next to the loading ramp. The ferry’s old diesel engine was already coughing into life, and he urged me to go get the bike. There was no corridor left in the dock, the space that had been created to unload the cars had been filled again with more cars that kept coming, so I had to zigzag around bikes, down behind a small car, up in front of it, over a mooring rope, down the slippery ramp and sideways onto the wooden deck wedging the bike between the post that held the ramp cable and the VW. The deck was not flat there, so I could not leave the bike on the side stand because it would fall on the VW, and there was no room to pull it back onto the centre stand. The guy who was helping me keep it standing gestured to me to tie it to the ramp post, but gave me no rope. The ferry was already pulling back from the dock, so I was left on my own to undo one of the straps holding the rack bag and tie the bike to the post while pushing it with my body to prevent it from falling over and trapping me against the VW.

With the bike seemingly secure, albeit too close to the edge of the deck for my peace of mind, I went to the upper deck to enjoy the journey. Full to the limit of its capacity, the ferry started to slowly move over the surface of the lake against the strong morning wind, with the water line worryingly close to the deck. There were no life vests nor floats, and the boat literally seemed to have been built welding together pieces of scrap metal and using old truck parts. It was quite an experience.

The dock in Fierzë, which we reached after a three hour long journey comparable to a cruise in the Norweigian fjords, had a lot more space but to be honest, there was no dock. The ferry just came as close to the shore as possible and lowered the ramp on a slope of gravel and rocks.

20160813065815 The cars made it out the best they could, wheels spinning and the crew pushing, and then we pushed the bike backwards up the shore.

Glad to have made it in one piece, we left the dock ad stopped at the first restaurant we found, where a very nice waiter offered us half a kilo of fish just caught from the lake. A welcome feast after the ferry experience.

20160813085731From the dock to the border the road was excellent, and we made it to the next country in no time.

A few posts ago I said that you should always listen to advice from the locals when travelling. Unless, apparently, said local has left the country in search of a better life. A very good friend of mine works for the EU in Brussels and when we told him about our intention to visit Kosovo he very kindly asked about the country on our behalf with a colleague of his who is from there. She said that there was ‘poverty, misery and nothing to see’ there.

Well, I am happy to say that at least in the southern part of the country the landscape was beautiful, I had a great ride from the border in the mountains to Prizren, were we were spending the night, and the city itself was a very pleasant surprise, the old town bustling with life in small bars and street cafés and restaurants, surprisingly similar to Sarajevo.

20160813121155We walked up to the town fortress from where we enjoyed a stunning sunset with the sound of live music from a band that was giving a concert there, and had dinner in one of the restaurants in the old town before heading to the hostel, where they had provided space in a car park with CCTV for free.

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