I stepped off the bus and in to my very own Macedonian fairytale. How is it that I never knew Skopje was so beautiful? How is it not on every traveller’s bucket list? It needs to be.
When I arrived in Skopje, I went for a ramble around the city to orientate myself. It was night-time and the centre of the city was all lit up, so I followed the lights, dragging my jaw with me.
Along the river in central Skopje are stunning buildings, bridges celebrating Macedonian history and art, and huge decorative ships with bars and restaurants on board. Classical music is piped through a public tannoy system. I saw a few teenagers with hoodies pulled low over their sulky faces, feet betraying them as they tapped along to Beethoven.
I couldn’t believe it. I expected another post-communist, bland Balkan city. Instead, I saw a city filled with culture, history, art, life, architecture, energy and youth. A country in its infancy that has barely shaken off its communist hangover, I hadn’t expected that Macedonia (or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, if you must get political about it) would have found its feet quite yet. I was astounded to see it wasn’t just on its feet, it was sprinting far ahead of its Balkan neighbours.
Love at First Sight
I fell in love with Skopje at first sight and it only continued to get better. I was in the lap of luxury staying at Get Inn Skopje. The morning after I arrived, I went on a voyage of discovery through the city and learned about its dramatic history, its proud people and its rich heritage. I learned about the devastating effects of the earthquake that destroyed the city in 1963 and saw the evidence of rebuilding still taking place all these years later. I admired the architecture and the urban planning of a city on the rise. For someone who’s not normally a museum person, I managed to happily while away half the day in the archaeology museum. I got completely sucked in by the stories of Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines, Greeks and Ottomans; invasion, economy, treachery and revolution.
I had been trying to make plans with refugee charities to volunteer in Macedonia for a while before I got there, but kept coming up against dead ends, cryptic messages, no replies and apparent inactivity of the NGOs and groups I tried to volunteer with. I had a feeling that I was missing an important piece of a puzzle.
Maybe I shouldn’t admit that I felt some relief that volunteering wasn’t working out. I could enjoy Macedonia as a tourist without commitments or hours to keep. I felt a little guilty for thinking it, but I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t seem to be wanted as a volunteer. I couldn’t even gather very much information. I decided to spend two days just exploring before I started move on to volunteer in Greece. I made plans with fellow travellers. We hiked at the beautiful Matka canyon, we climbed through caves, we discovered Macedonian hospitality.
My Very Own Fortress
The real magic happened at Skopje fortress. If you’ve been following my blog, you know how much I love fortresses. If you know anything about my book, you’ll know I love castles. Battles and sieges fascinate me. I can drift off into my own little world and my imagination takes over and runs riot. Well, she got her moment to shine in Skopje.
I was on my own at the fortress. It’s mostly closed off for rebuilding works. It’s one of the sites that was damaged in the 1963 earthquake and went ignored under communist rule, so reconstruction is taking place now. There’s also some archaeological work going on, so it appears from the outside to be shut. I accessed it through a little gate at the back of the fortress and navigated my way around the construction site and equipment to climb onto the battlements.
A security guard bobbed around in the distance, but otherwise, it was my very own fortress. This made me very happy. I was hopping around the fortress like a giddy goat, prancing along crumbling walls. Stones were falling from under my feet but it didn’t matter, I was moving too quickly for it to affect me. I was completely indifferent to any health and safety concerns. For the first time on this trip, cautious, old Ruth stayed right where she should be – far away from the fun.
I was there for hours. I investigated every stone, climbed on every surface and hung dangerously close to edges with sheer drops. I was kept company by my imagination until the sun had set and my camera battery had run low. I then realised that I didn’t know what time the fortress closed at.
I looked around but couldn’t see the security guard I had spotted earlier. He had noticed me too, hadn’t he? I started to take note of the construction site and the materials lying around, looking particularly unsafe for visitors. Was I supposed to be here? I had seen a sign on the way in. It was written in Macedonian. I had toddled on past it.
I was on the other side of the fortress now. I couldn’t see an exit. Was there only one? Something felt really wrong. I headed back to the little gate I had come in through. I should tell you at this point that Ruth + Anxiety = not a good combination. But this anxiety was tinged with a weird kind of excitement.
‘Are we locked into our very own Fortress?’ asked my imagination.
Her excitement was palpable.
I mentally swatted her away, but she continued to bubble.
‘Oh, the adventures we could have.’
I kept walking towards the gate.
‘Is it warm enough to rough it? Maybe we’ll have to scale the wall. Where’s Rapunzel when you need her? Are there dragons?’
I saw the exit and my pulse quickened. So did my feet. I trotted towards the closed gate with a feeling of pure panic. What was I going to do?
I must have looked pretty crazed. At least that’s the look I got from the guard who re-appeared from nowhere, probably hanging around waiting for me to leave. I released the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I grinned oafishly at the guard and babbled something in a language neither local nor my own. And myself and my imagination grinned and giggled all the way down the hill and back into the old town of Skopje.
It may have been then that I knew I loved Macedonia. And maybe that’s how two days turned into nine.
I didn’t stay in Skopje, though. On one of those days, I wound my way through the narrow alleys of the old bazaar. It was drizzling a little, so I had the streets all to myself (it turns out Macedonians don’t like rain). I could feel a storm coming on and, being a fan of stormy weather and well aquatinted with rain, I was perfectly content in my little drizzly bubble.
That is until I passed a little Turkish cafe. The owner and his friends were huddled inside out of the rain. One of the group tried to persuade me to come in until the weather improved. After I’d turned him down and carried on along the slippery cobbles, I realised that a coffee might have been a good idea. I’d been walking for a few hours. It was cold. Maybe the rain wasn’t so pleasant after all.
As I passed on the way back, they banged on the window, and gestured me again to come in. The owner came outside to tell me how good his coffee was. I gave in and I went inside.
This is where I met Anna, a Polish exchange student who was working in the coffee shop. She was stumped at my decision to stay in Skopje.
“But Why?” She asked, “When there are so many more beautiful places in Macedonia.”
I had no answer. I had no idea there were more beautiful places in Macedonia. Was that possible?
“Do you have to be at work on Monday?” She asked. I told her I didn’t and she proceeded to plan out a trip to Ohrid, a lake in west Macedonia. She showed me photos. I was sold.
I wasn’t sorry. The day that I arrived in Ohrid, I could see what Anna meant about it being beautiful. I walked a lot. I climbed up to the old fortress and sat on the battlements for ages with a tattered old book, my camera and my thoughts. It was perfect.
And while I wondered why the rest of the world didn’t know about Macedonia, a huge part of me was delighted that I got to be in on Europe’s best kept secret.