(CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS ENTRY)
One very angry bus driver – whose anger stemmed from me not being able to understand what he was motioning me to do with my luggage and snatched it off me in a huff – and a 3 1/2 hour bus journey later and I was in Skopje. A man outside the bus stop asked if I needed help, so I requested directions. As ever, I had to tell him where I came from, and on telling him I was English he beamed. “I love the English football!!” he said, excited. “Me too,” was not what he was expecting in response, but it’s what he got. “Who you support?” “I support two teams; Chelsea-” “Ah yes, very good team.” “-and one you won’t have heard of.”
The hipster-classic last line upset him. “Tell me! I know all the English football teams. I like to gamble.” (I think gambling must be a genetic inevitability for Macedonian men.) And so I brought the legend of Tonbridge Angels to Skopje. “Tamworth?” “No, Ton-bridge Angels.” “Write it down,” he said, holding out his phone to me with the text screen up. So I typed out TONBRIDGE ANGELS. “Tonbridge Angels,” he mused, “I know many teams. Tamworth. Cambridge. Kidderminster. Not Tonbridge.” He seemed pleased to have learned a new team, and then tried to flog me a taxi ride. This is how pretty much all conversations in Macedonia end.
The hostel was just 5 minutes away, so I didn’t need a taxi. Annoyingly the plug socket by my bed didn’t work, so I had to sit in the lounge area to charge my phone and watch a super shit romcom starring Alexis Bledel that one of the other hostellees had put on. The plot of this film revolved around the notion that guys who read are, like, SO totally good guys who are SENSITIVE and LOVING, when really her love interest was boring as shit. Obviously her boyfriend who DIDN’T READ was a COMPLETE JERK who was CHEATING ON HER with another girl and seemingly a prostitute too. MORAL OF THE STORY: READ BOOKS OR YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON! This is not the moral of the story I found during three years of an English Lit degree, but I don’t really read these days so maybe I’m the terrible person. #tangent
This chore done and shitty film over, I went in search of food. Not having a map and being unfamiliar with the city, I didn’t want to walk too far and wasn’t sure if the huge shopping centre complex was open, which meant my options were few and far between. Eventually I discovered a small hut by the river with tables and chairs outside, where some guys were drinking and smoking. Seeing a waitress, I asked if they sold food. She looked puzzled, so I mimed eating, and it must have been a convincing mime because she gave me a menu. Unfortunately the menu was entirely in Cyrillic, so I had to get her to translate it, and she only knew what a few of the dishes were called in English. So I settled for chicken and bread because, well, that’s how hungry I was. It was edible, but really just a hunger stopgap.
My unexplainable tiredness over the past fortnight had got worse and worse and, despite an early night and about 11 hours’ sleep, I woke up exhausted. Trailing around Skopje, a sprawling mass undergoing huge renovations in shiny new Parliament buildings and statues on every street, did not help this. Unable to locate the walking tour, I ambled around aimlessly, taking pictures of statues without any sort of context to aid me. [Having since read into it online, the statues are part of the Skopje 2014 project, intended to make the city more aesthetically appealing to tourists.]
The theatre is a nice building, with statues of performers outside and over the entrance, and some beautiful stained glass doors. It was near the Kale Fortress, which I couldn’t be bothered to climb and couldn’t find the entrance anyway, which in turn was near the bazaar. The bazaar had some enjoyable features – the mosque, a rug merchant’s with rugs hanging outside as if on laundry lines, a closed absintherie with whimsical glasswork – but was too crowded, and the vendors far too keen.
One guy on the street was selling hats. I caught his eye, shook my head and headed in the opposite direction, which in his book meant I DEFINITELY wanted to buy a hat. “Hello? Hello?? Hats!!” he cried enthusiastically. I ignored him and kept walking. “Would you like a hat?” I could still hear him asking behind me. A bit freaked out by his tenacity, I turned around, shook my head again and said “NO” emphatically. Still he followed. “Deutsch? Francais? English?” I ignored him and finally, FINALLY he got the message that I did not want to buy a hat.
Stressed by being pursued for 5 minutes by this guy, I was not in the best mindframe to enter another market, this one tiny, claustrophobic and cramped. Although some of the wares were interesting – particularly the garish, sequin-laden dresses – I hated feeling trapped in there and exited ASAP, desperate for food and drink. Finding a cafe serving cakes, I asked the guy to recommend me one because I had no idea what any of them were. He served me a sponge with a caramel/cream topping that had been sitting in milk, making it pleasantly moist (oo-err) – I now know this is known as trileçe cake and is a favourite dessert in the Balkans. It was an excellent shout because it tasted fabulous.
More aimless wandering later and I found the national stadium, though sadly unlike in Pristina there didn’t seem to be a way of getting in to take photos. It’s next to a very pleasant park, which has yet more random statues – including entirely unexplainable ones of girls in skimpy clothing taking a dog for a walk. It was certainly more unusual than the multitude of statues of famous men and lions in the rest of the city.
I was pretty much done by this point, and a bit disappointed – the city looked nicer at night. There was time to go to the vaunted Matka canyon, but I simply didn’t have the energy. Wondering why I was so tired when I’d slept loads, I eventually concluded I was dying of scurvy because it had been so long since I’d had any vegetables. While both fruit and vegetables are available in abundance around here, the only veg that seem to come with meals are tomato and cucumber – both of which make me feel extremely squeamish – and the stuff available at markets is bruised or swarming with wasps. I vowed to cook my own meal that night and fill it with vegetables.
Happily the huge shopping centre, opposite the bank my hostel was near, featured the biggest supermarket I’d seen in weeks. Almost weeping as I found celery and unbruised peppers, I went on a spree. Peppers, celery, frozen peas/sweetcorn/carrot, an apple, and a berry yoghurt all piled into my shopping basket with some rice, cider (one of my 5 a day, yeah?), and an interesting-looking Bosnian pepper sauce. The vegetable rice I made with it was totally serviceable, and so much was available that I could fill up several deep plastic plates with the leftovers, bag them up and take them on the long bus to Thessaloniki.
As I headed off to sleep hours later (having become embroiled in a number of online catch-ups), the receptionist lady came into the kitchen and asked how I liked Skopje. I said it was ok and I liked the statues, but that it was too much under construction to really like at the moment. “It’s not the same city any more,” she said sadly, “I don’t like it. They don’t spend the money on schools or people, just on statues.”
There’s clearly a huge attempt to make Skopje into a) a beacon for Macedonia’s bid to join the EU, and b) a tourist destination. Some to this is quite sweet (whoever picked the font for the big tourist map in the city centre is clearly a bit clueless, because they picked Jokerman, an ugly scourge of font fans across the world [1, 2, 3, 4]), but when it’s neglecting the interests of the locals in favour of this, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Tales of 6am bus journeys to come in the next installment!
A ‘let’s be honest that took like 3 days to write because otherwise my wrist bones would have been ground into a fine powder’ Jen