A station with no trains & a bus trip to beautiful Lake Ohrid
With three of us in the back of the car it was a bit of a squeeze.
The guard at the North Macedonian border gave our various identity cards and passports just a cursory glance before waving us through. We then continued for about 10 minutes, frustratingly alongside the railway track, down the river valley until it finally opened out and we could see the vast expanse of Skopje before us.
There was more Cyrillic writing apparent everywhere now but, as Albanian is North Macedonia’s second official language, there were also signs in Roman letters for Shkup as well as for Skopje.
Nobody spoke at all.
After about 20 minutes, the driver pulled up at a large truck park. The girl got out, muttered a word of thanks but offered no money. We then continued on for about 10 minutes more before pulling up in front of the main Skopje railway and bus station.
We walked into what must be one of the grottiest transport centres in Eastern Europe. The best that could be said for it was that it was an effective interchange; the railway ran over the top; the bus station was underneath.
It was a pure 1980s concrete monstrosity. The bus station ticket counters and waiting area were in a dark area lit only by a few fluorescent tubes, the departure board was broken, the place was infested with flies and there was chewing gum on many of the seats. Taxi drivers were wandering around trying to attract intending long distance passengers with promises of cheap fares to distant destinations. We ignored them but took the opportunity to buy a bus ticket for the next day to Ohrid from one of the counters.
I wandered up to the railway part of the complex. I went past empty ticket counters and climbed the stairs up to the tracks above. It was actually quite a big station with at least six main platforms but the whole place was deserted; there was literally no one around. By chance, the platform display monitors announced a train “arriving in 5 minutes” at 9:52. I decided to stay to watch it. Trains seemed to be quite a rarity in Skopje and the next one wasn’t due until 13:20.
I waited and watched but nothing appeared. The monitor suddenly changed to “arrived” but still there was no train. I went along the platform to check the other monitors but they all said the same thing: “arrived”. Then it suddenly dawned on me: the 9:52 was supposed to be the train from Pristina that we had been due to arrive on. It had been cancelled long ago but obviously no one had bothered to update the monitors.
We decided to walk to the hotel, about a 20 minute hike, and set off on a route that would take us along the bank of the river. We soon came across a couple of buildings on the side of the river that were made from concrete but shaped like old galleons. One of them had a café on its “deck” and so we boarded it.
We sat drinking coffee in the morning sunshine and got into a long conversation with the waiter about his native country. He told us all about the North Macedonian flag, the fragile relationship with Greece, his country’s attempts to join the EU and the recent referendum about adding the “North” prefix to its name; he told us he hadn’t been keen on it and had voted against.
As we got closer to the city centre we began to encounter lots of over-sized statues and several newish classical style buildings.
We soon learned that this was all part of the “Skopje 2014” campaign to make the city more attractive, strengthen national identity and encourage tourism. As well as giant statues and museums that looked like Greek temples, there was a triumphal arch and two brand new “art” bridges.
A lot of the statues had roots in Greek history and mythology. The biggest one, a 22m high statue of Alexander the Great in the main Macedonia Square, was complemented by a fountain and musical light show. The whole thing combined to give the city centre a style that can possibly be described as “baroque/neoclassical meets Las Vegas/theme-park”.
It certainly made walking around more interesting, although apparently it is not that popular with some of the locals. It also seems that the Greeks have not been very impressed with what could be construed as a rip off of their own history and culture; there have been protests from Athens.
Skopje’s theme park style seemed to have even extended to its public transportation system. The city had purchased a fleet of red retro double-deck “Citymaster” vehicles from Chinese company Yutong. The design was obviously based on the London Route master, although the left hand drive model made it look as if one was looking in the mirror.
The pedestrian stone bridge that crosses the Vardar River is a symbol of the city. We walked across it and passed from the bizarre modern city to old Ottoman Skopje and the largest bazaar in the Balkans.
Nestling in the shadow of the large citadel perched on the hillside above, this historic part of town had a wonderful collection of mosques, hamams and caravansarais (inns).
We wandered through pleasant streets filled with shops, bakeries and little Turkish cafes before pausing for a quick lunch of beef cevapi (here called Kebapi).
Eventually we found ourselves wandering around the colourful stalls in the green market, and relaxing in yet another Turkish cafe.
We climbed up to the citadel for a view across the town and then on the way down we had a peek into one of the most important Orthodox churches in Skopje: the 14th-century Svetis Spas Church.
The building had a unique sunken design (most of the nave was below the ground) and was worth visiting if only to see its elaborate wood-carved icons.
Next, we headed to two different museums that told the story of some of Macedonia’s most challenging moments.
The first was the Holocaust Museum. It concentrated on the, sadly all too familiar, fate of Macedonian Jews during the 1930s and 1940s. The museum was modern, well thought out and told the story of the local community of Sephardic Jews, almost all of whom were lost.
Across the road was the Macedonian museum. This, across 3 floors, told the story of the struggle for national independence.
It used wax models to demonstrate the various resistance movements and their leaders. The story started back in Ottoman Empire days and continued on through Nazi occupation and Tito’s regime to eventual statehood in 1991.
It was surprisingly well done and at the end we had a long discussion with one of the curators about it all and about the break up of Yugoslavia. He gave us a secret peep at an extra, more gruesome, part of the museum that focused on punishment and torture. It had once complemented the main collection but had long since been closed.
In the early evening we walked around the “new” part of town some more. We stopped off first at the Memorial House of Mother Teresa. She was born in Skopje as Agnes Gondzha Bojaxhiu and this tastefully decorated new building documented her life and incorporated a memorial chapel.
Nearby, the clock at the old train station, now the Museum of the City of Skopje, still showed 5:17am: the time that a devastating earthquake struck on 27th July 1963 destroying three quarters of the city.
We then returned across the stone bridge to the bazaar for drinks at a local brewery and then dinner at the excellent Pivnica An restaurant housed in an old Ottoman Inn.
We tried several local specialities including tavče gravče (baked beans in a skillet).
Bus to Ohrid
The next morning we walked back to the bus station and found the 10am to Ohrid already waiting at “Peron 8”. The driver was jovial enough and smiled as he welcomed us aboard. He had Orthodox icons above the door and a picture of Mother Theresa on the dash.
The bus seemed newer than we had experienced to date and even had seat back video screens, although they didn’t work. The service was pretty full with a mix of passengers; everything from young Australian tourists to local people in Islamic dress.
We were soon out of the suburbs and heading west along a motorway that threaded a wide flat valley dotted with Orthodox churches and mosques. After an hour the motorway ended and we climbed through greener scenery that reminded me a bit of Austria.
We paused at a roadside cafe for a short break and then, after passing several little cemeteries and monuments decorated with Albanian flags, reached Kichevo. Here there was a little train in the car park next to the bus station; a reminder of the old narrow gauge railway that used to link Skopje with Ohrid.
From Kichevo we continued on past the construction works for the new dual carriageway that the Chinese were building to shorten the journey time to the lake. We eventually got to Ohrid almost exactly three hours after leaving Skopje.
The area around the bus station didn’t look too promising, but a ride in a (metered) taxi soon had us at our hotel and overlooking the shore of one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes.
We paced out our exploration of Ohrid over three days and in that time we grew to love the place.
Both the town of Ohrid and Lake Ohrid are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it was easy to see why. The place was undeniably beautiful and it felt relatively unspoilt.
Our hotel was towards the southern outskirts of the Ohrid and our room had a great view of the lake. We walked everyday along the long promenade that led into the town and beyond.
The tourist season seemed to be winding down a bit, but as we walked we encountered plenty of locals and tourists out walking and running. There were lots of benches to sit on and small cafes to relax and have a beer at.
As we walked, boatmen shouted to us offering rides in their little water taxis and on the promenade itself a variety of vendors tried to sell us corn and ice cream from their carts.
A fifteen minute walk along the shore from our hotel got us to the modern town centre. Here were supermarkets and shops and, if we turned inland, a bazaar with the normal collection of mosques, Turkish cafes and kebab restaurants.
If we continued straight along the shore we reached the old town with its Orthodox churches and seafront fish restaurants.
We explored the old town, negotiating its winding streets and visiting its small St. Sophia Cathedral. The church dated from the 9th century and had some of the richest art from the middle ages in the region.
We also climbed up to the Holy Mary Perybleptos church and looked at the fascinating treasures and frescos contained inside.
We stumbled upon the Ancient Theatre of Ohrid, the only Greco theatre in Macedonia and only dug out 30 years ago, and then discovered two more fascinating churches that had both been used as hospitals during a cholera outbreak several centuries ago.
We walked along the wooden boardwalk to the most famous site in Ohrid: St Kaneo. This iconic church sits on top of a small cliff on the shores of the lake and is featured on many of the pictures of the lake and of North Macedonia itself.
We ate well whilst in Ohrid too. The lake is famous for trout and we had a particularly memorable meal of the local fish accompanied by some delicious Antigona from the Stobi Winery. Macedonia has quite a reputation for wine and, from our brief experience sampling some of it, we thought it deserved it.
Back to Tirana
We had enjoyed our time in Ohrid so much that we began to feel quite reluctant to return to Tirana.
Nevertheless, the journey back promised to be interesting. Encouraged by our excellent experience with Ramiz, I had been back online and booked another local driver to take us back to the Albanian capital; I had also arranged a couple of things to see on the way.
The drivers name was Kasem, he was Albanian, and as we sat eating breakfast overlooking the lake for the last time, we received a text from him to say he had been caught up at the North Macedonia border and might be an hour late.
We packed our bags and waited.