Taking a day trip to Skopje seemed like the best idea I’d ever had after spending an entire month with no running water at the height of a landlocked summer. I craved to see people after six weeks of living the humdrum rural life. Wanting to experience as much of the Balkans as I possibly could while over there, village life in Kosovo, however much I loved it and adored my hosts, was starting to suffocate me.
Off we went to catch a bus with an overnight bag. Lush green mountains grew as we headed towards the Macedonian border then darkened intensely as the sun slumped low in the sky. Villages blinked into existence, cradled by the lands dips. The mountains gained in strengths and stature until they swallowed the sun. Suddenly it was night.
The bus stopped abruptly in the jet black darkness.
We looked at each other – surely this wasn’t where we had to get off? Shkup was the Albanian name for Skopje, so perhaps it was. Lora went to check with the driver. ‘Po, Shkup’ he repeated impatiently. She beckoned, signalling that it definitely was where we must alight. The other passengers looked at us blankly, mildly annoyed at the fact we were hesitant to leave and eager to continue their journey onwards.
We stepped off the bus slightly shocked at the prospect of being lost and abandoned in the middle of nowhere with no Macedonian currency and a phone which had ceased to work some days before. The welcoming glow of a shop in the near distance came as a relief. Barely able to see the road in front of us, we were half expected a friendly shopkeeper to greet us. Instead, we were met by two boys no older than 12. Lora’s attempts at communication were met by jovial bemusement.
‘HOTEL?!’ she barked eventually, but it was pointless. They were children after all and only just laughed. They had every reason to, they’d probably never experienced two scruffy, desperate foreigners so out of place.
‘Aleksander Palace!’ the plumper of the two replied, pointing toward a tiny speck of light on the horizon.
Aleksander Palace was just that; a huge palace built of marble and glass with automatic doors, a fountain and a snooty receptionist. Holding us to his mercy, he looked us up and down; two pitiful rags who’d spent the last few weeks without running water.
“Two hundred and fifty Euros per night.” The receptionist answered our question before we’d even opened our mouths to enquire.
Having only 100 Euros between us, we promptly left with our tails between our legs but spurred on by the hilarity of the situation we headed towards the glow of downtown Skopje in the distance. I wasn’t at any moment worried or scared; I was used to traveling and this was certainly an adventure!
Central Skopje boasted neat boulevards, lined with boutiques and a constant stream of promenading people. Towering above the city on a mountain side as black as the night sky was a fiery cross visible since we’d crossed the border. We’d asked at the only other hotel we’d found for a room, but that too was out of our budget so we continued walking until we came to a river lined with heaving bars and nightclubs. Groups of youths reveled in the open air, how we longed to join them, but getting high on the intoxicating atmosphere may have meant losing our inhibitions and ending up with no place to call home for the night.
Lora pointed to the other side of the river and told me that that’s where the Albanians live. Skopje was a melting pot of ethnicities with its only obvious divide a silvery river running through it; on one side there were Churches. On the other, Mosques. With no where left to turn we sat on a wall and soaked up the atmosphere. Not so far from us I noticed a taxi driver standing outside his car smoking, perhaps sharing soaking it all up too.
We chanced the opportunity and asked if he knew of a hotel. He gestured to get into the cab and off we went in search of a place to stay. Lora conversed with the driver, whose name was Mihail, struggling to recall her knowledge of the Serbian language. Mihail had red hair and a raucous laugh, he put us at ease with his sympathetic freckled face beaming back at us in the rear view mirror. He could have been a serial killer for all we knew, but sometimes you have to put a little bit of faith into humanity. After finding no luck in a couple of places Mihail knew of, we came to a hostel where after much talking neither Lora nor I understood, we said our goodbyes to Mihail who refused the money we tried to offer him for his services.
A landlady beckoned us to follow and led us around the corner. Around the corner led to down the street, and when that street finished we crossed a busy road which led towards high-rise blocks. A thought crossed my mind that waiting in those tower blocks could be a very different kind of welcoming party to the one I’d received Kosovo, but we followed her nevertheless. After a seven story climb and looks from curious residents we were happy to receive a key. We had our own apartment for the night, which although looked as if already occupied with mismatched bedding and two pairs of plastic slippers just inside the door, we were happy for a refuge. Relieved, we shared a celebratory cigarette on the balcony. Our relief turn to laughter as we spied an angered boy chasing a freedom seeking watermelon, after it had tumbled from a street-side melon mountain.
Without a car, it was impossible to find the nooks and crannies of the Skopje we wished to see. Hanging around the city centre, although eating borek here and there and trying to decipher street signs in cyrillic would suffice.
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