By Karlie Marrazzo
A short flight took us from Belgrade, Serbia to Skopje, Macedonia, a stopping point on our way to the small town of Ohrid, nestled on the shores of Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe. Together the lake, town and surrounding region form Macedonia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two-thirds of the shoreline is in Macedonia, and the rest lies in Albania.
Skopje is not known for being a conventionally attractive tourist destination, but its history and slight weirdness make up for that. The area has been inhabited since 4000 BC and has suffered many devastating earthquakes, most recently in July 1963. That quake decimated 75% percent of the town, which explains the hodge-podge of architectural styles accompanied by cranes and scaffolding all around. Skopje’s most famous name by far is the one and only Mother Teresa, born there in 1910 when it was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. Macedonia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and Skopje is its capital.
Our first impressions were drab and only got more bizarre from there. The bus ride from the airport into any town is never scenic, and this was no exception. The outskirts of town were modern and industrial and the traffic was chaotic, the blare of car horns only increasing the closer we got to the centre. The air was stiflingly hot as we walked from the bus station to our hotel, located in an ugly strip mall with a parking lot full of potholes. Thankfully Hotel De Koka was brand-new and air-conditioned. We dropped our bags and passed through the old Turkish Quarter, crossing the Stone Bridge into the old town.
The thing that will jump out the most to any visitor is the sheer number and size of statues everywhere – epic warriors with swords held high, glorious horses ready for battle, demure nude ladies, historically important men, and Mother Teresa. But the most bizarre of them all is a monument built in 2011 – the 20th anniversary of Macedonia’s independence from Yugoslavia. It is a massive column upon which sits a statue of Alexander the Great atop a rearing horse, plunked in the centre of Macedonia Square. At the base of the statue are several lions with water shooting from their mouths – the statue is also a fountain. At night the whole thing is lit up, alternating blue, yellow, red, green and purple. Along with all of the new buildings meant to look old that line the river, the area had a gaudy quasi-Vegas feel.
My husband Dave and I both love taking road trips, and this would be the only portion of our month-long trip from Budapest to Istanbul where we would be driving. To make things even sweeter, when we picked up the rental we found out that we were allowed to take the car into Albania for only 30EUR extra. This would save us the huge headache of figuring out how to do it by bus or by hiring a driver to take us, and put Albania in at country #30 for Dave. (Read all about our daytrip to Albania here!)
There are two ways to get to Ohrid from Skopje; you can take the main highway, A2, all the way there, or exit onto route 1201 for a more scenic drive. Without question we chose the scenic route, which took us through Mavrovo National Park. Again I was shown the spectacular natural beauty of the Balkans and reminded of Bosnia. Dramatic mountains, forests thick with trees, crystal clear streams and lakes, and very minimal traffic. The only blight on this beauty were the ubiquitous piles of roadside trash common in that part of the world.
A couple of hours later we experienced déjà vu as we arrived in modern Ohrid, a not-that-attractive city that was confusing to navigate. It took us a few minutes to arrive in the hilly old town, and once we got there we had no clue how to find our apartment. Quickly giving up hope that somebody would wander by with a map, we asked a taxi driver for directions, finally found it, dropped off our stuff, and started walking. We immediately switched into leisure mode, strolling through the old town towards the water with the sun warming our faces. I was reminded of Italy again, with the cobblestone roads, terracotta roofs, red flowers on windowsills and the crisp blue sky. At one point we sat down on a shady bench under a tree for a rest and a sip of water, and one of my more obscure travel fears was realized – a pigeon decided to relieve himself all over my leg. My initial reaction was to be pissed because I only had two pairs of pants with me for the entire month, but then I remembered that it’s apparently good luck, and Dave and I were able to scrub it out and save my jeans.
The town and lake were even more charming by night. Walking along the pier at dusk, Dave and I hand in hand, the lights of the town twinkling against the inky blue sky, the water gently lapping against the shore, was a moment of pure happiness. We wound down the night at a waterfront table, me with a glass of wine filled to the brim for only $2 CDN and Dave with ice cream in a tiny jar.
Although our apartment was basic, it had a huge balcony with a spectacular view over the old town and the lake. We enjoyed a leisurely DIY breakfast the next morning before setting out for our day trip around Lake Ohrid.
We spent several hours exploring the lake and getting a small taste of Albania, a country that we would both love to return to. Back in Ohrid, we enjoyed a fantastic meal of traditional Macedonian food on the terrace at Gladiator restaurant, overlooking the fabulously well-preserved ancient Roman theatre. The theatre dates back to 200BC, ended up abandoned and buried by locals, and was only rediscovered in the 1980s.
The next evening we met up with a girl named Taylor, another Canadian who was slowly making her way through Europe, that I had connected with on Instagram the night before. I was a little bit nervous at first because it can be hard for me to be outgoing with people I don’t know, but I pushed through my anxiety, put myself out there and it ended up being worth it. In her early 20s, a Jennifer Lawrence/Emma Stone hybrid with a major lust for life, traveling alone for the first time for a whole year, she was someone I was very happy to meet and draw inspiration from on letting go, taking things as they come and enjoying every moment of life. We sat by the water for hours talking, enjoying more giant glasses of wine and witnessing an intense, bizarre fight amongst a dozen pre-teen kids that came with anxiety attacks, mean girls, and the fear of all of them plunging off of the pier into the lake. We gave life to the stereotype that everyone in Canada knows each other when we found out her best friend is related to Dave, even though they live in a city 1350km away from ours. We went to a restaurant that was too romantic and fancy and ate French fries covered in Balkan cheese, the closest thing to our beloved Canadian poutine.
The next day we said goodbye to the quiet peace of Ohrid and headed back to Skopje. I had wanted to give the city a chance and check out some museums, but it was a Sunday so most things were closed. We ended up turning in early to prepare for the day ahead – we were catching an early bus to Greece on what was the biggest day of my journey so far – my 30th country!
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