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.
One of my favourite things to do in Europe is take the train, no matter how long or short the journey. Book me onto an 8-hour flight and my mind fills with anxiety, but a train ride of the same length fills me with excitement; the satisfaction of slowly passing through countryside, crossing borders the old fashioned way, and staying firmly on the ground. The train from Budapest bound for Belgrade was nearly empty for the entire trip. We stopped at the Hungarian border, had our passports stamped, moved on for a few short minutes, and stopped again on the Serbian side of the border in Subotica. The border police seemed a little more tired, a little more weary, their faces a little more lined. Moments after we pulled into the station, the sky grew dark and exploded with rain. I grasped the deliciousness of the symbolism in that moment.
Three hundred and fifty days after our last month away in Europe, Dave and I were packing our bags again, going through the familiar motions and making the drive down the same stretch of highway to the airport, ready to embark on another month on the continent we love so much. This time, though, the trip carried serious significance. This would be the biggest trip of my life to date. This would be the one where I would finally achieve my goal, the purpose of my life for the past four and a half years; to travel to at least 30 countries before I turned 30 years old.
After three easy flights we touched down in Budapest, a city I’ve wanted to visit for years. We took the bus and then the metro into the historic centre. The second we emerged from the station I was stunned by the gorgeousness all around me. It’s common to be smitten with a place when you first see it, but this feeling held steady for our whole four days in Budapest, from the grandest buildings to flower pots lining the streets, from the great Danube and its bridges to multiple neon signs in the shape of teeth.