My friends Zach and Nicolas had the great idea of traveling after midterms, DESTINATION: Macedonia
Wizzair had a inexpensive flight out of Venice, an hour train ride and a two hour flight later, we were in Skopje.
We arrived at our hostel, the Art Hostel about 8PM to a group of people we didn't know who offered us Rajkia, the bourbon of the Balkans. After a few servings of the stuff we were off. We met another American doing on holidays from Fulbright in Kosovo. He joined us in our adventure throughout Skopje.
We went to old city tavern and we had a huge meat plate sausages and chicken and potatoes. unfortunately we ordered Pachia, which was an iced pork fat plate. It was terrible, no matter how much Rajkia we drank the Pachia would never be delectable. After we ate we met a Serbian Macedonian soldier. He told us about the conflicts which he fought i, I was amazed about how much about the Balkans I didn't know. He knighted me "Afro-Serb" because of my affinity to read cyrillic.
After, we we went to Club Dion, and Zach introduced us to Turbo-folk. He characterized it as the "peoples" music of the Balkans, I loved it,though I didn't understand it. But, I expect that it was very nationalistic.
We walked around downtown Skopje saw the statues of Alexander the Great. Saw the contrasts between communist and new era buildings. There was a lot of development going off the Varder river in Skopje. The buildings are beautiful the architecture likens to Moslem dome styles.
The owner of the hostel where we stayed had a friend names Aleksander who drove us from Skopje to Ohrid. He spoke chiefly in Macedonian and Zach, as he would through out the trip, would translate for me. Aleksander was the greatest tour guide. He told us crazy stories about Macedonian history, politics, and society.
We stopped in In the mountains of Straza, and had meketza and cheese. It was a flaky and oily bread and delicious locally made cheese. According to Zach, the farms that we passed on the ride to Ohrid would make the cheese and sell it only locally.
After Straza, we drove through Debratza, which Aleksander called the California of Macedonia because of the luscious vast mountainous landscapes. Tall trees stalk hillsides over the road. This place is only 10km from Ohrid and 1KM from Albania.
We arrived in Ohrid and Aleksander hooked us up with a great apartment for only 40€, he tended to his errands and recommended we try the popular Fish restaurant in Ohrid. Which we did
We had a wonderful waiter who was exceedingly accommodating he first brought the sopska which was similar to a greek salad but the feta was grated, the cucumbers and tomatoes were juicy, topped with an olive. It was delicious. Next was, Ribna Corba, the fish soup that was recommended by Aleksander it came with a side of garlic with lemons the soup was good without it but excellent with the additions. Accompanying it was toasted bread pieces with paprika and grated feta. We were pretty full after that but our main courses soon followed. I got the Mavroska fish. Which is caught in Lake Ohrid. Zach and Nick ordered a pork and mushroom dish that's native to Ohrid. Theirs came out smoldering and my fish freshly grilled. The meal was delectable. We saw the Macedonian band Tsar Samuaei (цар самуил), and the fellas bought the bands CD.
I started to pick up a bit of Cyrillic while there which meant fun reading signs and menus. The restaurant which was simply called Fish Restaurant was great. We came back to our apartment and listened to the CD.
Aleksander came by and we drove to the old town Stari grad (стари град) and we saw Tsar Samuel church, a stadium that predates Coliseum, but the most beautiful sight was the moon bathed view of Lake Ohrid
Went partying in the center of Ohrid to the pretentious Cuba libra then club revolution. Fun Night!
The next morning, after Nick and I decided to get some Macedonian Hair Cuts
we trekked to the Ohrid train station to buy our tickets back to Skopje. We stopped for Burek, a flakey meat pie eaten with yogurt. A Balkan favorite from what I gathered. We bought our tickets for 17:45, which left us 5 hours to explore more of Ohrid. We taxied up to the old town and saw St. Samuel church, the site where he'd lost a major battle to the Byzantines and where, according to rumor, the Byzantines blinded 14000 Macedonian soldiers before annexing Macedonia.
We visited St Klemits (plaosnik) church and the most beautiful of them, St Jovan Kaneo church which overlooked the gloriously picturesque Lake Ohrid. At the church we met Capt Crunch with his first officer Puppy, Fang, who would later chew a part of my bag off while the captain gave us a serene boat tour of Lake Ohrid. The waters were calm and clear and it seemed as if the sun peaked beyond the clouds through the mist so we could have a princely view of the city. We docked at the city center payed the 2€ then headed to exchange more euros to dinars. What we thought was the currency exchange guys attempt to rip me off by giving me half of my return turned into a misunderstanding and miscounting on both our parts. Macedonians prove once again to be the some of the friendliest people in Europe. It was only 13:40 so we decided to catch the 15:00 bus to Skopje instead. We changed over our tickets and ate at the сара cafe. We met Tony and Teddy. Both were older Macedonian men but Tony had been living in the US for the past 25 years. He, like Zach both called New Jersey home. We all spoke for an hour he bought us a few glasses of wine to accompany our Balkan Burgers. He had immigrated from Macedonia, or Yugoslavia in 1970 to the US and was soon drafted into Vietnam. 2 years later he returned to Yugoslavia and played soccer for the national team. He gave great life advice. Soon we were off to Skopje.
On the bus ride we talked about how fortunate we were to have met Aleksander and how Macedonia was as a whole. We stopped once again in Straza, I got the locally made cheese, and an hour and half later we were back in Skopje. We decide, after sometime, to return back to our beloved Art Hostel. A few of the same characters were there, like the Albanian Guy we'd me who couldn't hold his liquor and an odd Italian named Lorenzo , but there was a new cast including a lively Bulgarian,and our soon to be friend Woo from New Zealand. Woo was probably one of the most interesting fellows we'd met. He had spent the last couple months interviewing in the UK and Germany before he decided to just start traveling. In the last month Woo had trekked from Berlin through the Balkans, and was steadily making his way back to New Zealand. His next stop was Turkey, Iran, before catching a flight from Goa, India back home. Woo was a lover of NBA, which led to great conversation and had an impressive eye and even a more impressive camera and life story.
We had dinner, drank a great Macedonian wine called Blue Blood before setting off into Skopje for some shots of the city--and shots in the city. We'd set to meet Lorenzo at the huge statue of Alexander the Great in the city center but Lorenzo was a no show. We ducked inside a little bistro for wine and conversation, we soon found our selves cozied between the manly conversation and the warmth of the bistro. It was about 12 degrees celsius outside so we took our time leaving. After the guys met my mom via a Skype session, we thought it best to see some of Skopje's night life. We ran into what was probably a mob boss and his lady friends who walked with some city big shot. The "big shot" took interest in Zach being American and knowing Serbo-Croatian and Nicks great comprehension skills. His boss friend took issue with him taking us to the club, but the guy brushed it off. He led us into the front of the club, raised the velvet rope and like celebs we strolled in. In the club it was wall to wall with all kinds of folks. Old, young, fat, skinny. There is not filter on clubs here. But it was packed, wall to wall with people. We danced, unsuccessfully spoke to girls. Girls kept touching Woo and I because we were the only non-whites, but it never really worked to our advantage. I bumped into a short guy in a adidas track suit and a gold chain while i was dancing and he tapped me on the shoulder and yelled at me in Macedonian. Didn't really know what he was saying so i said sorry, he looked pretty pissed and hopped up into one of the booths with some friends. Simultaneously, Zach said it was time to head back to the hostel, I obliged.
We returned to the hostel at about 1:30, Nick went to sleep while Zach and I stayed up. Thats when we met Bill. Bill was a former financial economist at University of Toronto. He was Canadian and one of the nicest, smartest guys i've ever met. He was in his late 60s, jolly, with a white beard. He's retired recently and was zig-zagging through eastern europe. he said he hadn't stayed in a hostel since he was our age. He told us about parts of Skopje he's visited and gave us advice on what to do of our last day. Bill and I stayed up until about 4Am talking about education and US politics. I explained to him the Herman Cain debacle and why religion is so exploitable in politics. He told me the implications of market driven economies on the currency valuations relative to bank based one like Macedonia. The next morning Bill was gone. He'd apparently left to take picture and before I could say goodbye to him. Nick was gone too. After 2 hours of waiting, Woo, Zach and I decided to leave Nick a note and venture into the turkish side of Skopje. We ran into Nick at a store and he caught up with us at the city center. We saw some visiting Turks who asked to take a photo with Woo and me because we weren't white.
We headed to the Turkish side and saw some cool mosques, and ate more Burek. I met a man, who certainly wasn't the first, who didn't understand why we'd come from the US to visit Skopje but we reassured him that Macedonia as a whole was a wonderful place to visit. The Zach and I pigged out on more Macedonian food and coffee while Nicholas and Woo chilled and watched. The whole trip was a great way to get away from the monotony of grad school. We parted ways with Woo but still keep in contact. Nick, Zach, and I all returned to Bologna refreshed and refueled. Despite the sad silence we held on the plane and in the train station heading back and the problem set they tried to tackle on the train, we realized that we were returning to the arduous coursework of SAIS, we were grateful of our experiences that weekend.