James Went To Skopje

I was at Luton Airport wondering why on earth I was catching the 9:40pm flight to Skopje. I needed a break from work, but why was I going to Skopje? Why didn’t I just stay in London and chill?

Well, I wanted some warm sunshine, and Skopje I knew would be cheap – despite the collapsing pound. Plus I wanted to go to a new country – and I’d never been to North Macedonia (or maybe call it Macedonia…depending on who you want to upset). One of my goals for 2022 was to visit three new countries – and this is the third, along with USA and Sweden.

Arriving in Skopje Airport at 2:30am (plane delayed…apparently the EU’s fault according to the pilot…though Wizz Air have the worst punctuality record at the moment so maybe you decide) I was a tad nervous, hoping that my taxi driver would be there with my name on a sign. He was! Phew. And Skopje Airport is nicer than Luton Airport, I can assure you…those toilets in Luton Airport are disgusting. But at least Luton is easy to get to and has multiple bars. Luton > Stanstead. I think.

My friendly taxi driver insisted on taking me to an all-night bakery (gosh imagine the uproar if Gregg’s tried to open all night in London…oh they tried…and there was uproar) before checking me into my apartment – up 4 flights of stairs at 3am – good job I’m fit. And yes, my Macedonian sausage roll was just what I needed.

My Airbnb

Day 1 – Statuetastic

I didn’t know much about Skopje before I arrived, but I did know that they loved a statue. Or 500.

What I really wanted to do was to have a beer in the sunshine, and despite my being in the main square of Skopje, there was nowhere to sit and have a beer in the sunshine. There were some bars, but all covered and hidden away. Even turning the corner and walking along the river, all the bars were covered with no outdoor seating. How strange.

I relented and had a beer indoors, along with some Pastrmajlija – one of my more successful attempts at eating local dishes, despite the need for some spice/herbs/flavour.

Pastrmajlija in Skopje

I decided then to continue my pursuit of a beer in the warm sunshine with a walk along the river – loads of glorious open space, with wide tracks for cyclists and pedestrians, and plenty, absolutely plenty of space to build a bar.

But…no bars anywhere along the river. Skopje is absolutely missing a trick here.

I eventually, after maybe 1.5 hours of walking found a nice wine bar off a side street from the main river walk. And in the sunshine. Until someone pulled the canopy over because they were in the sunshine.

In the evening I continued my attempts to try the local cuisine with a burek:

Spinach burek, Skopje

There are different versions but I chose the spinach one as it looked pretty sexy in Google Reviews. Not quite so here – but it was pleasant enough to eat, if a bit greasy. This and a large beer came to £5.09 – so it may not have been the most convincing meal ever, but it was definitely cheap.

Day 2 – Bizarre Statues & Bizarrely Quite Bazaar

The other thing I knew about Skopje, was that it had a bazaar – apparently one of the oldest and largest such markets in the Balkans.

Alas, I visited on a Sunday, not really thinking, and most of it was closed.

I did manage to find a rooftop bar on a hotel at the edge of the bazaar – only by re-reading a blog on Skopje – and I pretty much enjoyed the last of the sunshine for that afternoon, as the cloud slowly grew. Still warm though at around 23’C, which seems reasonable for late September.

And then I had a reasonable success with lunch too, eating at Tetek’s – a place recommended by my taxi driver, where I had the highly-recommended kebapi. The guy running the place asked me if I wanted 10 or 20…I was like…5 maybe? I could easily have eaten more. He did upsell me to have some salad and some bread – yes it is salad, despite being completely covered in cheese, and both that and the bread was really good. And just £3.26. Lol.

I kept some of the rather wonderful bread to feed the stray cats, though chickened out after the first attempt when people gave me strange looks.

This post needs some more statues, doesn’t it?

I was supposed to have a night tour of Skopje in the evening, but the tour guide didn’t turn up – or I was in the wrong meeting point. Either way, I was tired and quite happy to miss it. The Irish pub served me a pint of Paulaner, which was a relief after too much local lager and then I set off to find my evening meal.

I then realised that the restaurant I wanted to eat at, Old City House, wasn’t open on a Sunday. So I set off for my back-up plan, but then found that full – and full of locals, and I’m never so keen to be in a small local’s restaurant solo dining.

So I wandered around randomly looking for a restaurant with a few tables empty, until I found one. I was seated for 20 minutes before anyone realised that I didn’t have a drink. Then they bought the wrong wine over. Then I received this:

Gash goulash

Gash goulash. Barely any meat, it didn’t taste good – and I hate rice. At least I’d only spent £8.00 on a beer, a glass of wine and a tiny bit of meat. Oh and the thin slices of carrot.

Of course, it being Sunday, the all-night bakery wasn’t open either. I found a burger shack with a huge queue…but decided to stay hungry instead, bar some stale bread and strange cheese which I’d picked up from the shop earlier.

Originally I thought that these men were vomitting…so it was an appropriate photograph. Alas, he is playing the trumpet.

A statue of a band that look like they are vomitting.

Day 3 – Vodno Mountain

Well, the previous day wasn’t exactly a successful day.

I started this day with a “healthy breakfast” at a place near my apartment called Kantina.

Healthy breakfast, Kantina, Skopje

Except the cats then appeared:

GIVE ME FOOD OR YOU WILL DIE.

Evil cats staring at me for food.

I had no choice but to offer some cheese. And then I went up a mountain. Well, halfway up a mountain anyway, on a circular route that I found on an app I have called Komoot.

It was pretty sweaty work for someone not exactly at the peak of fitness and technically obese. Every time I thought “maybe that is as far up as it goes”, yet more uphill track appeared, and this just kept going on. The track was a bit rough, but not too bad…at least the track I chose on the way up!

Beer halfway up Mount Vodno

Going downhill was almost as bad – not in a sweaty way, but in a “oh fuck any of these steps could be me twisting my ankle” kind of way. The route I took down was much rockier and a bit steeper.

And yes, I was wearing Adidas trainers with my shoulder bag, passing other people in fitness clothing with rucksacks. Well, I hadn’t planned to walk halfway up a mountain. Some of them were probably walking all the way up…and not just halfway.

In the evening I had much more success on the food front, ordering the lamb pot from Old City House – which was open, and was an old house, as you might expect, built out of stone and wood, with a water feature in the middle.

I went crazy and had a starter too – fried courgette (or zucchini, if you must) chips, albeit I’d eaten around 3 before my main came. Plus the wine was very nice too – no idea what it was. Probably one of my top 20 meals of 2022. I was impressed.

I followed this up by watching England vs Germany at the least Irish Irish pub that I’ve been to in my life, with a grand total of 2 other England fans who left at 2-0 down. I would have also left then if I didn’t have half a beer still to drink…I missed our first two goals because I’d got bored and was scrolling Twitter. It finished 3-3.

Much better day! This is why I go on holiday – adventures and good food.

Day 4 – The Guided Tour

For my final full day in Skopje, I actually did a proper tourist thing rather and booked myself on a local tour.

Our minibus was around 50 years old, the seatbelts didn’t work and we were going round tight corners on a mountain with no railings and deadly drops. Oh and there was a used condom on the floor. Ahhhh Eastern Europe.

The first stop was the place where I’d been the day before, so not much to say. Then we were supposed to go up to the top of the mountain in cable cars – but they were closed for maintainence.

Then he drove us to a monastery. Yawn. But some great views and I got chatting to some Swedish people that were in the minibus – I was struggling not to laugh when I heard them say “8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown” in the middle of their Swedish conversation, and then started impersonating Jimmy Carr.

There was an Australian couple too, one of whom seemed to have a problem with Aboriginal rights…he mentioned it more often than I mentioned Brexit. And the tour guide at one point went on to explain how Russia was “only” retaking land that was theirs. Aha. Because that’s how internationally agreed borders work…I’m sure he’d be delighted if Turkey decided to retake Macedonian land (Ottoman empire, folks). I declined to argue given that my life was in his hands…just about anyway.

And then we went to Matka Canyon, which was stunning. Notably cooler than Skopje, apparently citizens come here in summer to escape the heat – Skopje gets to 45’C sometimes, often 40’C to 42’C – and Matka Canyon can apparently be 10’C cooler.

I even went in a cave. Not sure I’ve ever been in a proper cave.

In the evening I went to Skopje’s highest rated restaurant, Skopski Merak. At least according to TripAdvisor.

Mostly because I wanted this – despite having had an open-top pie for lunch:

A huge pie thing from Skopski Merak

5,000 calories later and around 30 minutes before the waiters even noticed that I might want a menu and a beer…service in Skopje was really hit and miss, like the food.

But it was very good – pork, bacon, cheese, tiny bit of vegetables and a ton of gravy-ish sauce inside some rather thick pastry. Needless to say, I didn’t have dessert. I couldn’t even drink beer after.

Final Day – A Bit Of Culture.

Fancy some more statues?

And no, I have no idea who any of them are, or why they exist. Does anyone in Skopje?

My airbnb host allowed me a late checkout, so I didn’t need to chug my bags around with me, which came in very useful when navigating the artistic staircase on the way to the Contemporary Art Museum.

Modern art staircase in Skopje (ie crumbling)

Away from the very centre, the state of the pavements in Skopje is dreadful – but then again the city was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1960’s – so maybe why make everything perfect? Maybe small earthquakes cause said damage on a continued basis? I have no idea.

Before I went to the art museum, I went to the Museum Of Macedonian Struggle. No photographs allowed and I decided not to upset the stern security guards – however it was quite nicely done though either they missed out 1918 to 1945, or something went wrong with the route. So I didn’t feel like I had a full understanding of the story of where Macedonia comes from. The English translations were in very long unbroken paragraphs of strangely translated vocabulary (Google perhaps?!) but I think I got the basics of the story. And the waxworks…probably a good thing I didn’t photograph them as they were freakily realistic, and I was the only visitor at 10am. Also one of William Gladstone…not sure why.

Then once I made it to the top of another mountain, I was in the Contemporary Art Museum. The first exhibition was total bollocks, and I say this as someone that loves total bollocks for art.

And then the next exhibition was from a feminist artist. My eyes were already rolling. But actually she was really thought-provoking:

I was particularly taken that she’d painted over her own paintings, as art itself.

And that was about that. I didn’t want to leave.

So would I recommend Skopje?

Well, whether I recommend Skopje as a destination depends on who you are.

Skopje isn’t my favourite place that I’ve ever been. In fact, I preferred all the other places in the Balkans, for different reasons – the coast of Albania was stunning, Belgrade is a fucking cool city and Zadar in Croatia is just kind of a bit more assured of itself. Though also take into account that I was by myself, and holidays by myself are never quite as fun as those with friends/family, in my opinion.

So, if you want to go somewhere cheap, that has mountains, that has interesting local cuisine (Croatia fails on this in my experience), that has warm sunshine, that is off the usual tourist beat – then, yeah, give Skopje a go. I definitely don’t regret going – I warmed to its slightly weird charm over time.

On food and drink, across 4.5 days, I spent just £160. Yes, it is that cheap. And I drink quite a bit.

Flights were £165 including upgrading to priority boarding – it would have been cheaper had I not booked a week before going. My airbnb was £190 for 5 nights – there were places around £20 a night, so you could do this cheaper too. My flight arrived at 2am ish so I paid €25 for a taxi rather than get the £3 bus…so if your flight time is better or you don’t mind turning up in a random city at 2am and getting a bus, you could do this cheaper. And my only other cost was the tour at £30.

Unlike in western Europe, I always felt safe there – at least in terms of crime, though maybe definitely do get health insurance in case you twist your ankle on the dodgy pavements or end up with a piece of metal hanging off a bridge stabbing you.

Skopje isn’t the perfect city, it isn’t the best place you’ll ever go – it has problems, it feels partly broken, there is tons of plastic pollution along the river, but it also has charm. You just have to dig a little.

I really came to like the place. Maybe give it a chance.

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