Friday 21 December 2012

Farewell, Great Macedon!

It’s been a couple of years since I got to do any proper international travel, but finally, I managed to get myself out of the UK for more than a day and spent a good week in the Macedonia. December isn’t the best time of year to visit the country . I’m no fan of the cold – in fact, I despise cold weather and my immediate instinct in the presence of snow is to return to bed and hibernate until it’s warm again. So visiting the city of Skopje during the winter, when the temperature happily dips ten degree below zero on the centrigrade scale, wasn’t the best decision. However, since my sister insists on having her birthday in December, and this trip was to be an extended birthday celebration for her, that was the time we had to go.

Becca had already visited Macedonia four times. One of her closest friends, Nena, lives there. As she hadn’t seen Nena for about four years,  and I hadn’t since she was here in England a couple of years earlier than that, it was definitely long past time for a visit. It’s a place I’d never been before, which is in itself enough to make me want to go, and since Nena is one of the loveliest people anyone is ever likely to meet, I was  very much looking forward to the trip. Even if it was going to be in the snow. So, a week away in a country that most Brits haven’t even heard of, with my sister and her boyfriend (who happens to be my good friend, Jim, with whom I go way back). 

The Republic of Macedonia lies north of Greece, landlocked by its fellow Balkan states. For years it has been at the centre of a dispute with Greece over its name; most of the ancient region of Macedonia lies in modern Greece. Why this is so important, I couldn’t say; there are plenty of places in the world that share names, after all. Macedonia, the nation, is the one that shows up on sporting events as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” which is an incredible mouthful often shortened to FYROM. Or better shortened to Macedonia, since that’s the place’s bloody name. still, calling the main airport “Alexander the Great” was perhaps not the best move if they were trying to avoid pissing off the Greeks even more.

Skopje is the capital city, up in the north of the country, not far from the border with Kosovo. We stayed in the Urban Hostel, on Mother Teresa Street . Mother Teresa being one of two famous historical figures born in Skopje, although in her time it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The other famous figure, by the way, was the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian the Great. Anyway, the hostel was fantastic; we weren’t staying the in the main hostel bit, but on the top floor in a separate apartment, but even the bunkbeds and shared rooms looked nicer than most I’ve seen in my time. Not only did they provide slippers to all the guests (immediately putting them in my top ten places to stay), but they also gave us a bottle of wine, and a pretty decadent chocolate birthday cake for my sister. You can’t be made to feel more welcome than that.

Skopje’s not a large city, so we saw a fair bit of it during our stay. The days were mostly spent happily wandering to one corner of town or another, after a healthy lie-in, taking our time and stopping off in one of the many coffee shops along the way. The Macedonian denar has a very favourable rate of exchange to the euro and the pound, so for once we all had plenty of money to spend. It’s an odd sort of city, and it apparently looks completely different to the last time Becca visited, just a few years ago. The government has gone to great lengths to revitalise the city, but a lot of this has entailed some very artificial attempts at providing visible history. There are statues everywhere, particularly in the main square, portraying everyone from Alexander to a jolly jazz band, and in every style from baroque to modern surrealist. The addition of Christmas lights only made the mixture stranger, especially considering that Christmas isn’t until January over there (Macedonia being one of the few nations that still runs its Christian fellows according to the Julian Calendar). I rather liked it. (Incidentally, apologies for the lack of photographs – Becca was camerawoman, and shall be supplying them to me in the future.)

We took in the museums, of art and city and natural history, and even the national zoo. This was, I am told, pretty horrible a few years ago, but it has happily been the recipient of much of the revit-funding and is now a decent place, with some proper pens and enclosures for the animals. A highlight of the trip has to be visiting a zoo in the snow, and seeing a pair of lions slipping about on the ice – not something I ever thought I see. Also, the rabbits seem to have the run of the place; possibly they are, in fact, in charge. Being in a zoo made me feel quite at home, even though my zookeeper experience lasted only four weeks over four years ago.

Much time was spent at the Old Bazaar, the last bastion of the Ottomans in Skopje. Galleries are held in the Turkish bathhouses, tiny bars and cafes sit amongst shops and stalls along cobbled roads, and the whole place has the most appealing atmosphere, although I was unable to buy a hat due to the shop displaying being seemingly abandoned for the week. Evidently shopkeepers can trust their fellow Skopjens, since the wares hung outside for the course of our stay and never disappeared. However, as much as we enjoyed the architecture and the shopping and the snow-sprinkled hippos, what we shall really take back with us and treasure forever is the food and drink. Nowhere have I ever felt so full. Nowhere have I ever eaten so much meat, fat and salt. I could happily have eaten kebabs and feta and chillis, and drunk Skopkso beer and local wine all week. In fact, that’s just what we did.

Some things I learned in Skopje:
-          The Cyrillic alphabet isn’t all that hard to get used to; I reckon I’d have mastered in a couple more days, although that doesn’t mean I’d have understood any of the words.
-          Fast food places sell toast – spelt TOCT – which is actually a vast, cheesy toasted sandwich of joy.
-          Ketchup is better in Macedonia.
-          The local moonshine, rakje, could be very dangerous.
-          If you order “bacon chips” in a posh restaurant, go get a huge plateful of bacon. You may, as Jim did, follow this up with a whole pork loin.
-          The authorities have tried to curb disorder and drunkenness by banning the retail sale of alcohol after It hasn’t worked.
-          Pretentious arty folk look just the same in England and Macedonia.
-          Young women in Macedonia are all stunningly attractive. Young men are all tall with impressive beards. Older folk are all mostly short and haggard-looking with unhappy expressions, meaning that either things were once very different there, or that a terrible change comes upon the Macedonians in their forties.
-          If you order hot chocolate in a café, you risk getting a bucket-sized mug of thick, molten milk chocolate.
-          Television in Macedonia is terrible, the local music is very odd, but all the radio stations play eighties classics and the bars and pubs play jazz.

So, we learned a little about the culture and the way of life. Most of all, however, we relaxed and braced ourselves for out nights out, when me met Nena and her friends and went for drinks. Becca already knew many of these people, but for me and Jim the faces were all new, which is a wonderful thing, and made it all rather like a week-long party. I made a lot of new friends, drank with a lot of fascinating people, and was thoroughly embarrassed by inability with even basic Macedonian and their proficiency at English. On the Friday, Becca’s birthday, we went to Nena’s home and met her wonderful and welcoming parents, and were presented with a meal which surpassed out ability to finish. My god, though, it was good. Those Macedonians know how to eat.

All good things come to an end, of course, and after seven nights were flew home – via a quick stopover in Zagreb, allowing a swift visit to the Christmas market and the chance for some boozed-up hot chocolate. Macedonia was my sixteenth country, Croatia my seventeenth (plus one if you’re counting my home in the UK). Not too bad going, although there are many, many more to visit yet.

On Sunday night it was Christmas drinks with the workmates. That made it eight nights on the trot, and I am getting far too old for that sort of behaviour. Certainly worth it, though. You’re only young-ish once.

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