In transit

If all was right in the world, my flight would be taking off from Ljubljana in about ten minutes, carrying me along with it towards home. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I’m now looking forward to a very late arrival in Paris and a mad dash to catch the last train heading to Normandy, which, if I do, will drop me off just before 1 a.m. on a Monday morning, with a full day of work ahead of me.

But, I can’t complain. Although exhausted, I wouldn’t trade my culture-filled East European and Balkan get-away for a quiet weekend in The Seine Valley for anything in the world. How lucky I am to have a job that allows me to travel!

It all started last Thursday when J and I boarded a plane for Skopje. The views on the trip there were precursors of what was to come. We flew over the Alps and saw the impressive greenness of Switzerland before passing through Austria and finally landing for our (first and short) layover in Ljubljana. Upon our arrival in Slovenia, I knew I would love it. I had a very particular positive feeling and was excited to discover Ljubljana, but that would have to wait. Another short flight spent studying basic Macedonian and we were in the land of Alexander the Great.

The airport was tiny and out-dated, the customs patrollers cold and daunting. We were immediately accosted by a taxi driver willing to take us to our hotel, and we let him sweep us up, albeit hesitantly. We had no idea what to expect, and were imagining something closer to the (rightfully so) money-obsessed welcome we’d previousy received in places like Djerba, and were a bit worried that we may get taken advantage of. Fortunately, for once, the taxi fare was not my responsibility, but was being paid for by my company, so we decided to take the plunge and hop in. There was no meter, and the driver informed us that it would cost 20€ to go to our hotel. We accepted, and the adventures began.

After a short ride through a dry, tan, mountainous backdrop, we began to see the beginnings of a city. The word beginning was very fitting. The city sometimes seemed like one enormous construction project. Everything seemed as though it was being renovated, but maybe had been that way for quite some time. In between scaffolding, piles of rocks and half-finished buildings, we saws mosques. Dozens and dozens of mosques. When our driver finally turned of the main road onto the center exit, we were smack-dab in the middle of an oriental marketplace. As he turned again, this time into a miniscule alleyway, inching his way through the swarm of market goers, we wondered where exactly we had ended up.

Macedonia is a traditionally Christian republic nestled between Greece, Kosovo, Serbia and Muslim Albania. As I researched my trip, I saw that Albanians made up nearly 20% of the country’s population. This seemed like a lot, but was nothing compared to the numbers in the capital. Skopje, it seems, is somewhere around 50/50 and also somewhat segregated, with Albanians and mosques on one side and Macedonians and churches on the other, with the river serving as a sort of buffer. Our hotel (hotel ARKA) was located on the livelier Albanian side, which had its pros and cons.

It was much older, and naturally more charming, full of curving cobbled streets and shops selling jewellery, ice cream and pastries. Cafés and bars on every corner, it was the hub of Skopje’s nightlife, and full of endless shopping opportunities during the day. It was incredibly easy and yet not at all foreboding to become lost in the twisting, winding streets which all looked pretty much the same. Baklava and all sorts of almond and honey-based pastries were waving to us from every other shop, and discount gold and silver necklaces were begging to be admired.

The major downside was due to the poorer population that called the old Skopje home. While most people left us alone and went about their days, with maybe just a curious glance or an all-out stare, often enough we were approached by beggars or solicited by gypsys. Nearly every time we ate at a restaurant or stopped too long to window shop, small children carrying empty shoe boxes would come and ask us for money. For the most part they were harmless, but at least once we saw a group of young children blatantly rob someone at a café (and proceed to take off running, and then nonchalantly come back to size up other victims merely minutes later.

It was also Ramadan, which was an overall interesting experience. Several times each day (and night, and morning, very early in the morning) we could hear the traditional call for prayer echoing from one mosque to another. The near empty streets were suddenly crowded around sunset, as the games of cards and dice began while they awaited the feast. Parties were organised in large squares, where tables and folding chairs were set up and concerts prepared, so that the population could feast together, and in public.

Compared to the Macedonian side, the Albanian side was a bit run-down (but appearances can be decieving). The Macedonian side was much more modern, with a newly erected, gargantuan statue of the pride of Macedonia, Alexander, just being fine tuned and other statues sprouting up in his midst. The cafés were hip, but traditional food had been replaced with Italian fare. Right after the charming stone bridge was an immense square with the aforementioned statue, accompanied by several others and newly paved sidewalks, clean benches and a shopping center. However, once we strayed but a few blocks from this ‘modernised’ epicenter, we noticed that the general disorder we had noticed in the rest of Skopje was not at all contained to the Albanian side of the city. Gravel was found where roads should have been, sidewalks did not yet exist, cars were driving through fields because the existing roads were under construction…

All in all, the city is in limbo, stuck between insufficient resources and a president that invests in glorious statues instead of basic infrastructures.The level of segregation was also a bit unerving, and made me wonder how long the city could survive if such tensions existed, and the two sides couldn’t learn to live together. During our trip we met an Albanian girl and her friend, the Macedonian Jehovah’s witness. She explained that things were very complicated between the two cultures. The Albanians living there were mostly born there, and thus claimed a stake to this land, all the while refusing to speak Macedonian (although they learned it in school) and proudly proclaiming themselves Albanian. She even went as far as to say that they felt as though the Macedonians should learn and speak Albanian. I found this incredibly sad, although it didn’t affect our trip. Everyone we met from both sides of the river was nice, helpful and smiling. I think that in a few years’ time, Macedonia (and more particularly Skopje as Urhid with its gorgeous lakes already has a place within the tourist radar) will be a unique orient-meets-occident destination, if they can work with their different cultures instead of against them.

Highlights included dark beer in a beautiful garden terrace inhabited by cats and kittens alike (the city was overrun with stray cats and dogs that traveled in packs, begging for food like the children would peddle for money) and shadowed by the stunning Skopje fortress, finding a francophone Macedonian Jehovah’s witness (who also speaks Italian, English and Albanian) who set us up with a very honest taxi driver and a fabulous destination, the Matka Canyon and our ensuing 3 hours there, cocktails on the rooftop of the Arka hotel and hearing the eerily beautiful call to prayer echoing through the Skopjian sunset.

The biggest disappointment was the food! I had nothing I could qualify as local or authentic (apart one kebap-style meal in the Albanian neighborhood). This was mostly due to the heat (35°C) and thus our general lack of desire for anything food-related that didn’t involve ice cream, and also to J’s hesitant nature when it comes to food, especially in foreign countries. No complaints though, because what we did eat was very, very cheap. For 800 denars (a little over 13€), we both had several beers, appetizers, main dishes, digestifs, bottled water, etc., which was a welcome change from the sky-high prices in Paris and France in general. The hotel’s continental breakfast was probably the most interesting food experience we had. They served pasta, sausages and cabbage in the morning, along with cans of tuna and dehydrated soup mix in case you were feeling the need for a liquid pick-me-up in the morning. Luckily the sweet side of things made up for the lunchy feel of breakfast, with all kinds of local pastries and delicious home-made jams.

I highly enjoyed Skopje, especially considering I was being paid to be there and never would have seeked this place out had it not been for my company. However, my general contentment with this city was nothing next to my ecstatic giddiness after setting foot in Slovenia. After only 8 hours in this lovely, darling country with its overly nice and welcoming inhabitants, I had not only already planned next summer’s vacation (driving tour through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia) but was wondering out loud about the price of real estate. Charming to the max right out of the airport gate, the high peaks of the nearby ski resort filled me with whimsy. A first encounter with a helpful young Slovene did nothing but lighten my mood. The cab ride through the thick green forest where from time to time I would spot a small church nestled among the trees on a hill-top did nothing less than wet my appetite. This was the cutest cab ride I had ever been on, but what would the city be like? A dream, that’s what. I fell in love with it immediately.

First off, it’s tiny, just like the country it belongs to. As
we poured over the city map once out of the cab, we decided to just wing it and were pleasantly surprised that everything, even Tivoli park, which seemed to be on the city’s outskirts, was very easily accessible by foot. We were able to see damn-near everything in the few hours that we had, all while walking and taking in all the sights at our own pace. It also had a kind of small-town feel to it that I hadn’t felt in a city in a long time. Of course, we were there on a Sunday, but I felt as though everyone, tourists and locals alike, was able to cohabitate and take full advantage of the beautiful sunny weather without the hustle and bustle that characterises most cities.

Secondly the people are amazing! From all of the cheerful restaurant employees to the cute old guy selling antique instruments at the market who insisted on demonstrating his skills with an accordion to the world’s cutest and chatty cabby on our way back to the airport, I could just tell that the Slovenes were a hospitable and happy people. Plus, so many of the older women had bright burgundy-colored hair, which I thought was adorable. I found myself just walking around and smiling: at people, at my boyfriend, at buildings and little birds and dogs… I just felt good there.

We unfortunately didn’t find any of the tradition burek (a pizza-ish snack), but did eat at a lovely restaurant next to the river, recommended by our new Slovene friend from the airport. I can’t remember the name in Slovene, but it translated to the old cat. The waiter there was young, hip and adorable. He served us modern food like a marinated shrimp salad with mango and oranges in a yogurt sauce and more classic fare like a local ribeye with summer vegetables. For dessert I had a delicious banana and pineapple tiramisu.

After food, more sightseeing and a coffee punctuated by the sounds of an opera singer who was meandering up and down the river on a small boat, with a man accompanying her on a sort of mandolin-looking instrument. We were desperate to take it all in and to not miss anything, and I think the photos will prove that we accomplished that goal.

We didn’t encounter any metro system, but there doesn’t seem to be any need for one. We easily transitioned from one side to the other, passing through brightly decorated streets, visiting the castle perched atop of the city and stopping off for an iced coffee, gingerino or milkshake whenever our legs were failing us or our thirst got the best of us. I would highly recommend Ljubljana, and all of Slovenia from what I’ve seen so far. From its 40-some kilometers of coast to its ski resorts and mountain ranges, rolling hills and valleys and underground cave system, this little country seems to be packed full of everything any tourist could ever want. And the best part? The Slovenes are so happy to share it all with us.

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One thought on “In transit

  1. Pingback: 2011 was a good year… | à l'américaine

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