As Greece is still closed off to us, this time instead of going south, we head east (it’s like a giant Pacman game). This is a great first for us because it takes us out of the European Union, into one of the former Yougoslavia countries. The one where Alexander the Great came from. The one that recently changed its name in 2019. Okay, I’ll stop beating around the bush, it’s the Republic of Northern Macedonia, very precisely, so as not to shock the Greeks. With its sunny flag!
The surprise moment: the border
On a Wednesday morning with a grey and threatening sky like any other day at the end of January, we get ready to cross the border. After a small mocking smile from the Bulgarian customs officer at the sight of my 4 first names, we reach the Macedonian customs. The gard doesn’t pay any kind of attention to my first names but rather to the validity date of our green insurance card, 31/12/2020. Yes, we don’t have the new sticker for 2021 because we’ve been on the road since mid-October. We try to negotiate a little and show him that we are indeed insured but in vain, impossible to go through without the paper.
The solution: buy an insurance, here, on the spot, to be able to enter the country. For the little joke, we can’t go back and change our destination because we now need a negative PCR test to enter the EU. Ok, we buy the insurance, 60€ for 14 days (a bit expensive but we have no choice) “can we pay by card?”, no “only cash”… it gets even more complicated. He proposes to call us a taxi so that we can go to the nearest village with an ATM, then finally he gets the idea to do some cash back with the mini-market of the no man’s land. Saved! We are now doubly insured to face the roads of this country smaller than Belgium for the next 14 days and not one more.
The heart of the salad
In less than 2 hours, we are already in the capital, Skopje. Not that the road to get there is uninteresting, far from it. We drove through superb landscapes, small terrassed mountains with many shades of green, surrounded and detoured by rivers and meanders. It looks a bit like a landscape one could see in South-East Asia, or at least as I imagine it to be. The problem is essentially that it has been heavily raining all day and it was impossible to do anything else but drive.
On the way, we discover the ravages of erosion in this country and make a mental note to be very careful to avoid the big stones that have gently rolled down onto the road.
Northern Macedonia is home to 2 million people and almost one in four lives in Skopje. We discover that it is also the country of mother Teresa, with a dedicated museum and an express road. Here we find bars, restaurants, everything is open with a curfew at 9pm so it’s true that we don’t hesitate one second. But Skopje is not only cocktails at 2,5€ no, no, far from there.
The next day, we visit the museum of the uprisings of the Macedonian people (set between the 18th and 20th centuries), first against the Ottomans and then during the Yugoslavian regime, very interesting and full of wax figures – we even met Lenin.
The rest of the monuments are rather surprising, with large Roman statues and buildings with Greek colonnades that look very recent. All this is right next to the bazaar, its caravanserai, its thousand bridal shops and its mosques. According to Wikipedia, all this is the result of an urban development plan completed in 2014, with the aim of rebranding the city to make it look more like a Western capital. They drew their inspiration from everywhere 🙂
The sun finally comes back, the time to go discover the surroundings of Skopje. We start with the Matka canyon, a must-see. The first of the many canyons and lakes in Northern Macedonia, a resolutely aquatic country even if it must be very hot in summer here.
Our journey continues along the mountains that separate us from Kosovo. We arrive in the Mavrovo National Park which has and shares with Albania the highest peak in the region, Mount Korab, 2764m. We won’t really have the opportunity to see it up close as it is still partially snowed in and we slowly go down through mountain gorges until we reach a small lodge where we will stay for a couple of days and which gives us a great view of the Debar lake.
In terms of activities in this park, we enjoyed the landscape which changed at every twist and turn of the windy roads, but we also visited one of the most beautiful Macedonian orthodox monasteries, that of Saint John the Baptist.
There are hot springs too, well a hotel-spa which exploits thermal springs, but when we arrive in front of the door, it seems closed and we don’t even try to push the door finally because the smell of rotten eggs is unbearable!
Finally, this little break in the mountains ends with a rather memorable stormy night – a full-blown summer storm but in winter. After some doubts, everything is fine, no stone has fallen down from the mountain onto the car – but on the other hand, all hell brook loose on the road!
Fun fact : Did you know that we have a Macedonian salad in France (with peas, carrots, and mayonnaise)?
Wiki : This name, which appeared in France in the eighteenth century in the culinary field (“macédoine à la paysanne”), refers to Macedonia as a region where very diverse peoples coexist… In some countries, notably Italy, macédoine is a “Russian salad”. In Hungary and the Balkans, especially in Slovenia, it is called “French salad”...
It’s amazing how much we’ve been learning on this trip 😉