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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 2,050,554 Area: 25,333 sq km Gov't: Parliamentary Democracy Religion: 64.7% Macedonian Orthodox, 33.3% Muslim, View Map
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, November 16, 2003  

Macedonian Flag MACEDONIA


November 15. SOFIA - LAKE OHRID  Our bus to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, left at 8:00 in the morning.  Angela, the Canadian woman, joined us.  We were all a bit unclear about where to find the bus station so we just hopped into two cabs.  Angela's and Lesley's cab sped off before our cab could get himself together so we ended up getting dropped off in a different place.  Fortunately we didn't have too much trouble find each other.  The bus station was a very informal place, more like a parking lot with a shed nearby for ticket sales.  We got there in time to catch our 8:00 bus.  It was a short ride to the border but the bus still had to make a breakfast stop along the way.  Lesley and Rob got off to buy some snacks and found a rat sized Chihuahua puppy hopping about the floor of the cafe/market.  But, by the time I went to see it they owners had put in the back room, probably to protect against it getting squashed or having a heart attack from over excitement.  

When we reached the border we were all made to get off of the bus and collect our bags from the stowage compartment.  They had us queue up along side each other with our bags as the customs officials made their inspection of us and the inside of the bus.  Out of all of the people in the line-up only Angela was picked out to have her bag searched.  They took her aside and appeared to treat her professionally as they felt around in her wheelie bag but it was suspicious that the only non-white person there was singled out for a customs search.  She was more well dressed than the average person on our bus and I couldn't see any reason other than her ethnicity that would have provoked them to search her over some of the other people on our bus.  In fact we all knew that the ticket guy on our bus was actively smuggling cigarette cartons by hiding them in chunks across all corners of the bus.  Lesley gave us a sideways look when he sat behind her and slipped a half carton underneath her seat.  When we reached the Macedonian border we had to undergo the same sort of search but it went more quickly.  We positioned Angela between us and told her to have her Canadian passport readily visible when they came past.  They singled out some other people carrying random plastic bags full of stuff instead.  When they were finished we weren't allowed to re-board the bus but they let us stuff our bags back underneath while the bus passed through the immigration line and picked everyone up again about 50 feet away.  It was one of the more peculiar and scrutinizing border experiences that we had undergone so far.   

We actually arrived in Skopje a bit ahead of schedule and were greeted by some large mosques as we entered the city.  Macedonia is a mixture of Muslims and Orthodox Christians.  The mosques initially gave the city an exotic feel but it was a very gray and dreary place.  After passing through the Islamic area we arrived at a bus station near the center of the city, along a wide river that seemed to separate Skopje's Islamic area from its Christian area. The area surrounding the bus station was very dilapidated and the architecture was pretty ugly.  Taxi drivers immediately pursued us and were persistent for about a block before falling away.  Lesley was caught by a cheeky shoe shine who reached over and dabbed a bit of place polish on her toe, hoping she would let him finish the job for a fee.  

Somewhere near the bus station was supposed to be a tourist information center but we found it closed and it didn't look like it had been for some time.  We then failed again at finding a place to change our, supposedly convertible, Bulgarian currency.   Already getting a bit discouraged we encountered two Australians getting off a bus from Kosovo.  Angela knew them from a hostel somewhere else on her trip.  They were completely relieved to be out of Kosovo and had disconcerting stories to tell about their brief time there.   They had come right down through Mitrovica where hostilities were known to still be happening and if the torn up sight of things didn't disturb them enough the loud M80 firecrackers that they kids were letting off under the cars didn't help the situation. They also went in without any euros, also not a good idea, and couldn't find a way to exchange money so they could leave.  They were fortunate to find a nice Kosovo man who had spent time in Australia and loaned them the money to get a hotel room and bus ticket to Macedonia.  They had clearly made some bad choices but they still had us all reconsidering our plans to visit Kosovo.

Our initial plans were to get over and visit Lake Ohrid, on the western side of Macedonia, and then we would decide about Kosovo.  We didn't feel there was any good reason to spend time in Skopje so we decided to head on to Ohrid that afternoon.  That left us with our bags to deal with and not much to do for several hours.  We consulted our guidebooks and found an Irish pub somewhere on the opposite side of the river.  A couple of local business men saw us looking lost and stopped to help us with directions.  We just had to cross the nearby pedestrian bridge and head down the bank a few blocks before we found it - Guinness signs a-blazing.  

We arrived at the pub around 1:00 and it gradually swelled with people while we sat tucked off to one side with our bags stuffed around us.  The pub was in the perfect image of an Irish Pub with a big wooden bar and wood floors.  We took turns running out to exchange money and look for an ATM.  The food was excellent and a welcomed change from our Eastern European diet.  Lesley was in heaven with her Guinness.  The table next to us filled us with a group of American military men who had come down from Kosovo.  Two were from the south, one from Kentucky and one from Tennessee, and even this far from home they extended their southern hospitality.  They offered us some good advice on where to go in Macedonia and Kosovo.  They referred to a "spook" friend that had advised them to stay away from Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia, where some conflict still persisted with Albanian separatists. We had heard that as well but they said that taking the bus past the area on our way to Lake Ohrid would be fine.  They said they were Apache helicopter engineers but you never really know with the military.  They could have been spooks from the CIA themselves but it was none of our business anyway.  They gave us the business card of the place they liked staying at in Ohrid, the name of a good boat guide, and introduced us to a reliable taxi driver that they used in Skopje who was also hanging out in the pub.  They were working in Kosovo so we trusted their advice over the Australians that we had just encountered.  They told us to avoid Metrovica but otherwise most of the country had been relatively peaceful and had some nice places to visit.  They claimed to be apache helicopter engineers but who knows.  It is not really the business of the military to go around talking about what they are doing.  We appreciated their advice and recommendations and started feeling better about our plans to go to Kosovo. 

We enjoyed the comfort of the pub so much that we ended up taking a later bus to Ohrid than we originally planned.  Angela decided to stay the night in Skopje and had found herself a place to sleep but would probably meet up with us in Ohrid in a few days.  We caught a 4:00 bus out of Skopje and, in contrast to how we entered the city, we passed a huge cross lit up on the hillside as we left.   The bus ride was comfortable but as it grew dark outside they left the lights on inside the bus and we remained very aware of our visibility for the entire trip.  We never heard any gunshots as we passed Tetovo but became more relaxed once we knew that we had gotten past the area.  At one point I heard a snap go off near the bus and suspect that some pranksters had thrown an M80 our direction as we passed.  They were harmless but the noise in a country with residual unrest was unnerving.   We only made one quick rest stop and pulled into Ohrid at about 7:00.

The little town of Ohrid was very lively with charming white little buildings. It was a welcomed change from the ugliness of Skopje.  The bus station wasn't far from downtown so we walked to the main pedestrian area to find a pay phone and try our luck at finding a place to stay.  The place recommended by the American guys was already booked up for the night but we found another place without much trouble.  It was back past the bus station a few blocks but in a nice residential area and run by a friendly woman and her family.  Rob and lucked out with a cozy room on the top floor.  Lesley got the last single room down on the bottom floor.  Glad to have a decent place to stay for the night we unloaded our bags and went out in search of food.  The options were disappointingly limited - mostly fast-food stuff like pizza, hotdogs, burgers, etc.  After wandering around a bit we settled on a cheesy looking place along the pedestrian area called the Pink Panther.  The decor was appropriate, naturally with unauthorized use of the cartoon character, and the food unexceptional but it was cheap. 

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24