A Travellerspoint blog

Macedonia

Lake Ohrid and Skopje, Macedonia and Pristina, Kosovo

semi-overcast 15 °C

Lake Ohrid is over three million years old and Ohrid town is one of Europe's oldest settlements
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Even before we got to Pogdorac, Albania I was worrying about how we would get to Macedonia. Buses do not cross the border at Lake Ohrid.

I had read how people took one bus to the border, walked through customs, and looked for another bus on the other side.

The receptionist at our hotel spoke limited English. 'I will help you.' Our landlord in Tirana had given us a bottle of wine. We re-gifted it to the receptionist - thank you.
I remained skeptical when she walked us across the road and indicated we would catch the bus to the border there. To us it seemed the bus would be going the wrong way.
As she was heading back inside a car going the opposite direction stopped.
The girl and the driver spoke. 'Taxi' she told us. No evidence of a sign. She helped us negotiate a price, twenty Euros to the centre of Ohrid.

It was, I am sure, much easier to do it this way. We hopped in.

Support the underground economy.

It was about a forty five minute trip including a stop to drop off some fruit and the two stops at customs.
We never saw a bus as we progressed through the mountains.
Here there are hairpin turns. Not a relaxing drive.
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Once in Ohrid we went to a cafe with wifi and I booked an apartment for seventeen Euros a night. We wasted time waiting for the landlord to get back to us, he never did, and eventually we arrived and he was there waiting.

It is a homey little place with a balcony, on a plainer scale than the hotel across the pond in Albania.

We went for a late lunch at the neighbourhood cafe our landlord recommended. A big salad, bread and beef stew, traditional food.
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We had been lent a map, there seems to be a shortage, and headed to the UNESCO World Heritage Sight old town. It sits on a hill. Quite a steep climb:
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We turned back before we got to the top, it would be dark soon, we wanted to find our way back to the apartment in daylight.
As it was, I stopped to take a picture of roses, full blooms on a tree, and Jeff disappeared. I was lost for about ten minutes. Turns out our apartment building was right across the street and he had gone in, expecting me to follow.
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Eventually he came and found me. I have no sense of direction and poor observation skills!!

Tuesday, Nov 8 - we have had such wonderful weather. Today it is raining. We stopped twice for coffee on the way to the old town, trying to wait it out. Eventually we just bit the bullet and walked.

The fortress is from the eleventh century when Ohrid was the capital of Bulgaria.

We hardly saw any people, the streets were deserted, most businesses are closed, the 'season' is over.
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Near the highest point, overlooking the lake, is St Clements Church, the most sacred church in Macedonia:
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St Clement was a student of St Cyril as in Cyrillic. He was born in the ninth century and oversaw the construction of an Orthodox church in Ohrid. The original church at this location was a university where the Cyrillic alphabet was taught.
It is the oldest University in Europe in discontinued use. Ohrid is the cradle of Slavic literature.

Hundreds of years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of a Catholic Church in Germany in 1517, these guys were making the Bible available in the Slavic language.

Both the lake and the old town are UNESCO World Heritage Sights - one of only 28 sights with both the nature and culture designation worldwide!! And the only UNESCO World Heritage Sights in the Republic of Macedonia.

Even the main square, overlooking the port and the lake, is quiet.

Three dogs are resting on the grass, they look like rocks. Dogs and cats wander around like this in many Southeastetn European countries (like Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia)
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Lake Ohrid pearls are featured in shop windows. They are handmade using a secret emulsion from the scales of a fish native to Lake Ohrid, resulting in a particularly luminous pearl. Even Queen Elizabeth owns Ohrid pearls!!

We browse around.

It is a dreary, quiet day in what must be a busy place in the summer!!

Macedonia remained at peace during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
It has been independent since 1991.

Entrance to the EU has been blocked by Greece over objection to the name 'Macedonia.'

We took a three and one half hour bus ride from Ohrid to Skopje, 110 km.
Our landlord arranged for us to be picked up at a regular bus stop near our apartment and walked with us to make sure we got on the right bus!

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It was another very scenic, mountainous journey.

For the second time in the former country of Yugoslavia we passed a serious wreck, another car on its roof, just past a bend in the road.
These roads are very twisty, narrow, climbing up and down mountains. There is a lot of road work going on so improvements are being made.
The distance between Ohrid and Skopje is 110 km as the crow flies, 172 km by road. We were glad to be on a big bus as the minibuses seem more stomach-churning, perhaps more of a sway, plus they travel faster.
This is the nicest and cleanest bus we have taken in the Balkans.

The scenery is breathtaking although the view is often blocked by trees or the side of a mountain.
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On the outskirts of Skopje there is a river and in the river was a large dead animal, a cow, a deer or a moose, I couldn't tell what it was, but a disturbing sight. Yuk. Not an auspicious first impression. Garbage and litter are not confined to Albania, I saw a lot on the side of the road as we travelled, even high in the mountains.
The city centre is quite neat though.

Most of Skopje was destroyed by an earthquake in 1963. It is not a city of venerable old buildings.

In a city cluttered with statues stray dogs roam the streets.
We went on the free three hour walking tour that starts at the Mother Theresa statue daily at 10 am.
Along the main pedestrian walk on Macedonia Street seven large dogs with yellow ear tags followed our group, breaking off on occasion to chase a bike or bite cars. They bite on the metal or plastic near the wheel well, barking merrily, our guide has to stop talking because we can't hear him.
Animal rights groups seemingly want these dogs left as they are, running loose and free, relying on the kindness of strangers for food.
After a four year old child was killed by a stray dog early this year in another area of Macedonia there were many incidents of dog poisoning even in Skopje, followed by huge protests to protect the dogs.
We witnessed a man get out of his vehicle carrying a puppy pounder after three dogs chased and bit at his car - he did not actually hit a dog as our tour guide intervened and sharp words were exchanged.
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They have implemented the tagging system to monitor the strays. The tag indicates the dog has been vaccinated. A foreign system to us, our group is mesmerized - when we stop for a drink a few dogs lay down outside the cafe and then quickly follow along when the tour resumes.
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Mother Theresa statue on Macedonia Street, a pedestrian promenade in the city centre:
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Mother Theresa was born in Skopje. She went to Dublin at the age of 18 and trained as a nun. From there she went to Calcutta and the rest is history.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, where she was baptized in 1910, was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake. It was at this location that the 'Mother Teresa Memorial House' was opened in 2009. It consists of a Catholic Chapel and a small museum dedicated to Mother Theresa.

The Memorial House stands out from other recently constructed or refurbished buildings in central Skopje in both size and simplicity.
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Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu at about 18 years, before she travelled to Dublin to become a nun:
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The Catholic chapel is very simple and modern, decorated with filigree - a craft of Macedonia learned from the Turks during 500 years of Ottoman Rule.
Filigree is typically herbs, plants, vines. In the chapel version, symbols of doves for peace and fish (early Christian symbol that predates the cross) are incorporated within the filigree.
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The Warrior on a Horse, commonly known as Alexander the Great, dominates Macedonia Square:
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The first European style building constructed in the city in 1926, Ristik Palace, is located on Macedonia Square. It survived the 1963 earthquake and is today the picture of understated elegance in an over the top, architecturally, city.
It boasted the first elevator in the city, still in use today.
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About a block away a sign marks the spot where Mother Theresa actually lived. The house, along with 70 % of the city, was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake:
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Tumba Madzari was a matriarchy - on a bridge lined with too many statues, this one stands out, quite elegant:
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The Cult of the Great Mother Goddess was from about 6000 to 4500 BC. Times Up!! Although there seems to be a dispute if there ever existed a true matriarchy due to lack of recorded pre-history.

The old stone bridge is a relief for the eyes. Although rebuilt many times it seems authentic to the city where it has spanned the Vardar River for centuries:
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Karposh, a Christian outlaw who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks in 1689, is believed to have died on the Stone Bridge - he had been captured three days prior and was impaled but purposefully kept alive and awake until a molten crown was placed on his head to finish him off.
Our guide relayed this story and he is a historian. Below the stone bridge and to the right, is a statue of the Macedonian hero, Karposh, who led an uprising that eventually failed and was slowly executed by the Ottoman Turks to discourage dissent.
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The stone bridge connects Macedonia Square with the Old Bazaar.
The old bazaar on the east side of the river has been in operation since the twelfth century.
Kapan Han - reconstructed travellers' inn from the 1500s, located in the Old Bazzaar - now used for businesses.
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The Old Bazaar in Skopje is the largest Bazaar in the Balkans outside of Istanbul.
Turkish style restaurant in the old bazaar:
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The fortress, Kale:
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We are staying across the street from a very good Italian Restaurant with a nice patio and a good vibe so
we dine on traditional food at lunch and have Italian for dinner:
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Close to our apartment on Macedonia Street, in front of a shoe store, is a statue of a bull. I rub his nose hoping it brings me some kind of luck, hoping I will always be able to afford shoes! Just another example of Skopje's propensity for borrowing ideas and transplanting them -
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I like the Chelsea Girl statue across the street from the bull, life-size, not gigantic, whimsical.
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Macedonia Street, now a pedestrian promenade, was once Marshal Tito Street.

Macedonia was once in Yugoslavia. This, though, is recent history, a mere hiccup in thousands of years of history.

Recent history:

Ottoman Empire ruled from the fifteenth to twentieth century - 500 years.
Occupied by Bulgaria from 1915 - 1918
Ruled by communist dictator, Tito, from 1945 to 1980
Declared independence 1991.

From Sarajevo to Belgrade to Skopje Macedonia we heard Tito praised - he may have been a dictator but he was a charming dictator a young Bosnian woman stated.
It was better with Tito.
Who was this guy, Josip Broz, the leader of communist Yugoslavia?
He was born in Croatia to a poor Croatian father and Slovenian mother. He left school at an early age and trained as a locksmith. From this inauspicious start he became the leader of Yugoslavia.
He maintained contact with both Russia and the west during the Cold War and kept Yugoslavia separate from the Soviet bloc.
He was considered more benign than Enver Hoxha of Albania and Stalin of Russia.
The people we met and talked with in Macedonia, Bosnia and Serbia (an exquisitely small but very random sample) were nostalgic about the good old Tito years - it seems they had enjoyed a good quality of life and felt secure under his rule.
Can this be true?
Somehow he kept the tensions among the various groups in check and has been considered a pretty good guy. 128 countries sent representatives to his funeral.

Eleven years after his death the lid blew off and from one country, Yugoslavia, we eventually got 7: Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
Canadian troops, mostly deployed from Edmonton, stayed in Skopje during the Kosovo War. Ground troops were driven across the defile, into the war zone, along the steep mountain roads, mine sweepers leading the way.

On 10 November, a bright and hazy day, we took a mini bus from Skopje Macedonia along twisting, climbing, descending, climbing, mountain roads to Kosovo.
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Why Kosovo - it’s personal.
On the Macedonia side of the border three cows roamed around the parking lot.
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The mini bus rattled and squeaked its way along the two lane highway, not relaxing!! The driver passed the time talking on his cell phone.
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As we approached Pristina the landscape flattened out and we were on a freeway for a time.

Pristina has a population of 500,000.
The most famous building is the unique Library at the University. Designed by Croatian architect Andries Mutnjakovic to incorporate both Byzantine and Islamic styles, it is considered one of the world's ugliest building.
It was built in 1982 during communist times.
The style has been called Brutalist. A metal grid, kind of representing filigree, but more sinister, covers the concrete walls and has a functional element - to protect against sunlight.
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To the left of the monstrous library is the familiar shape of an Orthodox Church.

Construction started in 1995 but its completion was interrupted by the Kosovo War in 1999. In the intervening years it has remained in its unfinished state.

There is a dispute between the University and the Serbian Orthodox Church re land ownership. The fate of the church is under consideration. Students want to turn it into a bar or have it demolished. It has been part of the landscape for over 20 years.

Church of Christ the Saviour:
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I feel sad when I look at the abandoned church, the gold cross gleaming in the sunlight, tall grass all around. To the residents maybe it symbolizes victory, but it seems such a wasteland here in the city centre, right next to the University.
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Our apartment is very central. Although the stairwell and hallway of the building are littered with old flyers the apartment itself, is nice. 90 Euros for three nights, Duku’s Apartment.
We can see the distinctive spiked roofline of the Palace of Youth and Sport from our balcony:
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On November 11 we walked to the New Born monument - a typographic sculpture and tourist attraction unveiled when Kosovo became a country in 2008.
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The New Born Sculpture sits in front of the Palace of Youth and Sport, a communist era building from 1977, now a shopping centre and sports complex.

Across the street from the Newborn monument is Mother Theresa Park. 90 % of the people here are Albanian and, although born in Macedonia, Mother Theresa was of Albanian descent.

If you were here in 1999 - this is Pristina today:
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We were accompanied in the early afternoon of November 11 by a young woman who volunteered to drive us to Martyrs' Cemetary and the Ethnographical Museum of Culture.
What a nice thing for her to do!! She was a friend of our landlord and did the translating when we checked in.

She also brought me a gift - hand knit slippers, made by her grandmother.
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The workmanship is beautiful.
A real craft made by a real Kosovo/Albanian Muslim lady who lost daughters and grandchildren in the recent war. They were on an evacuation bus to Skopje - it was, inexplicably, a Serbian bus, that crossed a bridge that NATO blew up.

Kosovo War Memorial, deserted and desolate:
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Not a tourist attraction, some evidence of vandalism and neglect, forlorn.

Martyrs' Cemetary has fewer graves than one might expect but families wanted their loved ones close so not many agreed to bury them at this location. Our new friend, who had never been here before, was stunned to find the grave of someone she knew - the brother of one of her best friends.

We wanted to pay our respects, it was November 11 - Rememberance Day.

For a more uplifting experience we went to the Ethnographic Museum where an authentic Turkish house from the eighteenth century is intact - there are in fact two houses but the larger one is being renovated so we could only tour the smaller guesthouse.

Low, three legged chairs made from a single piece of wood circle a table with copper tajines on display.
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Water was brought to the sink from an outside well in jugs:
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There was a kind of central heat in this house, the owners were wealthy.
Ornate wood carving
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Eighteenth century deck overlooking the garden:
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We ate a traditional meal for dinner, Kosovo sausage. Before receiving this huge plate of filling food we were comped traditional bread with a yogurt and cucumber dip, very good. Portion size seem huge.

We like it here. People are friendly. It seems very western. We can order an Americano (coffee) almost everywhere although macchiato is more trendy.
They use our alphabet. There is an American University near the New Born monument. New Born is in English. Their currency is the Euro.
We are staying near Bill Clinton Boulevard.
Bill Klinton Boulevard:
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Mother Teresa Cathedral is located on Bill Klinton Boulevard near the University Library:

The population of Pristina is very young and many speak English.
They like NATO.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The name Kosovo is derived from a Serbian word meaning 'field of blackbirds.'
An apt name, there are thousands of blackbirds in Pristina. In the evening their singing drowns out our voices on the street.

Paul McCartney's tune from 1968 is persistently playing in my head;
'Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly...'

There is a place called Blackbird Fields near Pristina where, legend has it, a battle took place between the Serbs and the Ottomans in 1389. The Serbs were defeated in the end but they put up a good fight.

With a youthful population and a cafe culture Pristina boasts a lively nightlife - must be fun for international backpackers in the summer!!
Numerous coffee shops and bars line the streets and are great spots for people watching.

On 13 November we took the bus back to Skopje. Our friend arranged the taxi and the price was half of what we paid coming in - this guy used a meter. Two and a half Euros.
The taxi picked us up outside our apartment building on Rexhap Luci.
This is an interesting side street, fairly typical.
It has one lane for traffic and cars go both ways, and also park on both sides of the street, mostly on the sidewalk.
There are frequent traffic jams and it is almost as common for vehicles to be backing down the street as driving forward.
Today someone is parked in the driving lane. Eegads!! Everybody has to back up a block. In the meantime pedestrians are jaywalking to cross as well as walking on the road because cars are parked on the sidewalk. A general free for all. Still we made it to the station on time.

Bus fare for one person from Pristina to Skopje was 5 Euro 50 cents. They don't charge extra for luggage stowed underneath in Albania, Macedonia or Kosovo.

This time we got a big bus, comfortable and less scary than the van!

The first fifty minutes are through a plain, a flat area with mountain views:

Then there are twenty minutes of mountain gorges until we reach the border:

The 'defile' or narrow pass between mountains is breathtaking - the view is often obscured by trees or rocky outcropping. Very colourful this time of year!
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It takes about ten minutes at the border.
Everyone has already written down their name and ID number on a clipboard.
A guard collects passports at the Kosovo side, hands them back, then in 200 metres a Macedonian border guard repeats the process.

We have been picking up and dropping off all along the way. I am sitting by the central exit door. Random women in headscarves shake my hand before they exit.

Another twenty minutes in the mountains and we are in the outskirts of Skopje.
We have taken a round trip to Kosovo that thousands of soldiers took during the war. They bumped along the twisty mountain roads preceded by mine sweepers. NATO troops actually lived in Skopje and commuted to the war zone.

Now, when we see the first monuments in Skopje, we smile. Something familiar.
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We are back in Skopje and the monuments seem friendly, welcoming.

In a country of two million people, 500,000 live in the capital city.

We are staying in the same large one bedroom apartment we had before, clean, bright, great location on Macedonia Street for about 30 Canadian dollars per night.

After the devastating 1963 earthquake where more than 70 % of the city was demolished and over 1000 people died, England lent Skopje some red double decker buses for four years.
They were such a hit Skopje has acquired ten of its own red double decker buses since 2011.

There has been a concerted effort to manufacture tourist attractions in Skopje.
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We took the number 7 bus to the large and modern City Mall as we needed a few staples. This was a good bus to take since the mall is at the end of the line so quite straightforward.

We stopped for coffee on our way back and a macchiato and large slice of tiramisu cost four dollars. A bargain and a tasty treat!
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We love the location of our apartment and decided to venture beyond our usual Italian restaurant one night. We started out on the patio of an upscale restaurant right by the main square.
The patios have heaters and are kind of enclosed, still it was damp and chilly. We were offered a seat inside and enjoyed our supper there, warm and cozy!
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We strolled around Macedonia Square and the stone bridge after dinner. It had been an overcast day but not cold.

Skopje looks beautiful after dark. The huge buildings and massive monuments are softened.
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Porta Macedonia, Skopje's Arc de Triomphe, was completed in 2012:

It, too, looks better at night, where the impression that it has been randomly dumped in a parking lot is less obvious!
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Valentina Stefanovska designed both the Arch and the Warrior on a Horse (Alexander the Great) sculpture.

Macedonia Square is lively even at night and seems a great meeting point, connecting the stone bridge with the main pedestrian promenade.

Most of what we see is new, ten to twenty years old.
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Skopje has transformed itself recently and based on the number of cranes, the process is ongoing.

Following the earthquake of 1963 a transformation also took place. The Japanese architect who had redesigned post-war Hiroshima, Kenzo Tang, designed the city centre: modern, brutalist, clean, geometric.
The old train station has been left as it was following the earthquake with the clock fixed on the time the earthquake struck. It houses a kind of museum with information about the aftermath as well as some modern art and (possibly reproduction) pieces of antiquity.
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The plain Jane look of most of the centre has now been tarted up!! The 21st century makeover is heavy on baroque and neo-classical.
The makeover has been controversial - 'When I look at this excess,' one local told us, 'I feel so ashamed. I live in a Disneyland city, copy and paste. What next?'
Indeed.

Below, Alexander the Great is just to the right of the massive cross - the Millenium Cross on Vodno Mountain stands 217 feet tall (66 metres). Construction started in 2002 and it was basically completed by 2008.
To put this in perspective, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro stands 98 feet tall (30 metres).
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You can take a cable car to the top. We were satisfied to view it from afar, it is visible all over Skopje

The Millenium Cross is the fifth tallest cross in the world - Spain has the tallest and - this kind of surprised me - the fourth tallest is in Lebanon.

We have been lucky with the weather but on November 15 it rained all day,. We hid out in a coffee shop for an hour hoping it would ease up but no, now it was pouring!

The street dogs were out and about, accompanying a tour:
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We crossed over the Stone Bridge and walked through one of the most statue-dense squares.
The centrepiece statue is 29 metres tall, Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great's Father) was unveiled in 2012. The sculptor: Valentina Stevanovka - her name keeps popping up. She holds the Macedonian record for publicly commissioned artwork and until that happened nobody had ever heard of her. I am convinced there is more to this story.
None of the fountains are operational this time of year, it must be astounding in the summer!!
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Just behind the massive statue and fountain is the old town, the old bazaar.

The old bazaar, is a maze of streets and shops. Filigree is a specialty, there are numerous shops selling silver filigree and others specializing in Ohrid pearls as well as all manner of other shops, bakeries and cafes.

We bought a huge container of halvah, and enjoyed a cup of Turkish tea served in a glass with a wedge of lemon.

We stop for lunch and enjoy filling, traditional food including shopska salad, not shown. Price including a shot of spirits and tea was under ten dollars.

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I decided to look for souvenirs while Jeff, not much of a shopper, remained at the restaurant drinking tea.
I made a right and a left turn. Along the way a shopkeeper I had met earlier hailed me down and gave me a pink umbrella. It was pouring, rain was dripping off my hood into my eyes.
I could not find my way back to the restaurant - everything looked the same. Eventually I walked into a small bar and announced 'I'm lost. Does anybody speak English'
The girl behind the counter was dumb-founded.
A dripping wet, wild-eyes, mature ha! tourist was talking gibberish.

A couple of young guys, customers, came to my rescue.
Sit down. Where are you from?
I tried to explain about Jeff being at a nearby cafe, name unknown, and how I had to find him.
Could we call him, text him, email him, no - he is off the grid, sitting there, waiting.

I have a picture of the restaurant - or a small section of it - now a third man takes an interest and, hallelujah, recognizes the restaurant.

This is nothing short of a miracle:
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One guy says he will take me, I am relieved, ecstatic, but now we have walked almost to the Philip the Great statue and I know we have gone too far.
Not to panic, another of the original trio shows up and says he knows the way so we turn back and yes we got there but Jeff had just left, looking for me, they pointed the way, only two minutes ago. Very shortly I spotted him, called his name and waved my pink umbrella.
He was only mildly surprised to see his bedraggled mother in the company of two smartly dressed twenty somethings, waving a new accessory and quick-stepping towards him through the puddles.
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Well, it was an adventure! Jeff fails to see the humour but I have had a good laugh - and I imagine the people I encountered along the way have had one too.
I missed the perfect opportunity to pretend to be American! 'Where are you from?' And I said Canada.

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Na zdravje!

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 09:36 Archived in Macedonia Tagged mountains the monuments world heritage great budget unesco balkans yugoslavia ohrid alexander skopje macedonia affordable filigree kosovo pearls pristina shopska Comments (0)

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