Snapshots of a Stray Cat in Macedonia
For reasons unknown but time will tell Cat disappeared. She fell into a watery portal and found her feet soaking in Lake Ohrid. As the sun rose over Macedonian fishermen catching their daily drinking allowance, she reflected upon labours left unfinished in the Tees Valley. Countless abandoned stories were floating down the River Tees. She spit out another olive pit and watched as the nut vendor unpacked bags of pistachios and almonds on the promenade. It was time to leave Macedonia behind, the wine, Skopsko and sunburnt smiles, and trace her way back to icy North Eastern shores. Where she would cast her rod anew and catch some words.
Below is a series of snapshots capturing something, if not nearly enough, of a mesmerising country: its exquisite landscapes, hospitable people and intriguing history. A must on any serious traveller’s list of destinations.
Snapshot 1 - Skopje
Skopje, Macedonia's capital, is an ancient coin: you'll find that one side - let's call it the head - is polished, an unscathed gold that shimmers whenever it catches the light; and the other side - the tail - is rusty, a dull and dented bronze. Valar morghulis.
Shimmering grandeur of a new Skopje
The new town centre - its mosaic patterns, dainty street lamps, marble floors, fountains and statues - is like dark chocolate fondant melting in tourists’ eyes. It's a recently renovated mix of neo-classical edifices painted over once original historical buildings where you can take your pick of a range of shiny bistros, cafés and restaurants and sky-high prices to match the beautiful sterile surroundings.
Be prepared to bump into Alexander the Great around every corner
On the otherside of Skopje you'll find the Old Town. Walk up the cobbled streets of the city's ancient beating heart, passing several wooden daises with benches where locals gather, sipping their Turkish tea and nibbling on a piece of pastrmajlija or a slice of pizza. There you'll pass one wooden sign after another announcing a place to sleep, to eat and linger in the midst of local hospitality. A place where time slips by unheeded.
Cat listens to the patter of rain while looking out at the wet cobble stones and the lighted sign of the opposite café. Steam drifts from her cup of Turkish tea. A puddle of rain is forming on the wooden table next to her. A group of musicians rushes past. A beggar selling a pack of tissues. Another group of musicians is sitting close-by. Violin notes start drifting through the voices and laughter of other customers.
Snapshot 2 - Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid cannot be described, it can only be lived and even more so when the water is warm enough for a swim.
Early morning jogs on the promenade. Late afternoon strolls. Melting gelato with cocktail-inspired names — “one scoop of Blue Hawaii and Mojito please!”
Cat's favourite part of the day: Ohridean Sunsets
Dip your feet in the thick chilly water and feel what it’s like to have a footbath in vodka straight from the freezer
New coffee muse: Turkish coffee - particularly refreshing as a midmorning treat in one of the numerous cafés overlooking the Lake
Best leisure exercise: hiking up to St Jovan at Kaneo and exploring various ancients parts of the town on the way down
Snapshot 3 - Authentic Transport
Would you like to experience the Macedonian equivalent of a Southern African taxi ride? Would you like to shed your touristy skin and have an authentic transport experience? Then be sure to choose the Classic Company (Klasik Kompani Struga) bus service between Skopje and Ohrid.
Here is what to do:
Step 1: Buy tickets from Skopje Bus Station
Step 2: Buy Bitolski drinking yoghurt and oat biscuits for the road
Step 3: Anxiously watch the driver squash your suitcase into the minibus
Step 4: Pick one of the comfy seats
Step 5: Be prepared to sweat and enjoy the landscape while holding your breath (Warning: driving might seem reckless at times but rest assured the driver is in full control)
If you prefer a comfortable, air-conditioned, tourist-approved experience choose one of the other companies (like Vardar Express).
Snapshot 4 - Boutique Hotel Villa Lav
Boutique Hotel Villa Lav is that one elderly, yet effortlessly chic relative whose eyes always seem to betray deep secrets buried underneath her graceful exterior. Tucked away in a tranquil residential neighbourhood, perhaps too far away from Skopje’s Head for most travellers, it becomes a home the minute you are welcomed by the hotel manager. Besides the spacious, elegant rooms, the impressive art work and the considerate staff, what makes this hotel worth going back to is its untold history, particularly evident in the cellar where the world's best breakfast is served.
Previous residence of an old, well-known Macedonian family whose history is layered in the bricks of the Breakfast Cellar's walls. The hotel's original owner became a political prisoner shortly before Cat's arrival.
Cat blissfully helped herself to the ample breakfast spread: muesli, fruit, yoghurt, omelettes, olives, sliced tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, deli meats, Macedonian style canapés, baklava, tulumbi and other traditional sweet treats
Snapshot 5 - Slavomacedonian Cuisine
From time to time the memory of Macedonian food— that remarkable combination of Balkan and Mediterranean ingredients, the delicate and spicy flavours absorbed in the freshest vegetables, herbs and fruit and mixed to perfection — pops into Cat’s head as she takes yet another bite of Quorn.
Breakfast — a bowl of fleshy black olives, bowl of ajvar, a slice of toast, a platter of crudités - sliced cucumber, tomato and Macedonian peppers - boiled eggs and a selection of cheeses.
Lunch — an assortment of fresh vegetables and fruit bought at the bazaar for under 50p, a bottle of Bitolski milk, some olives and a deliciously oily spinach and feta burek.
Dinner — too many specialities, too many funky words, too many memories...
Wine — tasting Macedonian wine is like sampling the elixir of life. Surely it would rank amongst the best wine in the world and yet it remains unknown and hard to come by outside of Macedonia.
And so with two bottles of that sweet Macedonian elixir under each arm and a bag full of regrets, Cat made her way back to her new home.