a week in Skopje

well, not quite a week. It feels like longer though because I’ve been so busy. The keyboards don’t make it any easier: during the day I’m docked and typing on a local qwerty, but right now I’m using my laptop azerty keyboard. Don’t think this is a small detail, I can type blind on both but constantly have to focus on which keyboard I’m writing right now. It makes for an almost mindful experience..

Speaking as a tourist, I think the most exciting bits have passed. Saturday morning I joined the crowds for the running event. It included a full and half marathon and – most popular – a 5 km track, all starting from the Macedonia Gate and looping through the center of town. I joined a team of colleagues and walked part of the way, the stream of people running by was really impressive. Many streets were pedestrian only and I really enjoyed walking around without all the traffic. I spent the early afternoon organizing my Sunday: I would meet friends in Kiçevo in the early Sunday morning, to do a long hike up to the Dobra Voda peak, just over 2000m above sea level. The best way to travel the 110 km to Kiçevo is by bus, taking 2h20 and just two stops to get there. There are almost no train tracks here in Macedonia so the private bus companies have an extended network of routes. Anticipating a long and exhausting hike, I wanted to have a good nights sleep, so I arranged a last minute reservation at the one hotel in town and took the bus at 4.

I’m at the bus station waaaay ahead of time so I manage to snag the front seat with the best view. The bus is almost full when it leaves, a few people hop off and on at the few stops in Tetovo and Gostivar, but most stick with it all the way to the final destination of Kiçevo. The road is highway all the way to Gostivar and we make good time, but then we spend as long again doing the final third, winding our way up and up to the pass and then down again to Kiçevo in the next valley. I spend the time listening to the Dire Straits and Emiliana Torrine, before the winding gets too much for me and I have to focus full time on not getting too car sick. Near our destination I ask a girl sitting next to me if she knows where my hotel is, turns out she lives right next to it and she offers to guide me there, she is a studying IT and we chat about studying, work and how to connect the two.

After a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant I went to bed early, waking up many times in the night, either from somebody rattling my door (I presume a guest from the wedding downstairs looking for his room) or from the rain pounding the roof of the hotel. Not promising for the long walk.. Unsurprisingly come morning we had to cancel the hike: too much rain would make the path dangerous. Fortunately I have a friend in town and he picks me up to spend the day. We talk about history and politics until his partner is finished as an assistant in the local election office, then go to have lunch at restaurant Ilirida in Kjafa, must be one of the highest meals I’ve had in my life (excluding air plane fare). In the afternoon I visit the Kitino Kale park in the center of town, I had found some info online that it was inhabited in the bronze and iron age, but there are no signs of it in the park, a bit of a mystery. My friends give me a lift back to Skopje and I finish my Sunday with a book and a glass of local wine.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will be thinking that I missed an important event on this Sunday: the final round of the presidential elections. I try to look up some information about it online, but I don’t find much, even after the voting is closed. I think the progressive candidate won and that the turn-out was large enough to make it valid, but even now on Tuesday evening I’m not 100% sure and neither is the waiter I just asked about it.

The last excitement was planned for today: the visit of the catholic pope. An official website (see link here) gives at least practical info about which area will be secured and what the rules are for pedestrians, cars, etc. Late Monday afternoon the official word comes down that the office will be closed and my colleagues not working, but I persevered and left this morning on foot. A lot of police on the street even at seven thirty, guarding the square where the pope will lead a mass and the route he will take to visit the Mother Theresa museum. They are all very helpful and point out to me which route I can take to get to the office, it’s a sunny morning and I don’t mind the walk. I pass by the same spot where the running event started on Saturday, the contracts between the empty road now and the same road completely obscured by runners starting their challenge is bizarre.

The office is running on skeleton crew and I can get a lot of work done for my Belgian contacts in the peace and quiet. By the time I take a taxi back in the evening all road obstructions have been cleared and the driver leaves me right at the entrance to my hotel. An hour of exercise, a long shower, mushroom risotto and another glass of local wine – it really is very good.

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