Macedonia: Skopjing It Out

Because Kosovo is so small, the bus ride from Pristina to Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, takes only about 2.5 hours. There are regular buses (just about every hour) from Pristina to Skopje and you can buy a ticket from Pristina bus station on the day of travel for €5.50. Ths bus wasn’t even half full on the Sunday that I travelled. The journey was easy enough, though I was surprised and disappointed not to get a passport stamp in Macedonia. I was worried it might be a problem when flying out of Skopje – it wasn’t but I was still gutted not to add to my passport stamp collection.

The bus terminated at Skopje’s pretty big international bus station which is joined to the train station. There’s also an exchange office there which has a pretty decent rate and exchanges £. It’s nestled in between the ticket offices and I completely walked past it the first time. It was open on a Sunday too. After that, it was just a 2 minute walk to my hostel, Hostel Valentin 2, which was pretty decent as well.

Skopje’s a city that’s gone through a recent regeneration and it still seems to be rejuvenating itself. Even within the main central area, there are patches which feel quintessentially European and patches where they just seem to have dumped the leftover waste from the city’s restoration. My first impressions weren’t that great but the city definitely grew on me (especially because of the outstanding natural beauty nearby) and it does have a really good vibe.

Skopje’s iconic Stone Bridge

The central square area is where the city really comes to life, with a row of pubs and bars along the waterfront, the city’s famous Stone Bridge and Alexander the Great statue, alongside fountains and street performers. The whole place really comes to life at night when everything is lit up and because of the warm summer evenings, families and groups would stay out wandering until the small hours. It’s a  brilliant people watching spot, especially nestled in at one of the bars with a glass of £1.50 or less Skopsko beer.

The centre of the city is very contained so all the sights are within walking distance. Walking past the Alexander the Great statue and across the road, you come to a memorial house for Macedonia’s most iconic figure, Mother Teresa. Further down along the river, there’s also the huge City Park, at which there was some sort of music festival going on when I visited and there was a great vibe.

Across the Stone Bridge, I also walked over to Kale Fortress which gives you really stunning views over the city. It’s free to get in and was still open in the evening so I could catch sunset over Skopje. I think it was seeing the city from this vantage point that made me start to warm to it so much more – seeing the city nestled amongst the hills gave a bit of perspective.

Kale Fortress

I didn’t find Macedonia to be quite as cheap as Serbia or Kosovo but it was still easy to find good food for very little. There are lots of restaurants dotted round the central area but I was also pleasantly surprised to find another buffet type restaurant in the large Vero shopping complex about a 5-10 minute walk away from the centre. On the top floor, there’s a restaurant where you pick the food you want then get your plate weighed and pay according to the weight. I found a similar place in Wroclaw, Poland and I think it’s a great way to try some of the local food using sight and smell rather than trying to guess the Cyrillic. It was cheap too, with my plates on my two visits averaging out at about 200 MKD (£2.70) including a bottle of beer.

On my final night in Macedonia, I was effectively stranded in Skopje for a while since I was flying back to London from Skopje airport at 6am. The airport bus is timed to coincide with departing flights so I couldn’t catch the bus until around 2am yet I arrived back to Skopje from Ohrid around 9, giving me a few hours in the city. I don’t think I could have picked a better night to be there. After grabbing some food, I headed to the main square to find a street performer festival going on. It wasn’t quite Covent Garden but it was pretty entertaining. They ranged from the good to the downright awful. One German performer resorted to screaming and swearing at the crowd when his act didn’t go quite to plan.

Central Skopje

On the other side of the Stone Bridge, there was some sort of folk dancing competition going on with representatives from different countries performing. There was a great atmosphere everywhere and I stayed there until well past midnight. It started to merge into a music festival later on too with a stage being set up and various bands performing. I don’t know if it’s because it was a Saturday or because it was summer or it was just a one off thing but I’ve never seen so much stuff going on in such a small area.

In terms of the airport bus, it was relatively simple. You can catch the bus from either the international bus station or the Holiday Inn close to the Irish bar in the centre. I went to the bus station so I could chill. It’s run by Varder Ekspres and the timetable can be found here. It’s not a regular service but is just designed to coincide with the arrivals and departures. The ticket, costing 175 MKD, is bought on board. The international bus station is pretty big and it wasn’t very clear where to wait. I’d have more than likely missed it if I hadn’t asked the ticket office (which was still manned in the middle of the night) at the last minute. Adjacent to the bus/train station is a busy main road with the railway line going above it. The bus stops on this road outside the blue and yellow ZEGIN pharmacy. It takes about half an hour from here to the airport.

Skopje definitely grew on me and there’s plenty to do there. But what makes it extra special are the city’s nearby attractions…

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