Balkans                                          2016

Balkans 2016 Albania Kosovo Macedonia

Balkans - Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia - 2016


Being Sunday, the streets of Priština were strangely quiet this morning as we prepared to leave the city and drive south to Macedonia.  Unusually quiet streets mean unusually easy parking, so we decided to make one last visit in Priština before we departed.

Our destination was the statue of Bill Clinton that has been erected on Bill Klinton Boulevard.  Unveiled by none other than Bill Clinton in 2009, the statue was intended to be a gesture of thanks to the United States for its support in Kosovo’s war of independence.  The statue was not in an especially prominent location, and it was smaller than I had expected (although the head seemed quite large in comparison with the body).  I’m sorry if readers are upset by this, but I have to say it: in terms of impressiveness, the 20 metre high bronze statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang makes Bill Clinton in Priština seem almost comically insignificant.

What especially tickled my fancy was that just a few doors away from the statue is a formal dress store named “Hillary”.  It has an impressive store window display of long, formal dresses, but there is not a pants suits to be seen.  I guess it’s true that “Hillary will always be there beside Bill”.

We left Priština at about 9:30am and headed south towards Macedonia, making just three stops; two to inspect some avalanche fences that had been damaged by avalanches (never a good sign), and one to walk around a war cemetery of ethnic Albanians who had been killed in the 1998-99 war of independence.  Located in a rural area to the north of Kachanik, the cemetery was one of the most impressive I had seen in Kosovo, with a striking mural at the top of a hill overlooking about a hundred graves, each inscribed with a portrait of the deceased martyr, to the left of which was a white pebbles map of Kosovo overlain with a massive Albanian flag that almost covered the hillside from top to bottom.

We reached the border at 11:00am.  The crossing was fairly painless, though not as quick as the previous crossing from Albania into Kosovo.  The queue of cars was a little longer, and I also had to buy a mandatory ‘green card’ for vehicle insurance.  Nonetheless, we were on our way within 15 minutes, passports stamped this time (unlike the previous border crossing).

Although our destination for the day was Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city, we took the orbital by-pass road and headed east for the one and a half hour drive to Kratovo.  Located in the north-east of Macedonia, in the Osogovski Mountains, Kratovo is a village in a burnt-out volcanic crater with steep, cobble-stone streets, a network of high stone bridges crossing
the River Tabačka that flows through the middle of the village, and six ancient defensive stone towers that date back to the era of King Larpoš in the late 1600s.
The stone bridges were needed because the sides of the deep ravine through the town were so steep.  Even though they date from early Ottoman times, which means the early 1400s, they are still used today for motor vehicles as well as pedestrians.  Walking around Kratovo was sheer joy.  Although the streets and paths were steep, the air was clean
and fresh, the city was totally devoid of concrete Communist-era housing blocks, and we were the only visitors in town today (Kratovo is rarely visited even in what Macdeonia optimistically calls its ‘peak season’).

After a few hours exploring, we returned to our car for the drive back into Skopje — a journey downhill that our little Dacia Stepway seemed to enjoy far more than the earlier more arduous trip up into the mountains.  We arrived at about 4:15pm and found our way easily to our hotel despite some heavy rain showers in Skopje.  Our stay tonight and tomorrow night are at the Holiday Inn, enjoying the benefits of a free stay using points.

The hotel is located on the southern bank of the River Vardar right near the city centre, which made it a wonderful starting point for a walk around the city.  Despite the overhead clouds and the threat of rain, we decided to take a walk along the banks of the Vardar and into the city centre.

The walk was quite a revelation.  In an effort to transform Skopje from a backwater Yugoslav provincial city into a city worthy of the label ‘national capital’, the Macedonian authorities initiated a program called ‘Skopje 2014’ in 2011.  This urban renewal program involved levelling a large area on both sides of the River Vardar and building several enormous ornate (some might say ‘kitsch’) public buildings, with a riverside walkway and several bridges featuring 120 statues of prominent Macedonians.  Supporting Macedonia’s claim that Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, brass plaques featuring portraits of Mother Teresa and her quotes are found on walls throughout the redeveloped zone.  Apparently the Skopje 2014 urban renewal program has cost about €100 million, and it has been quite controversial, as seen by the splashes of brightly coloured paint that deface many of the government buildings in the zone.  The only other place where I have seen anything like this grand scale of urban redevelopment in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, which features a similar architectural style on an even grander scale.

Our zig-zag walk finished in Makedonija Square, which featured a huge statue of “A Warrior on his Horse”.  Despite the generic description, everyone knows the 24.5 metre high statue (of which 10 metres is the supportive cylindrical column) is really Alexander the Great, after whom Skopje’s airport and motorway are named.  Apparently, it is a bit too sensitive politically to label the monument in Makedonija Square as Alexander the Great because of sensitivities expressed by Macedonia’s southern neighbour, Greece, which also claims Alexander as its own son.  Surrounding the statue are extensive fountains, some of which change form and play music, much to the delight of children who seem attracted to the water like moths to light.

It was almost 6:00pm when we decided to have dinner at a small café called Bake Caffe.  It was terrible, so we followed up with some superb ice creams from London Pub.  We returned to the hotel as the skies darkened before venturing out again at 8:15pm to see the floodlighting on the buildings.  At night, the buildings looked impressive (which I am sure was the intention), colourful, and no less kitsch than during daylight.

Skopje is an interesting city — relaxed, different and definitely idiosyncratic.  I really like it.


Day 7 - Priština to Skopje via Kratovo, Macedonia

Sunday 5 June 2016