Day 35 We crossed the border with ease and made steady progress into Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia.
Initially, we were blown away by the city’s sense of grandeur. The main square felt like a smaller version of Piccadilly Circus; large billboards and advertisements plastered over buildings; a large water fountain marked its centre with an over the top statue of Alexander the Great; and replicas of famous global landmarks dotted the cityscape. Having done no prior research, we sat in a bar next to the square and gave the city a Google. It turns out Skopje was named ‘the Disneyland of Europe’ by the Washington Post, due to a large gentrification project by the previous North Macedonian government.
We learnt that the city is a facade. The statues are hollow, the marble is fake (even though the country’s biggest export is marble), and imitations of ancient architecture were built with no planning permits, so the buildings are sinking into their foundations.
The result of the government's spending spree is, unfortunately, an eroding vanity project. That being said, the city is incredibly picturesque and worth spending time in. Go, before it sinks or rusts.
Day 36 We met our tour guide, Alex, at 9.30am and he confirmed everything we had researched the day before. He strongly disagreed with the gentrification project and said most felt the same. The tour took us to the main areas of the city, including the old train station which was partly ruined by a large earthquake in the 70s. The clock, which hangs from the station’s main wall, stopped at 3.15pm, the exact time the earthquake hit. The clock has been left as a memorial to those who died that day.
After lunch, Alex drove us out of town to see the canyon – by far the best thing we had done in the city. Its crystal clear waters were reminiscent of the rivers we passed in Bosnia. We then grabbed the cable car to the Vodno Mountain summit, a peak with views of Albania, Greece and Kosovo.
We spent the evening in Skopje’s “bohemian” quarter and planned the next couple of days.
Day 37 Having taken Alex’s advice on seeing more countryside, we planned a route that was both scenic and went in the direction of Greece. A nice compromise, I thought.
The road out of Skopje took us past fields of poppies and perfectly laid tarmac. This didn’t last long though. As soon as we left the main road, the tarmac quickly turned to gravel. The issue here is that my bike is not made for off-roading. I spent most of the time worried about the number of spokes that would need replacing afterwards. I was so concerned about the bike that I ignored the tortoise crossing our path.
The trail was 15 miles long – with much of it being a hike-and-bike affair. It was 32C, we had run out of water and had little food with us. It was at this point when Joe turned to me and said, “Ed, are we in Bear Grylls territory?”.
Back on tarmac, we raced to the small town of Veles. We sat in the sun and enjoyed a couple bowls of pasta whilst reflecting on our close encounter with heat stroke, exhaustion, dehydration and hunger. A few hours later, we hadn’t moved, so resigned to the fact that we’d be staying there for the evening.
Day 38 The first 25 miles were incredible, a combination of great pace and slight tailwind.
We had made a conscious effort to analyse the route before leaving to make sure the roads were paved. However, as soon as we left Demir Kapija, the main road – marked yellow on Google Maps – turned to gravel. How had this happened again? A few miles in, I fell off the bike which wound me up further.
Eventually, we found a paved road, and progressed towards Star Dojan, a lakeside town on the North Macedonian–Greek border. We made it to the town at 9.30pm and went straight to a fish restaurant – a recommendation from a pub landlord we had met in the town before. The restaurant was going off; a band played local classics, which saw enthusiastic dancing and singing from the diners. Like the awkward Brits that we are, we sat in the corner and watched.
North Macedonia ended with great food and music, which more than made up for the bad roads.