Our flight to Skopje wasn't until 08.15 on Sunday morning, and getting up at 4am to drive to Luton felt positively like a lie-in after our 2am get-up for Spain a couple of months ago! We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and obsessive monitoring of the display boards meant that we succeeded in being the first non-priority passengers to board our flight. Queuing for the flight was not without drama, as one woman with oversized carry-on baggage decided to try to break the wheels off her case in a desperate attempt to fit it into the size-gauge rather than pay the £56 charge to check it in. We were soon speeding on our way to Skopje, however, accompanied by dual-language flight announcements in Macedonian and English and the usual plethora of advertisements for Bulgarian dentists and Polish plastic surgeons which the Wizzair in-flight magazine specialises in.
The view was obscured by clouds for most of the journey, but as the plane began to make its descent towards the Macedonian capital we were treated to a fantastic view of what turned out to be a surprisingly mountainous landscape. Indeed, as the pilot announced that there were 10 minutes until landing I began to become rather concerned, as nowhere within sight was there a strip of land which looked remotely flat enough to land a plane on. We descended lower and lower until we hardly seemed to be flying high enough to clear the tops of the mountains, and then at the last minute a plain with an airstrip appeared out of nowhere and we were down.
Skopje's 'Alexander the Great' airport was bigger than I had anticipated, and quite organised. We didn't have to queue long for passport control, although there was a slightly sticky moment when the border guard asked Tim how long he was staying in Macedonia and he wasn't sure. It didn't take long to retrieve our luggage either, although we were slightly confused when upon trying to pass through the 'nothing to declare' part of customs we had to put all our bags through a security scanner. As we emerged into the arrivals hall, much to my relief I found that almost the first thing we saw was an exchange office where we could obtain some Macedonian denars. You can't buy Macedonian currency in the UK and I had been worried that with arriving on a Sunday we might struggle to find a bank open to obtain some. Happily that turned out not to be a problem and the only challenge that remained was the conversion rate; there are approximately 77 Macedonian denars in a pound, which does not make for particularly easy mental arithmetic.
Alexander the Great airport is located approximately 20 miles outside Skopje itself. We had prebooked a transfer into the city centre via the Wizzair website for the bargain price of €3 each (compared to the advertised taxi price of €20). It sounded like a great deal, but as we walked out of the airport towards the bus stop it began to seem like we might need to take a taxi after all, as the (mini)bus was already completely full. Oh dear. It was 15 minutes until the scheduled departure time and there were a few other people milling around outside the bus, so we decided to wait and hope for the best. It was a pleasant surprise when the best happened and a second minibus arrived to collect the excess passengers
The bus itself was a little rickety, but we have definitely travelled in worse. Within half an hour we had passed a sign welcoming us to Skopje and the bus made its first stop outside one of the hotels. I knew that we wanted one of the later stops, outside the main train and bus station, and assumed it would be fairly obvious when we got there. When, a few minutes later, the bus pulled over again in what seemed to be a somewhat dingy underpass, I thought that this was quite obviously not the main train and bus station. It was lucky that Tim caught sight of this sign...
...which indicates that this is in fact a bus station, otherwise we would have ended up on completely the wrong side of town. It turned out that what I thought was an underpass was actually a bridge with the main railway line passing overhead, and while it really was not very impressive, we did later notice in the guidebook that Skopje's station was described as "one of the sorriest you are likely to see".
Armed with a map of Skopje we turned down two hopeful taxi drivers and set off towards the address of the apartment we were renting, which looked like it was a mere ten-minute walk away on the map. The rugged wheels of my new suitcase were tested by the condition of some of the pavements, but I'm happy to report that it passed with flying colours. We soon made our way across the river Vardar and onto the main road from which I was expecting the street we needed to branch off. It felt like we were doing pretty well... and then it occurred to me that none of the roads we had been walking on appeared to have any sort of street signs. We were looking for a street called Kliment Ohridski and we knew pretty much where it should be on the map, but the lack of names on any of the streets was somewhat problematic. For the next twenty minutes we proceeded to walk in a circle around the area where we thought the street should be. Each time we hit either a main road or the river, we knew we had gone too far and missed it. We found a restaurant, a cafe, a bakery, an exchange office, a language school and surely at least 10 different firms of lawyers, but nothing that resembled an apartment block.
We were on the verge of giving up, but Tim decided to go for a final walk around the maze of side streets while I stood and waited with the bags. As luck would have it, after doing another circle of the block, he eventually caught sight of the apartment sign less than 100m from where I had been standing. Success! The sign indicated that the apartments were on the seventh floor, so we entered the building and made our way up in the lift. When we got to the seventh floor, however, there was no sign of any staff or anything resembling an office, just a corridor with doors to apartments leading off it. We were a bit perplexed as I had emailed the accomodation the day before to confirm our time of arrival and they had said it would be fine. There was nothing for it but to ring them. Tim did the honours and was somewhat frustrated to be told that we were in the wrong place and we should have gone to some sort of office. There was nothing on our reservation to indicate that we should have gone to a different address and we'd spent considerable time and effort getting to this one. Grrr.
A cleaner soon arrived to let us into our apartment though and fortunately it turned out to be really nice. Air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi and even a kettle.
It's amazingly good value for a mere £24 per night!
We have a little balcony too, with lovely views out across Skopje.
In the photo above you can see the river Vardar, which flows through the centre of Skopje. The hill behind with the cross on the top is Mount Vodno, which we're planning to visit on Tuesday. (There's a cable car to the top.)
We also have a view of some of the grand new buildings which are being constructed as part of the 'Skopje 2014' project.
Shortly after we got settled in the apartment, someone arrived with a lease for us to sign. It was interesting to see my name written in the Cyrillic alphabet
A quarter of an hour or so after that, the owner of the apartment arrived to say hello. He explained that the reason he hadn't been there to meet us was that most people who book the apartment arrive at an address on Bulevar Sv. Kliment Ohridski (as opposed to Ulica Sv. Kliment Ohridski) which is on the other side of town, so he normally waits for people there and takes them to the correct address. Apparently we are one of only two or three lots of people who have found the correct address over the course of the past six months, so I feel like we deserve a prize!
Accommodation problems resolved, it was time to relax and sample some Macedonian wine