The driver puts on a CD and we are pleasantly surprised to hear the first few bars sound familiar. Having suffered through endless bus rides of dreadful local music cranked up to high volume for so long now, any recognisable tune is warmly welcomed. Things seem a little less auspicious when we identify the song as "Road to Hell" by 80s crooner Chris Rea.
We don't have a place to stay in Skopje but we have directions to one, hastily scribbled onto a napkin from someone's guidebook. I'm always reluctant to ask directions though, must be a man thing, and I quickly get us lost trying to walk from the bus station to the hotel. It would be quite a pleasant walk through the streets of Skopje were it not for the heavy packs on our backs. Somehow we make it to the main square where a few hotels begin to appear, all out our price range. Skopje is a town of about 500,000 people and the square is its central point, bordered on the south by the modern stores and coffee shops, to the east by a string of
comfortable outdoor restaurants and to the north by the river and the old stone bridge. The bridge is over 500 years old and has witnessed some of the greatest events in Macedonia's history over that period, including the execution of some famous Macedonian hero in the 15th century, who was hanged over the side. Across the river is the old part of town, a beautiful maze of narrow cobblestone streets full of jewellery stores, coffee shops and restaurants.
It is easy to forget that, despite the decades of communist drabness and economic struggles, most Eastern European countries have prosperous and artistic histories that are demonstrated in little enclaves such as this one.
We find a cheap hotel, quite a bargain for these parts at 20 euros. We appear to be the only guests and even the manager is rarely in, preferring the company of his friends at the restaurant across the street. This gives us the whole place to ourselves, not that there is a lot to have apart from the little common room. Apart from accommodation, things are very cheap here. Beer is particularly inexpensive and is sold everywhere in big old two litre plastic bottles for less than two dollars.
We purchase one, lug it down to the river and guzzle it like teenagers. All the Muslim and Hindu countries had such a negative position regarding alcohol - where it wasn't prohibited it felt like it was reluctantly tolerated - so to see it so openly encouraged here makes us want to go and get drunk.
One way you can tell you are in Eastern Europe is the weeds. I'm not sure if they are climatically predisposed to this area or if they just flourish because of neglect (actually, I'm certain it's the latter) but they sprout up from every nook and crevice. Where there is concrete, there will be weeds, and if there's one thing there is a lot of in Eastern Europe, it is concrete. The Skopje Opera House, for example, is a nice enough structure, albeit entirely concrete, but there are weeds poking out from every possible gap in the building. No matter how nice the architecture, how often you paint it or who you get to sing there, a bunch of ugly weeds tripping up the guests as they come and go is always going to spoil the effect. I understand that you cannot expect every city to look perfectly clean and beautiful but if the city just hired one or two people to go around the city with some clippers and some weed killer, it wouldn't cost too much and would make a world of difference.
This is not unique to Skopje, of course, a pleasant and manageable city with a compact downtown area, plenty of restaurants and shops and friendly people. Once you have eaten and shopped, however, there isn't a hell of a lot else to do here, except leave. We work this out within two days and then bundle up our stuff and hike back to the bus station.
The next country on the list is Macedonia, a place we know next to nothing about except for its most famous son, Alexander the Great, and the nuts that come from there. Wait, that's Macadamia, not Macedonia. Okay, we're back to Alexander. And I don't even know if the Macedonia we are in now is the same ancient Macedonia he came from. I'm not even sure I could have located Macedonia on an unmarked map until a couple of days ago. Do they even make unmarked maps? If so, I would think the only point would be to see if people could locate countries like Macedonia on them, which seems like a bit of a waste of time. I know it borders Greece because of the distinctly rocky historical relationship between the two countries. And I couldn't have told you the capital until we found out the other day that it is Skopje (pronounced Skope-yeah), which is where we head off to on an early morning bus from Sofia.