In Europe the road less traveled leads directly to Macedonia. A land of stunning natural beauty, an eclectic mix of ancient history and modernity and some of the most welcoming people on the continent.
At every turn I was welcomed with open arms, offered coffee, followed quickly by a shot (or two) of rakiya, a strong fruit brandy, and often food followed. This is not the cold Europe that many have come to expect. In fact it is more reminiscent of an Ottoman and Soviet infused dreamland.
The landscape is absolutely stunning from the glittering shores of Lake Ohrit to the steep cliffs of Matka Canyon. Unfortunately, as is the case across much of the former Yugoslavia, industry has disappeared, and along with it went the jobs and the social safety net. While everything is relatively cheap, the average wage is the lowest in Balkans at less than $400 per month.
Jobs are increasingly scarce in Macedonia’s slumping economy, however the younger generation is tapping into the global, digital gold rush. In Veles I met a professional video game player. A few of his friends are part of a ring of over 100 fake new websites based in Veles that tapped into the US economy by spreading fake news. It turned into a very lucrative hobby as the US election heated up.
Corruption runs rampant and is clearly visible in the capital, Skopje, currently undergoing a massive government-led transformation. Most Macedonians think that the money is being misused. Giant statues of Alexander are great, but all the money could be spent in far more productive way. The roads are full of potholes and crucial infrastructure is crumbling. Turns out construction is a wonderful way to launder money and this is not lost on the people. They voiced their disgust with the ruling party during the Colorful Revolution this past summer, but so far it was only a small step in the right direction.
Macedonia is immune to labels and endlessly fascinating. Part Balkan, part Mediterranean and rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman history, this tiny country has much to offer. Ultimately I would return simply for the people. It is not too late to explore Macedonia and experience a little known slice of Europe before it lurches out of obscurity.
Through couchsurfing I me a guy traversing the Balkans in a van. We decided to drive to Macedonia together. After corrupt border officials held the van for hours, we were finally let through and set off to find a obscure village in the rural Macedonian hills. This is the village we stumbled upon.
The village was Rusjatsi (Русјаци) in the western hills of Macedonia. As we pulled up, we ran into Simon. Here he is standing on top of the guesthouse he is constructing in the center of the village. He had recently returned from Australia, after spending the last 35 years there in the ‘special forces.’
In typical Macedonian fashion Simon immediately quickly invited us in to his home and offered us coffee, followed by whiskey and beer. We ended up staying with him for two nights.
Feeling slightly buzzed from the potent mix of beverages, Simon offered to show us around the village.
Upon returning to his house it was clear that word had spread quickly of our arrival.
Simon’s next door neighbor was Milosim Vojneski, the mayor of Macedonia Brod. Later that evening he too invited over for a more coffee and Rakija.
All across the former Yugoslavia, industry has collapsed. Leaving many towns, like Macedonia Brod much worse off than they were during days of Yugaslavia when there was a big arms factory nearby. It is not uncommon to hear people longing for the good old days when work and wives were plentiful.
I set up camp in the mayor’s back yard.
It was Sunday and we were wandering the streets of Macedonia Brod looking for a place to eat. I asked this man if he could point me in the right direction. Instead he invited me into his home and his mother quickly prepared coffee, while the father fetched the rakiya. As we drank they harvested some tomatoes, peppers and corn from their small garden and served them to us with big hunk of Sirene cheese from their farm outside of the town. Sirene is a brined cheese like feta. We could not have asked for better meal.
After returning to Rusjatsi, I ventured off on my own to explore. As I was taking pictures of the donkey, this woman invited me in for coffee.
Stepping into their home was like going back in time.
Turns out their children live in Chicago. One is a barber. They had a little shrine of all the items their kids had sent them. Everything was untouched in its original packaging, They didn’t know how to open the plastic packaging.
It was to be our last night in Rusjatsi so Peter’s pal, Slavko, cooked us feast. He piled pork, potatoes, onions and chillies in the wood fired stove and cooked it to perfection. Great way to end our stay in the obscure Macedonian village.
After a few days in rural Macedonia I headed out on my own to the capital Skopje, which lies on the banks of the Vardar River.
The center of Skopje is undergoing a massive transformation.
Alexander the Great towers over everyone.
Last summer anti government protests erupted in Skopje when the President stopped the ongoing investigations of the Prime minister and dozens of other politicians involved in a wiretapping scandal.
Protesters threw paint filled balloons at government buildings, statues and monuments. The colors have been left as a constant visual reminder of the corrupt government.
Crawling through the streets of Skopje is a fleet of new Chinese knockoffs of London’s classic Routemaster double decker busses.
The oldest references to Skopje’s Old Bazaar date back to the 12th century. It was damaged numerous times during the 20th century, but it is still going strong and full of cafes and mosques.
No trip to Macedonia is complete without tasting the Kebapi at Destan, Skopje’s oldest Kebapi spot in the Old Bazaar.
I ate burek every morning with a glass of yogurt. There were usually three options: meat, spinach and cheese. It is similar to quiche with croissant crust.
I ran into the owner of my hostel in a the city park practicing axe throwing. Never know when it could come in handy.
Shutka, the gypsy capital of the world, lies on the outskirts of Skopje. As one of the largest Romani towns in the world, it is the only place where Romani language is the official language and taught in primary school.
It is also home to cheap and bustling street market.
It is a wonderful place to wander around, shop, eat and meet people.
Like this guy, the local goose walker.
Or this happy guy.
A mosque in the center of Shutka.
Just west of Skopje is Matka Canyon. The canyon area is home to several historic churches and monasteries dating back to the 14th Century, including St. Andrew’s Monastery which contains frescoes painted by Jovan the Metropolitan.
I was invited by a friend to visit her home in Veles. The city made international news in 2016 when it was revealed that a group of teenagers were controlling over 100 websites producing fake news articles in support of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, which were heavily publicized on the social media sites like Facebook.
My friend’s grandma rocking traditional clothing.
Her parents spent all afternoon preparing a delicious dinner of succulent pork, juicy chicken, and stuffed peppers, followed by homemade mastika (Macedonian ouzo.)
I never expected to end up in Albania, but once I did, and tasted the delicious burek and coffee, met wonderful people and experienced the untapped beauty, I had a difficult time leaving.
Albania was under the tight grip of communism for nearly 50 years. Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an iron fist as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule Albania declared itself the first atheist state and destroyed many religious artifacts. Communist rule collapsed in 1991 and the country has been rapidly opened itself up to the world since.
Now it is a land of opportunity, just starting to crank it into high gear. You can sense an eagerness to embrace western culture. Unfortunately corruption runs rampant and the average salary is hovering around $300 a month. This does make the country cheap for travelers who can take advantage of the wealth of natural beauty and history. The best part is that you can do it without running into any other tourists. Lets go on a journey back to the days when coffee and tobacco ruled and family was the only law. Visit now before its too late.
I started my Albanian adventure in Shkodër. A city in the north overlooked by an impressive medieval castle built by Venetians, and crisscrossed by wide communist-era boulevards.
We woke up at the crack of dawn and drove deep into the Albanian Alps to Lake Koman. At the small dock we watched as ferries and boats were loaded up with people, goods and cars.
We hopped on a boat and headed out as spectacularly green cliffs plunged into the water all around us. After a short ride we rented kayaks and explored on our own.
We arrived at a farm after a hour or so. There were chickens and donkeys, grapes and fruit trees. We were welcomed in (for a small fee) and served a tasty fish lunch.
On the outskirts of the Skoder I stumbled upon a Roma community (behind the fisherman).
Some lived in pretty standard houses, while others like this family, lived in huts amongst mounds scraps and junk.
A Roma girl inspects me from her families encampment filled with things they had collected.
After a few days in the north I settled into Tirana, the capital of Albania. I was lucky enough to find a great couchsurfing host.
Albania, like the rest of the Balkan countries, is small. My host had a car so we decided to drive to the coast about an hour from Tirana.
The Byzantine Forum (Macellum) is in the center of the coastal city of Durrës. Greedy and corrupt politicians have sanctioned big, ugly developments next to and on top of ancient ruins across the city.
Constructing houses and other developments is a great way to launder money.
Albania was under communist control from 1946-1992. The country is home to lots of communist era statues and military bunkers.
We arrived at the Cape and were greeted with a beach all to ourselves and clear blue water.
Not a bad place to spend a few days relaxing.
After the Cape we headed south to Beat.
Overlooking Berat, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, from the old citadel. One of the most refreshing aspects of the country is that there is the tourist infrastructure.
Back on the valley as the sun set.
The old city of Berat.
No rules apply to the Albanian streets and roads.
After Berat we drove for a while longer into Osum Canyon
A shephard grazes his sheep along the main highway into Tirana.
Albania is littered with ugly incomplete buildings. This is the most glaring example in downtown Tirana.
A young boy practices football in the little play area in the center of my block of apartment buildings.
The central market after the rain stops.
People smoke a lot of cigarettes across the Balkans and Albania is no exception. There is a tobacco section in the market where you can buy half kilos straight from the farm for cheap..
The driving in Albania is insane. Seems like there are no rules, or lines on the street
Coffee plays an important part in everyday life in Albania. This young woman enjoys an expresso during a warm summer afternoon.
A typical residential block in Tirana.