Alexander is Still GREAT!
Budapest’s spring this year was really busting out all over, with the completion and opening of Metro 4 (after only 20 years in construction, it opened March 28 with two free days of travel; naturally, I was out of town; still have that great timing), the opening of Castle Hill’s refurbished Old Bazaar, the opening of Parliament Square again after more construction and the appearance on the scene of the new bubis – city bicycles which can be rented for a minimal amount of money and left at locked stands all over town. Budapest – the International City, voted Best Tourist Destination in the world by Conde Nast travelers and Most Welcoming City in Europe by those tourists who, I suppose, were welcomed nicely to the city.
The weather was unseasonably warm for March and we all reveled in it.
And then it was Off to Skopje, Macedonia, for the long weekend of March 27-31. I survived my Very Early Flight – had to be at the airport at 6 AM! - Yucchh!! A brief stopover in Vienna, then a 90 minute flight to arrive in Skopje around noon. My prearranged hotel taxi found me at the airport and delivered me safely and quickly to the Hotel City Central International around 2 PM, right in the center of town and located on the top (2nd) floor of the main shopping center, just off the main square. Great location.
As I was checking into my eight-room hotel, a tall young man was also at the front desk. I realized I had seen him at the Vienna airport, boarding the same flight as mine. He also recognized me and started chatting. Turned out he was Serbian, living in Austria, and also traveling on his own. Anyway, as always, I chatted briefly with Irina, one of the three young Macedonian receptionists I would meet, then checked into my small but clean room and headed out for my standard orientation walk around the main part of Skopje.
I strolled through the main square and crossed the famous Stone Bridge to the left bank of the river. I kept on walking to the entrance of the Old Bazaar, where who should I encounter but Milos, my Serbian buddy from the hotel. He joined me on my exploratory walk and, from that point until he left on Sunday, he seemed to adopt me as a surrogate father and traveling companion. He joined me for lunch in the Old Bazaar at Destan, a well-known local restaurant that serves only three dishes: the tasty local salad, Shopska (sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, covered with shredded cheese), the local version of kebabs (a plate of five or ten finger-sized meat rolls with side dishes of onions, peppers and wonderful local bread), and a hearty bean soup. Keep it simple and they will come. Topped off with a Skopsko Macedonian beer, it was yummy.
Milos surprised me by paying for my lunch, but he was insistent and, what the heck, it made him happy, so why not? Lunch with beer for both of us was only around 5 euro, so it was a great bargain. We continued exploring the Old Bazaar for another hour or so, checking out the main streets and veering off into the little side alleys and narrow streets as the spirit moved us. We checked out the places we would like to revisit during a more in-depth exploration the following day or two, then headed back across the river and walked along the restaurant- and bar-studded riverfront area off the main square. Lo and behold, we found St. Pat’s Irish pub, which occasioned a stop for a Guinness – I paid for this one, even though Milos seemed slightly upset that I wouldn’t let him keep on paying. Fair is fair, after all.
After a brief nap, I was ready to wander out again and, when I did so, found Milos in the hotel’s miniscule lobby, chatting up yet another attractive young receptionist. He suggested we go for pizza in the shopping center, so what the heck, why not? Again, he insisted on paying for the slices of pizza we got, and I let him, figuring I’d pay him back at another time. We had another Guinness or two at the Irish pub, on me.
I was a touch tired from the long day, and it was still raining off and on, so decided to call it a night. In my room again, I checked to see if there were any English-language channels on TV and it turned out there were! Several, in fact, one of which was The History Channel. Damn! I could easily have stayed in my room all weekend just to watch the History Channel. I watched it till late Thursday night, then finally fell into the waiting arms of Morpheus.
Friday dawned bright and sunny and warm. After a continental breakfast at the hotel, I picked up some postcard stamps at a nearby post office branch and decided I was ready to climb the hill to see the Kale Fortress which dominates the northern skyline of Skopje. I huffed and I puffed and I rested and I climbed and I finally reached the entrance to the fortress, where I found a hand-printed sign that read, “Fortress is closed for visitors.” Well, wasn’t I the happy traveler? Scheisse! I rested for a few minutes and enjoyed the view from the hilltop. Then I slashed the tires of all of the cars in the parking lot and wended my way back down to the bazaar.
I spent the rest of the morning just meandering again, checking out places I’d found on the Internet and wanted to visit again later, like the Old Town Brewery and the Daut Pasha Hammam, now a local museum. Lunch was another yummy kebab plate at another Destan restaurant located just off the main square; the Balkans are definitely a meat-eater’s delight.
Around 6 pm, happy hour time, I tried to creep quietly past Milos’s room, but there he was again in the lobby, munching on some nuts he’d bought and hitting on the third lovely young receptionist. The guy was definitely a hound. So we ambled back across the Stone Bridge, through the Old Bazaar and I retraced my earlier steps to the Old Town Brewery, where we had a couple of beers and sat next to the warmth of an open fire inside the covered area. The nights were still chilly and the fire was a welcome friend. Unfortunately, as usual I had started out too early and the place was pretty empty of other patrons, so we decided to head back to St. Pat’s and have a beer or two while waiting for the music to start.
We sat at a table next to a middle-aged English couple from Belfast and had a nice conversation with them. I had to be careful when describing my trips around Ireland; for instance, when I told them I’d been to Derry, they immediately corrected me to “Londonderry.” When the woman told me she was from the Shankill Road area of Belfast, I decided not to tell her it was one of the scariest places I’d walked on the Emerald Isle. But they were nice enough for all that and Milos and I spent a pleasant time in the cozy pub, chatting and drinking our Guinness.
I soon found myself alone again, as Milos was eager to find a place to eat some plieviscka and then resume his chat-up with at least one of the receptionists. I had a light snack at the bar and sat through the first set of music by a young guitar-playing woman singing popular songs. It was Friday night and even around 11 PM the pub was still pretty quiet, so I wandered away for a stroll and another early night. When I got back to the hotel, sure enough, there was Milos hitting on Monika! Gotta give him points for perseverance.
Saturday started out slow, but turned into a fun day with a late-night ending (and about damn time, too!). As I was starting my morning walk to find a nearby (I thought) massage sanctuary, I once again found Milos hanging around the lobby waiting for me, so we trudged off together.
Back to the Macedonian Gate for lunch of plieviscka, which is really just a large hamburger with tomato, lettuce and onions in a large bun. The difference between this and a regular old American hamburger, however, is that the plieviscka is served in a large paper cone, then topped with a heap of French fries (chips for my English friends) slathered with catsup; since the entire package comes in that paper cone, it cannot be set down on a plate (or table) – you just have to hold it with one hand while eating with the other. When the fries are gone, you can then eat the burger, using the cone as a holder. It sounds awkward and uncomfortable, which it is, but I managed to get through everything and must say it was tasty and definitely a unique dining experience. But I would have preferred to intermix my burger and fries instead of eating all the fires first and then the burger. Ah, well, then it wouldn’t be a plieskavica.
Back to the hotel to rest up for the evening’s entertainment – Irish music at St. Pat’s – I was surprised when the receptionist gave me back the postcards I had asked her to mail for me earlier. It seems she was unable to perform such a simple task, since the post office apparently separated their mail into registered and non-registered and the poor girl couldn’t determine which I wanted. I’d have to go back to the post office on Monday morning before I left and physically hand my postcards to one of the post office employees for mailing. Interesting place, Macedonia.
Alright, Saturday Night and ready to rock and roll. Milos and I (Mutt and Jeff, by this time, as he was at least 6’1”) made our way back to the Irish pub around 7 PM and found seats at the bar to await the singer. As is my wont in Irish bars, I got into a conversation with Marty, a Canadian gent nearby, who was in Skopje on business. He was then joined by Tim, a very large and friendly Englishman who owns a winery in the area (Tim fit in really well with all of the other large statues and buildings in Skopje). A few other locals came and went during the evening and the singing started after several beers. The Irish singer, Joe, finished his gig and joined us, at which point the Jameson’s started to flow rather freely. Milos headed out around 10 PM, as he had to get ready for his 11 PM pickup to go to the airport. Too bad, as he missed it when Tim gave Marty and me a bottle of his very own hand-grown wine from his vineyard. I can’t wait to taste it. I floated into the hotel around 2 AM – which was suddenly 3 AM, as it was time for the clocks to change for Daylight Saving Time. A good night in downtown Skopje.
Sunday was surprisingly quiet and a touch lonely without my buddy Milos. Although I am used to traveling alone, it was kind of nice to have a companion for those few days. I missed him and hope he gets in touch someday. Anyway, the sun was even brighter on Sunday, and I took a final day’s walk around the Old Bazaar again, picking up a few gifts for family and friends, having a chocolate crepe at a small French bistro and just enjoying relaxing in the sun on the main square. After a late afternoon snack of a hot dog buttie (hot dog on a large bun covered with the inevitable French fries) and a short nap. I headed back to the riverfront restaurants for dinner. Ran into Marty along the way, and found Tim and Joe at St. Pat’s, but was in the mood for a steak that night and found it at the Bella Vista restaurant overlooking the river and huge buildings on the other side. Good steak, veggies and potatoes, a fitting final dinner for my visit.