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A tale of two Balkan capitals

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Anyone travelling to Macedonia should come prepared with an extremely liberal understanding of “you can’t miss it”.

Having read that Macedonians know their barbecue, I spent my first night in Skopje, the capital, wandering from the trinket shop-lined streets of the Old Bazaar just north of the Stone Bridge to the residential areas below Vodno mountain in the south looking for two authentic Macedonian grills recommended by Let’s Go (I hadn’t met any locals yet). Maps are effectively useless in Skopje because many streets are unmarked, I soon found. So, along the way I asked several passersby for directions that invariably involved me walking 500 metres down a couple streets, through a few blocks of buildings and past an embassy or two. Then, without exception and usually in competent English, followed: “You can’t miss it.” I ended up at a pizza joint by my hotel.

This became a running joke among Ljubica and Alexander Grozdanov and me during lunch the next day. A friend recommended I meet the Grozdanovs, both journalists, while in Skopje before heading to Kosovo, the first leg of a two-week Balkan trip I took in May to celebrate my five-year anniversary in Prague and recent acceptance to NYU.

We met in the morning for coffee on the main square and immediately settled into reporter talk. In their early 30s, Alexander and Ljubica were the consummate journalist couple, correcting each other’s statistics while filling me in on the biggest stories in Macedonia: the following day’s presidential inauguration and plans to erect a statue of Alexander the Great, born in the ancient kingdom of Macedon in the third century BC, on the square.

They chuckled at my misadventures the night before. “Food is one of the easiest things to find here,” Ljubica said, explaining that Macedonia is a country of gourmands and confirming that grilled meat is the national dish. She then suggested we spend the afternoon outside the city at the Matka gorge, where, Alexander added, much to my excitement, “we can have lunch”.

Where’s Toto?
The Matka gorge (matka translates literally into “uterus”) is a 30-minute drive through the city’s Albanian-dominated outskirts. Despite past tensions, the minority lives in relative harmony with the ethnic Macedonians who comprise the majority of the city’s approximately 500,000 residents.

From the foot of the gorge, we hiked along the frigid ice-blue Vardar river – still clean this far outside the city – up into the mountains. The river is damned several hundred metres up for a hydroelectric plant, forming a small lake cupped by the mountains. A traditional Macedonian restaurant is on the lake, literally built into the mountainside, and we sat on the stone terrace by the water. After a few polite questions regarding my culinary tastes, Ljubica ordered the table a mixed salad, kebabs – spiced minced meat rolled into small sausages and grilled – and chopped bread topped with shredded sheep cheese.

As we made our way through the delicious meal, talk shifted firmly from politics and the global financial crisis to food. Until this point I had blamed the previous night’s troubles on bad luck, not some cultural pathology. Then, about halfway through lunch, Alexander closed an incomprehensible explanation of how to find Toto, “the best restaurant in Skopje”, with “you can’t miss it”. After my exasperation got the better of me, the couple conceded in good humour that no one in Skopje knew more than a handful of streets and that the city was rebuilt haphazardly (forget about a grid) after the devastating 1963 earthquake. Locals navigated around a few landmarks – the Stone Bridge between the main square and the Old Bazaar, for instance – and assumed foreigners could do the same.

“You can’t miss it” peppered the rest of our conversation. And Alexander, determined to introduce Toto to every foreigner he met and convinced I would get lost on my own (no argument there), dropped me at the restaurant after lunch. I explored the city for a few hours and returned for dinner that night.

Near the Greek and Dutch embassies in western Skopje, Toto is quaint, with dark wood tables and benches for seats. Everything came à la carte, and I ate a wonderful, if simple, meal of chicken, ajvar – a spicy spread made of red peppers – and a single grilled pepper before retiring to my hotel room to rest up for the trip to Kosovo the next day.

Miniature Mexico City
Despite the excitement surrounding the inauguration of President Gjorge Ivanov the next morning, the bus ride from Skopje to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, went smoothly. Until we reached the border, of course. Shortly after taking the passengers’ passports, the customs officer returned with another man and pointed me out. I had heard of Americans being fleeced for border crossing fees in the Balkans. But a representative of the European Union Rule of Law Mission to Kosovo (EULEX), charged with monitoring the fledgling country’s development since its independence last February, merely explained, in unaccented English, that the driver had the wrong insurance forms. The bus could not cross the border, and I would have to find another ride into Kosovo.

So much for rule of law: After waiting nearly an hour in my seat for the replacement bus, the EULEX official returned. “They worked it out,” he said, and on we travelled. Driving in the Balkan countryside is spectacular, and the remainder of our journey through the winding mountain passes between the border and outer Pristina was no exception.

The same cannot be said of the capital’s environs. Hot, dusty, garbage-strewn and traffic-jammed, the towns we passed approaching the capital had me constantly thinking “this can’t be it”. My first impression of Pristina wasn’t much better. I always welcome a healthy amount of grit in a capital, but Pristina felt like a miniature Mexico City. As we drove into the centre, it looked as if all the city’s 600,000 inhabitants had emerged simultaneously from their stuffy apartments to vent. Taxis were everywhere, seemingly playing target practice with pedestrians, and the welcome at the guesthouse where I had booked a room would have dejected a telemarketer.

Pristina felt claustrophobic, somehow threatening. My first thought after dropping my bags in the room and hitting the streets was: “One day here – and on to Sarajevo.”

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