Category Archives: RTW Travel

A Day in the Life: Skopje Strolling

This post is one-half of a day in the life double dosage. Check my sister’s blog for her take on the same day.
We had arrived in Skopje the day before. It’s known as the City of Seven Gates, which is admittedly a sweet nickname. But it should be called Statue City, because I don’t see how any city in the world could have more statues. Many of these are Alexander the Great adjacent, so needless to say they’re pretty rad.
I present a very small selection but I saw a few hundred in my wanders.

Saturday was our only full day in Skopje and we had a bit of a choice. A 3 hour walking tour, which was by all accounts quite good. Or finding our way to a bus and going to Matka Canyon, a wild region with tons of endemic butterflies, moths, and moth-erflies. Pretty easy choice, really. We had a free breakfast at the hostel (Shanti, which is easily one of the best places I’ve stayed in the last four months) which was coffee (for both of us) and muesli with fruit juice (for me).

Conflicting information resulted in us getting to the bus station an hour and half early, but it was a pleasant ride out of Skopje. The bus dropped us off about 10 minutes out of the village but we’d heard this could happen. Neither of us knew exactly what to expect: how far did the hike go, what did it entail, where did it go, and so on. This added to the magic of the day.

What a dam view!

We went through a small town: a scattering of restaurants, some lazy cats and chonky dogs. A little stream bubbled past and the high, rocky mountains hinted at the canyon to come. Many people hired kayaks or joined boat rides. This was tempting but not, in the end, compelling enough as following the track by foot. At first there were lots of people and everyone was so friendly it felt almost eerie. Didn’t they know they were in the Balkans? The land of resting fuckyou face? At any rate, they thinned out pretty quickly though and we had the trail mostly to ourselves.

I can only give the area the highest praise by saying the canyon reminded me of Seoraksan, one of my favorite hikes in the world. Okay, it didn’t reach the highs of Seoraksan but it was much easier to hike. It’s pretty much flat, in fact, and so required very little effort for the scenery. Eventually the trail ended and we made our way back. Normally out-and-backs are a bit of a bummer but in this case it was no hardship to see the views all over again.

We got back to the spot where the bus had left us off. There were half-a-dozen other people waiting there, some of whom had come with us on the bus. This was reassuring, but more and more taxi drivers showed up, saying “the bus doesn’t come today.” This is an old trick, of course, and we had seen there were half a dozen busses coming throughout the day. We waited an hour, ignoring the ever-more-desperate taxi drivers.

Finally a few tourists walked past us and let us know the bus had dropped them off half an hour down the road. We all got up and walked down the road. A taxi driver warned us “4 kilometers, very far.” Then he got in his car and let us know “6 kilometers to bus stop.” Eventually he left but funnily enough he actually wasn’t lying. It was a nice walk, with a cozy valley dotted with houses and the occasional church on one side gleaming in the late afternoon sun. But it did take more than an hour; eventually we reached enough civilization to ask a few shop keepers and stood at the side of road (no signs at all) until the bus came.

We got back in time to wander old town Skopje and the Turkish bazaar. We’d seen it the day before but only in the rain. Skopje has a reputation as a boring town but I found it endlessly fascinating.

Of special note were the ice cream flavors. In addition to classics like chocolate and “snikers” are special ones like Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Tiktok. These weren’t vegan so I didn’t try them but we can all admit that it’s a pretty good idea.

We didn’t find a lot of vegan restaurants in Skopje but the hostel had a decent kitchen. Janessa made some soy nuggets that we combined with hummus, corn, beans, and spinach in wraps and they were excellent.

One of the reasons we chose a hostel (other than saving money) was to meet other travelers and this night was 10/10 great. There were people from Chile, Spain, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and we chatted for hours about travel, our favorite Cyrillic letters ( ф was a clear winner, in case you were wondering) and so much more. A dude who kind of worked at the hostel had been to 75 countries, once traveling from Estonia to Capetown. An American girl told us about going to college with Obama’s daughter. The Chilean dude recommended hikes in the Andes. A guy from Egypt showed us the millions of views he got on Insta, Tiktok and so on. Many of us had been places the others were going and vice-versa so a lot of practical travel knowledge was shared. The party ended abruptly at midnight, so it’s only appropriate for this blog to do so as well.

Fairy Tales vs Reality

When I was temporarily living in Warsaw this summer I took a weekend trip to visit Krakow. My first thought upon seeing the latter was what a mistake I’d made in choosing to live in Warsaw. Krakow was so beautiful! The old buildings and the winding roads and the park that encircles the city were all a kind of magic. The evening rains just added to the atmosphere and that special je nais sais quois. Less than 24 hours later, I’d reassessed.

Krakow at night

It’s not that Krakow was any less beautiful. It was just that I had seen the entire old town three or four times. It was a great sized city to visit for a weekend, but some of the charm would be lost living there, I think.

Fairy Tale Cities

Since then I’ve seen quite a few more cities on this trip. I’ve enjoyed them all (yes, even Bratislava) but only some fit into what I’m calling “fairy tale” cities. This is inherently a subjective metric that is best defined by the old axiom “you know it when you see it.” Often, in Europe at least, these cities are historic places that almost seem to be good to be true. And in some ways, that’s what they are. Hoisted upon shaky foundations like tourism and consumerism, these cities are almost like a form of Disneyland. As much as I love them, there’s something ephemeral or pretend about them that just doesn’t feel substantial.

These cities exist not just in Europe but everywhere in the world. Look at the pictures below. From afar, Ljubljana and Luang Prabang (which are more than 8000 kilometers away from each other) look like they are the same city.

Having cobblestones and castles helps, but fairy tale cities are as much about vibe as anything else. I’d argue Te Anau, New Zealand, Launceston, Tasmania, Guatape, Colombia Jaisalmer, India and Kuching, Malaysia all fit the bill based on their charm and proximity to nature.

Mundane Cities

Other cities, like Warsaw, like Berlin, like most cities in the world, really, are more mundane. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a long history and plenty of tourists or that they’re not beautiful. It just means that they are less defined by an imaginary past. There’s more of an emphasis on the present. Some of my favorite cities are like this: Melbourne, Fukuoka, Bogota, and Vancouver BC all fit this description.

I think cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Bangkok, Delhi, fit here too. Not that they can’t feel magical, but they’re so big that it’s a different experience. Fairy tales are on a personal scale that megacities overwhelm. That’s just my gut instinct though. Feel free to disagree.

Mythical & Mundane

Now there is third kind of city. It’s sort of one that splits the difference. Your first steps there may feel like walking through the past or a gateway into another world but the longer the spend there, the more you realize how much more there is to the place. Prague has a population of 1.3 million people and receives 8 million tourists a year (at least a million of which you’ll see on the Charles Bridge at any time) at least partially because it’s a perfect fusion of old and new. It’s a living theme park, you could say.

Another place that fits this description is Tallinn, where you walk along 15th century cobblestone streets next to historic Hanseatic homes along side humble food delivery robots.

Do you have a preference for one of these kinds of cities to visit? Or to live in? Where there any cities I left off? Let me know!