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July 6, 2002

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We decided - enough of Bulgaria - and jumped on yesterday evening's six hour bus ride to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Along the way we talked politics with young Macedonian college students studying in Bulgaria (the fact they go to Bulgaria for an education indicates the state of education in Macedonia). These young students expressed displeasure with America for supporting Albania. In their opinion, Albania snatches Macedonian land with American supplied weapons. Since the fall of Yugoslavia, Balkan countries dispute every border. Macedonia wants land back from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece. The Albanians want a Greater Albania and are trying to seize land in Western Macedonia as well as Yugoslavia (Kosovo) and Croatia. Confused by this Balkan soup? This mishmash is hard for the locals to keep straight. Troubles between Macedonia and ethnic Albanians broke into war last year. Albanian freedom fighters attacked villages, planted bombs, and killed Macedonians. For their part, Macedonians assaulted Albanians at home and closed the Albanian market in Skopje; it's a deserted heap. The fighting stopped when the Macedonians and their unruly Albanian citizenry signed a peace accord, but it remains an open question whether this peace will hold. Tense relations continue. Skopje shows decay. Graffiti, trash, and peeling paint decorate the concrete buildings and thoroughfares of tasteless Communist-architecture style. Skopje's aspect improves north across the Vardar River, over an old Turkish stone bridge, onto a cobblestone pedestrian walkway that leads to shops and a lively market selling fresh fruit. An old fort stands over the river and offers a commanding view. However, visitors needn't stay long to see all of Skopje, so in the afternoon we took a bus to Lake Ohrid, Macedonia's top vacation spot. Ohrid offers a relaxed atmosphere of outdoor cafes and long, lakeside walks. Old ladies greet new arrivals and offer their homes as bed-n-breakfast accommodation. We chose one woman from the crowd, negotiated a price (she didn't speak English, so we negotiated with our fingers), and walked to her quaint old home in the center of town. Hotel accommodation is too expensive in Macedonia (upwards of $50 per night) so these homestays provide better accommodation for one-fifth the price.
Skopje's crumbling downtown.
The pedestrian thouroughfare shows charm, just don't wave an Albanian flag around.
 
Skopje showcases some bold architectural experiments: the ski slope building (upper) and a post office (lower) that looks like an upside down spaceship.