Returning to Macedonia was always one of the objectives of this trip and perhaps I should explain why. Six years ago Ania was a brave Polish backpacker and I was a cheeky British scamp with a wonderful hat. We met at a hostel in the Macedonian capital of Skopje before travelling onto Ohrid where I managed to persuade her to abandon her original plans and instead come with me to Bulgaria. Via that trip and many others, stints in Poland, Norway and now Spain, we had come back to see if the place that we have immortalised in our hearts had changed.
But first we had to get there and the hitchhike we were going to attempt was an ambitious one, involving 159 km and a border crossing we didn’t think would be particularly easy. It started normally enough, 3 young women who were studying in Italy stopped to give us directions, before we managed to teach them the concept of hitchhiking and convinced them into giving us a lift. Next a Muslim man and his mother stopped, after a bit of basic communication in Italian-Spanish we explained that we were going to the border. He got on the phone and called his cousin in front who was driving with his mother closer to the direction we were heading. A quick car change and we were closer to the road to Macedonia.
After being dropped off in the town we sat to eat our sandwiches when a cafe patron called us over and invited us to sit at the table of the cafe. Next thing we know, we are being served free coffee and being given free coca-cola by the cafe owner. Albanian people are great! After then things got a little surreal. Three young men stopped and offered to drive us closer to the border. The driver spoke some English as he had previously lived in Amsterdam. We asked him what he did and he said ‘Manager’. While the other two laughed their heads off. As we drove past a Police car at quite speed he started beeping his horn and waving to the cops. The policemen waved back evidently confused. In response to our quizzical looks he explained that he didn’t have papers for the car but the police never stopped him if he said hello.
‘Balls of steel’ I thought.
A quick look at the floor between the guy on the back seats legs made everything clear. A quick stop and the plate is passed around. We are all now very confident. We drive hell for leather all focused as microscopes, occasionally stopping to buy more beer for everyone, including the driver. Our driver had spent his time in Amsterdam selling things that he probably shouldn’t have been selling and claimed to have made over a million euros whilst in the country. He started naming how much his different items of clothing cost (500 € t – shirt, 400 € shoes etc…) and proceeded to tell us that he had had to leave the Netherlands after spending 3 years staring at the same four walls but was planning to head to London to try his luck there. Another lift to the border, waving passports, talking to a German who speaks no English, another lift, Macedonian spoke English, found centre, found hostel, done. Never has a hitchhike ended with such little fear.
As part of our nostalgia trip we decided to stay at the exact same hostel we had visited all those years ago. Sunny Lake Hostel is a well located hostel with communal areas on balconies and in the garden. The owner has changed since we were last there, which was a bit of a shame, and the television in the sitting room was wholly unnecessary but it is still a perfectly serviceable hostel. It just wasn’t exactly as we remembered it and for those in search of nostalgia it’s a shame.
For once (!) hitchhikershandbook got lazy. Instead of performing our usual monument tour, we got up late, ate long dinners, did some shopping and got drunk. The only thing we did notice is that Ohrid is a much changed place since we were last here. Tourism has well and truly arrived. The shops now are more numerous and more aimed at visitors. In truth, a little of the soul has been lost as development and trade moved in.
One thing we did manage to do was to find the place where we had sat and got drunk on our first visit here. And there, with the city glistening underneath, I asked Ania if she would be my wife.
She said yes.
written by: Jon
Follow our 2 month hitch-hiking trip across the north of Italy and the Balkan Peninsula:‘The Balkan Peninsula by Thumb 2013′. It’s happening now!
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