I had to put in a solid morning of work yesterday, so I was glad that Skopje didn’t hold enough interest for me to not be disappointed I couldn’t use the day to do some more exploring. I was flying out at 6:20PM and wanted to leave around 2PM. Work was done by 11AM and I spent a good hour packing and making sure the flat was tidy. I then went out to run a few errands and to see if the city had a different vibe on a week day.
Not really. 🙁 There were more people around, but the city still felt soulless. I wasn’t even tempted to get a coffee or lunch because of both prices and the lack of anything nice to lay my eyes on.
The Skopje 2014 project was supposed to give Macedonia’s capital a more appealing neoclassical look. The project has been pretty much universally panned and deemed a failure. Buildings, statues, and monuments were placed willy-nilly and there was so much financial waste. This is a city that has no sense of self and is the first place I’ve visited where a tour guide was so obviously embarrassed by the things he had to show us.
So yeah, Skopje was definitely one of my least favourite cities I’ve visited.
I forgot to mention something after I did my tour. After the 1963 earthquake, the bus depot ceiling collapsed and all the buses were destroyed. So London loaned a bunch of red double decker buses. Skopje eventually gave those back and ordered some left-hand drive models from China. This is one place where they could have put their own mark on something that didn’t belong to them, by having the buses painted a different colour…
This intersection had a rather interesting mix of buildings, especially with the fortress in the background.
Skopje’s surroundings are breath taking. It’s a bit like Sarajevo in that it’s surrounded by mountains, but Skope hasn’t expanded up the hills yet.
This is a car from a driving school. I’ve seen such cars all over the Balkans and wonder, based on how people drive, how many people actually go to driving school! 😀
I got back to the flat around 1PM and had a message from my host that he couldn’t preschedule a taxi for me, but would call for one at just shy of 2PM and he would send me the company name, car number, and negotiated price. What an awesome host! My flat was an especially good deal because he doesn’t require guests to pay the cleaning fee. But there is a house rule that trash must be taken out by the guest. So at 1:40PM, I dashed down the four flights to the street and then up the street to the nearest dumpster.
Dealing with trash in this manner is something that seems common in the Balkans. Instead of having garbage collection at home, you take your trash to a dumpster or communal garbage cans and it is picked up there. So if you’re renting a flat in, say, Belgrade, get in the habit of bringing down your trash when you go out for the day and putting it in a public garbage can or dumpster.
My taxi showed up at bang on 2PM. My driver spoke excellent English, having spent his formative years in Vancouver, BC! Wow! We had such a great talk where I was able to sum up my trip to the Balkans with some questions. First, we talked about Skopje and he whole-heartedly agreed with my assessment of it being soulless and not having its own identity. He said, and I quote, “If you’re depressed after two days of visiting here, imagine how people feel living here!” Eesh!
There are a lot of gambling cafés all over the Balkans, but there seemed to be even more in Skopje. My driver said said that’s what you get in poor countries run by criminals and boy did he wish his parents had chosen to stay in Canada. LOL
Traffic was bad getting to Alexander the Great Airport and it took almost a full hour to drive the 25KM!
The airport is pretty small, but very modern. I was flying Wizz Air again, so I knew that even though I’d checked in online to save the huge in-person check-in fee, I still had to go to the check-in desk for a pre-document check. Slight hiccup, there was no Wizz Air desk open. I was rather confused as my paperwork had said I should check in “at least” three hours before my flight (so at 3:20 and it was 3:00). An attendant for another airline must have seen my confusion and beckoned me over. She put in my flight info and said that the check-in desk would be open at 4:20 and that the “at least three hours before” was wrong as it’s now “two hours before.” Augh! I had really hoped to check in, get through passport control and security, then have a late lunch and hunker down with a book or something.
Well, lunch was still on the table as there was a café at the entrance. Prices were outrageous, but, really, not worse than anything I’d seen in Skopje. I ordered a pretty decent puff pastry thing with diced chicken and cheese on top and took my time eating since the café had power outlets and so I could use my phone without any discharging the battery. Skopje’s Alexander the Great Airport has good free wifi. It kicks you off after 30 minutes, but you can sign back in immediately.
The check-in counter opened at 4:20 on the dot and I managed to not be anywhere near the head of the queue. When I finally made it to the counter, the attendant weighed my bags. I was shocked that my suitcase weighed 14.5KG when it weighed 9.5KG at home and in London and I’ve got less stuff in it! I’d say their scale is WAY off! But the attendant still gave me approved stickers for both my bags and did not say anything about my purse, the bag I bought in Sarajevo, in which I’d put everything I wanted handy for security.
Next stop was passport control/exit interview. They won’t let you on the plane if they don’t think the destination country will let you in. So I was pretty confident when I cleared that that I wouldn’t have any trouble when I landed. I did have a brain fart and had no idea how long I’d been in Macedonia! I said, “Two or three days,” and the rather dour woman said flatly, “Close enough,” before giving me an exit stamp.
Security was super easy. I just had to throw my computer, iPad, and phone into one bin with my purse and liquids, then send my two bags through without getting a tray for them. Nothing was questioned, not even the jar of peanut butter I’m convinced would have been confiscated in the Canada and US.
I was glad I’d had lunch since the only food on the other side of security was a bakery with premade sandwiches that were even more absurdly priced or Burger King. I had about 10CAD worth of denars left and thought that would be enough to get me some food for the plane. Nope, because I had to buy a bottle of water because the sign in the bathroom said the water was not potable. So I hoped that the sandwiches on the plane would be cheaper than in the café.
By this point, it was already just past 5Pm, with boarding commencing around 5:50. I thought I would have so much time at the airport, but it flew by! I had paid for priority boarding so I could have both my bags in the cabin and it was hilarious to watch everyone line up in the regular ticket queue while I was by lonesome in the priority boarding queue when I knew full well that we’d have to wait to board and I really wouldn’t gain anything speed of boarding wise. Sure enough, our tickets were checked and then we were shoehorned into a waiting area until we could get on the plane.
By some miracle, I’d been assigned a window seat, which made up for the absolute lack of legroom and the really big (not obese, just tall and muscular) guy crammed into the seat next to me.
I started to choke up as we took off. I hadn’t planned to leave the Balkans so quickly and I felt like I wasn’t quite done with them. I will have to go back!
Thankfully, it was a short flight (2.5 hours). And even more thankfully, sandwiches were quite a bit cheaper than at the airport. I got one with ham, cheese, dijon, and onion chutney, which was very tasty and nourishing. I really don’t think it’s worth buying food at most airports that only have sandwiches and the like and then trying to juggle it with all your luggage when prices and quality on the plane are comparable. And I never know what’s going to get through security so bringing my own snacks is so hit or miss. Might as well just pay the 5-7CAD for a very decent airline sandwich.
Before I knew it, we began our descent into Barcelona! I could not believe how fast the flight went.
We landed at terminal two of Barcelona El Prat Airport. There was a huge lineup for passport control, but it moved very quickly. I was greeted by the customs officer with a “Hola,” to which I replied, “Hola.” He had a glance through my passport, stamped it, handed it back, and said, “Bienvenidos.” That was it! Wow! He didn’t ask how long I’m staying or anything. I wish I had asked him to confirm my exit date, but I believe it is the 12th of January. I’ll have to double check that.
Next, I wanted to take out some cash to make sure I could pay for my transport in case they didn’t take credit cards. I knew that I could get a cheap train or bus into town, but my flight had been so inexpensive (60CAD) and I was coming in so late that I’d decided I would take a taxi (50CAD) to the apartment since I had originally budgeted 200CAD to get to Spain. I would never have paid that if I’d arrived in the afternoon, but I knew my host was staying up late to wait for me and I just wanted to get there. Well…
Terminal two of Barcelona El Prat is by far the worst airport I have ever flown into. There was nothing after passport control. No ATMs, no information, and while the bathrooms were open, they had no lights! And there was no internet. I vaguely remembered reading something about taxis being a bit cheaper from terminal one and looked around for information on transport there, to finally find a sign for a free shuttle being thataway. I headed there and found some Scottish tourists trying to get information out of the driver, but failing since he didn’t speak English and they had no Spanish. I asked the driver if there was an information desk they could go to and he said they’d have to go to terminal one. Another woman who spoke, I believe, Catalan (more on that in a bit), was trying to figure out where to catch her flight. I have no idea how she got to terminal two, but I was able to coax out of the shuttle driver that she probably had to go to terminal one as well. So I “wasted” quite a bit of time translating for people at terminal two!
I finally got on the shuttle to terminal one and it was a surprisingly long drive. But I knew I’d save about 10CAD on my taxi ride so it would be worth it. Terminal one was busier. I was beyond done by this point, so I went to the information kiosk and asked for an ATM (cajero). I followed the directions and found a row of ATMs. I had to try two to get one that would give me money. That will be my last time for a bit paying the steep $5 withdrawal fee since the Deutsche Bank in Spain is a member of the Global ATM Alliance. It was just unfortunate there wasn’t one at the airport.
Armed with cash, I went out to look for a taxi and when I approached one I was rudely told I had to “go downstairs.” I was really regretting by this point not having gotten on a bus marked “Centro” at terminal two! I could have just done that and gotten a taxi from downtown. I went “downstairs” and followed the signs to the taxi stands. There, I was assigned a taxi. I showed the driver the address and gave my neighbourhood. He said that it would be about 30 Euro, the usual rate to go downtown, and would I be paying cash or card? We had a bit of a chat on the way in, the usual question of where are you from, where are you coming from, what are you doing here, etc. Oh, it was so good to be back in a country where I can communicate with people!
Barcelona is part of Catalonia, which is basically like the Quebec of Spain, a nation within a nation with its own language, Catalan. Spanish is not the language of business here and all the signage has to be prominently in Catalan first. So while just about everyone speaks Castellano (European Spanish) and I will have not trouble communicating orally with people, I can’t fluently read the signage! Catalan seems to be the love child of French and Spanish and so it’s fairly legible to me, but it’s still definitely a foreign language. So I’m still not quite somewhere that I can communicate easily. It’s still “better” than the Balkans, though!
My driver found my flat in the Poble Sec neighbourhood without any trouble. I had a really hard time finding affordable accommodation in Barcelona on my “vacation” budget of 50CAD per night — a private room in a hostel started around 80CAD! But by being flexible, I found a private room in someone’s flat on Airbnb at a price I was willing to pay (about 43CAD a night). Poble Sec is about a 20-minute walk from just about anything I’d want to see in Barcelona so I knew I’d found a bargain. I did the private room in someone’s residence when I was in London, but the setup was more like a boarding house. Here, I would essentially be a flatmate and I thought it might be awkward, but the reviews said the gal is easygoing and almost never home anyway.
The flat is at the top of the building, five flights up, and what a climb it was up a very narrow and dark staircase! It reminded me of the climb to the flat in the movie “Barefoot in the Park.” But I finally made it and was happy to find a neat little room with a comfy bed waiting for me as well as a very relaxed host who was in no hurry to get to bed. We gabbed for about an hour and she just about convinced me to go to Morocco after Spain… 😀 She put me at ease and made me feel a bit less weird about living with a total stranger for four days. When she excused herself to go to bed, I asked if she’d mind if I took a shower (trying to be mindful of the noise) and she said to absolutely go ahead.
By the time I’d showed and was wound down enough to go to sleep, it was almost 2AM. Holy smokes, what a long day!
But I had made it to Spain! One adventure might have come to an end, but a whole new one is starting. Story of my life these days. 😀