Why Skopje doesn’t deserve to be overlooked

Macedonia had never been high on my list of places to see. In fact, it had never even made the list.

But when an American friend visited the country late last year, I couldn’t wait to book my flight to Skopje – and boy did it surprise me.

Skopje city centre has a host of museums of all varieties – archaeological, art and one on the Macedonian struggle, for some reason explained through the medium of waxwork figures.

 

The Fortress (known as Kale) dominates the city and cuts an impressive figure from below, and although it is a bit of a building site inside, a walk along the ramparts gives you a great view of the city.

Another favourite spot of mine was Macedonia Square, the biggest square in the whole country. Full of statues and beautiful buildings, it’s a great spot for photos, particularly at night.

Casual restaurants line the river and any of them would make the perfect spot for a meal as you watch day turn to night and lanterns on the city’s bridges light up.

Cross over the beautifully photogenic Stone Bridge and you step into a completely different atmosphere. The old city and Turkish bazaar are crammed with tiny shopfronts and sellers displaying their wares – with flamboyant dresses and golden jewellery at every corner.

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The place is teeming with people browsing round the rabbit warren of streets, and there are plenty of places to stop off for a bite to eat and indulge some people watching.

The best scenic spot to take in all of Skopje at once is at the top of Mount Vodno. A cable car will take you to the top to admire the 217ft Millennium Cross up close.

You can spot it from almost everywhere in Skopje, and it’s beautifully illuminated at night but it’s well worth the trip to see it up close and personal. When I went up, the stunning view was only improved by a group of paragliders testing their skills over the city.

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I was also lucky enough to squeeze in a visit to the spectacular Matka Canyon – which gets only more breathtaking as it unwinds. It’s easily organised as a half day trip and you can hike along if you’re feeling energetic, or rent a boat and guide to take you along in a more leisurely fashion to explore some caves. No prizes for guessing which option I took!

Travellers with a little more time can also hire kayaks to explore the magical ravine on their own terms.

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I’ll definitely be returning to Macedonia, and next time I’m looking forward to reaching Lake Ohrid, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site.

So take my advice and ignore Macedonia at your peril. With plenty of cheap accommodation and a choice of low-cost airlines including Wizz to get you there, there’s really no excuse to snub Skopje anymore.

 

My unexpected happy place

I’d suffered a close family bereavement the day before a work trip to Italy. I think I just went into autopilot. Numb from grief and desperate not to be surrounded by reminders of my loss for fear of being overcome by it, I decided to still go.

I was teaching English in northern Italy and staying with a host family who took me up to the Dolomites after the first week of class. I’d been before but I needed to fill every second of every day – not leaving a moment spare to allow grief to catch up with me.

So up we drove. I’d loved the Dolomites before so I was looking forward to it, but my excitement was dulled by grief. And then we pulled up at the most beautiful lake.

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I sat down and just took it all in, and for the first time that week – I stopped. Stopped talking, stopped thinking, stopped everything. I thought I’d come crashing down under the weight of all the grief… but I didn’t. For the first time in a week, I felt peaceful.

People had been windsurfing earlier in the day. Now, neon kites were strewn across the shore while a few stragglers still soared above the turquoise water.

I hopped in and floated on the calm lake, completely overwhelmed by a feeling of peace. It was such a relief to face my fear of being alone with my thoughts and not fall apart. It was such a relief in fact, that I couldn’t stop smiling.

I allowed myself to be happy, ignoring the twinge of guilt which comes with enjoying yourself while grieving and let myself have fun for a few hours, reading, swimming, acting as though my whole world wasn’t falling apart.

Now, with the clarity of time, I know isn’t the most beautiful lake in the world, or even in Italy . I don’t remember the name of the lake and I certainly couldn’t find it again.

But on that day, after the worst week of my life, when I needed peace and comfort, it was there.

And so for me, it will always be a happy place.

Tales from a refugee camp (Part 2)

This is the second part of a column I wrote for the Lowestoft Journal on returning home from a refugee camp after three months of service. 

I’m back in Suffolk now, and although I’m pleased to be home, I often find my thoughts wandering to camp.

Since I’ve been home people have been asking me what it was like, but it’s impossible to sum up three months extreme highs and lows in a one-sentence answer.

I wasn’t prepared to get as emotionally invested as I did. I thought I could maintain a level of separation, but you just can’t help getting close to people.

The refugees I met at Kara Tepe camp are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. They have next to nothing, but would always give me soap when I was washing my hands at camp, or bring volunteers food when they could.

I quickly grew to think of them as my friends, which made it all the harder to leave them behind when I have no idea what will happen to them in the future.

The daily work was intense – dealing with very desperate people who feel as though they have been forgotten. I had to quickly accept I couldn’t change the world or solve all their problems for them, no matter how much I wanted to. I couldn’t send them to Germany to be with their families or help them start a new life in Canada. But I could give them clothes, teach them a bit of English and be a friend at this vulnerable point in their lives. So that’s what I did – although it broke my heart knowing I couldn’t do more.

As I left Lesbos, winter was truly starting to come in. The charity I volunteered with helped to make sure every one of the 1,000 residents had warm clothes, winter coats and good shoes to see them through the months of bad weather that lie ahead.

Small heaters have been installed in the refugees’ housing units, and they were all given Thermos flasks to fill up with hot tea from our drinks point whenever they want.

It will physically get them through the winter, but I worry about how they will cope mentally.

Many of the refugees have been at Kara Tepe for the best part of a year. And with the EU only meeting 5% of its yearly target to relocate refugees in Greece and Italy, it doesn’t look like the 62,000 people stranded in the country will be going anywhere fast.

With no end or solution to this humanitarian crisis in sight, all we can do is to make Kara Tepe the best that it could be.

As I left, there were plans to upgrade the refugees’ houses to sturdier pre-fabs, to increase the capacity to 1,500 and to deliver bedframes so people don’t have to sleep on mattresses on the floor anymore.

My part in the story is over for now, but there are so many wonderful people still working all over Greece to try and help these vulnerable people in their most desperate times.

And having seen first hand the selfless dedication of volunteers on Lesbos, I know the friends I’ve left behind are being cared for as best as they can be until the day they are finally given a chance at a new, peaceful life.

To donate to an organisation caring for refugees at Kara Tepe camp in Lesbos, visit http://www.humanitarian-support-agency.org

Tales from a refugee camp (Part 1)

Last year, I spent three months volunteering on a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. This is the first of two columns I wrote for The Lowestoft Journal, my local paper, about my experience. 

I’ve been volunteering at Kara Tepe refugee camp for six weeks now, and it has quickly begun to feel like a small village.

It makes it easy to draw parallels with life back home in Suffolk. The cafes I used to eat lunch in have been replaced with a tea point where we serve hot drinks to refugees. The shops I loved browsing have become a clothing distribution point, where families come to get warm jumpers and coats for winter. And the local schools I visited to cover stories for The Journal have become small classrooms where I teach English to an enthusiastic class.

We have almost 1,000 people here at my camp – mostly Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees. They are well cared for by a whole host of organisations, including the Humanitarian Support Agency who I am volunteering with.

We focus on tea and clothes, with families coming to our clothing distribution centre for private appointments. They are able to get everything they need – from winter shoes to baby grows – thanks entirely to donations.

They get three meals a day, they live in weatherproof housing units and there are plenty of activities to occupy the 400 or so children. They may have the equivalent facilities of a small village, and they are certainly better off than many refugees trapped in Europe, but it still isn’t a life as we know it.

Some of our residents have been at Kara Tepe for eight or nine months. That’s a long time to be unable to do something as simple as choose what you eat for dinner and when. Unable to see family members back home or elsewhere in Europe. Unable to get a job.

Many of the refugees I know want to go to Germany as they have family there. Some dream of Canada. But most of them simply want to get out of a refugee camp and move on with their lives.

There are around 6,000 refugees in Lesbos, more than 15,000 on the Greek islands in total – and the numbers can be overwhelming. There have been over 169,000 arrivals in Greece this year so far – almost 3,000 last month alone.

And when you’re talking about numbers this big it’s easy to lose sight of the individuals caught up in the crisis. But that is what volunteering at Kara Tepe has brought home for me.

Every one of those numbers is a person, not just a statistic on a spreadsheet.

From now on when people talk about the refugee crisis, I’ll be thinking of the goldsmith who makes jewellery from wool for all the volunteers at the camp, the university professor who starts every day by asking after my health and the children who track me down when they break something because I know where the superglue is kept.

They are real people, not just a problem that needs solving, and I’m privileged to be out here helping them in my own, small way.

To find out more about the Humanitarian Support Agency or to donate, visit http://humanitarian-support-agency.org/

Hello, my name’s Polly and I’m awful at travelling

Confession time: I’m a terrible traveller. Really. I get homesick, I forget everything I’ve learnt by the time my suitcase is unpacked and I make a beeline for McDonalds wherever possible (sidenote: the Teriyaki McBurger in Japan is amazing).

I’m also quite prone to travel-related disasters.  Late last year, I spent a week in Macedonia and the Greek mainland before moving on and staying in Lesbos for three months. I picked out a week’s worth of clothes and vacuum packed everything else to save on luggage space. I accidentally vacuum packed all my socks. Thank god for sandals.

I coped without socks, but I’ve still not yet managed to live down the time I moved to university and didn’t pack a single pair of pants.

Forgetting socks and pants can be easily remidied though, relegating them way down my substantial league table of disasters. Some of my other travel fails, not so much.

There was the memorable time in Milan I booked the hotel for the wrong day. Full as the proverbial inn, the receptionist said we couldn’t stay but called a friend across the city who ran a hostel and said he had space. So over we trekked, and eventually came to the address, only to find a sign for a ballet school. I pressed the buzzer anyway and it was indeed some kind of a hostel. Still not 100% how legit the place was.

It wasn’t until arriving in Stockholm one time my friend and I both realised we had no idea what hotel we’d booked. We knew it was a boat, and  we knew what it looked like, we just had no idea where in the city it was. In a land before internet on my phone, we (questionably) decided to get the tunnelbana out to a place my travelling companion said sounded familiar. We left the station, and like the good Girl Guide that I am, I decided we should go downhill because water flows downwards. And sure enough – there it was! A valuable lesson learnt and neither of us could believe our luck.

My exceptional luck with hotels reached a peak in Las Vegas though. Just needing a one-night stopover on my way to the Grand Canyon I booked into a hostel. So there’s the glitzy Las Vegas Strip, lovely, swanky, fabulous. Then there’s Downtown Las Vegas. Little less swanky, still charming. Then 13 blocks or so further out of the city was my hostel. You know how hostels will sell towels and internet codes at the front desk? This one sold pregnancy tests and condoms. I remember two men sitting outside the restaurant next door laughing as they saw me approach. “They didn’t tell you this place was here did they?” said one. Clearly bloody not. I made it out alive and chose to find somewhere a little more centrally-located for my next trip to Sin City.

What have been some of your biggest travel fails? And what did you learn from them? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @pollygwrites