North Macedonia

I don’t even know what day of the week it is anymore, but I knew on this day that my sisters – Julie and Natalie – were meeting me to spend the next three weeks together.  They would be flying into the Sofia, Bulgaria airport and we’d be driving through the Balkans from there.  I was beyond excited for their arrival and got to the airport in plenty of time to greet them.

Once we were all together, we piled into our rental car and headed straight for the border of North Macedonia.  Julie had previously visited Bulgaria and I had just spent four days in Sofia, so we decided to start the journey the same day they arrived.  With intentions of getting to Skopje, North Macedonia in record time, we decided to get out of the city before stopping for lunch.  When we did finally stop, I think I had my most fond experience in Bulgaria.

We were in the country at this point, in a small town that probably had a population no bigger than a few thousand people.  There was one restaurant that appeared very authentic, and really, it was the only restaurant for miles, so we chose this one.

We pulled up to the door where there were about five steps to get inside.  A man and a woman – I assume husband and wife – stepped out the front door and exchanged some words in Bulgarian with us.  We obviously couldn’t respond back outside of hand signals, so we repeatedly kept pointing at the car; it wasn’t clear where we could park it.  I had gotten out of the car and was sitting in my wheelchair next to Natalie on the sidewalk.  They kept pointing at me and talking amongst themselves when I realized that they thought we needed help up the steps with the wheelchair.  I quickly started crawling up the five steps and then Natalie pointed at the car.  They suddenly understood and pointed to a parking space just across the street.

Once inside, the woman said about three words in English – soup, egg, or chicken – and handed us a menu that didn’t have a single word in English on it.  We did our best to translate it with Google Translate and were getting a lot of results that included animal organs – chicken hearts, pork livers, brains of either animal, and so on.  Unsure if the translation was just off or if they were truly serving animal organs, we opted for ‘tarator’ soup, which is a common soup in Bulgaria made of their native yogurt, cucumbers, and dill.  It’s served cold and is quite refreshing.  We each got a large bowl of this, some bread, and coffees, and honestly, were quite satisfied with the meal.

We thanked the woman profusely with hand signals and smiles and paid the equivalent of $7 USD for all of us.  Things are cheap in the Bulgarian countryside!  Like almost everyone else I encountered throughout Bulgaria, this woman and what I assume is her husband were the most genuine people, and despite our language differences, we were able to share a few minutes together making a new memory.

We continued on our drive towards Skopje, North Macedonia.  The drive itself was stunning.  We were going over the Pirin Mountains and the winding roads with very little traffic made for a pleasant and scenic drive.  The border crossing between Bulgaria and North Macedonia took at least 30 minutes.  We still have no idea what was going on inside that little booth in the middle of nowhere, but we handed them our three passports and car registration documents and waited patiently while they reviewed everything, randomly typing things into a computer and sometimes peering up at us.  At one point, the man going through our documents had invited two other workers to help him.  Not a word was exchanged, just a handoff of paperwork between the two parties.  Something that can take just a few mere seconds between some border crossings took a strange amount of time here.

Once we got through immigration and customs – which was done in both countries, adding to our time – we continued on our way.  The cell phone data plans we are using do not include North Macedonia, so not long after crossing into North Macedonia we lost our access completely.  At this point, there was nothing around but large mountainous peaks (North Macedonia has more mountain peaks than any other country), some cattle, and their shepherds.  We didn’t mind though, as we had a full tank of gas and were really enjoying the views and each other’s company, laughing almost the time entire drive.  We’d pull off on the side of the road as we got to the top of a peak overlooking a canyon and its river, or when a small village provided the perfect photo opportunity.

It wasn’t until a few hours into our trip that we realized we would be late getting to our AirBNB and needed to let our host know.  Of course, our cell phones were not working so we tried every opportunity we could to get access to WiFi, which really was about once an hour at the lone gas station we would encounter.  We tried, and tried, and tried, but we were completely unsuccessful and ended up arriving two hours late to some pretty frustrated hosts.  We apologized and explained the situation, which they didn’t seem to empathize with, but none the less, we checked in and were asleep pretty quickly.  It was a long day for everyone, especially Julie and Natalie who had several flights plus the driving.

Skopje itself is a rather small city with a few sites that are notable.  Mother Teresa was born in North Macedonia, so there’s a memorial for here near the city center.  The city center itself is stunning, and the surrounding areas are equally as cute.  There is an Old Baazar that the Turks built years ago, so we explored that also, stopping for a coffee along the way.  The entire city feels very safe and is very clean, with some nice areas for outside dining.

But my absolute most favorite part of North Macedonia was the kayaking trip we did that morning.  Matka Canyon is about a 30-minute drive outside of Skopje.  When we arrived, we parked our car in a very small parking lot at the bottom of a small walking path.  We walked along the side of the mountain for about 100 meters where we found a lovely café overlooking the canyon.  We had brunch here – with a few extra coffees – before we found our way to the kayaks.

The kayaks were down a few flights of stairs and two young men quickly grabbed hold of my chair in the front and back and gracefully carried me down, not a question or doubt that I would be able to do the kayaking.  This was refreshing!

Natalie and I shared a double-seater kayak while Julie got into a single.  She is training for a triathlon and wanted to do some swimming in the canyon.  She was full on ready to go; wetsuit, goggles, and swim cap all in place.  She jumped in and out quickly about three times before she finally admitted that the water was too cold to swim in.  I felt it and it was definitely ‘freshly melted mountain snow’ kind of cold.

We spent about two hours in the canyon, just slowly drifting around.  The mountains on both sides of us stood higher than anything I’ve ever experienced on the water, and the peacefulness of the canyon was incredible.  There are not a lot of tourists in Matka Canyon, which makes for smooth waters and serenity, with very few sounds outside of the natural birds chirping and wind blowing.  We all sat together and pondered about how vastly large the planet really is.  We were dots on a map at the point, mere specks of dust in the entirety of the universe, so far away from anyone or anything.  The reality of what was going on in the rest of the world seemed so far away, so impossible that there could be any other way than just floating along a quiet river at the foothills of an incredibly gorgeous mountain range.  There’s something about being far away in the nature of this planet that will take away even the slightest of worries, which is what Matka Canyon did for us on this particular morning.

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