Two years ago Explorason and I went to enter the country of Macedonia in our UK registered vehicle, but when we passed the second border check they tried to charge us an incredible amount for the vehicle to enter, so we had to turn around and leave, and we went to Kosovo instead.
Right from the start things went wrong
This should have been a warning sign to me, but I am quite determined and strong-willed, and so we persisted through a myriad of problems.
But the end result saw us face an invisible danger we had no idea existed.
Greek taxi drivers are notorious for trying to overcharge, and as we leave our hotel (we’ve been up since 5:00 a.m.) in Kalampata, the driver tried to charge us a crazy price for driving 2 blocks to the railway station, asking and extra 5 Euro for our luggage on top of his crazy price.
The whole 2 blocks to the railway station, he was also trying to drive us at another crazy price to Thessaloniki – as if we would do that!
Long-term travel can get tiring, but one of the things we really get tired of is many of the taxi drivers trying to ‘pull a swifty’.
Explorason usually is now the one to sort out this problem!
After having to change trains (which we not informed of when we bought the tickets) we arrive in Thessaloniki.
We then find the train no longer runs to Macedonia; the bus is cancelled from the main station, and the mini-van refuses to take our luggage, even if we pay for a seat to put it on. The very uninterested attendant tells us to wait until 6:00 p.m. ‘in case’ there is room. We have no desire to do this.
Fortunately, a kind man at the adjoining Thessaloniki car hire company gets on the phone and rings around to find us a bus company that will assist. He was so kind and really was the light in our day.
We are told to walk one block, but as soon as we leave the railway station, roadworks force us to walk with a long and rough detour several blocks, until we find the pokey bus company office where I purchase a 3:30 pm bus ticket.
We also pay $20 Euro extra for our bags. Our tickets were all up approx $150 AU which is a crazy price!
Once the bus departs the driver and his assistant both simultaneously smoke and talk on their mobiles, and other passengers join them at the front of the bus. It is like a mini party down there with one lady sharing the co-attendants seat as the smoke and talk together.
YUCK! As we are 2 rows from the front, this starts to make me cough.
We drive about an hour towards the border when the road is closed by police as there is a border closure ahead by a farmer’s strike, so we are informed.
We sit about 1 hour and then we are driven to Lidl car park in the middle of no-where. Thankfully the kind lady in Lidl lets us all use the bathroom (as there isn’t one on the bus).
We can purchase snacks and the driver offers Greek coffee to us, which I thought was a nice gesture.
Explorason befriends the local dogs, and decides they need his sandwiches more than he does. He is such a dog lover and made sure they didn’t consume Nutella because “chocolate is bad for them!”
About 7:30 pm it is now dark and cold and we receive a phone call from the police that they have arranged paperwork for our bus to pass through the road block.
This is pretty exciting as we are the only vehicle on the road, and we are escorted with flashing lights.
Hundreds of tractors line the road, and when we arrive at the blockage, they are forced to move fairly quickly.
We have our passports collected and the bother border crossings are quick, but then we sit for half an hour whilst passengers go Duty-Free shopping for cigarettes etc. I do wonder if the driver gets a kick-back?
Oh, I forgot to add – the driver gets pulled over by the police for what appeared to be speeding earlier in the evening, but cigarettes and drinks seemed to be exchanged and we carried on.
We drive on into the night and a dense fog starts. The bus is forced to slow down and next thing we know we are dropped off 30 km outside of Skopje in what appears to be pea-soup thick fog surrounded by snow!
Fortunately, the petrol station is open and the attendant calls us a taxi, but we have to wait in the freezing cold and surrounded by snow, The horrid ‘fog’ is our only friend for forty-five minutes, and my cough is getting worse.
There is a reason for this!
We are ever so thankful that a huge Mercedes pulls up and is a taxi driver and takes us into Skopje but the ‘fog’ gets worse and we crawl in and he gets lost about ten times.
It was about $40 AU to get into the city, which for Skopje is a pretty hefty fare but he was worth every cent.
It is past midnight when we arrive at the Hotel Vlaho, and the lovely receptionist lady offers us a hot chocolate. We sit in lobby area like zombies a bit shocked that we have been on the go since 5:30 a.m. and we are only just here now.
It is a new hotel, and the staff are really nice, and our room is tiny for the money, but we are so thankful for a clean bed.
The room is hot as the air-conditioning is cranked up fairly high, and my cough is so bad, so we sleep with the bathroom window open and all the air from outside fills the room – this is a really bad move – we will tell you why soon.
I cough all night and my lungs are so tight. I feel terrible.
Problem 10 – the invisible danger
Next day we both wake with massive headaches, and Explorason is exhausted so I go for a couple of long walks to explore the area.
There are many poor houses around and virtually NO-ONE is in the streets. I pass two people wearing breathing masks but I have no idea why.
I am coughing and coughing, and I return to the hotel and have to use a nebuliser to assist my breathing. It just seems foggy outside – I don’t smell smog. It is almost as if it is invisible.
That night we go to a restaurant around the corner (after we had walked the area again) only to be told there is a danger warning that the air pollution is critical and is the worst in the world that night.
It reads nearly 750 in areas of Skopje and it is indeed a silent killer!
750 is dangerous. Very dangerous.
I wish I had taken a screen shot at that time.
No wonder I can’t breathe. I return to the hotel and I start to panic.
We have paid for 3 nights at the hotel, and this is thankfully night two. That means we can leave tomorrow, which is a shame as the hotel is so lovely. We need to leave ASAP.
We are heading to Bulgaria, but there are no flights we can take to leave early. We had planned on staying 5 nights but only booked for three nights ‘in case’ and I am so thankful for this decision.
We take a taxi to the bus terminal but because I am coughing so much, he thinks I am sick, and he opens the windows and fills the car with the polluted air, and I have tears rolling down my face.
I can hardly breathe.
This is the invisible danger of travel and I have never encountered before in such force. I feel like if we stay much longer, I will die!
I show him the ‘asthma puffer’ and I tell you, I was about to jump out and get another cab if he didn’t put the windows up. I couldn’t think straight! But we worked it out and got us to the bus terminal and he was really OK in the end. Language barriers can be so frustrating for both sides. I’m sure he thought I was going to ‘infect him’ with some lurgy he thought I had.
We could only book a bus for the next day after lunch, so we purchased tickets (selecting near the front so Explorason doesn’t get travel sick).
The air pollution is very much in pockets in Skopje, and we looked online and found the city area actually had the lowest count as it was away from the factories so we headed there.
We were shocked the government really is cleaning up Skopje, and it is a bit like mini-Greece, with more statues than I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Huge marble and granite buildings and fountains grace the centre, many still under construction. Skopje
Skopje will be a great city for tourism in years to come, but the government needs to do something about the air pollution issue.
We last only about two hours visiting the largest old Ottoman Bazaar outside of Turkey, and we dine there.
We find a taxi and return to the hotel where we stay inside until we have to leave.
The Hotel Vlaho is fabulous and the staff all exit with us and wave us good-bye. I would definitely recommend this hotel if you o decide to visit Skopje.
We wait half an hour for the bus driver to take off. He stands around but at this stage, he has smoked no cigarette.
AS SOON as the coach departs the driver starts to smoke. I can’t believe it!
I just want to get out Macedonia so much.
I feel like this country is killing me. I cough and splutter and can hardly breathe, and the lady behind me says she has felt the same. She has a massive headache too, and I sit and use my nebulizer again to try and breathe a little easier.
(Please note, I do not suffer asthma. I am a healthy woman.)
I show the driver my nebulizer and he screams at me. Completely goes crazy and orders me to the back of the bus which we also can’t do because the windy roads will make Explorason ill. Oh dear – this is no fun at all.
The end is near – NO! The mountain road is closed. We have to drive a different road to Sofia. The drive is nearly twice as long.
Why am I surprised we are dropped off at a bus terminal area that has no taxis!?
We bump our cases over the snowy old roads for several blocks to Hotel Favorit.
Sofia is a lovely city. We wake as it is snowing and instantly we feel happy to be here.
We like Sofia a lot.
Hotel Favorit is probably one of the cleanest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – I’d give it a ten out of ten.
I will never return to Macedonia until they fix their air pollution issue, and even then I don’t know if I want to go back. I feel so sorry for the people living there. It is only bad on certain days and two days after we left it was at a good but unhealthy score.
I feel so sorry for the people living there.
I don’t make a habit of writing negative blogs, but when my life is put in danger, I think this is something people need to know in order to protect themselves and their families.
I’m glad we are safe, and I’m glad we are out. I continue to cough.
I continue to cough.
What a scary experience Macedonia turned out to be for us. I Macedonia is absolutely beautiful,
I hear Macedonia is absolutely beautiful in the country and the air pollution is very low there, so please do check the air quality before you go.