Skopje to Sarajevo – a terrible bus ride


Our few days in Skopje were over, and our next steps were to bus over to Bosnia. We had read that there were fairly frequent busses running between the cities so it shouldn’t have been a problem. The first sign that maybe we chose the wrong method of transit was the friendly lady manning the ticket counter at the station explained that the only buses out were on Wednesday and Sunday at 8 pm and would take about 10 hours. We bought our tickets for the Wednesday bus. Overnights aren’t usually a problem, and we’ve done our fair share of them so far.


The streetlight lit walk back to the station – mercifully short with all of our gear.


It seemed like a normal economy bus line. We were early to try and get a decent seat for my legs – the buses in eastern Europe are a bit cramped.


Our bags below and the bus full, we take off. A man in front of us to the left was very friendly and told us all about his adventures hiking in Bulgaria, the mountains he’d climbed, and the state of the local soccer clubs. He was on his way to Sarajevo for a match – something he said he does fairly frequently.


They gather up our passports in anticipation of the border crossing.


At about this time I tried to use the bathroom. It was locked. Maybe it was just for the border crossing I thought. Someone told me something in Macedonian and I missed the nuance. After the border I would try again. Same result though, the man was telling me the bathroom was out of service. The bathroom is probably always out of service.


Shortly thereafter, the conductor comes back to us and asks us to move. This we learn in loud tones and with help from our soccer fan friend. It’s not entirely clear why, and since we weren’t told anything when we got on, we stay in our seats. An explanation comes out – the conductor, who is also the alternate bus driver, needs to sleep. Ok, somewhat reasonable. We agree to move and the conductor, realizing that we’re together, asks another lady to please move from her seat so that we can sit together instead of separately. We didn’t feel great about this, but it was nice to at least keep sitting together. The lady definitely did not feel great about this.


The scene that played out afterward could have been from any Three Stooges film. As everyone did their best to sleep, a noise started. A squeak that came in and out, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, never quite on any particular beat. It drove the sleeping conductor mad. Panels were pushed and examined, seats were raised, bags were shifted. The attempt to find the source of the noise was in vain. Finally, after several passengers helped in the search, someone stuffed a blanket between two roof panels near the back seat. It didn’t solve the noise, but everyone involved felt like something had been done, so it was time to try sleeping again.


Dawn came, and whatever kind of rest we can get on a bus was gotten. All told not too bad. 20171005_081949

Our conductor and football friend slept on.


Outside, the Bosnian landscape went by. We had passed through Serbia in the middle of the night. Oddly I don’t remember crossing the border into Bosnia, but Natalie does. She remembers it as being very, very cold, at around 4am.

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Several hours of sunrise follow. The landscape and scenery is really quite pretty.

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Finally, sometime early in the morning, we get let off at a restaurant/bus stop.


Bathrooms are first priority. After that I go to browse the snacks and food available. It turns out they only accept Bosnian currency, and only in cash. As a point of interest it’s nearly impossible to get Bosnian currency anywhere except inside the country, and there are no ATMs nearby. We dig in to what’s left of our travel snacks.


The bus ride at this point continues on. We had been pretty firmly told that it would be 10 hours. Well, actually 12 hours corrected the driver mid way. Actually, the trip ran on for more than 15 hours. The internet confirms this is about the time it takes, but nobody on the ground was giving that number.


It’s time to get off the bus!


Natalie took this picture at the moment of her escape. We would later discover that sadly, her crocheted orange owl had stayed on the bus, its loop snapped off when the bag was jammed under the seat during our seat change.


One last look at our bus..


Sweet freedom! The station had an ATM, and a bakery. Bosnia has amazing baked goods, and extremely nice people. The lady at the bakery very kindly took my 50 mark to pay for a 3 mark piece of pie. It’s like buying a stick of gum with a hundred dollar bill. Change and food in hand, we got on the metro system and headed to our hostel!

Can we recommend visiting Skopje? Yes. Can we recommend visiting Sarajevo? Absolutely! Can we recommend the bus between them? No. Fifteen hours on a bus with no bathroom is not great. Unless you’re on a tight budget, take the flight. It’s supposed to be much easier.


Macro shots on Mt.Vodno


Our hike at the edge of Skopje took a while not just because of the distance, but also because we spent a lot of time taking close up shots of beautiful flowers and animals along the trail. This guy is probably an Erhard’s Wall Lizard.


A lovely Crimson Scabious. They were everywhere at the start of the hike.


This looks like it might be the same as the Crimson, but dry and ready to send out seeds.


What would have been a delicious Chicken-of-the-Woods, but had been already eaten. We found and cooked one of these once, they really do taste and feel just like chicken. (Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely confident you can properly identify them)


This is a type of Cyclamen. They are beautiful and absolutely everywhere wherever there is shade. We found an entire tree tunnel lined with them near the end of the hike – a carpet of pink and purple.


This is the leaf of the Cyclamen. Interestingly, they’re usually a good distance from the flower clusters.

Unknown, possibly Armeria vulgaris?

After this start the insects!
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This reminds me very much of the weta. It’s actually a type of saddleback bush cricket.


Possibly a type of locust? Nope. It’s a Predatory Bush Cricket. It’s also known as the spiked magician and it eats other crickets, among many other things.


It was huge. This is a 6.5 inch phone for reference. This bug is a fairly uncommon sighting.


A lovely brown grasshopper of some sort.


And a very similar looking one in bright green. Maybe female and male of the same species?


And the latest in our unending search for jumping spiders. This little guy has a meal in his mouth.


The natural beauty of Macedonia!

Hiking in Skopje, Mount Vodno


Mount Vodno girds the southwest side of Skopje and towers over the city. It’s not a giant mountain by any means, thought it is nearly 3500 feet at the highest peak. Incidentally, that’s where this hike really starts. The first task is to get from the city up to the mountain. It may be possible to drive all the way to the starting point at the cross, but we found the road to be blocked. Instead our taxi dropped us off at a picnic area by the start of the gondola which takes people up to the cross. Since we were way, way early, we chose to walk up the switchbacks to the peak.


We hiked up the road, taking shortcuts as we found them. For most of the larger switchbacks, there is a small dirt path that leads up the middle, cutting out most of the switchback in exchange for a slightly steeper climb. It’s well worth it.


By the time we reached the peak and the famous cross, the gondola was nearly ready to start ferrying people up. We helped a group of runners take some photos, and off we went.


Past the cross, things get easier. It’s really mostly downhill from here, though the trail is hard to keep track of at times.


We thought we could see a path in the rocks, and went with it.


The view of the city is the best from here, though we were still early enough that the morning fog had not burned off. For great city shots, later in the day would be better. Later in the day unfortunately comes with more sun and baking heat. The Mt. Vodno hike is hot. Not blistering desert hot, but definitely sunscreen, wide hat, and water hot. I forgot my hat on this of all days, and suffered for it.


At this point we continued up what we thought was the trail – in the early parts of the hike there really is only one path, and it’s pretty easy to keep straight. It follows the curvy mountain topography pretty well though, so there are plenty of ups and downs.


We found this amazingly unhelpful map. Maybe in Macedonia all maps are like this and locals can read it just fine. It took us forever to figure out what was going on though – you can see the start of our hike at the end of the yellow line, and then a strange sort of perspective leading forwards towards the famed Matka lake.


We found this campsite, so we were probably on the right path. GPS at this point showed we were on the main trail, so all was well.


Shortly after, we stumbled on this thing. The camo paintjob says military, but the vibe was entirely X-files.

IMG_4123 A huge garage, for anti-aircraft guns probably. IMG_4138

While we were exploring, we’d hear melodic bells from time to time. Initially this was alarming, but it turned out to be just cows grazing on the mountainside. Each one has a bell tuned to a different note, either for a feeling of peace and tranquility, or to tell the cows apart. Either way, much nicer than a standard cowbell.


This was one of the stranger parts of the complex. It looked like a former office or apartment of some sort. There was once definitely a heavy door here when it was operational.


This is inside the door. It looked vaguely recently inhabited so we decided not to probe much further. Whether it’s the cow herder who lives here or someone else, the structure is definitely occupied at least periodically. The graffiti was not super interesting – pretty typical name and slur scrawl.


After the base we kept walking, and got pretty well lost. Not lost in terms of location or direction, but lost in terms of the path. It branched, unbeknownst to us, and we had taken the upwards route. Unfortunately, we didn’t think this would connect with the trail we knew we wanted to take down to Lake Matka. What to do? We went off-trail, into the dusty, spiny-tree filled hillside. There were no clear paths and the sun was baking at this point. It took us a good half hour to come to this sign surrounded by trees in an otherwise dusty red expanse. We actually went the wrong way here as well, and it took a bit to realize before we turned back. The correct path to get to Matka is behind the sign, not past it with the sign on your right. This really is the only indicator in the area and it’s pretty tough to see from the trail we came in on.


The trail from here until the next peak was this reddish dirt, scrubland. It’s somewhat easy to follow after the sign, though we did come on some further difficulty up ahead.


We came upon this sign telling us we were still going the right way. These are invaluable on the trail as the trail markers are fairly well worn and sometimes mislead.  Be warned, the hours and minutes on these things are totally off. The top one says 3.5 hours to Vodno, and the bottom says 25 minutes to Matka. Both of these were off by at least a factor of 1.5 or 2.


We crested our current trail and found a sign pointing to our destination!


From this little grassy outcrop we found what we thought was the trail, leading pretty steeply down the mountainside. It was doable – Natalie went down a ways to check, but ultimately not the right direction. That was a little off to the side.


While we were there, we got this amazing view of the river Treska way down below. We didn’t have very far left to go and we would have to descend all the way down.


Here started out descent. We first came basically right up to this rocky peak, and then the downhill started in earnest.


The footing here is pretty bad – mostly loose gravel so it’s entirely possible to pick up a little speed and slide right off the sharply angled switchbacks. Caution is highly recommended.


This part of the mountain had burned in a recent fire. Much like Bulgaria, Macedonia was suffering its own drought. The mountain was dry and dusty the whole way here, and now we saw what looked like pretty extensive burns on the river facing side.


After some scrabbling and sliding down the mountain, we came to a shady, forested path along the river. We continued down it for a bit until we got to a makeshift bridge that got us to the river itself. Sweet frigid relief!


After about six hours of hiking this was the best feeling – our feet went numb pretty quickly and the pain relief followed. The drop in body temperature was a welcome thing – up until now we had been sweating profusely.


The section of river we were in was mostly shallows, fairly slow moving. The rocks underfoot were pretty painful, round and knobbly. Despite this, we walked around, explored, and skipped some stones for a bit before we continued on. Though we had reached the river, this was not our final destination.


We continued our path along the river, looking for a chance to cross.


That came some way down, where there were a series of steel bridges going from one side to the other. They also went to a man-made concrete divider in the middle of the river, which we chose to explore. Not much there, except for another chance to finish crossing, so thankfully we weren’t forced to turn around.


The river looked ok – not super healthy but also not entirely choked out by algae and seaweed.


A fair walk from where we descended was the first true sign of tourist activity – this dam. There’s a little parking lot just before it, and this is where most visitors to Matka come.


Past the dam is a dock and a restaurant, and past that is a cliff-side walkway that continues on for a very, very long way. We’re not sure where it ends but we walked for about 20 minutes before turning around to try and catch a boat to the famous caves.


To get to the caves, you can go by canoe. This takes about an hour one way and we were exhausted and running short on time.


We chose instead option number B – the motor boat. This came with a guide and a somewhat hefty fee – one or two thousand denar for two people. It wasn’t unaffordable, but it first blush it was quite a bit for an hourlong tour.


We had to wait a bit for the boat to fill up, so I sat and petted the local semi-stray dog. He was super friendly, but extremely dirty. Well fed, but not often washed it seems.


Our guide took us down the river with expert skill and speed. We couldn’t really hear much over the motor but he was pretty funny.


Some people apparently live right on the river and get to and from home by boat.


About 20 minutes in we started rounding the bend of the river. Shortly after, we came to our first caves.


This was the first set, and the only one that we could walk in since the water was lower than the cave entrance. Our guide spun up a diesel motor which ran the lights in the cave, and in we went!


Down a few flights of stairs we got to see where the water level was. This is part of a huge underwater cave system, and the locals speculate it’s probably the largest underwater cave in the world. That’s currently held by the Sac Actun in the Yucatan, but with further exploration, who knows?


I got a chance to talk with our guide quite a bit. His English was ok but his Bulgarian was better. We chatted about the difference between our countries. He turns out to be from Albania – he and his parents moved to Macedonia for the stronger economy, or perhaps fleeing as refugees. He said that he wants to go visit Bulgaria one day. His friends go fairly regularly he said, and they really love everywhere they’ve seen. In their eyes Bulgaria is a model for what Macedonia might become one day if things continue to improve. This was a new perspective for me. Comparing Bulgaria to the rest of the western world would never yield such a high opinion, but here we were in Macedonia where they thought my home country was fantastic. He said he hoped that Macedonia would receive EU funding just like we had, and that the next election would determine the course of the future – if the old guard (and corruption) won, the EU would abandon them. If the new guard (and probably less corruption) won, then the EU would gladly provide funding for infrastructure and other improvements.


Our tour of the first cave being over, we got back on the boat and went to look at the second. This was only visible from the river, for obvious reasons we couldn’t go inside. Our guide told us that spelunkers came every year to map out further and further depths in the cave, and that they hadn’t yet reached an end.


Sunset hit right around this time and we headed back to the dock. I talked more with our guide about his hopes for the country and himself, and which parts of Bulgaria he would like to visit. Apparently Varna is pretty popular. From the dock we had to walk back to where we thought the bus would be. We were wrong about that. The bus was actually near the Be-Ka Market at Glumovo, a 40 minute walk away. The next #12 was coming in in only 40 minutes, so we walked at a pretty fast clip to catch it. The walk is along a fairly quiet but large road, so cars were always an issue. Once nearby, we got some snacks at a local grocery store and hopped on the bus. My Macedonian failed me and instead of taking us to the city center where we should have hopped off, we stayed on the bus until it went straight into the boonies. We had to wait until it turned around and brought us near-ish to the hostel area before getting off again – many thanks to the young lady who helped us figure out where we needed to be!


Since this hike was fairly poorly laid out in the middle section, we made a photo map of it. We didn’t take any pictures in the section where we were lost – the middle from the end of the mapped trail to the next sign, but this gives a sense of direction for that portion. The starting parking lot (where the gondola is) is the blue marker to the right.




We’ve continued our travels on to Skopje in FYROM, or Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia. Over the ire of the Greeks, though, everyone here just calls the country Macedonia. With wide boulevards, gleaming new buildings, and plethora of monuments in the city’s center, you get the feeling that this is a government looking to definite itself as modernized and powerful.





Leave the city center to find yourself surrounded by densely-built neighborhoods, with neatly-constructed houses beside ramshackle dwellings and the occasionally-forgotten Soviet structure.





Head to the “old town” to see the influence of Ottoman rule on this Balkan state. Narrow pedestrian paths weave between wooden stalls selling souvenirs and shops brimming with beaten copper, filigree jewelry, and ‘handmade’ goods that may or may not be made in Macedonia. Have a seat at a café and order a Turkish tea or coffee and desserts like baklava or sekerpare, then sit back and watch the people pass: tourists, locals, and the café workers who rush between, carrying tea and coffee on platters to shopkeepers so they need not leave and neglect their wares.



For a good conversation in the old town find Vladimir, who runs one of the antique shops, and ask his opinions on global politics and the future of Macedonia. Sit with him as the tea drains from the glass and the cigarettes turn to ash. Ask him why he thinks the Greeks take such an issue with Macedonia and he traces it back to the Greek Civil War, a conflict that occurred 1946-1949. “We lived in Macedonia of Northern Greece before then, happily, but they drove us out during the war, taking our land and everything we owned. We are Macedonians, but Greece would never admit it because it opens the door to potential reparations.” If that is true, the Macedonians have a right to their name.



Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes


It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.



The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.



And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.



Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”



As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.



The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.




Skakavitza Waterfall Hike


With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took  a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.

Totally NOT Skakavitsa Falls, but another waterfall along the trail.

Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.

A wild rose along the trail.

If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.


A photographic taste of the trail:

Trail information at the trailhead.
Follow the red trail markers.
Other hikers along the trail.
A wild allium flower.
A waterfall along the trail.
Dewspun spider web along the trail.
The forest along the trail.
An abandoned electrical building along the trail.
The hut/house at the trail fork. When you get to the picnic trail after this, keep going in the same direction; don’t go left.
Don’t take this trail; it doesn’t go to Skakavitsa Falls.
An odd flower or bud.
If you get here, you’re definitely on the wrong track. This trail leads to the Rila Lakes and it’s pretty far.
The cost of taking a wrong turn. Everything is so wet!
Special effects without editing: fog inside your camera lens.
Back on the right trail, heading toward Skakavitsa.
Skakavitsa Falls! Currently hardly a trickle and obscured by mist.
Wild violet.



The ancient village at Cape Atanas


Near the white cliffs is a relatively unassuming stop. At the cape of St. Atanas sits a Late Antiquity fortress. It was a small village and fort at an optimal geographical area – close to the sea for access by boat, in a tight corner for defense. It was inhabited until about 600 AD, at which point its residents packed up their belongings, burned their houses, and left, apparently in an organized fashion. It’s a rich site, featuring artisanal structures, religious buildings, and many, many examples of clay artifacts that were made on site.


The walk leading up to it is pretty nondescript. There’s some seating, a small museum, and a little toll booth. The entry fee is a few dollars per person. It gets you entrance to the museum as well, but that was closed for the season when we arrived.


One of the main draws is that this is an active archeological site. During the summer season, work progresses year after year to uncover more and more of the settlement. Here is an open pit with a few clay pieces left in place as they were found. More than just viewing the artifacts in context, the actual work of archeology is on display.


And how is the relative luxury of archeology funded? The EU! As with any EU involved project, there’s a huge sign near the entrance stating how much money was granted, and what its purpose is. This one, a bit generically, reads as : For the cultural and historical edification of the Byala Region, and to turn it into a major tourist attraction.


Not only was the village equipped for clay-working, it was also well situated to take advantage of the amazing grape growing climate. This is an ancient grape press (wooden portions restored) and a massive clay vessel to hold the juice that poured out. The dioramas are a nice touch. They’re museum quality, and they really help bring the exhibits to life. This is one of the things that would certainly not have been present without outside funds.


Along with pots and amphoras, the village made tons of clay tile and brick. The tiles are marked with wide, rough patterns, each corresponding to the person who made that tile. The marking was how they tallied who made how much at the end of the day and gave wages from that count. Some of the tiles are simple X’s or lines, but this one is a lovely wind or vine pattern.


This is an early christian baptismal fountain. Bulgaria was, and is, Eastern Orthodox. Despite only becoming the state religion in the 9th century, it had roots in the Balkans since the time of Paul the Apostle. It was officially adopted as the state religion in the 9th century, due to cultural influence from Byzantium.


At the end of the archeological walk is a piece of the fortress that once stood and guarded the town. It’s worth getting to the end of the loops because that’s where the actual in-progress excavation is. It’s not every day we get to see an active archeological site, so that was a real treat. It was, unfortunately, closed for the season, but with any luck excavation will continue here for many years to come. It’s a very nice change seeing the attention paid to historical sites in Bulgaria now. We have come a long way from the days of looting sites to sell the artifacts and repurpose the bricks.