The Never Ending Journey

So the end of the story is that we did make it home.  But between waking up in Ohrid and getting to sleep in Skopje, it was an adventure (something unpleasant happening to someone else far away) except it was happening to us.

We got up in plenty of time to make a normal breakfast in the apartment we’d rented in Ohrid.  The landlord was coming at 10, and we were actually packed up and ready before then.  Just a short three-hour drive and we’d be home.  Sure.  Guess we failed to say “Enshallah”.  At any rate, we loaded the car (which by now was looking like a full gypsy caravan) and took off.

Unfortunately, the Navi (GPS) we bought doesn’t have city maps, so the first hint we had that we’d missed a turn was when the road straight ahead said Bitola rather than Kichevo.  Well, it doesn’t matter because that road also goes to Skopje, so instead of pastries in the mountains, we’d have a Thai lunch in Prilep.  We even thought that sounded like fun.  So up into the mountains covered with snow we went.  Some of it was incredibly beautiful–there were slopes covered with trees that must have been in a cloud when the temperature went below freezing.  The individual branches were all ice covered and from a distance the hill looked like a container of cotton balls.  At another point, we rode next to a waterfall that was frozen in midstream.  There was no water on the road–just runnels of ice ending in icicles.  It looked like a magic spell was cast on it turning the water into ice in a second.

Coming down the mountain, we passed Bitola without going into the city.  But somehow we’d gotten on the old road and not on the highway.  You have to understand that the main difference between the two roads, both of which are one lane each way with no breakdown lanes, is that the new one is maintained while the old is not.  We could see the highway next to us, but there was no connection.  Finally, there was an on-ramp, which we took, and the broad lane stretched before us.  We began saying things like “We’ll be in Prilep in good time for lunch.”  Not.  Suddenly there was a police car blocking the road and a smelly black smoke fire surrounded by men beyond the police.  David asked what was going on, but the policeman just told him to go back to Bitola. Well, there were a lot of cars stopped there, but no one was going anywhere.  We got the bright idea of going back to Bitola and getting on the old road past the blockage.

As it happened, David noticed a dirt track between the two roads about halfway back to Bitola, so we lumbered over that and on to the old road.  It was rough concrete at first but then for several miles it turned into very well maintained cobblestone.  At this point it was raised above the fields–and I’d be willing to guess that it was based on an old Roman road.  They were all through this part of the world.  After a while, I was looking at the map and noticed that the old road and the new merged before Prilep.  Yep, they merged just at the stoppage.  This time David found someone who spoke German who explained that it was a one-day strike so it was not possible to get through to Prilep on this road today.  But there was a second road that started near Bitola and angled crosscountry to Kichevo.  So we turned around on the old road and went back to the connecting track and back almost to Bitola.

Where the other road branched off there was a gas station and restaurant.  We’d thought of stopping for coffee, but I realized that I was hungry and who knew when we’d see another restaurant.  So we parked and went in.  Now this is in the middle of nowhere at the edge of a field at the edge of a road.  Imagine our surprise when we went inside and found stained glass skylights in the ceiling, and blue drapes with gold accents.  And an electric heater.  Heaven.  Oh, did I mention that the temps went up to 2C?  The car was warm, but nothing else was.  So we ordered kabob, which is hamburger actually, and french fried potatoes with cheese.  We got both toast and french fries with cheese and 5 kabobs each and some excellent coffee with milk.  We hadn’t realized that we were starving, but we were.  So David was talking to the owner, who said that the old road we were planning to take was blocked as well.  Oops.

So we went back over the snowy mountain passes to Bitola, to Resen, to Ohrid.  It was now about 2 p.m., getting dim, and we felt as if we’d been driving for ever. We very carefully got on the road to Kichevo.  We tried to set the Navi to get us on the right road, but it didn’t recognize any Macedonian city starting with K (Kichevo).  Or G (Gostivar) or T (Tetovo)  Those are the three major cities on this route.  But the road signs are better on this road and after Gostivar it becomes a four lane divided highway.  A toll road even–and I’ve never been more willing to pay a toll.

We got to the outskirts of Skopje and turned again to the Navi. We hoped that it could tell us where to get off the ring road where we had been deposited.  David recognized the first exit as the one where Heinz had taken us to lunch at a riding academy in the outskirts.  So we skipped that one.  The next three had red tape over the areas they led to, so we skipped them as well.  Then there was an exit that said Hotel Continental, which David recognized, so we got off there.  Lo and behold, while there was no Hotel Continental, we passed the car rental place.  So we turned around, got gas, and turned the car in.  The manager kindly called a taxi for us.  The taxi pulled up and there we were with two suitcases, two briefcases, a laundry bag, four plastic bags of dirty clothes, two plastic bags of stuff we’d bought (large bedsheets, an electric toothbrush, chocolates to bring to school to share, a shower cap containing a ceramic egg with a butterfly, etc., etc.)  And several pairs of shoes, plus cheese, cherry brandy, breakfast food, bread and ham and mustard and a small bottle of olive oil.  All piled around us.  We filled the trunk and 3/4 of the back seat (with me in the last corner) and headed for home.

The house wasn’t all that cold, and we actually unpacked and started a load of laundry–only two more to go.  But we were in bed by 9, and this morning David didn’t get up till 11.  We had driven 3110 km (2221 miles) and had many adventures, some of which have been recounted.  I’ll fill in the blanks over the Christmas holiday since everything is closed.  Oh, Christmas holidays?  Didn’t you know?  Christmas eve is January 6 and Christmas Day is January 7, both national holidays.  And so it goes.

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