Friday, September 08, 2006

Scott Wilson's Macedonia Diary

ANYONE who remembers my diaries from the World Cup will know that driving in a foreign country is something I should really avoid.

The intricacies of the Frankfurt one-way system continue to haunt me, while negotiating a roundabout in the right-hand lane is akin to taking an A-level exam in physics.

Yet against my better nature, I still agreed to fill in a blank morning yesterday by driving into the countryside for a more rounded view of life in Macedonia.

Needless to say, it was the biggest of big mistakes.

Getting lost in Germany is nothing compared with stumbling around one of the most dangerous border regions in the world.

And all of this after things had started so well.

Having located our destination - the Mavrovo National Park, some 50 miles south of Skopje - our party, which comprised myself and two mates, mapped out a route which involved negotiating the E65 motorway.

So far, so good, especially when we found signposts for said motorway immediately after leaving our hotel.

Unfortunately, though, and unbeknown to us, the E65 motorway ran to the north of Skopje as well as the south.

We thought we were heading in the right direction - within half-an-hour, we realised just how wrong we were.

In truth, the alarm bells should have started ringing when we passed a massive NATO peace-keeping base on the side of the road.

They should certainly have been clanging quite loudly when we suddenly started to see improvised refugee camps in the distance and gun-toting guards looming into view.

Still, though, we ploughed on regardless.

Suddenly, in the distance, we could see what appeared to be a huge motorway toll system ahead of us.

Channelled into an entrance lane, we drove up to the booth and offered a huge wad of denar from our pockets.

The gruff moustachioed guard simply laughed in our faces.

After five or ten seconds of silence, we opened the door and showed him our map. "We need to get through to get to Mavrovo. Do we have to pay?"

"This not road to Mavrovo," he barked. "This Kosovo border. You go too far not to come through."

Never have three jaws hit the ground quite so quickly.

Thoughts of my passport sitting in my hotel room started to flash through my mind, quickly followed by panicked guesses at what the inside of a Kosovan detention centre might look like.

Thankfully, it didn't come to that, although the guard was none to pleased at having to squeeze out of his booth to reverse the five or six cars that had followed us up the entrance alleyway, enabling us to beat a hasty retreat.

Suitably embarrassed, we continued on our way, promising ourselves our days of hiring cars in continental countries were over.

After all, England travel to Israel next March. Goodness knows where we might end up there!

Eventually, we made it to Mavrovo and, despite all of the trials and tribulations, it was worth the hassle to get a first-hand view of one of Europe's best-kept secrets.

The Macedonian countryside is stunning, full of picturesque mountains and crystal-clear lakes. It is also utterly unspoilt, with brown bears running wild with boar and deer.

It stands in marked contrast to the concrete jungle that dominates the centre of Skopje and will surely not stay undiscovered for too much longer.

Provided the political situation does not take an unexpected turn for the worse, Macedonia could be on the brink of something of a tourist bonanza.

It might be worth improving the road signs first though.

The scores of empty tower blocks that dominate the Skopje skyline suggest major economic decline but, instead, the countless crumbling edifices stem from an unexpected, if unwelcome, influx of cash into the city more than 40 years ago.

In September 1963, a massive earthquake rocked Skopje at five in the morning and killed more than 1,000 of the city's inhabitants as they slept in their beds.

The devastation was total and as the funds from a United Nations appeal poured into Yugoslavia, the Skopje planners became a little over-excited.

Flush with funds, they approved the erection of a host of unnecessary developments, many of which have remained entirely unused from the moment of completion.

Today, they provide a reminder of both the earthquake and the flagrant dispersal of funds that followed.

John Terry's revelation that the England squad have now been allowed cans of coke in their mini-bars caused quite a stir among the English press pack.

Not so much because it suggested they had been denied liquid refreshment in the past, but more because it proved that certain pampered members of the squad actually possess the wherewithal to operate a ring pull themselves.

Given their multi-millionaire status, I would have thought they would have had an FA gopher doing it for them.

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