Sofia to Skopje

Tuesday, August 30, 2022 - 15:15

This morning we set off nice and early to try to get to the Bulgaria/North Macedonia border before it gets too busy. We had absolutely no idea what to expect from this border (or from North Macedonia for that matter), and all we had to go by was a bit of traffic showing on Google Maps, though Google has been very wrong about time taken to cross most of the borders so far. Luckily when we arrived there was only a short queue of lorries and one car, which had just been allowed to pass anyway. We therefore drove straight to the front, making this the quietest border we have seen to date.

Turns out though that a very quiet border can be a bit of a poisoned chalice, since this meant the Bulgarian customs official was clearly bored, and wanted to give us a bit of a test to pass some of his time. First thing was he asked where we had come from, to which I replied Bulgaria, but he wanted to know where else we had been since leaving London. I started to list off the countries and when I got to Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, he waved his hand to stop me, pointed at the car and then a metal customs table to the side, and said "luggage on table". I asked what luggage he meant, and he just repeated the line. Given emptying the entire car would have taken a long time, I asked him to come with me to the boot, which I then opened, and asked him which luggage. He pointed at our suitcase and said he also needs to see under the boot's lower compartment - lucky I didn't empty the entire car! After I had taken the suitcase out and opened it on the table he got a torch, had a little look around and told me to close it. He then moved to the boot and looked under the lower boot compartment in the car quite a bit. Perhaps this is a known smuggling spot in BMW X3s, but we of course disappointed him with a few car cleaning clothes and our spare licence plates. The last part of his search was to ask us to open the glove compartment and the central console in the front of the car. Finding nothing, the final question was to show him proof of our Bulgarian motorway toll. This was when I knew for sure he was simply bored and trying to catch us out, since the toll system is nothing to do with a customs official. I showed him the toll receipt on my phone though and then he stamped our passports and we were on our way. The whole thing only took about 5 minutes, and was actually far more interesting than waiting in a long line of cars as we have done at other borders!

After we had got out of Bulgaria, we drove a couple of hundred metres to the North Macedonian border post. This was almost as quiet as the Bulgarian one, with two cars and a bus in front of us. Lucy needed a bit of time out of her car seat at this point, so we parked by the bus and all got out the car to walk over to a different passport window since it was so quiet. Once there, we were told we need to first buy Green Card insurance for the car, or we aren't allowed in. This is different to other countries we have seen where the green card is purchased after passport control (Turkey, Armenia), or simply isn't enforced at all by the border officials and it is your own responsibility to buy it (Georgia, Albania). I therefore went to an office just behind us where a woman sold me an insurance document for the car for €53 in cash only. This was for 15 days and was the minimum package available, which felt like a bit of a con, and makes it the most expensive insurance we have bought all trip. Even though the document I received clearly said €50, the woman still wanted €53. I queried it though of course she didn't speak a word of English, but I think she was saying something about the exchange rate. I'm pretty sure the extra €3 was simply going in her pocket, and I had clearly upset her by querying it. So much so that after I left the office she ran over shouting and telling me I must go back to the office. I wasn't sure what she wanted so I went with her and from her shouting and gesturing I could see she was telling me I hadn't paid the €50 and that I must pay now. Of course this was a simple attempt at a scam (we'd had similar at a restaurant in Albania earlier in the trip), and she put on quite a good act almost tearing up and desperately saying "my boss, my boss" as she wrote €50 on a piece of paper. I just stood there watching the act and calmly said "I know what you are doing here, I'm not paying you another €50". After a couple of minutes I left the office to go and get Melisa and Lucy since showing a baby in these situations usually resolves them. As Melisa was walking over with Lucy the woman came out waving a €50 note saying "okay okay sorry sorry" - I suppose she realised she wasn't going to get anywhere with me and felt she needed to complete the act and pretend she'd found the money. Either way, it was amusing but also annoying at the same time, and not a great introduction to the North Macedonians! However we then went to the passport booth where the official was very friendly and interacting with Lucy as she giggled back. He quickly stamped us in and wished us well on our journey through the country. The final step was a quick chat with a customs official who asked if we have anything to declare and then sent us on our way.

As soon as we got past the border post it was clear we had left the European Union, as the roads once again deteriorated in quality. It felt a bit like being back in Bosnia or Albania in terms of development, with the journey time being greatly extended as we got stuck behind lorries and went through dilapidated villages with speed limits which were much too low. After about an hour we reached a stretch of motorway which took us the rest of the way almost to the very centre of the capital Skopje. We hit a little bit of rush hour traffic as we entered the city, and our first impressions were that the city isn't particularly picturesque. After checking into our apartment near the centre we rested up in order to be ready for a 3 hour walking tour at 5pm. Unfortunately just as we were leaving at 4.45pm we could hear very loud thunder not too far away, and the heavens opened as we got about 20m from the door of the building. This wasn't just a bit of drizzle we could keep walking through, but a full on torrential thunder storm, with hail, wind, heavy rain, and debris flying around. We quickly rushed back inside and watched from the safety of our 4th floor apartment window as the storm went on for nearly an hour, with the roads flooding and the gutters unable to take all the water. This meant the walking tour was cancelled and we were stuck inside for most of the evening.

Once the storm finally passed I took Summer for a much needed late night walk to the main square in the centre of the city. From here I could see the city has a lot more to offer than the first impression we got in the area near our apartment, with a huge statue of Alexander the Great, some very grand buildings, multiple bridges over the river, a fortress, and an Ottoman bazaar nearby. We did a lap of all of these, but are eager to learn more and will hopefully be squeezing in a walking tour before we leave on Thursday.

Aside: it occurred to us as we were driving to North Macedonia today that we really don't know much at all about the country other than they are ex-Yugoslavia and have had a fight about their name with the Greeks. It is a bit strange to be arriving in a country we know so little about, but we are keen to learn more while we are here!

Dog Notes: 

Our bored customs official today was the first person all trip to actually ask to see Summer's passport! When he saw her he said "you have dog passport?" to which I replied "of course!". We proudly handed him over Summer's Swiss passport, which he quickly flicked through without looking at a single page and asked "you live in Switzerland?". I said we don't but we are registered at a vet there, and he handed the passport straight back to me and said "okay". I'm not sure this counts as a proper paperwork check for Summer, but at least we got to show something finally considering all the money we have spent on it.

Electric Vehicle EV Notes: 

When we arrived at our apartment today the host excitedly asked if our car was electric, which I confirmed. He then said how great that is because they have recently had plugs installed at all their underground parking spaces and the owners of the apartments will be very happy to know we used it. So we are hooked up for free in the garage, and despite how slow the charging is on the 2KW domestic supply, we should have enough battery for our trip tomorrow and to get to Serbia on Thursday. Only catch is they charge €8 per night to park, so we might have been better off using the free charger down the road and just leaving the car there overnight...

Miles Driven: 
The ONE. Luxury Suites and Apartments


Impressive that once again you stood your ground and didn't allow yourself to be scammed. I can't imagine how much petrol you would have used in a different vehicle. Nice place, shame about the people

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