An unplanned European break
A horse is a horse, of course, of course – unless it’s on the ski slopes of Austria’s St Anton. Then you remember the place’s nickname. “St Manton” attracts – or it did in the before times – roving squads of men intent on besting the sharp angles of this patch of the Tyrolean Alps, considered the cradle of alpine skiing. Boisterous blokes bond over silly things such as pairing up within a horse costume for a four-legged ski run before letting loose at the village’s legendary après scene.
With all that horsing around, it’s no surprise the slopes best some people. After day one on a so-called beginners’ run, I join them at the medical clinic. The clinic processes the broken-hearted and broken-limbed with dizzying efficiency. I’m dispatched with a cast on one arm, a brace on one leg and a crutch with an ice and snow attachment that’s handy for when a firmer grip is required.
I’m at the start of two weeks in the northern hemisphere and am determined not to let my injuries cut it short, even without the foresight that it will be my last overseas trip for who knows how long. I’ve heard slow travel is a thing – I even own a book about it (Penny Watson’s Slow Travel) – but now I’m about to try it, ready or not.
Next day I totter forth: crunch-tap, crunch-tap. Nearby Lech – favoured by British and Dutch royals for their ski holidays – rewards the unhurried. Supported by friends, I inch up a frosted path above Oberlech (Upper Lech) towards light artist James Turrell’s Skyspace installation. Inside the bunker, I try to commit to memory the cupola’s mind-bending colour changes and how they contrast with the circle of overhead sky.
Back in town, Josef Stöckler’s horse-drawn carriage rides would have once seemed a cliché to me. Not now. A blanket is tucked around our legs and his two horses set off for the outskirts. As the twilight sky expands, it blushes pink to match the roses in our cheeks.
If this is slow travel, I’m down with it but my trip is about to turn more challenging. Waving my friends auf Wiedersehen, I head off alone to North Macedonia, a Balkan country that was formerly part of Yugoslavia. (Its new name was settled only in 2019 after years of negotiations with neighbouring Greece.)
To reach its capital Skopje, I fly via Belgrade, Serbia. My second plane neighbour Nadja kindly offers a lift from Skopje airport right to my hotel door. Her husband collects us in a low-slung Porsche; they insist I take the front seat. Throughout the 23-kilometre journey, it feels like I just won the lottery.
Before even knowing proximity to attractions would be important, I’d booked the Solun Hotel & Spa, two blocks from the historic Stone Bridge arcing over the Vardar River. From this cosy nest, I plan excursions with a surgeon’s precision. Wandering the streets at will isn’t an option.
So I move through Skopje mindfully – clack-tap – delighting in details that might not have otherwise held my gaze. Crowning the main square’s grand expanse is a bronze equestrian warrior, Alexander the Great. The fountain encircling its base is shrouded with a winter tarpaulin holding the morning sun’s feeble warmth. The city’s street dogs are so delighted they’re still snoozing on this bed as workers stride through the square.
I crawl at tortoise speed towards the Memorial House of Mother Teresa. Skopje is the late humanitarian’s home town – she lived here for her first 18 years. The house, enfolding a small museum, is a fantasia of stone walls and arches, stylised decorative doves and a futuristic glass-and-filigree chapel. In the visitors’ book, a “stranger from Turkey” writes in florid copperplate: “Thank you for the good things that you have done in this world.”
Perhaps the good nun works miracles on me because I find the strength to traverse the Stone Bridge into the Old Bazaar on my final morning. Here, men sit gossiping on tiny stools. Rakija bars and shisha cafes are still shut. It’s clearly livelier at night but I find redemption within the Church of the Holy Saviour, Skopje’s oldest preserved church. It’s closed but an attendant ushers me into the courtyard, down several stairs and through a door to see the woodcarving masterpiece: a 10-metre-long, almost seven-metre-high iconostasis depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament.
I could linger in soul-restoring Skopje, allowing the folk music performed in the square to wind its way into my heart, but Lake Ohrid, a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride away, calls. The landlady of my Old Town rooftop garret eyes me up and down, takes in the situation and suggests a more earthbound room. I’m stuck on the romance of the eyrie so she hauls my bag up flights of stairs. From my room’s tiny balcony, there’s a sea of terracotta roof tiles and a lake as vast as an ocean. I’d usually plan to scour lengths of its ancient shore but it turns out less can be more. Poking around my immediate slice of lakefront reveals a rickety overwater boardwalk. With no handrail, it feels dangerous to shuffle its length. I’m rewarded with a tiny cove lined with restaurants, a clifftop church anointed with a golden cross and an extraordinary play of light between charcoal clouds and the shards of a setting sun. That otherworldly scene still haunts me like a friendly ghost.
I treat myself to dinner of lake trout and local rosé. Unexpectedly, I try another local drop at Cultura 365, a tourist information centre manned by writer, photographer and guide Misjo Joezmeski. I need help finding bus times for my Skopje return but I’m in no rush. He says: “Would you like a glass of red wine? It’s the culture.”
Culture? I’m all for it. I flop onto a chair and accept his hospitality. He tells me about lake life as we sip our beverages. How thousands of tourists usually converge on the lake in summer to laze on its shores, hike the mountains, explore monasteries and abandoned villages, and hear concerts from world-famous artists. “We have everything – old and new things,” he says. He points out that the lamps lighting the boardwalk are stylised miniatures of the Old Town’s top-heavy, black-rimmed white houses.
Overnight snow erases these houses, the cobblestones and distant peaks; the lake is the colour of a corpse. Yesterday’s sunlit scene could have been a fever dream. There’s nothing to do but head to Skopje and onwards to Pristina, Kosovo. Nadja, my Serbian plane-mate who lives in Kosovo, sends a dining tip. After inspecting the city’s Brutalist library, I slide into a seat at Soma Book Station. It feels like swanky Europe, apart from the power outage.
As I savour a last glass of Balkan wine by candlelight, I think back over the kindnesses dispensed and how they buoyed me. I learnt it doesn’t matter how long it takes to reach places and that the unexpected can happen along the way. What is important is to shoot for the stars, the mountains and the lakes, to take the paths that scare you because it really might be your only chance.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Putting on the break".
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