Flying back out of Belgrade, I'm slightly bemused by the "retro" departures board in the international flights hall. If it ain't broken, I guess... Who needs fancy computerised displays?
Landing in Skopje, I'm not expecting any similarities with any of the countries I've already passed through. I know too that the bits of Serbian/Croatian I've picked up so far won't necessarily help me with the Macedonian language. Although Macedonian is written using cyrillic, so I'm glad to have had the chance to brush up on that while I was in Belgrade.
My research has told me the airport shuttle bus runs infrequently, but I'm still dismayed to learn the next one won't leave for almost 2 hours. I weigh it up and give in, paying €20 for a taxi. At least the driver is friendly.
To my slight surprise, as we reach the outskirts of Skopje we pass one of the new style red Routemaster buses. The driver turns to me and says, "It's just like London, yes?". I smile and nod. If London was nestled between lush green mountains. And had a mediterranean climate. But I'm nitpicking, I know that's not what he really meant.
The next bus to trundle past seems to have more rust than paintwork. Less London-like.
Routemasters aside, by the time I reach my hotel my first impressions of Macedonia are that it reminds me of Greece. The infrastructure seems a bit worn, dusty. The heat is overwhelming.
I take a walk into the centre of the city to get my bearings and have a bit of a look around, walking along the river and ending up in Plostad Makedonija (the main square). I grow increasingly perplexed by what I'm seeing. I feel a little like I've stepped into one of my textbooks from my A Level history studies of the Soviet Union.
It feels like everywhere I turn there are huge monuments and statues, many of them with a strong neo-classical theme. Roman soldiers battle against lions. Warriors on horseback hold their swords aloft as they charge into battle. The country's mothers nurse their infants, cradle their pregnant bellies. The bridges and sparkling new neo-classical, columned buildings are lined and topped with statues of classical figures in various poses. Some seem deep in thought, others appear to be looking down upon the passers by.
The grandest statues and monuments are accompanied by fountains. And not just your normal fountains. These cycle through dramatic water sequences accompanied by light shows, adding a sense of theatre to the scene.
I wonder whose benefit all of this is for. It just feels bizarre, out of place. The pathway I followed along the river was neglected and run down, weeds growing in the planters by the riverside. Yet I can see more neo-classical buildings going up on the opposite bank. I find it all utterly mind-boggling.