I wanted to get out and travel somewhere but knew that the COVID-19 pandemic presented some challenges:
I'd have to find socially distant activities to keep myself entertained during the entire visit
Most countries were not allowing US Citizens to visit
A quick internet search brought me a(n embarrassingly small) list of countries that were allowing US citizens entry. As of August 2020, nearly all were in the Caribbean or Eastern Europe. Never having explored the Balkans, I had landed on Croatia, but a review of the rules and a correspondence with their Border Police convinced me that it was a no-go. The main reason was that all lodging had to be confirmed and paid for prior to entry, and my preferred way to travel is without a plan set in stone. I like to go wherever the wind takes me, and this requirement would kill any flexibility. So I decided on Macedonia* and Albania, mostly Albania.
Although US citizens cannot enter the EU Schengen zone at the moment, we ARE allowed to transit through their airports. Unlike in the US, in Europe you can connect flights without passing through customs and therefore, never legally enter the transit country. I flew on Austrian Airways with a connection in Vienna, and landed in Skopje, Macedonia
The capital Skopje has lots of gaudy neoclassical architecture built in the last 10 years to drum up nationalist sentiment. Think Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, but with massive statues thrown in for good measure. Here is a massive 25-ft statue of "Warrior on a Horse" - it's really Alexander the Great, a Macedonian hero, but like other things in Macedonia (including the name), they always have to tiptoe around not annoying the Greeks. You see, they are quite nostalgic for that moment 2300 years ago when they were the most powerful group on Earth.
It's not Alexander the Great....or is it?
Skopje is also the birthplace of Mother Teresa, so they've got plaques (and a church) commemorating her. Add in a charming old bazaar, and Skopje can be seen in just about a day.
As for the food, Balkan fare is delicious. (Side note: I love to eat. It's hard for me to find a culture's cuisine that I don't love!) And like everything else here, it's cheap! Here are some beef kabobs with ayvar (a condiment made from red peppers, eggplant, and oil. They sell it at Trader Joe's!). This whole meal was about US$7. Not bad for my first night!
*In 2019, Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia, per an agreement with Greece who claimed the region Macedonia for itself and blocked entry of Macedonia to international organizations on account of this name dispute.