Skopje - Andrew - 2009
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (insisted upon by Greece which has its own region called Macedonia), to give it its full and unwieldy title, is a little chunk of the former Yugoslavia left sandwiched between Bulgaria, Kosovo, Greece and Albania when old Yugoslavia broke up so violently in the 1990s. Macedonia avoided much of the fighting then, but broke out into violence in 2001 when ethnic Albanians began to claim independence.
The capital city is Skopje, unknown until it began appearing in the news, has a number of ancient monuments. Macedonia's other great tourist draw is Ohrid near the Albanian Border with its Lake and Castle. In many ways Macedonia is the forgotten gem of the Balkans and a place with much to offer tourism.
EU Membership is now looking a distinct possibility for this neglected country of the Balkans which can only lead to more prosperity.
Skopje - Andrew - 2009
It took much longer than I had expected to reach Skopje from Niš. The border crossing took ages. We all trooped off the coach to leave Serbia, then we all got back on, drove 100 metres and all got back off again. My bag was opened and I tried to explain I was a tourist (I figured saying I was here for business would create no end of problems). Fortunately a local explained to the guard what I was trying to say and he dismissed me from his mind and turned his attention to the bags of a glamorous blonde woman who was also on the bus. Eventually we were allowed through – although incredibly after all this I received no passport stamps – and the bus trundled onwards. Eventually I was delighted to see Skopje hove into view and the bus pulled in to the rather modern bus station.
From here I took a taxi to my intended hotel. This was a mixture of a good idea (it saved me a long, hot walk) and a very bad one. The driver was completely and utterly insane – this is the Balkans after all – and he drove what seemed to me to be an inordinately long route to get to the hotel, cutting across lanes of traffic, turning down one way streets the wrong way and eventually haranguing his way through a car park to reach the Best Western Skopje. Relieved I got out of the taxi and made my way onto safe, solid terra firma.
The Hotel is well situated just off the main pedestrian street of Skopje, ul. Makedonija, a short distance from Ploštad Makedonija, the main square. After a brief bit of respite from my journey, I headed out into the late afternoon sunshine. After the very East European-post Communist feel of Niš Skopje came as a glorious, welcome relief. I suddenly felt as if I was back in the Europe I knew and loved. Skopje felt more like Spain or Italy than Serbia. The people were smartly dressed in the manner of Croatians, quietly polite like the Greeks and enough spoke English for me to get by. I decided very early on that I liked Skopje and it was a decision that I never changed my mind about.
Close to where I was staying was the Mother Teresa Museum – she was born here of Albanian parentage. The Museum and Shrine are in a really rather bizarre looking modern structure, part church, part Cubist nightmare, but distinctive and striking. Outside is a statue to the lady herself which many people were being photographed with. It turned out to be one of a huge number of statues around Skopje which seemed to thrive on them, some of which were quite odd indeed.
Further down the pedestrian street – which is lined Paris-like with boutiques and cafes – the road terminates at the massive Ploštad Makedonija, the marble-paved square which separates the new town (where I was) with the old town, on the opposite side of the River Vardar. Standing here, in the heart of Skopje, it was very hard to imagine that virtually everything here had been destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1963.
On one side of the square is the restaurant Dal Met Fu, well known for its red-clad, short-skirted, serving girls and fresh pasta. At last, I had a meal I could savour. Indeed, it was an excellent meal … or perhaps two days of scraping by at McDonalds had warped my recollection. As the sun began to set the good people of Skopje emerged from work and began their version of the paseo – that oh so distinctive wandering around looking good thing that they do in the Mediterranean.
I walked down to the River and got my first views of the Castle and the Old Stone Bridge, the twin symbols of the city. Turning the other way I was stopped by the sight of the giant cross on Mount Vodno which was lit for the evening. This is, apparently, the largest cross in the world. Night began to fall and the only problem I encountered in Macedonia began to show up in greater numbers, the beggars. I was obviously a foreigner and after a while I tired of their attentions, so I slunk back to my hotel, had a coffee and went to sleep.
I had set aside one day to look around Skopje (in retrospect I could have had more). So I woke and (at last) had a decent breakfast before heading down towards the Ploštad Makedonija once more. This time, though, I turned left and headed into the modern parts of Skopje (i.e. those completely rebuilt after the earthquake). I was heading for the Orthodox Cathedral of the City - Sveti Kliment Ohridski. It’s an impressive sort of structure, although slightly betrayed its cut-price concrete origins. From here I walked down a huge thundering road back to the River and to the bottom of the Castle.
The Caršija - The Old Turkish Bazaar
It was a long, hot climb up to the Castle entrance and I was delighted to see a party of schoolchildren out for a trip to visit it. Inside the Castle is in a state of some disrepair. After the earthquake only one tower had been left standing – two more have since been rebuilt, but the work is slow and ongoing and at the moment there is surprisingly little to be seen once inside the walls – aside from very commanding views back down into town.
From here I crossed to the road intending to visit the famed rose gardens of the Mustafa Pasha Mosque. The Mosque is impressively chunky, but the gardens were shut and looked like they were not about to open again soon. Slightly disappointed I wandered down into the Turkish Quarter, the Caršija.
Sveti Spas - The Underground Church
This is a maze of windy, tiny streets with small squares and enclosed courtyards. Here you can still find a very Ottoman feel. Small shops occupied by artisans, old men sitting sipping coffee so thick it has personality, and a general timeless quality which belied the fashion conscious modernism on the other side of the river.
Kursumli An - An Old Turkish Inn
Buried amidst this maze of alleys is the fascinating church of Sveti Spas. Fascinating because it was built underground. The Ottomans did not ban the building of churches, but no church was allowed to be built above the level of the nearest Mosque (in this case Mustafa Pasha). In Skopje’s Turkish Quarter this meant construction below ground with a roof on top. Immediately outside I encountered another person trying to sell me tat before I escaped his clutches into a coffee shop. I had a real proper Turkish coffee (served with water) and spent a little while absorbing the atmosphere. Then I headed off and suddenly found myself in the Kursumli An - a stunning little enclosed courtyard with dappled light streaming down through the branches of a willow tree. It was a magical little corner.
The Old Railway Station - The Clock Stopped When the 1963 Earthquake Hit
I then headed back to the new town, passing by Skanderbeg’s statue (another Albanian hero!) and crossing the Old Stone Bridge to Ploštad Makedonija. From here I walked past my hotel and to the Skopje Museum which is housed in the Old Railway Station. The station clock stopped at 5:17 am on 27 July 1963 - the exact time and date of the earthquake. Most of the station came down with the earthquake, but the clock and the central concourse survived and they are now a Museum. To be honest, the Museum needed a little more work and a few more exhibits, but there were some interesting bits and bobs inside.
My last stop in Skopje was back to Dal Met Fu for another marvellous pasta meal, this time sitting outside in the evening sun.
The Cross on Mount Vodno - The Largest Cross in the World
The following day I ordered my taxi early and a somewhat more sane taxi driver took me back to the bus station, I ordered my onward ticket and sat waiting for the bus to Priština – I was going to Europe’s newest country – I was going to Kosovo.
Ploštad Makedonija - The Main Square
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