Macedonia Stories and Tips

Skopje: The Quiet Capital

Stone Bridge Photo, Skopje, Macedonia

Skopje is probably the most attractive non-coastal town in the Balkans. A collection of white houses with red roofs nestled at the foot of the verdant Mount Vodno, on the approach from the airport it seems more like a medieval hamlet than a capital city. Although it is home to over 25% of the population, at 500,000 people, Skopje maintains a quaint and relaxed feel that contrasts starkly with the other capital cities of the Balkans. With the Vardar river providing the central axis of the city, dividing into the historic (and Muslim) north side and the more modern (and Christian) south side, Skopje will provide any visitor with enough sites to keep one occupied for a couple of days and serves as a perfect base to explore the rest of the country. Being the financial and gubernatorial center of Macedonia means that Skopje is home to the country's best hotels, restaurants, and nightlife, but it is the old city that is home to the best shopping and sights.Skopje, Uskup (Turkish), Shkupi (Albanian), or Skopje (Macedonian), like the rest of the Balkans is a diverse city that reflects the turbulent history of the peninsula. The native Macedonians are of Slavic decent who entered the land in the 6th century, but 500 years of Ottoman rule definitely left its ethnic, linguistic and cultural marks on the city. Its close ties with Albania throughout history has meant that numerous Albanians have settled in the country, adding their own bit of flavor. When tragedy hit Kosovo, it was to Macedonia that many Albanians fled.Walking around the Old City of Skopje (called carsija from the Turkish carsi meaning "market") you can get a feel for the diversity of the city. Turkish restaurateurs hawk doner kebab, Albanian signs stand beside Macedonian Cyrillic, and mosques next to churches. The Old City is one of the best preserved in the region, having escaped the forced modernization that befell cities like Belgrade and Sofia. A series of shop-lined cobblestone streets and old houses on the verge of collapse make their way from the banks of the Vardar up to the kale (citadel). If the weather is nice, cafe patrons spill out onto the streets to enjoy tea or light lunches. Wandering through the streets you will likely stumble upon Sveti Spas, the only remaining monastery in Skopje and home to a stunning church full of frescoes and a gorgeous 10m wide, iconostasis made from intricately carved wood. Inside the monastery you will also find the remains of Goce Declev, the revolutionary leader and a museum dedicated to him and the revolt against the Ottomans.When compared with neighboring Greece, Bulgaria, or Serbia, Macedonia doesn't look back on Ottoman rule with complete disdain, and Skopje managed to escape the sort of radical destruction of Ottoman monuments nationalists undertook in other Balkan cities like Sofia or Thessoloniki. Thus, there are plenty of attractive mosques still standing, Mustafa Pasha Mosque, being the most impressive. Built in the traditional Ottoman style, its towering dome dates back to 1492. Back down towards the banks of the Vardar stands another impressive Ottoman monument, the 15th century Doud Pasha Baths, which are now home to the National Gallery. The Gallery displays some impressive works of contemporary Macedonian artists contrasted with the ancient walls and glass-speckled ceiling of the baths.Standing high above the old city lies the Kale, the old Ottoman fortress of Skopje. While not much beyond the walls remain, the views from the top of the city and the surrounding countryside are spectacular. There is also a restaurant from which you can have a drink and stare at Mount Vodno.Skopje's old city, while not terribly large, is an impressive reminder of the cities past and there is still some good shopping, especially in the Bit Bazaar, a mess of green tarps and people, infused with the smell of exhaust, where all sorts of random things are sold from make-shift stalls. As with any old city, the charm lies in just wandering around, taking your time, stopping for a bite to eat and pondering the effects of history.

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