A Couple Of Days In Skopje
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Just across the stone bridge, first built by the Roman ruler Justinian over 1500 years ago and since rebuilt several times, from the main pedestrian square lies the old market area. Narrow streets built with large, pave stones (instead of cobbles), smoothed by the feet of generations. It could have been here 100 years, 1,000, or more. The place bustles with buyers, sellers and strollers.
This is the heart of Skopje. Cultures, regligions and races congregate to do the things they have always done. The Romans, Greeks, Slavs and Turks have all laid claim to the city and left their mark on its people and culture. And don’t forget that Alexander the Great was actually named Alexander III of Macedon.
I strolled up the terraced Teodocig Gologanov street and ducked into an obviously touristic shop marked simply “Antik”. I looked around at the relics – some old and some made to look that way – and landed upon some old post cards dated pre-WWII. The shop keeper asked 10 Euro for them, one in a frame, but I said it was too much. In clear but pleasantly accented English he told me that the owner doesn’t sell them but instead uses them for examples of clothing to sell the costumery in his shop. But he’d probably be willing to part with them for that price to an American – correctly guessing my nationality. Aha – a sales tactic! So I politely declined and said that I understood. He handed me one, saying “This is from me. It is a duplicate anyway.” I’d get used to that kind of friendliness during my stay.
At the top of the street is a nice little cafe without a name and I stopped in to review my map and to get a quick caffiene lift. Then I headed off to walk around a bit more. Several mosques peek above the skyline of the city, with their towers, and I wanted to photograph and maybe visit one of these places. But whenever I’d approach with my camera, someone would come to wave me away. One time it was a guy from a repair shop. As I’d learn, photography is not readily permitted here.
As it got close to lunch I stopped at a small restaurant with its awninged tables squeezed into the space between the buildings. The menu was in English, marking it as a tourist place, and the prices corresponded. So I sat and ate an excellent dish of sausage, ham and beef. No greens on the plate.
As I was finishing up, three locals sat across from me and started up a conversation. Only one spoke English, but he did so very well. He lives in Lund, Sweden now – a place I’ve been before. He invited me to sit with him for a beer and we talked about their city, their country and my travels. The Swede vacations here every month and the friends he had in tow were his brother-in-law and his cousin. Very warm and welcoming people.
I recognized some lost tourists by their maps, guidebook and lost look and approached them. They were Polish and were touring the Balkans on vacation. I helped them find the stone bridge and bid them farewell. I ran into them again coming back from more sight seeing and then again later in the day. Skopje is a small town for tourists.
After that I walked up to the Kale area and its predominant castle. The place was obviously not set up for tourists, though heavy construction is ongoing. It’s a nice place to spend a little time walking around and offers excellent views of the city. At the top of the hill sits the art museum as well as the US Embassy. The two virtually share a building.
On the far side of the bazaar from Kale sits the old clock tower. This was the first erected in the Ottoman empire and was used to signal the time so that Muslim shopkeepers could stop work to perform their prayers. It’s in a bit dirtier and sketchier part of town, up on a small hill. And again, I was shooed away from taking pictures there. But my motto is shoot first and ask questions later.
Just a couple of hundred meters from the main square is a church built in a similar style to the mosques. A large dome shape with a tower to the side. I went in and was greeted by a stunningly simple church. It’s not as ornate as many of the other Orthodox churches which is refreshing. And there is a magnificent fresco on the ceiling.
Sitting atop Vardna mountain sits the Millennium Cross. This was supposedly erected to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. However, I think they got their math wrong a bit. It seems, instead, to be a display of religious expression by the Christians, as if to remind the Muslims that they are here. It’s not too far to hike to the cross, and along the way is St. Pantelejmon monastery. I hear it is quite nice to see. I tried to find it and walked all over the mountain without luck owing to the lack of street signs and names.
For dinner I had a dish called Polovana Vechalitsa. It, again, was all meat. But it was basically two or three different meats, with onions, baked and stewing in its own gravy, served in a ceramic dish with some bread on the side. It was excellent.
There were plenty more things to see in town, but I was out of time and wanted to take a day trip before I left. For example, Matka canyon offers excellent hiking and several monasteries, as well as some dining facilities. And it’s only about 15km from the city.
Skopje was starting to grow on me after my first full day in town. Friendly people, inexpensive, relatively safe, unspoiled by tourists and it’s someplace that very few have been or even heard of. That’s a welcome combination in my book. So I decided to stay one more day.