In Macedonia – Skopje

July 2, 2011


I’m spending this weekend in Macedonia, this being the third trip I’ve taken to the region after having visiting both Croatia and Serbia in recent years.

The ‘old bridge’ over the Vardar river

Our base for the weekend has been Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city and home to a quarter of the country’s two million inhabitants. Architecturally, Skopje has some unusual features, mostly due to the devastating magnitude 6 earthquake in 1963 which took many lives and destroyed about 80% of the buildings in the city. As a consequence, for the most part it lacks the range of architectural styles that feature in the other major cities in the region – Zagreb’s baroque edifices and Belgrade’s art deco masterpieces for example. What Skopje does have, however, are some of the strangest buildings to come out of the late 1960s and early ’70s – Janko Konstantinov’s ‘sci-fi’ main post office being a case in point! Given that the city has a significant muslim minority there are also many mosques – in fact I’m sure that my abiding visual memory of Skopje will be of its forest of minarets.

The Kale Fortress

Fortunately, some of the old town survived the ‘quake, nestled up against the side of the ancient Kale Fortress which dominates the skyline above the city (and which seems to be closed to visitors indefinitely given the big red cross drawn over opening times displayed on a big hoarding next to the entrance). Here you’ll find several turkish baths and old inns, as well as the warren of narrow streets that used to make up the city’s bazaar. This is where the modern Skopje’s most vibrant nightlife is located – every evening we were here everything from heavy rock to drum ‘n bass blared out from trendy bars and cafes while crowds of young people milled around outside. For people on the culinary trail I have to make mention of two restaurants that left a particularly good impression. Both serving traditional Macedonian food, if you ever visit you must have a meal at either (or both!) the Pivnika Ann which you’ll find on the ground floor of the old Kapan Ann inn, as well as the Stara Kuka (literally ‘old house’) adjacent to the Opera House. In addition to the interesting ethnic dishes made with fanastically fresh ingredients, the waiting staff spoke impeccable English and were very attentive without being over-bearing. I wish I could say the same about British restaurants of similar quality.

A display at the Holocaust museum

As far as culture is concerned, in the main we were quite disappointed in the municipal museums – two are  housed in former 15th century baths so are beautiful in that respect, but on the whole the displays were quite meagre. The main museum is housed in the old railway station, which still shows signs of the devastation of the 1963 earthquake, and on our visit was mostly shuttered with only a display of photographs of Africa (?) and the basement archeological finds to look at. There are always exceptions to the rule however, and in Skopje the mid-2000s museum dedicated to the Holocaust was both informative and profound in ways I’m sure you’ll appreciate. The museum of modern art which you can find perched on the hillside behind the Kale Fortress was also a nice find, although again it’s a bit bare. Skopje also has a very active theatre scene, centered around the Opera House, which is quite possibly the ugliest building I have ever laid eyes on – spotting it from the car as we arrived in the city centre in the late evening I was convinced that it was a waste treatment plant or electricity substation. I didn’t snap a photograph of it for fear that the lens might crack in protest!

One of Skopje’s many statues

What is Skopje’s most notable feature however is its statues – they are everywhere. We seemed to come across another one on every street corner! Macedonia Square, the large open space right at the heart of the city centre next to the old bridge over the river Vardar is a case in point. Currently in the middle of a multi-million pound reconstruction that also involves the erection of a series of large neo-classical buildings on the riverside, the square is lined with new marble statues around a huge pillar that has a massive representation of Alexander the Great (Macedonia’s most celebrated king) on horseback at its summit, which is now nearing completion. This project isn’t without controversy however, as much like its neighbouring European cities Skopje’s most visible infrastructure doesn’t attract the same amount of investment – even in the heart of the city pavements are allowed to crumble and backstreets are not properly surfaced. Local people that we talked to complained that the local government weren’t getting their priorities right – I can see their point.

Beauty and dilapidation go side by side in Skopje

Finally I should just make note of the particularly warm welcome that we received in Skopje. Obviously this is a very personal impression, but I found people in the city to be very friendly and helpful, much the same as I found in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital in the north of the former Yugoslav
ia. The same cannot be said for Belgrade in Serbia however, where the reception was extremely frosty – if you’re a student of recent European history I’m sure that you’ll understand why they might not be particularly well-disposed towards British people, or indeed Americans. To get back to Skopje if you’re a fairly seasoned traveller you should definitely put this city on your to-do list – while it’s a bit run-down in parts the vibrant cafe and bar culture is as exciting and energetic as anything on offer elsewhere in Europe. Of course it’s really cheap too – a beer will set you back about £1, and a heaving plate of food at a good restaurant can be had for the equivalent of about £5.

You can take a look at all of the photos that I took (including many of the statues) by visiting the album online here.

About The Londoneer

Pete Stean is a keen blogger, amateur photographer, singer and ham radio enthusiast in his spare time... Google+

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