Skopje isn’t what leaps to mind when you think of European cities, is it? It’s probably among the lesser known capitals, along with Chisinau. To me, it was the easiest way to get to Kosovo for a travel writing assignment on the then two-month-old nation. When I checked into my Skopje hotel, the manager asked my occupation. Replying that I’m a writer, I was met with an ironic glare.

“Yeah sure,” he said. “Everyone says they’re writers and journalists. But in reality they’re with a company.”

“And which company would that be,” I asked. Seriously. I had no idea what he meant.

“The CIA,” he replied darkly. Without humour.

Ouch! I hurriedly pointed to my red, distinctly non-US passport, but he was still sceptical. Apparently, Skopje was teeming with undercover agents. Along with quite a few KFOR soldiers who seemed to enjoy, shall we say, a varying degree of popularity among the locals.

Skopje things to do

So, what to see and do in Macedonia’s little capital? Here are my notes, from a lazy Saturday night and a long Sunday morning nearly three years ago:

Skopje’s Stone Bridge is a major landmark. Originally from the sixth century and reconstructed in the fifteenth, it connects the old and new city. I like this bridge; I walk across it several times. Back and forth. There’s something about old bridges, that somehow brings to life the people who might have crossed in the past. It’s easy to imagine, a poet say, strolling across this bridge on a breezy Saturday evening in April 1708, pondering sentence structure, rhymes, trills and spirants. Perhaps the occasional plosive, even.

Skopje things to do

A plaque commemorates Karposh, who was executed right here in 1689. Food for thought. On this very bridge, he departed more than 300 years ago. For a place where time doesn’t exist, probably. So, in a sense, I suppose one could say he is being executed now. If there is no time, it’s all now, right? I like that idea. I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but I like it all the same. A bit weird? Blame the bridge. And Macedonian wine.

Macedonian wine may be the reason I feel an impulse to explore below the bridge as well. It’s neither pleasant nor the least bit exciting. It reeks of urine. And the river, sadly, is awash with very unattractive flotsam and jetsam, much of it in blue plastic bags.

On the new side of town is Macedonia Square, a large airy plaza, full of life. At one end is marked the spot where one Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born. Eighteen years later, she left to do God’s work for the rest of her life, most notably in Calcutta. Mother Teresa is one well-loved Macedonian whose nationality isn’t disputed. Not one to talk about herself excessively, she is reputed to have said she felt as a citizen of Skopje, her born city, but she belonged to the world.

Early Sunday morning, I head for Kale Fortress, believed to have been built about 1 500 years ago. Several centuries and a few devastating earthquakes later, the bright red and yellow Macedonian flag waves gaily from one of three remaining towers of this one-time stronghold.

The otherwise cool, labyrinthine set of stairs leading towards Kale is just as malodorous as the area below the Stone Bridge. What is it with this peeing all over the place? It detracts severely from a city’s appeal. Let me hasten to add, though, that this is not a phenomenon unique to Skopje.

According to the receptionist at my accommodation, the grounds of Kale are a choice walking area for locals. No one is here this Sunday morning. I passed a crowded church on the way. That must be where everyone is. At Kale, I’m all alone. Apart, that is, from two very large crows and some pigeons, digging into leftover pieces of bread. Sitting by a fountain on a bench with only one of four boards left to sit on, I try not to think about who may have peed where I’m now resting my bum. Instead I focus on the view. Down below, the river Vardar flows gently through the city. A tiger-striped cat joins me on the bench, apparently not too concerned with who’s been there before.

I potter about for the better part of an hour, ending up at the ruins of a pretty rotunda. Pretty on the outside, that is. Inside, graffiti tells me to “Fuck Fashist Securities”. Also, two young lovers were here 02.02.2008 and inscribed their names within a heart. Don’t know if they were the ones to leave a soiled pair of underpants thrown casually into a corner, next to a discarded condom and a disposable razor (!)

The rotunda has sheer drops to one of the sides and no guard rails. Watch out if you bring the kids – or if you’re drunk. Or with enemies.

At the bottom of Kale hill, lies the old bazaar. I amble around the streets and stairways of Ottoman Skopje for a while, watching shops opening, café owners setting out menu boards, a cat stretching lazily in a sunny spot. I love watching cities wake up.

Crossing a busy road, I detect a whiff of 1980s Eastern Europe. I remember it from St. Petersburg, back when it was Leningrad; from East Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw… Now it’s no longer noticeable in these cities. I’m told it has to do with the fuel of old Ladas, and some of these do pass by. I don’t think it’s only exhaust fumes, though. It also smells of soap, a rough kind of soap. And sweat. And dark tobacco.

The Old Railway Station is a natural follow-up to Kale. The building is left as a partial ruin. The wall clock has stopped at 05.17. That’s when a shattering earthquake hit on 27 July 1963. Inside is The City Museum, filled with artefacts found during excavations at Kale; some amazingly well preserved, almost intact.

I gaze at reconstructed faces based on preserved skulls found in the fortress. One of them looks eerily like one of my old teachers. I wonder what their lives were like and what they thought about. Also, I can’t help but wonder if the men of medieval Skopje peed everywhere. I bet they didn’t. They probably had designated areas for that, so as not to gross out the women folks and be smacked about the ears.

In conclusion, Skopje is mostly a charming city with friendly people; a city with potential. I’ll take the liberty of suggesting a few improvements to the city authorities, though: put up rubbish bins and set severe fines for throwing rubbish in the streets and the river, prohibit plastic bags, and last, but not least, outlaw and severely fine urinating in public. Take care of that and Skopje will soon see more visitors than KFOR soldiers.

This is an excerpt, somewhat reworked – of my Boots’n’All article Passing time in Skopje.