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.
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 of my article published in Boots’n’All, Passing time in Skopje.
Hi! This is the first time I’ve read your work, and I really enjoy the balance between personal anecdote and facts about a place–it’s definitely what distinguishes solid travel writing from the rest.
I must say, you’re right–I had never heard of Skopje before coming to your site, but it looks like an interesting place to visit! I’m just wondering–when you refer to the “old” city and “new” city, is that a distinction between what was built by the Ottomans and what was built after? Is there a real distinction between who lives in the old and new cities? In my experiences in Morocco (since it uses the same terminology), there was a huge contrast. Those who have money live in the new city and those that don’t live in the old.
I’d also like to see more cities/countries enact laws banning plastic bags and erecting more garbage cans. Did it seem like there was a large population of homeless people? That’d probably be a reason for public urination. I know your comments about that were a bit tongue in cheek, but perhaps these people don’t have anywhere else to urinate.
Thanks for the insights into Skopje!
@Cathy – Thanks so much for your compliment and thoughtful questions.
The impression I got was that the old city is the old Ottoman Bazaar mainly, and not where the less fortunate residents lived.
Macedonia is one of Europe’s poorer countries, with relatively high unemployment (the official figure seems to be around 35 %). Don’t know if there’s a huge disparity between rich and poor within the country, though.
As for the peeing everywhere: As I say above, this is certainly not unique to Skopje. The same could probably be said for certain subway stations in London. It was just so overpowering (and off-putting) when I walked around. I didn’t see any homeless people (of course I wasn’t there very long). I don’t think it’s a matter of not having alternatives, but more habits, perhaps. I think the only way to deal with it is to set heavy fines – and enforce it. And of course, provide public toilets. Skopje is still in many ways lacking in infrastructure.
My husband’s background is Macedonian, though his family aren’t from Skopje. This was an interesting read because he does have some relatives there and I’ve heard about it a lot but haven’t ever seen pictures!
@Andrea – Is he Australian, by the way? (For some reason, I met many of Macedonian descent in Oz). Macedonia is an interesting country, especially the Lake Ohrid area.
This was an excellent read. All the information of a things-to-do article, combined with personal experience, plus it’s funny and irreverent. Bill Bryson couldn’t have done it better! I have never thought twice about Skopje but I’m totally going after this.
@Christian: Wow, thanks heaps! *blush*
Under cover agents………….made m laugh 🙂
Never considered Skopje, but it sounds fascinating. I want to walk across that bridge, too – and below. Is it hard to get there? Expensive?
I love the balance between the writing and the photography. Skopje looks like quite a place. Oh, and thanks for submitting to the Carnival of Cities! This article will be featured in the next edition (which will be published on the 20th over at Byteful.com)
Your photos alone are excellent.
how VERY interesting – now i want to go!!
Loved this story. It’s a city we rarely (never?) read about! I know that 1980s Eastern Europe smell well. Skopje sounds like it’s frozen in time.
CIA? Now I know why you travel so much!
Sounds like your suggestions for Skopje would really help tourism. It’s strange that Macedonia was such a powerful empire at one time and now some can’t even point it out on a map. I love that photo of the streets. The angles are intriguing.
[…] Macedonia – Sophie presents: Things to do in Skopje posted at Sophie’s World, saying, “Skopje is one of Europe’s lesser known […]
You are right, not many people would think about Skopje as important european capital, but when i look at your pictures i know it’s worth to visit it!
Hi – I just found this blog on a ‘Skopje’ search. I have wanted to go for ages but my partner needs convincing so I think this blog has given me the ammo I need. I see there are some other reat destination tips so i will bookmark, return and daydream.
@Judy – Thanks! Skopje is interesting and well worth a visit. It is also one of the cheaper capitals in Europe, see this article on the Matador Network
It’s so difficult to find information about Skopje. I love it when writers find a niche in a new place. Great piece.
You have a fantastic way of turning something utterly appalling into something that is a must-see for tourists. You juxtaposed something palpably unpleasant with a marvelous piece of history and history won out. I would love to visit Skopje and I probably will thanks to your guided tour.
@Renee – thanks so much for your kind words.
Interesting place. The exchange at the hotel might have intimidated me. But it looks like there’s a lot of cool architecture there.
Love the picture of the Fork Road in town. After reading it, I still have problems trying to pronounce Skopje. Apologies but as an Asian, we were never trained to pronounce these kind of names.
@David – Pronouncing Skopje is easy for us Scandinavians. We have the letter j after consonants all the time (like fjord). But I think native English speakers may find it difficult as well, so you’re not alone.
Basically, it’s pronounced Skopyeh, with the emphasis on the first syllable.
I was in Croatia last year and they seemed to advertise tourism to Macedonia all the time on TV. We didn’t make it there, but it definitely looked interesting. Your photos and story prove that it is 🙂
Thanks for the journey through Skopje! I have been no further east than Croatia, so here’s a challenge for me. A well written balanced article.
I’ve never hear of Skopje but I know I would love it from your descriptions… the old castle almost reminds me of St. Augustine’s Fort (the design)
Thanks for this feature on Skopje. I absolutely love Eastern Europe and Macedonia may be one of the least well known countries in all of Europe. I have never been there and I don’t know much about it either so this was really great to read. I am drawn to many of these countries and want to visit Bulgaria, Romania, and other Eastern European countries that I haven’t seen!
@Jeremy – Yes, Eastern Europe is so full of beautiful and exciting spots. I think you’re right – Macedonia is probably one of the lesser-known countries. And Kosovo. And Moldova. And Belarus…
Also, that part of Europe is still very affordable – at least for now.
Some things first: The UN-accepted name is FYROM, not Macedonia. Here are the facts:1) This is not an issue of riotshy, but of common sense: FYROM’s position is as delusional as any european country wishing to be called Republic of Europe , and say that they are the European nation . It is as delusional as a breakup former Mexican republic wishing to be recognized as Republic of California . Why? Because Macedonia is a geographical region divided between FYROM (less than 30%), Greece (over 50%) and Bulgaria. Thessaloniki is the capital of Macedonia and the second largest greek city. The population are proud to be both greek and macedonian, but have and want to have nothing to do with fyromians. So, if effect FYROM is telling the Greeks in Greek Macedonia you are NOT Macedonians -we are . A solution would be a name like :Slavoalbanian Macedonia or Northwest Macedonia, which would be accurate and would not claim the whole of an area for a part of the area. Same as a european country going by the name republic of Europe . So what does this make the rest of Europeans, who are not citizens of that country? Non-Europeans? FYROM insists on keeping that name, printing maps claiming greek Macedonia and denying that greek Macedonians are macedonians (they claim a nonexistent macedonian minority in greece, which is nonsense, as the prime minister himself is (true) Macedonian (as opposed to fyromian)).2) The argument that FYROM poses no military threat to Greece is true , but first Greece is not obligated to befriend a country that does not recognize its borders and insults their nationality. Consider this:-Would anyone consider 10 years ago that small, poor Kossovo would start a war against Yugoslavia?-would anyone consider 10 years ago that small, poor Lebanon (actually only one political party of it) would start a war against Israel?The point is that it only takes few people to create major problems(like wars) and the way it is now we have generations of fyromians growing up with these delusional ideas, which bear the seeds of new wars.Last, on the historical side: Fyromians claim that ancient macedonians were not greeks. This is completely crazy and can be easily disproved, not just in terms of the names (Alexander, Philip etc), but also from many independent sources. For instance jews celebrate their victory against the greeks, not the macedonians in hannuka. And, of course slavs only appear in the region 1000 years after Alexander. Yet this delusional theory is what fyromians learn.Bu t, at any rate, Spiegel should get the facts right: The greek objections are based not so much on riotshy, but on plain common sense.
Thanks for taking the time to give such a detailed feedback, Asli 🙂
Skopje wouldn’t have been on my list either, but it’s fun to “discover” places off the beaten path and it sounds like a great place to visit.
I really hadn’t heard much about Macedonia before reading this post. I too enjoy learning about new places and would consider visiting if I was in the area.
The CIA cracks me up! I probably would have spent the rest of my stay staring at everyone wondering, Are they CIA??!
Debbie – too funny! I didn’t see (or hear) many Americans in Skopje, but whenever I did, that’s what I thought. A bit of self-entertainment in that…
You’re right… I didn’t know Skopje is Macedonia’s capital. I’ve read a bit about this country, but that bit has been enough to make me want to go there.
This is the first I’ve heard of Skopje – but now I want to go!
Love it when graffiti writers don’t know how to spell.
@TravelChica – I know! An added bonus that.
Wow. Even though some of the things you describe are not that appealing, I really wanna go! I want to follow your footsteps through Skopje.
[…] https://www.sophiesworld.net/things-to-do-in-skopje/ archive: Sophie's World ← 10 Things To Do In Malta During Summer Official Launch Date: July 1, 2011 How do I get an article listed on TravelBark? "Interesting + Significant = Link Worthy" 1. Write great content that will be useful to travelers. 2. Tag it with #travelbark on Twitter and we'll take a look. If it rocks, it should be posted within 24 hours. (Optional: you can also tag it with the destination or topic – e.g. #Mexico or #Rome.) 3. Repeat. There's no limit to how many quality links we'll add for any one site. Once a page is added it's accessible forever in our searchable archives. Note: As we build up our archives over the next few weeks we encourage travel sites and bloggers to send us their best articles from the previous 18 months. Anything from after January 1, 2010 is eligible for being linked to. What types of articles are you looking for? Informative, detailed pieces that will be helpful for current travelers and those planning a trip. Look through the posts we've currently linked to and you should see a common theme. And don't worry, if you tag it with #travelbark and we don't accept it – no harm done. Publications […]
Oh, I love that reaction from the hotel manager! You should have just kept your passport hidden and acted very mysterious and secretive and said “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” You could have been a CIA agent for a while – in his mind, anyway 😉
Haha, next time you should just walk into a hotel there and say your occupation is CIA XDD just to see what their faces will be like ~
Sounds like they do not like American passport very much there o.O
I’ve never thought of visiting Skopje, I had barely even heard about it. But I loved following along on your walk here, the good and the bad. Now I want to go!!
Skopje the capital of macedonia ^
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia? Republic of Macedonia? Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)? If the Greeks are going to be this paranoid, I say live a lttile: I hereby propose Hellenic Republic (Liberated Zone).