Day 19-21: Skopje, Macedonia

by - August 20, 2011

“Skopje reveals a difference between the Slav and the Turk, the European and the Asiatic, at every turn of the street”

The train left from Bitola at 12.40 for Skopje.  We decided to use the train instead of a bus as we thought it would be more comfortable, despite taking double the time and it cost half the price at 210 MKD (about 3 GBP).  Unfortunately the train wasn’t quite as comfortable as we expected as it was an ancient carriage and we ended up with a family of seven squeezing into the compartment with us - meaning that there were nine people in a space that should have fitted six.  The train was on time but when we arrived in Skopje we were too tired to do anything so went to a pizza restaurant.

Alexander the Great statue
The next day we decided to try and see everything.  The city definitely doesn’t have anything like the natural beauty of Ohrid or the culture of Bitola, but as the capital is an unavoidable place to visit.  We started late, having lunch at …McDonalds… and briefly looked around the south bank of the river Vardar which contains mainly by office buildings and shops.  It also has the main square, Plostad Makedonija, with an enormous statue of Alexander the Great in the centre. The statue is the only thing that seems to be finished in an area of about a square mile of building work.  They are obviously renovating the entire city centre which means that you can see that it will be impressive in a few years time, but at the moment it is just dusty and messy.  Having decided that the south bank wasn’t doing much for us, we moved to the north bank across the pretty Ottoman bridge.  The north bank is far more impressive as it is based around the Carsija where Skopje’s Ottoman past is based.

The Kale Fortress, Skopje
Where the south bank is very concrete based, the north bank is made up of small Ottoman style buildings which are used as shops and cafes.  On the hill above the city is the Kale, the Ottoman fortress which looks a lot like the one at Ohrid.  We wandered through the Carsija to see the Mustafa Pasa mosque which we couldn’t go inside as afternoon prayers had just started.  The plan was then to go inside the Kale fortress but when we climbed up to the top we found that it seemed to be closed.  Later, when we spoke to the owner of the hostel about the closure, we were told that it had been shut to the public for the last 2 months.  The reason, he said, was that there is currently a conflict between the Albanian and Macedonian population of the city over a church.  It was difficult to gather the details, but it seemed that  an argument had begun over whether a church should be built in the fortress compound or whether it should be classified as a museum.  The argument had escalated into full blown fights, where local Albanians and Macedonians would speak to each other on facebook and arrange to meet each other and beat each other up in the castle grounds.  The police decided it was best to shut it all down.  This was a bit of a shame, because the view over the city and surrounding mountains would have been really good.

Sveti Spas church and Gorce Delcev’s tomb
Walking back down from the castle we visited the Sveti Spas church.  This was built during Ottoman rule where the law stated that churches could never be taller than mosques.  As a result, the church was sunk into the ground so doesn’t look particularly impressive from the outside but contains an enormous carved wooden iconostasis.  It is now a museum and the entrance fee of 120 MKD also entitled us to visit a museum about Gorce Delcev, a Macedonian leader of the VMRO and national leader killed by Turks in 1903.  His tomb lies in the church’s courtyard. According to Lonely Planet this was the last major sight in the city, but on our way back on the south bank we came across a new attraction which is perhaps the most important that the city has to offer.  Though few people know it, Mother Theresa is an ethnic Albanian who was born in Skopje.  The house where she was born is long gone, but a museum and church has been built on the site of a previous church where she was baptised.  The museum is really well done and contains a few of Mother Theresa’s more recognizable possessions - her blue and white sari and her rosary beads.  A church has been built on the top level of the three storey building.  The city is full of beggar children who work in small groups and as we left the Mother Theresa memorial building a group approached us, only for them to be shooed away by the building’s security guards - which didn’t seem quite in the spirit of the place.

Mother Theresa memorial building, Skopje

The Ottoman Bridge, Skopje
That night we went out for dinner on the north bank at a traditional kebab house where a filling meal costs less than a fiver.  On our way to the restaurant we passed an enormous festival where we were able to see the legendary Spinning Dervishes - while they tend to be thought of as Turkish, the dervishes can be found all over the former Ottoman Empire and having missed them in Turkey it was fantastic to be able to see them.  The two banks of the river provided quite a contrast - on the south bank were noisy bars and clubs, dominated by young Macedonians, while the north bank was filled with Albanian families at the festival.  The next day we decided to have a day off sight seeing and went shopping in downtown Skopje, before catching the overnight bus to Tirana in Albania at 7pm.

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