A more inviting city centre is hard to come by! The Vardar River flows lazily through it. Folks mill about, enjoying the ambiance from early morning until after dark in a rainbow of lights. One side of the river holds a plethora of restaurants and cafes to pop into; the other side boasts a museum, national theatre and government buildings in neoclassical and baroque style. And here, there and everywhere are stunning monuments of historic figures and national heroes. I am amazed to learn that most of these edifices and statues have been constructed as part of an urban renewal project
"Skopje 2014", only officially announced in 2010!
All the statues are impressive, but I find
Philip II of Macedon most outstanding. Towering over us in gleaming bronze with his fist raised, I envision him mouthing a phrase attributed to him, "Divide and conquer!" He did just that - the first to conquer the Greek states, later uniting them. He was king of Macedon from 359 BC until his assassination in 336 BC, when his son,
Alexander the Great, continued his mission for empire building.
Across the Vardar in Macedonia Square (Plostad Makedonija), an 8-storey monument dwarfs its surroundings - "This is Alexander the Great." We stand mesmerized by the heroic figure perched on a rearing steed atop a gigantic spurting fountain with soldiers and lions around the base. The formal name for the Alexander statue is "Warrior on a Horse" and the Philip II statue is "Warrior."
With many of the monuments, such as those named ASNOM and Gemidzii, we welcome the information found on Skopje 2014, for how they fit into this country's dynamic history.
Two bridges cross the river from the central square. The showy Art Bridge is a pedestrian walk-way lined with statues of famous painters, sculptors, writers and philosophers - twenty-nine in total.
Within a stone's throw is a second crossing - the Old Stone Bridge (Kameni Most) built on Roman foundations by the Ottoman in the late 15th century. It leads us to Ĉarŝija (Old Bazaar) where the Ottoman past lingers in architecture and colourful market streets, now largely home to the city's Albanian and Turkish population. We come across mosques, small churches, and also the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews from Macedonia, which opened in 2011 to commemorate the country's Jews who perished during WWII.
From here we climb a lengthy set of steps with bustling eateries built on platforms that jut out from the hillside. The jovial mood of the customers is catchy, and our resistance to the tantalizing aromas lasts but a minute. We are soon feasting on Tavôe gravĉe, a delectable bean, onion, dried red pepper dish served in the earthenware bowl in which it was baked, with a cooling
Skopsko, the national beer.
Fortified for the remaining climb, we reach the Kale Fortress, originally built on a hilltop in the 6th century by the Byzantine rulers of the day. Some towers and walls have been restored, while others are in the crumbled state of battles once fought.
From the lofty fortress cliff we are eye-to-eye, although the day is misty, with the
Millennium Cross. This 66m (217ft) high cross was erected on Vodno Mountain in 2001, for the 2000th Anniversary of Christianity in Macedonia and the world. At night it is illuminated with 20,000 light bulbs.
I am usually not a speedy morning person, but burek breakfasts cut my ready-for-action time in half. Of the many choice fillings for these filo-pastry delights, my husband, Rick's favourite is the spicy ground beef and mine is white cheese and spinach, which we down between sips of traditional yogurt drink. Scrumptious!
This day we seek out the triumphal arch, Porta Macedonia, completed in 2012 to commemorate 20 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia, the newly formed country taking the name Republic of Macedonia. However, neighbouring Greece objected to this name usage, also having a region named Macedonia, hence in 1993 the new nation gained UN admission under the 'provisional' title - Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The unresolved name issue has hampered the country of Macedonia in obtaining full EU membership and in joining NATO. This matter also involves the right to national hero claims - an ah-ha moment for us in relation to the generic formal names given the statues in Skopje's main square. Greece and Macedonia hopefully will agree on how to share the name and ancient historic figures.
Leaving the arch behind, our mission is to locate a small museum, built on the birth-home of
Mother Teresa, now canonized as Saint Mother Teresa. We follow this ethnic Albanian's life-journey from precocious child to young lady ready to follow her calling. A heart-wrenching photo is of her holding the head and comforting a dying leper in Calcutta where she began her charity work. Others portray meetings with world leaders, being recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and listings of the many facilities she began around the globe. Religious persuasion aside - this tenacious nun who dedicated her life to the most destitute, the forgotten and downtrodden, the diseased and dying - is a saint in my books.
We walk further to see the Old Railway Station with its clock that remains at the time it stopped at 5:17 a.m. on July 26, 1963 when the catastrophic earthquake struck. Eighty-percent of the city was destroyed, over a thousand people died, thousands were injured, and 200,000 were left homeless. Part of the exterior has been left in its ruined state; the interior houses the Museum of the City of Macedonia.
On the way back to our hotel each day we pass an à propos monument honouring all the fallen heroes of Macedonia - artistically portrayed as a demi-god, an angel, rearing horses, and urn with an eternal flame.
Our Skopje experience is akin to a walk through the country's history. It instilled a desire to someday visit villages, hike mountain trails and canoe a lake-or-two in this still largely undiscovered country to travellers, but we can vouch for the relaxed atmosphere of wandering about the capital enhanced by the red-carpet hospitality of locals.
A legend of how Skopje was born was told to us by an elderly countryman over a thick, sweet Turkish coffee. "A hero came across a mammoth boulder between seven mountains, which he recognized as a head with no openings for the senses due to a spell that had been put on it. This hero took his sword and fashioned eyes, nostrils, ears and a mouth - and Skopje became a living, breathing, hearing entity"... like the city it is today!
Rick Butler Slideshow