Macedonia / Travel

Surprising Skopje!

It’s out of my sight, but the distant and serene call to prayers from the Sultan Murat Mosque lets me know the sun is rising in the east. Not long after, rhythmic bells from St. Mary’s Orthodox Church next door also remind the Christian faithful of their religious duties.

This is how a city wakes up at a cultural crossroads: East meets West, Islam meets Christianity. Welcome to Skopje, Macedonia.

We’ve left the beautiful, azure Adriatic, its picturesque towns, and cruise-ship tourists behind. Refugees on the move and potential border-crossing problems convinced us to fly from Tivat, Montenegro to the Macedonian capital. And what we discovered on arrival was nothing but pleasant surprises – the tourist tap was turned off and an eclectic mix of engrossing sights awaited us.

Rugs in Bazaar

Money

From Skopje’s Ottoman wonders and ancient Bazaar to its gleaming lineup of Neo-Classical buildings along the river – this unique city of contrasts and its efforts at reshaping itself fascinated us.

In our next few posts we’ll show you why this city in transition captured our hearts.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Daut Pashin Haman in the Old Bazaar by Sanja Nikolic via Wikimedia Commons

Daut Pashin Haman by Sanja Nikolic via Wikimedia Commons

58 thoughts on “Surprising Skopje!

  1. I am so looking forward to your posts on Macedonia! the blending of an ancient place, the mystical feeling, the spirituality and faith swirling about in the air. I am absolutely intrigued! Like I said, I cannot wait to see the sights and hear your reflections through your blog. 🙂

    • Liz, after traveling in other parts of the Balkans which have a history of severe interfaith problems, it’s pleasant to visit a city where the different faiths peacefully coexist. Skopje was a nice surprise, and it’s variety made it a great destination. ~James

    • Thanks Anita. Until we saw how few tourists there were, we didn’t really know how off the beaten path it is. After the cruise ships on the Adriatic coast, it was a nice change. One thing that we’ve learned in the Balkans is how interesting the history is for the area. It’s a cool place for sure. ~James

    • The Balkans war proved that many people in this area are terrible at blending cultures. Skopje definitely has its act together on this issue, which is a nice change to other places in this part of the world. ~James

    • Kathy, most of the major construction in Skopje is complete, except for the huge, new Opera house. As to road mending, I think this is where the opponents to Skopje 2014 (the huge city revamp project) thought some of the money should have gone. ~James

  2. I think Macedonia and I always think Alexander the Great. The thought of Christians and Muslims living side by side in peace is refreshing. I look forward to your stories James and Terri. –Curt

    • Refreshing is right Curt. It’s especially so in a part of the world not known for its religious tolerance. It’s interesting to me that two of Macedonia’s biggest celebrity exports were Alexander the Great and Mother Teresa. ~James

      • “Part of world not known for its religious tolerance—” an understatement for sure. I wasn’t aware that Mother Teresa came form Macedonia. I don’t know how I missed that. I’ve always liked the Hellenistic period of history for its combination/fusion of cultures. –Curt

  3. I had no idea Mother Teresa was from Macedonia? I am looking foward to learn more about this country. Lovely blue skies in your pictures, exploring with nice weather makes all the difference.

    • Yep, even though Mother Teresa calls herself an Albanian, she was born in Skopje. I visited the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, and there was some very cool stuff there. In fact, watch this space because in all likelihood we’ll be doing a post on MT. ~James

    • I’m sure that Macedonia would have been a good placement Susan, but Ukraine must have been interesting as well. The thing I love about Macedonia specifically, and the Balkans in general is the long and complex history. It truly is a cultural crossroads. ~James

  4. I frequently talk with a woman from Skopje here at home, and another friend worked there for half a year; both of them have regaled me with so many wonderful stories that I am still kicking myself for not getting to Skopje during my Balkans trip a few years ago. I look forward to seeing more of its wonders via your posts!

    • Lexie, in a few days we’ll be posting about project Skopje 2014, which is a huge building project designed to revamp Skopje to make it more appealing to tourists and generate a bit of Macedonian patriotism. We loved the results, but apparently the massive expense is controversial and not everyone agrees that it’s a good idea. When it posts, I’b be interested to hear your friend’s read on the project. The post will run Monday. ~James

      • Did you ever do the post on project Skopje 2014? I did ask my Macedonian friend today about the transformation of Skopje, and as you said, it is quite controversial with the people there! She kept using the word “facades” and I thought that was a perfect word to capture the idea of making the face of Skopje look more beautiful and appealing to tourists, but underneath the city is still inefficient and much of its infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped and unimproved. She cited recreation facilities for local people that are moldy and decrepit while big fancy pools and fountains are built for visitors, as well as the many smaller towns that are left to decay while Skopje is made a showpiece. So I think you got the right feeling about how Macedonians feel about the project!

      • Lexie, there was a little publishing snafu here at Gallivance, and the post won’t publish until Monday, Nov 16. Sorry for the confusion. It’s very interesting hearing your friend’s comments. They seem to fit with other opinions we’ve read. Apparently, not only is the project expensive, it went hugely over budget, and as frequently happens, there are allegations of fraud. On our visit to Skopje we covered the center pretty well, but didn’t really see much of rest of the city – making us typical tourists and the primary target for the facelift of the city. We took a bus from Skopje to Sofia, Bulgaria, so we saw some of the countryside, but didn’t really see anything that bleak. Of course, it’s impossible to get a good impression in a few days, and a tourist point of view is radically different than locals who have to live with outdated facilities day in and out. It will be interesting to see what other commenters have to say. It’s one of those posts that could be a lightning rod. ~Jame

    • After our time on the Adriatic, the low number of tourists in Skopje was quite a change Sue. Visiting off-the-path destinations is always rewarding, especially when they’re as pleasant and interesting as Skopje. Given how cool the city is, it’s a bit surprising that more people haven’t discovered it. But, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time. And BTW, this is the first place we’ve visited in the Balkans that seems to have a bit of a bike culture. They have a bike path, and lots of folks commute by bike. FYI, an organized bike tour for a couple of Canadians? ~James

  5. Hlo there to James & Terri! I’m glad you thought my post, a few weeks ago, on the Mediolanum Forum venue in Milan, was interesting enough for you to like it. I searched your 500 posts real hard but didn’t find one about Milan (although there were plenty from Italy)! Well, if you ever do get to visit Milan, just contact me and I’ll make you a personal plan for the best area in Milan suited for you and the best places to eat there! Or you can just check out my other main blog [ http://www.milanfinally.com/ ]. Like you, I’ve already been to Croatia and Bosnia; but not Serbia or Montenegro (apart from Zabljak) – but I’ve also been through Macedonia. In my younger days, the official youth hostel in Skopje was miserable, but the singing and carousing with friendly locals in the basement restaurant made up for it. After being invited to the home of one of these friendly locals, I was treated to a diatribe of hatred for one or other of the opposing ethnic groups. I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been… and yes, it was soooooo long ago that it was before all the civil wars. As for diversity, I guess things are different now, while other things stay the same. The very large Lake Ohrid was nice; but as you’re heading to Bulgaria, Lake Ohrid may not be on your itinerary… Have a great trip!

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. There’s no doubt that forgetting the horrific atrocities that happened during the war will take years. But one thing we found in Sarajevo a couple of years ago was that the present generation is trying to move on with their lives. Old scars won’t totally heal for decades but life goes on. And what we saw in Skopje seemed to be that the Muslims and Christians are peacefully coexisting and the city is an interesting and vibrant place. Of course, there will always be pockets of ethnic hatred, but nothing will change this. We haven’t spent any time in Milan, and are looking forward to it. Sometimes, Milan can be an inexpensive gateway for flights from the US, and we’re always looking for a cheaper way to get to Europe. We’ll check out your blog for ideas. ~James

  6. What a lovely looking place, especially without tourists. I am always aware of the irony that I wish to see foreign places without the accompaniment of masses of tour groups but am a tourist myself,

    • Marie, except for people who go on holiday specifically to party and meet people, I think that most of us feel this way. It’s also this way with new discoveries that only a few travelers know about. We want it to stay undiscovered and just the way it was when we first visited. Ironical yes, but it seems wired into our systems. ~James

  7. I look forward to reading more about it. I have a friend from Macedonia and he said the govt has been trying to improve services to attract tourists and make improvements. You are no doubt away from the tourist crowds there.

    • Given the variety of stuff to see here Jeff, it was amazing to us how few tourists there were. As to services, we had no problems. And Terri managed to find a really nice, inexpensive apartment in a modern building in a perfect location in the center. Yes, there seems to be some grousing about the huge construction project, but this is always going to happen. We thought the results were great. ~James

  8. Beautiful post and place… I’ve always dreamt of Macedonia and the Balkans mainly wondering what peace would mean to everyone, and how beautiful life would be. Wonderful look ~ the Bazaar is where I could spend all my time watching and enjoying life.

    • Thanks for the comment Randall, and for dropping by the blog. We’ve visited all of Balkan countries except Kosovo within the last couple of years. From what we saw, in many places (Mostar and Sarajevo particularly) there’s still lots of physical evidence of the war – bullet pocked and bombed out buildings. But from our experience, most people have moved on – particularly the younger generations. As is always the case, it will take the generation that lived through it decades to get over it, if they do at all. For these folks, animosity runs deep I suspect, but life seems to have gotten back to normal. We did a number of posts on the Balkans, so if you want to see our read on it, just search each country on our blog. ~James

      • It is great to hear the younger generation has moved on…and yes, you are so right – it is the younger generation that will lead the healing of the wounds. The centuries upon centuries of turmoil the area has seen is such a part of their culture it may always be a bit of an issue. Will have to check out your other posts on the area. It is a fascinating place. Wish you a great week ahead.

  9. I love how different eyes see a place so very differently!

    We actually found Skopje to be a surprise disappointment… the makeover of the city felt like it was trying to channel Las Vegas in a really tasteless kind of way (not that Vegas is in any way tasteful).

    For a beautiful East meets West Balkans experience, we really fell for Sarajevo 🙂

    • There’s no denying the Vegas effect in Skopje Chris. I’ve never been a huge fan of Vegas, but in small doses it can be fun. Skopje probably fits into this category as well. For us, at the time, the glitzy makeover was such a surprise that we enjoyed it. Also, I loved the waterfront. ~James

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