Macedonia / Travel

Skopje’s Old Bazaar: Walk Across the River into Turkey

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Skopje’s Old Bazaar and caravanserais” – that’s what got my attention. Just reading these words made me think of adventure. I’ve always loved travel tales about long, arduous journeys to foreign lands, whether truth or fiction.

Ottoman Caravanserai 2

The travels of Marco Polo and Noah Gordon’s fictional The Physician come to mind. In these stories, the bazaar and caravanserai were the places where the exhausted nomads washed off the road dust, slept in a real bed, had a warm meal, relaxed and re-supplied; which is precisely what was happening in Skopje’s Old Turkish Bazaar in the 15th Century.

Stone Bridge

On the eastern side of the Vardar River, just opposite the modern city center, sits the Old Bazaar – a mishmash of narrow cobblestone streets, lined with shops, restaurants, coffee houses, centuries-old mosques and Turkish baths.

This area was the city’s commercial hub as far back as the 12th Century, but 400 years of Ottoman rule really made it what it is today. Minarets compete with power lines and satellite dishes along its skyline.

It’s a vibrant place with the constant pulse and hum of everyday life. Burka-clad women bargain in the market for their daily vegetables; groups of men enjoy a chat over small cups of steaming Turkish coffee; and kids play in dueling water fountains.

Restauranteur

Tourists are few and most go unnoticed except for the cafe owners selling delicious-looking cevapi and kebabs. A friendly smile, words of welcome, and fragrant roasting meat certainly pulled us in for a tasty lunch.

Bowls

Rugs in Bazaar

There are a a few shops catering to tourists, but it’s obvious that the bazaar survives selling goods that locals need. From dried beans and spices to fashionable scarves and shoes – it’s all about daily necessities and it’s as authentic as it gets.

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There’s only one main street crossing the entire bazaar, and the rest are a haphazard jumble. As we’ve discovered more and more on this trip, it’s easy to get lost in these old Balkan villages. And the best strategy: put the map away and wander. When it’s time to actually know where you’re going, just look to the west for the beautiful and unmissable Mustafa Pasha Mosque on the steep hillside.

The bazaar has three remaining caravanserais, which were the backbone of the successful trading center in the Middle Ages. Each had basically the same efficient design. The ground floor courtyard is surrounded by archways to stables and storage rooms housing the horses and goods of the traveling merchants, and the floor above was the inn used for sleeping and socializing. All of the caravanserais have been converted to museums or galleries, so it’s easy to get a look inside.

There are lots of reasons to visit Skopje, and the Old Bazaar is at the top of the list. It’s an enclave of Islamic culture and architecture which will transport you to Turkey without the cost of a plane. Then you can walk back across the river into Europe. You can’t do that just anywhere.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

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Photo Credits:
9. Eaeeae via Wikimedia Commons
20. Nikolovskii via Wikimedia Commons

57 thoughts on “Skopje’s Old Bazaar: Walk Across the River into Turkey

    • Peggy, given all the other exotic places you’ve been, Skopje would be a good addition to your list. We are back in the States now, and were in Europe for 6 weeks. We were very torn, because we could have stayed longer, but we wanted to get back to enjoy our first real autumn in a long time. And it’s been wonderful so far. ~James

    • Thanks Amit. Aren’t these old illustrations wonderful? The Gallivance Graphics Department (that would be Terri) came up with them, and I think they’re a brilliant addition to the post. They conjure up the magical feel of a busy bazaar and caravanserai perfectly. ~James

    • Thanks Liz. We developed our love of Bazaars and souks when we lived and traveled in Africa. We have nothing in the west that quite equals the feel of a dusty old souk (flea market? … naah). Our particular favorite is strolling through the spice market, which is a feast for the eyes as well as the nose. ~James

    • Laura, you’ve provided the perfect lead-in for a funny souk/shoe story. I was in the souk in Marrakech and made the mistake of picking up a pair of slippers. Needless to say, the shop owner descended on me like a hawk on a rat. I wasn’t particularly keen on the slippers, but they were so cheap and the bargaining was so much fun that I couldn’t resist. I scored what I thought was a great deal, and went my merry way. Later that night at my hotel, when I tried the slippers on, I discovered that the wily old goat had sold me two different sizes: a size 12 (correct) and a size 8. 🙂 ~James

  1. Your photos show very well why someone would want to while away the days checking out all the nooks and crannies of this most intriguing place. A warm rich earthy hue seems to surround you, and the colors are wonderful!

    • Most of the Bazaars that I’ve been to are indeed earthy, and usually very dusty. Many of the shops have a large outdoor area, and somehow, the dusting never gets done. It’s just part of the charm Marilyn. ~James

    • Joyce, for me, these rugs are like colorful Mexican pottery. When used in decorating there’s no middle ground. You need to have a lot of it, or just a few pieces for accents. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. We usually go the accent route. ~Love, JH

  2. I absolutely love bazaars! And, if you visited my house, you could see exactly what I’m talking about. I envy your ability to live free of the doodads you find in various countries. Someday, you may find me on my sofa covered in colorful rugs, carved figures, leather wallets . . .

    • I can relate Rusha. Back in our large house days any trip to any bazaar, anywhere in the world, had us loaded down with stuff on the trip home. I remember that the market in Istanbul was a particularly big haul. How we got that 30″ high ceramic jar home I don’t recall, and I can’t remember how many rugs we’ve bought and carted home. Even today, souks are a test for our claim of being minimalists. ~James

  3. Oh my longing for a return to Turkey definitely stirred in reading this one. I love the idea of wandering without the crowds. Skopje definitely sounds like a place we would want to plant ourselves.

    • Turkey is one of our favorites as well Sue. We haven’t been in a few years, but it’s always on our return list. The combination of Islamic architecture and culture in Istanbul and the antiquities on the west coast are a powerful combination. On our next trip, we’d try to go inland a bit more. Have you been inland? ~James

  4. All so colourful and I can imagine so imbued with smells of leather and spices, wool and cooking lamb, coffee and perfumes.I think if I was to go there I’d need to go without my purse. Otherwise I’d just spend, spend, spend. Not on the cheaper stuff either. I have my eye on those rugs which would brighten even the dreariest winter day.

    • Well put Dorothy. Generally, one experiences the bazaar with all senses. The Skopje Bazaar also had an outdoor covered market that sold everything from cradles to crockery. It was crowded with locals, and was one of the most in-your-face markets we’ve seen in ages. It was great fun and so cool that it may deserve its own post. ~James

    • Aren’t those old illustrations the greatest Lynda? As I said to someone else: the Gallivance Graphics Department (that would be Terri) came up with them and they’re a wonderful addition to the post. They remind me of old postcards. ~James

    • Leslie, our first experience with a souk was when we lived in Sudan. The Khartoum souk was a noisy, dusty, spread-out affair. And in addition to the daily necessities, merchants sold lots of crafts from the south of Sudan. Over the two years there we accumulated a huge collection, which all made their way back to the States with us. These artistic crafts were some of the hardest things to let go in our downsizing days. ~James

  5. I am with you, James. Tales of exotic travel have always captured my imagination. In fact, some of the first books I read, beyond Five Little Firemen and Robin Hood, were books my grandfather’s brother, Edison Marshall. Those books almost guaranteed that I would become a wanderer. One, Caravan to Xanadu, was about Marco Polo’s adventures. Nine of his books were turned into movies. Unfortunately, Caravan to Xanadu wasn’t one of them. —Curt

    • Very impressive Curt, you old name dropper you. I checked out your great uncle on Wiki and see that he was very prolific. And I love the range of book topics – impressive. I read one of the Marco Polo books, but can’t remember which of the authors it was. I’m still amazed at all the controversy about Polo. But true or false, it makes a great tale, and is exactly the kind of story I like. If you haven’t already, you might want to check out the other book I refer to: Noah Gordon’s “The Physician.” ~James

      • Name dropper, eh. 🙂 Uncle Eddy lived in a different world than the Mekemsons, like a mansion in Georgia. I wasn’t allowed to read his books, supposedly until I turned 13 since my mother considered them ‘too racy.’ Today they would be lucky to get a PG. I’ll check out Noah Gordon.–Curt

  6. The illustrations and your photos reminded me so much of the Baščaršija quarter in Sarajevo that if you hadn’t had “Skopje” in the title, I would have been dead wrong! I get that same flutter of adventure when I read of caravanserais; I think those old adventure stories were one impetus for my wanderlust! Beautiful photos, especially the rugs – thanks for sharing!

    • Great point Lexie. I hadn’t thought of that. The only difference that I remember is that the Sarajevo bazaar is a bit cleaner and the streets are not quite so maze-like. Also, the restaurants in Sarajevo are a tad more upmarket. Oh, and I didn’t see any bullet-ballpoint pens or “Sniper’s Alley” in Skopje (to their credit). BTW, since you like adventure stories, if you haven’t already, you might want to check out the book I mentioned: Noah Gordon’s “The Physician.” It’s a crackin’ good road trip tale. ~James

  7. So enticing! I would probably never leave, or would cart home way too many items, or at the very least would take too many shots to ever choose which to feature. Lovely Terri and James!!

  8. Skopje sounds like the exotic places I used to dream about (and still do!) as a kid when reading adventure stories. So much color and things to tempt a road weary traveler! I’d love to wander around the caravanserais – sounds like a real way to immerse yourself into the past and a completely different culture. Fascinating! Anita

    • Well Anita, you don’t have to dream much longer. Your new home in Portugal is just a short hop across the Med to Morocco. There’s a ferry from southern Spain, and there may be one from Portugal. Marrakech is great, and the souk there is very cool. It gets a bit crowded with tourists, but with planning you can avoid the masses. Tangiers and Rabat are bigger and also interesting. ~James

  9. I love places like this. Since a small child I have also loved travel and adventure stories. Have you read any of the books by Freya Stark? An amazing woman of her time.

    • Thanks for the recommendation Darlene. I read Stark’s bio and some of her history, and I agree that she was a amazing woman of her time. Terri and I have lived and traveled a fair amount in the Muslim world, and have some first hand experience of how difficult it can be, particularly for women. It’s hard enough today, so a woman traveling in this part of the world in the 40’s took a great deal of patience and tenacity. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for anyone that has done it. ~James

    • Thanks for the suggestion David. I’m a bit of a map geek, so I’m sensitive to giving readers more map info than they want. But your idea is a good one, especially in the case of lesser known places like Skopje. ~James

  10. Looks stunning, such a contrast to our visit (you’d be floored by how dull and lifeless it was on the fringes of winter)!

    Amazing what a blue sky can do for an impression 😉

    • I hear you Chris, and totally agree. It’s pretty funny because our experience was the exact opposite of yours, with a similar feel. When we visited Sarajevo, it was really cold and rainy. We enjoyed it, but shitty weather always puts a damper on a place. Conversely, the weather in Skopje was perfect, and of the two, it is our favorite. Funny how that happens. ~James

  11. Pingback: The Best Things to Do in Skopje, Macedonia | StefanRTW

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