“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.
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.
On the eastern side of the Vardar River in Skopje, North Macedonia, 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.
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.
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.
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.
James & Terri