The capital and largest city of the Republic of Macedonia was the last destination in our Ultimate Balkan Road Trip which lasted for a total of 13 days. Located on the northern part of the country, not far from its neighboring countries, Bulgaria, Albania and Kosovo, it is home to a fourth of the country’s total population.
In the year of 1963, when Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia, Skopje was hit by a major earthquake responsible for the death of over a thousand people and the destruction of 80% of the city. Throughout the next two decades the city went through a major transformation. All that had been destroyed was rebuilt and much more was added to the city, transforming it into the city we know.
Just like in Ohrid, accommodation in Skopje is very cheap. We found an apartment through Booking.com for the equivalent of 12 Euros per night. The important part was that it was situated within walking distance from the city center, there was free parking for the car, and there was a bed where we could crash for our very last night before returning home. Comfy and fancy wasn’t really a requirement.
Loud Evening in Skopje
I’ll never forget that evening in Skopje. After checking in at the apartment and dropping our belongings, we headed to the city center for a walk and a drink. Everyone had gone loud and crazy! Cars honking, people screaming and Macedonian flags everywhere. As we approached Macedonia Square, the city’s main square with the large statue of Alexander the Great on a horse, we came across a huge crowd celebrating. The reason for such celebration was still unknown to us.
We had a drink at one of the many bars in the area and that’s when we were told that RK Vardar, a local handball team, had just won its first and only European Handball title after beating PSG. It became a lot clearer why everyone was so happy and proud displaying their country’s flag.
Waking up early had become a ritual during this road trip. Skopje wasn’t going to be an exception. In fact, every time I’m on vacation I try to wake up as early as possible. There is always so much to see, so much to discover. I get depressed just of thinking about throwing such precious time away. I can sleep late on work days…. But yes, I know it can be rough to go on vacation with me. Sometimes I feel sorry for my girlfriend, who is always looking forward to a relaxing vacation.
On our way to the city center we came across a statue of the Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, erected in front of Josip Broz Tito High School. That was just the first of hundreds of statues we were about to discover that day. Skopje is definitely a city of statues, often called Capital of Kitsch.
Tall communist apartment blocks can be found all over the city, very similar to those I see every day here in Sofia, Bulgaria. However, I was caught by surprise when I discovered that Skopje’s local buses are red double-deckers, similar to those of London, manufactured by the Chinese company, Yutong.
On your visit to the Macedonian capital there are certain attractions you cannot miss, such as the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, built on the very same location where the Roman Catholic nun was baptized in 1910. Entrance is free. Inside you’ll find many items on display, such as original handwritten letters, photographs and artifacts. Don’t miss the glass walled chapel on the top floor.
The Feudal Tower that stands behind the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, is one of the few buildings that survived the 1963 Skopje Earthquake. Today it serves only as a souvenir shop, however it was closed at the time of our visit.
Skopje is home to hundreds of statues, a triumphal arch, pirate ships and much more. However, the Macedonian capital was not always like this. Responsible for most of these changes is the project named Skopje 2014, launched in 2010. Such project has been extremely criticized for being too expensive and a total waste of money, in a country where unemployment rate averaged 31% since its creation after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Even though locals don’t see Project 2014 with good eyes, for obvious reasons, tourists seem to enjoy its results. A lot was brought to the city, just like Porta Macedonia, a 21 meters tall triumphal arch on Pella Square, dedicated to 20 years of Macedonian independence.
Also part of Project 2014, the Woman Warrior Park is one of the largest parks located in the city center, where more than 20 statues can be found, including golden statues, and opposite to it, on the other side of the street, you’ll see the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia with a statue of the revolutionary hero Nikola Karev on a horse.
We were now back at Macedonia Square for a clear shot of the warrior on a horse, the name given to the 7.5 million Euros statue that depicts Alexander the Great. The square was no longer crowded like the night before. Monuments dedicated to Damyan Gruev and Gotse Delchev stand south of Vardar River, names that sound very familiar. I’ve been living in Bulgaria for 2 years, it would be difficult not to have heard the name of these two important figures.
Vardar is the name of the country’s longest river which flows through the Macedonian capital, dividing the city into two. The Old Bazaar and Ottoman neighborhood on the north bank, and the modern renovated city on the south bank.
There are three main pedestrian bridges that cross the river, the Stone Bridge, the Bridge of Civilizations and the Art Bridge. The first one, the Stone Bridge, one of Skopje’s symbols, was built in the 15th Century and is the oldest pedestrian bridge in the city, having been damaged and repaired several times throughout the centuries. The second and third bridges, were recently built, as part of project Skopje 2014 and both feature dozens of statues. Crossing these bridges is definitely a must-do when visiting the Macedonian capital.
Also on Vardar River between the Bridge of Civilizations and the Art Bridge, you’ll find a pirate ship. That’s right. It is nothing more than a very well-rated hotel, bar and restaurant. Maybe I’ll consider spending a night there on my next visit to Skopje.
As soon as you cross the Stone Bridge, you’ll reach this huge square with fountains and statues, similar to those of the south bank. Just like Ohrid, Skopje has a monument dedicated to Saints Cyril and Methodius, the two Byzantine Greek brothers responsible for the invention of the two oldest Slavic alphabets.
Most of Skopje’s museums are also located on the river’s north bank, and all of them within a short distance from each other. Plenty of choice… The Macedonian Archaeology Museum, the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, the Memorial Museum of Illegal Weapons Manufacturing Workshops and many more. I’ll make sure I visit some of them in the future. After all, Sofia is not that far, right?
North of this square is located the Old Bazaar of Skopje (Stara Čaršija), the city’s historic center, stretching all the way from the Stone Bridge to the Bit-Pazar. Once the largest bazaar in the Balkans, it is home to picturesque narrow streets, dozens of coffee places and restaurants, souvenir shops and mosques that date back centuries.
Do not forget to visit the 14th Century Bit Pazar (Flea Market in Turkish), located on the northern end of Čaršija. It is the country’s largest outdoor market, where you can find everything, ranging from fruit and vegetables to electronics and much more. Take a stroll through the long narrow corridors of the bazaar and feel the mix of different smells. In case you’re visiting during the Ramadan, you’ll also witness the Muslim Call to Prayer from the nearby mosques.
When we were done with our visit to the Old Bazaar and Bit Pazar, we crossed Stone Bridge back to the south bank of Vardar River. That’s when I noticed the Millennium Cross, a 66-meter tall Christian cross built on Krstovar Peak, the tallest peak of Vodno Mountain, which you can visit by taking the Millennium Cross Cable Car.
From Macedonia Square, we walked alongside the river, towards west where we could have a better view of Skopje Fortress, also known as Kale. We had visited so many fortresses the past few days that we were no longer willing to visit this one. On a next visit, who knows…
The Eastern Orthodox Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid was the last landmark we visited in the capital of Macedonia. In fact, it was the last monument we visited during our vacation touring the Balkans. The architecture of this church is very unique, just like the artwork that covers the inside walls and ceiling.
At that moment I was feeling overwhelmed by such amazing trip that was just about to end. Indeed, time does fly. In the blink of an eye, 13 days had gone by. After exploring so many cities in 6 different countries, the Ultimate Balkan Road Trip had reached the end. It was time to go back to our daily routines. This road trip was by far the best vacation I had in my lifetime!