Heading into Skopje, Macedonia by train from Greece, I quite literally knew nothing about the place. I didn’t even know how to properly pronounce its name, much less what I could expect to find there upon arrival. Call me sheltered, call me an ignorant American, call me whatever you want.
Truth be told, I didn’t know I was even going to Skopje until the day before.
Even still, I’m not proud of the fact that the tumultuous history of the Balkans or the fascinating cultural idiosyncracies of Macedonia never found their way into my consciousness. Nor am I particularly proud of the fact that I didn’t know Macedonia had its own language and that the billboards were not, in fact, written in Greek or Russian. But, as I always say, these opportunities to learn about places so foreign and strange to me are precisely the reason I travel to begin with.
So, if you’re as sheltered and ignorant as I was about Macedonia, never fear! I’ve done the legwork for you. Here are several of the things you probably still don’t know about the place.
It’s actually pronounced…
Alright, let’s get this out of the way first and foremost–the correct way to pronounce Skopje is “SKOPE-yey.” If you want to hear it in action (that always helps me immensely), click here.
It’s known as the Capital of Kitsch
A quick wander around the main square of Skopje will reveal a collection of statues and structures–ridiculously grandiose ones–that are part of a project undertaken in 2008 to restore a former version of the city that was destroyed by earthquakes in 1963. Local citizens have denigrated the project as nothing more than an attempt to distract from a crumbling economy and a struggling population with nearly 30% unemployment; the construction cost associated with this project (between 80 million and 500 million Euros, depending who you ask) has been the source of major controversy as well. Any way you slice it, this restoration project is indeed quite laughable and well-deserving of the “kitsch” title it has earned.
In Freedom Square, a large plaza still under heavy construction, you’ll first notice “Warrior on a Horse,” a towering likeness of Alexander the Great atop his powerful steed (though not officially named Alexander the Great so as to avoid controversy with neighboring Greece; see photo above). Heading northeast across the square, you’ll the figure of Goce Delcev, a well-known revolutionary. Among the many other iconic figures you can find around town are former British prime minister Winston Churchill and United States presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
It’s in the midst of political turmoil
Perhaps you gathered this much from the previous paragraphs, but corruption is rampant in Macedonia (money laundering from these unnecessary construction projects was just one example that was explained to us) and the political party currently in power faces great opposition. In fact, we arrived to our hostel to find that we were exactly opposite the main government building of the Republic of Macedonia…as well as the occupy movement that had taken over the street, pressuring the current leader to step down.
We were lucky enough to be invited into one of these tents for a few meals one afternoon and had the rare opportunity to find out what this occupation was all about, straight from the horses’ mouths.
Err, unfortunately, due to a pretty significant language barrier, we didn’t learn much, but we were able to make a few interesting observations. These protestors were primarily middle-aged; very few young people seemed to be present. They were incredibly friendly, outgoing gentlemen who fed us food and booze as if we’d been friends with them for ages. They simply could not, would not comprehend why my travel companion and I were not married (not all that surprising, really). They were passionate about their cause, repeatedly saying that they would remain there for as long as it took for this leader to step down.
When we asked who was funding this occupation (there were often meals provided for participants and portable toilets sat at either end of the street, among other obvious signs of financial support) the answer was quite simple: the opposition party. And on the other side of town, we later learned, anti-opposition protests were taking place. To clarify, I’m talking about protests in opposition to the protests opposing the current party. Sponsored by…I’m sure you can figure this one out.
I’ve since done some rudimentary research on this topic and discovered that the current president, Dr. Gjorge Ivanov, is a member of the party known as–deep breath in–the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (or just VMRO for short). This party is self-described as “Christian democratic,” described often by others as “nationalist,” and described by our friends at the protest that day as “fascist.”
It’s home to the second-largest bazaar in the Balkans
You geography buffs may have guessed that the title of the largest bazaar in the Balkans belongs to Istanbul, Turkey. You history buffs may have guessed that Skopje’s Old Bazaar underwent rapid development to become the city’s main economic center during Ottoman rule. What none of you probably guessed is just how dead the place is on a Sunday afternoon.
Yes, the Old Bazaar is one of Skopje’s main tourist attractions, but make sure you hit it on the right day, otherwise you’ll find nothing but shuttered windows and young kids kicking around soccer balls. Of course, it does have a lively nightlife scene including plenty of live music, so if you aren’t in need of inexpensive tapestries, ball gowns, or beautiful leather shoes, head to the Old Bazaar at night for a few beers.
It’s incredibly beautiful
The city itself, to be fair, is nothing to write home about–the combination of communist and kitsch leaves much to be desired when it comes to Skopje’s design. But there are mountains in just about every direction you look…
…a beautiful fortress that looks down over the city…
…and if you hop on a bus and head about an hour outside of town, you’ll find the most impressive natural attraction of all, Matka Canyon. This lean, mean, tourist ravine can be seen in a mere day trip, and is well worth the few dollars the bus and boat rides will cost you. The boat will take you into the canyon, stopping off at a few points to let you explore natural caves. It’s far from strenuous, and you can even enjoy a meal or a drink once you’re back at the one and only restaurant.
Or, if you’d rather throw some exercise in the mix, you can ask your boat driver to drop you off on the bank opposite the restaurant where you can access a hiking trail that will bring you back to the bus station, giving you incredible views along the way. We opted for the hike, and it turned out to be a pretty solid choice.
So, what do you think? Did you know anything about Skopje before reading this post? Would you ever visit?