Sightseeing in Skopje – part 1 – the old town

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4/5

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September, 2019

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We spent three nights in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. On the drive there from “Prizren”:https://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/review/attraction/203237-review-sightseeing-in-prizren in Kosovo, our driver said we’d be amazed at the number of statues, but little did we know exactly how many we’d see.

Skopje 2014 was a project financed by the government with the purpose of giving the capital a more classical appeal. Controversially a figure somewhere between the original estimate of €80m and €500+m was spent on new museums, bridges, monuments and of course, statues. Many we met felt that the money would have been better spent on hospitals, education etc. and the words bribes, embezzlement and other less honest activities were frequently used.

There are two parts to the city: the old town or Čaršija, and the modern town centre. Our “Hotel de KOKA”:https://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/review/accommodation/203347-review-hotel-de-koka was ideally situated between the two. We only needed to look from our bedroom window to see Skanderbeg Square with its statue of Skanderbeg on horseback and a large mural depicting all things Albanian. We spent much of our days flitting between the two, either on a guided tour or under our own steam.

Affecting all areas of the city was an earthquake in 1963, when 70%+ of the buildings were destroyed, with around 1,000 fatalities.

Both Skopje 2014 and the earthquake have had a major impact on the city and as there was so much to see, I’ve split my review into two: old and new. As it was impossible to choose just eight photos which reflects the sheer volume of statues, links have been included to photos from the internet.

The Old Town Čaršija

Walking northwards from our hotel, we passed by Kapan An, an old trading inn built during Ottoman times. The entrances led to a central courtyard surrounded by wooden balconied rooms, which had stabling for the horses and storage underneath. Kapan An is now home to several bars and restaurants and as our hotel had neither, we visited a number of them for either drinks or a snack.

Further along was Suli An, where upstairs housed the Museum of the Old Skopje Bazaar, whilst the courtyard, with body sculptures dotted around, was home to the University’s Department of Applied Arts.

An arch signalled the end of the old town and the start of Bit Pazar with its market stalls displaying their vast array of fruit and vegetables.

We walked back towards the hotel past shops selling jewellery, souvenirs, locally made handicrafts and glitzy shoes with enormous stiletto heels, totally unsuited to the cobbled streets. At the Monastery of Sveti Spas (Holy Salvation), the Church of the Holy Saviour was closed as it was Monday, but in the grounds we saw the tomb of Goce Delčev, leader of the Independence for Macedonia Revolutionary Organisation who was shot by the Ottomans in 1903.

The Mustafa Pasha Mosque was also closed so we had to admire the largest and most decorated mosque in Skopje from the outside. The body of the pasha’s daughter was buried in the turbe or tomb on the Mosque’s left-hand side.

An unmissable site was Kale Fortress, perched on a hill overlooking the new town. Having survived since 4000 BC, it was no match for the 1963 earthquake. The fortress walls have been restored and we walked sections which gave excellent views of the modern city and the Millennial Cross perched high on a hillside.

From the Kale Fortress we trudged onwards and upwards, on what was a hot day, to the “Museum of Contemporary Art”:https://msu.mk/home/. Following the destruction caused by the 1963 earthquake, many of the 4360 works of art were donated by prominent international artists, including Picasso. Unfortunately, we found it closed for refurbishment.

In an area south of the old town, but not yet across the River Varda were several sites.
The 13-domed Daud Pasha Hamman was designed for separate male and female bathing, with the two large domes at the front marking the original dressing rooms. It now houses the “National Gallery of Macedonia”:https://nationalgallery.mk/?lang=en.

Skopje has several museums telling the country’s story, with others devoted to military history, natural history and coinage. Whilst some were not accessible due to renovation, much of our free time was on a Monday, when many are closed. However, we visited the “Jewish Holocaust Museum”:http://www.holocaustfund.org.mk/en, and having paid our entrance fee, we were given a handout and told to start at the top and work our way downwards. Photos were only allowed in the Ground Floor Memorial Room and Commemoration Area and later we found the security guard at the entrance had extensive CCTV to police this. It was beautifully laid out with signs in English as well as Macedonian and a huge number of videos (at first, we started using the earpiece but after listening for a few minutes to a foreign language, we realised we were reading the English subtitles). The things that stood out were the testimonies of people, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the 1400s, the railway carriage for quiet reflection and the video reconstructions of Treblinka.

In Rebellion Square we found a tall statue of King Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. At the bottom of the plinth was a fountain, with Alexander as a young child with his parents. Directly in front of the King, was another statue-fountain combination: “Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014#/media/File:Fountain_of_the_Mothers_of_Macedonia.jpg, with four women around the base each with a child of increasing age.

On the approach to the Stone Bridge, taking us to the new town, were two very similar plinths with statues, each of two men. The first, was “Saints Cyril and Methodius”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014#/media/File:Kiril_and_Metodij_-_Skopje.JPG who created Glagolitic, the first alphabet used to transcribe Old Church Slavonic, whilst the second was “Saints Clement and Naum”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014#/media/File:Monument_to_Kliment_and_Naum.JPG. There were three other statues to see before we crossed over the River Vardar. The first, was four horses emerging from a central pillar in a fountain, aptly described as “Horses Fountain”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014#/media/File:Fuente_de_los_Caballos,_Skopie,_Macedonia,_2014-04-17,_DD_35.JPG, whilst the other two were of people: the magnificently moustachioed “Pulevski”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014#/media/File:Spomenik_na_Pulevski_-_Skopje.JPG, a 19th century writer and revolutionary and seated on horseback, “Karpoš”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skopje_2014#/media/File:Spomenik_na_Karpo%C5%A1_vo_Skopje.JPG, the leader of a Christian anti-Ottoman uprising in the late 17th century.

Before our visit to North Macedonia, I’d probably have struggled to name its capital. However, having spent a short visit there skimming the surface of its history and its more recent developments, it’s a fascinating place, and is now definitely on our return to list.

Helen Jackson

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