September 28-29, 2011: I stared up at the under-belly of the over-sized horse, a good 70 feet above me. Who was the kilted figure I could just make out riding the horse? Silly question. I was standing in the huge, recently renovated Macedonia Square, on the banks of the Vardar, in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Or, as it is officially known, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The rider was, of course, Alexander the Great. Alexander the Macedonian. Unfortunately, to the Greeks Macedonia is their northern province, not this country, and they feel quite strongly about it.
The central statue, dominating the square from a massive pillar surrounded by warriors, lions and an attractive fountain, was not the only sign of nationalist fervor. The socialist realist statues of the Communist era had been replaced by nationalist realist statues. I confess that my knowledge of local history was insufficient for me to fully appreciate them, and I actually mistook the Roman emperor Justinian (born nearby) for a woman before I got closer. On the other hand, the square had plenty of benches, and plenty of cafes, and I came back in the evenings to watch the pretty interplay of colored lights and water beneath Alexander.
Renovation extended beyond the square itself, and just across the 15th century stone bridge spanning the Vardar I found two brand-new museums in impressive structures. In the more classical building the fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire was celebrated, complete with “scenes” with wax figures. Unfortunately, you had to go round with a tour guide, speaking Macedonian, and I was reduced to reading the few English language labels. No doubt it does a good job of increasing local pride, but after the first few rooms I admit I got a bit bored. I had a better time across the street in the more modern building housing the Holocaust Museum, where I learned a lot about the life of the Jewish refugees who settled in the Balkans after Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain. Unfortunately, although the Bulgarians protected their own Jewish population during WWII, once they took charge of Macedonia they instituted punitive measures against non-Bulgarian Jews there, followed by deportation to Treblinka in March 1943.
Skopje has a long but unfortunate history, having been destroyed by Slavs in the 7th century and Austrians in the 17th, and suffering through earthquakes in 518, 1555 and 1963. The 20th century quake destroyed most of the city south of the river, although the Ottoman-era quarter to the north survived. I stayed south and west of the central square, in the pleasant Rose Diplomatique. New buildings were going up around the B&B, and nearby streets were being resurfaced. I’m not sure where the money was coming from, but the construction trades in Skopje were doing well.
I would have liked to stay closer to the center, but one of the people on the RS tour had just come from Skopje with a bad report on the hotel I had chosen. I walked to and from the main square, but needed taxis for the bus station. Although I had enjoyed setting off on my own from Sofia, the bus ride could have gone better. Nothing wrong with the views – lots of good, sparsely-settled, mountain scenery – but we had to wait at the Bulgarian border for one man who was closeted with the guards for half an hour, and just short of the border we had picked up a woman who talked for the entire three hours it took to reach Skopje. She talked to the driver, and she talked to a passenger who boarded in Macedonia, and neither seemed interested, but she kept going regardless. Even with Irish folk-songs playing on my iPod I had trouble drowning her out.
My first full day in Skopje I set off to hit the sights north of the river, only to find both the castle and the Mustafa Pasha mosque closed for renovations. I did get to admire the impressive iconostasis in Sveti Spas, and had a lovely time with the costumes in the Ethnographic Museum. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Ottoman quarter, although the main shopping street, with its plethora of jewelers shops and over-the-top bridal gowns, reminded me a little of the bazaar in Aleppo, except that that it was outdoors.
Neither the Lonely Planet nor the Bradt maps were very helpful for this area and it took me a while to locate the kebab places outside the former caravanserai Kapan An. While I waited for my shopska salad and cevapcici, I was a little surprised to see a tour group show up. The tour guide sounded rather like the tour guide from my 1999 RS Turkey tour, Meli, but she didn’t look quite the same. She seemed harried and a little annoyed and I didn’t interrupt her, but when I checked her web site later I found that she really had been in Skopje.