When my friend and I decided to plan a girl’s trip to Macedonia, I only knew one thing about the country: that they have good wine. Other than that, I was clueless about what to expect from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short, as it is officially called. Shortly after arriving in the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, I still had no idea, because the airport is about half an hour away from the city by bus. When our bus finally made it into the city center, I was in shock. I looked out of the window at massive columned buildings in the style of Ancient Greece.
But, these weren’t ancient buildings I was looking at; they are actually quite new. These massive structures are part of the “Skopje 2014” government initiative to spruce up the capital’s appearance by giving it a more classical appeal. While the buildings seem to be a success from an aesthetic standpoint, they are not such a hit politically due to their high price tag. Frustrated Macedonian protesters participating in the “Color Revolution” frequently spray paint the whitewashed buildings as a protest against the amount of money the government has spent constructing museums, theaters, and government structures. The country still suffers from many social problems, like a lagging economy, homelessness, and a lack of animal control.
The smell of roasting kebabs, the lingering scent of freshly baked baklava, the echoing sound of the mosques calling the faithful to prayer… all the smells and sounds and sights combine to make you feel like you’ve been transported to a bazaar in Turkey or Israel.
Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the construction of these giant Grecian style complexes has attracted curious tourists. Wizz Air, Austrian Air, Turkish Air, and several other carriers offer regular service to Skopje. In addition to gigantic classical architecture, Skopje also has a thing for memorial statues. The main square features a huge horseback Alexander the Great, proudly looking towards the Vardar River and the Kale Fortress on the hill above the old town. Commemorative statues of famous artists line the Art Bridge over the Vardar, while statues of famous rulers stand guard at both ends of the Stone Bridge.
To learn more about the architecture and statues of Skopje, we took a three hour walking tour, which began at the Macedonia Gate. I learned a great deal about Skopje’s history and the current happenings in the city. Skopje is extremely proud of being the birthplace and hometown of Mother Teresa. On the pedestrianized Macedonia Street, a commemorative house museum and chapel celebrates her humanitarian work. Visitors can see notes in her handwriting and photos of important life events. To further commemorate Mother Teresa, Skopje has placed plaques all over town adorned with her quotations about living in peace, serving others, and helping the poor.
The grandiose new buildings, the massive commemorative statues, and the abundance of Mother Teresa quotations are all part of what makes modern Skopje so quintessentially Skopje. It’s unlikely that you’ll feel as though you’re just strolling in any European capital while surrounded by these symbols. But if you want to feel like you’ve been transported to the Middle East in the middle of Skopje, then you simply must visit the Old Bazaar. The smell of roasting kebabs, the lingering scent of freshly baked baklava, the echoing sound of the mosques calling the faithful to prayer, the small shops selling various arts and crafts, the crowds in the streets; all the smells and sounds and sights combine to make you feel like you’ve been transported to a bazaar in Turkey or Israel.
After filling up on local food, hike up the small hill to explore Kale a Fortress, which served as a Medieval defense system for the city. After enjoying the view, stop into Temov Brewery for a local Skopje craft beer. Skopje stays up until sunrise on weekends, so make sure to take a rest before heading out to the bars and clubs in the old bazaar or city center (but no earlier than 11).
Experience all you can and pursue your dreams, because tomorrow is never guaranteed.
Mount Vodno, 3,497 feet, offers a fantastic view over the wide expanse of the capital city and the snow capped mountains beyond. It takes a few hours to hike to the top, or a bus and cable lift make the peak easily accessible. At the top you’ll find the Millennium Cross, a 217 foot cross constructed to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia.
About 10 miles southwest of the city lies Matka Canyon, a beautiful place to hike, take a boat trip, or rent a kayak. My friend and I opted for the boat trip and were rewarded with shifting sunlight in the canyon as the sun started to sink down behind the highest ridges. The boat docked at the far end of the canyon and we got out to explore the Vrelo underground cave. Although we saw some pretty neat stalactites and some sleeping bats, Vrelo Cave is famous because it is one of the deepest underground caves in the world. In fact, the total depth is not known, as many divers have tried without success to descend to the very bottom.
Eventually, at the end of our two long days of Skopje sightseeing, we drank wine. Lots of it. For less than 10 euros per bottle you can choose a high quality Macedonian wine at even the nicest restaurants in town. We ate local specialties alongside the wine, such as minced meat, stuffed grape leaves, and baked beans. The days also ended with rakia, Macedonia’s signature fruit brandy.
So if you are thinking about visiting Skopje, let me end by sharing one of my favorite Mother Teresa quotations:
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
I love this quotation because it is a reminder to live in the current moment. Experience all you can and pursue your dreams, because tomorrow is never guaranteed.