Skopje, the largest city in Macedonia had an earthquake in 1963 that destroyed 80% of the city. Rebuilding of the city was tasked to a Japanese architect and urban planner who also helped rebuild Hiroshima in 1949. As I was walking around the city I noticed very rundown buildings and newly built ones. In the centre of the city I discovered an abundance of newly built monuments and fountains scattered throughout.
Taking the overnight “Balkan Express” train from Novi Sad / Belgrade enabled a chance encounter with a young Holland man with an interesting story. Two years ago when his house bills were piling up he simply got up and left his house and has been traveling ever since. When I asked him what will happen when he returns he said that it’ll get sorted out somehow. I wonder if others from the Netherlands think the same way.
Skopje city transit is easy enough to figure out. Most routes pass through the main bus/train terminal and you can buy a paper ticket directly from the driver or use an electronic pass. There are inspectors on some routes since people often enter the bus at the rear doors (like so many other Balkan countries) and ride the bus with the hopes of not getting caught. Skopje also has doubledecker buses which makes certain bus trips feel like you’re in the U.K.
Using the Couchsurfing website I decided to locate a host who will let me crash at his/her place. I had a host lined up but at the same time my intuition prompted me to select a local hostel as a backup even though I didn’t have a back up in Novi Sad. And as it turns out I had trouble connecting with my host the day of arrival and was really tired from the train ride so off to the hostel I went. City Hostel was in the midst of some cleaning and renovations and had a very basic layout. When you’re in a place where the local economy is poor you shouldn’t expect any glamour. It’s interesting to note that one of the hostel guests tried a more nicer looking hostel but received poor service and hospitality so he went to back to City Hostel even though it looks a little run down. The hostel is family run and the owners were more hospitable which is the reason the hostel has a popular rating. One of the owners even goes so far as to make complaints to the authorities when a taxi driver rips off his guests; one tourist was tricked into paying a fare 8 times the amount. The tourist believed the taxi driver when he was told of the exchange rates.
I got into an argument with one of the owners about the pronunciation of a particular English word. I was being as sincere as I could on how it’s said and then he got mad saying I was wrong. So then after a few back and forth explanations and my tone becoming more aggressive he finally relented.
I stayed one night and left my backpack at the hostel while I toured the city. I figured instead of spending another night at the hostel I could take an overnight bus to my next destination, Sofia, Bulgaria, and sleep in the bus.
At the hostel I met two other groups of travelers heading to Sofia. Two guys from France were leaving the next morning and a young British couple who work and live in Sofia were leaving that day. We exchanged contact information with future plans to meet up for coffee in Sofia.
Skopje 2014 Project
Would you rather spend $500 million Euros on improving your heath care so you don’t have to receive watered down medication, fixing up broken school buildings and neutering stray dogs OR would you like to build statues, fountains, bridges, and museums? According to the government they like the statues, fountains, bridges and museums more. I talked to a few locals and they dislike the fact that their city has turned into a theme park. So Skopje is wearing 37 pieces of flare even though it’s citizens know that these efforts and monetary resources are best served elsewhere.
I visited the Skopje City Museum and then checked out the landmarks such as the Stone Bridge, Porta Macedonia and the periphery of the Kale Fortress. My Andy Capp hat made me stand out like a Tourist with a capital “T”; so sometimes I went without it. Beware of retailers “forgetting” to give you your change so you have to remind them and they won’t put up a fuss. Like other Balkan countries Roma is ever present working to sell you trinkets or use other means to part with your cash. There was an aggressive group working to cheat unsuspecting people from their money with the game guess under which box has the small ball. I had walked up to them to watch then realized they were all in on the scam as the person moving the boxes around was doing it carelessly and the bystanders/accomplices were alternating winning and losing and wanting me to bet. They were really in my face and it was one of those preventative moments were you needed to keep your distance from the start.
At night I tried a couple different flavours of rakija, walked along the waterfront trail and around the old bazaar before returning to the hostel.
Mother Teresa Memorial House
Perhaps the best thing to come out of Skopje was Mother Teresa who received the Nobel Peace prize after a lifetime of humanitarian work. This is one of the main reasons I decided to visit the city. In the memorial house you can read some of her letters and writings and see pictures of her in her early years.
Millennium Cross and Vodno Mountain
Vodno Mountain is home to the largest christian cross in the world, the Millennium Cross. A transit bus (without a specific number on it) takes you halfway up the mountain and then you take a cable car the rest of the way. Or you can hike or bike up it. The top of the mountain provides breathtaking views of the city on one side and a rural landscape on the other. Going up Vodno Mountain is a must if you are visiting Skopje. There are two cafes and a playground which will keep your kids occupied as your drink your coffee or cola. The base structure of the Millennium Cross looks unfinished as I believe there was supposed to be a restaurant there. There’s a funny rumour going around saying that it’s scheduled to be completed in 2010.
I met two mountain bikers at the top of the mountain. One from Skopje (in photo wearing red) and the other to my surprise from Canada (wearing black). Even though it’s 2 kilometres straight down the mountain you can bike a winding route of approximately 13 kilometres in length. The Skopje mountain biker said I should be careful since you can get lost or injured like he did once and had to be rescued by helicopter. This surprised me considering the mountain landscape was big but not that big though I cannot account for the grade of the trails. Sure wish I had my sister’s GHOST to find out, ha ha.
After my two days in Skopje it was time to move on to my next destination. The city can cater to a variety of tourists, whether you prefer going to museums, seeing some of the city architecture, urban landscapes, exploring the mountainside or hanging out at cafes.