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A City Like a Child – Cheeky, Confident and Incredibly Charming!

So far, Macedonia has not really made waves as a holiday destination. But with this small Balkan republic seriously catching up on the tourist front, this may soon change. Our author allowed herself to be captivated by the charm and the diversity of the country’s capital. And just outside Skopje, she also discovered one of the most beautiful places she has ever set eyes on.

My first impression of Skopje: the traffic rules I am familiar with do not seem to apply here. Our taxi driver irritatingly honks his horn at a car that is basically parked in the middle of the road, before driving on to the pavement to bypass it. He does so in an extraordinarily matter-of-course fashion, which is something I will come to love about the Macedonians in the next few days.

Fortunately, almost the entire city centre of Skopje is car-free. Numerous bridges graced with statues lead across the River Vardar that divides the city into two parts. The one part encompasses the Old Town with the Old Bazaar, the Kale Fortress and a predominantly Muslim population, a fact made evident by a large number of mosques. The other part, the New Town, hosts the centrally located Macedonia Square, a large number of the places of interest and the city’s largest Orthodox church, which points to the fact that the inhabitants on this side of the Vardar are predominantly of that faith.

Photos: Sandra Casalini

“Macedonian New Baroque“

My mother is accompanying me on this voyage of discovery. We are staying at the “Bushi Hotel & Spa” situated in the heart of the Old Bazaar. The hotel’s charming courtyard, accessible through an archway of a sorts, is a small oasis in this city that has 600,000 inhabitants. The staff at the hotel reception is friendly but our room unfortunately not ready yet – which is not surprising at 9 am in the morning. We ask reception for a city map – and then promptly take off in the wrong direction! Having no idea as to our whereabouts, we approach a young girl. She shrugs her shoulders: “No English”. Then she takes out her mobile phone, dials a number and hands the phone to me. A voice at the other end enquires in English where we want to go. I explain, the girl has my message translated back to her – and then takes us straight to where we want to be, which is the Stone Bridge across the River Vardar. We are deeply impressed by the degree of readiness to help!

Standing in front of the Stone Bridge are the first of the giant statues and fountains. Created within the scope of “Skopje 2014”, they now adorn the city along with its baroque-style and neoclassical buildings. “Macedonian New Baroque. We should have it patented,” Kate, our travel guide, will laughingly suggest on a city tour the next day. The Old Town hosts the “Warrior on Foot” statue that depicts Philipp II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. Situated right next to the statue is the “Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia”. The best view of Mount Vodno -Skopje’s local mountain- is to be had from the bridge. Perched on Vodno’s peak is yet another landmark: inaugurated in 2000, the “Millenium Cross” measures 66 metres in height and 42 metres in width. The “Warrior on Horseback” statue on Macedonia Square, on the New Town side of the River Vardar, rises 23 metres high and is framed by water-spouting lions. The large mirrored Macedonian Telecom building is right next to it and the “Porta Macedonia” built in 2012, which is Skopje’s “Arc de Triomphe” so to speak, is behind it.

Searching for its own identity

Is it art or kitsch? Probably both. Whatever one’s take, the cityscape is a real pick n‘ mix that invariably reminds me of my daughter when, aged just two, she dressed herself for the first time and left the house in a tutu, a hoody and wellington boots. She did so with such pride and charm that you simply had to love her for it – and with the same matter-of-factness I saw in the young girl who led us to the Stone Bridge.

On all accounts, the result of “Skopje 2014” is obviously the search of a city –or of an entire country– for its own identity. With the history-giant Greece as its neighbour, and with a far from homogeneous population, that is no easy feat. But the city’s greatest achievement in recent years is likely to be that Macedonians, Albanians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Christians get along with each other quite well these days – in spite of the occasional quarrel, over religious symbols at historical locations for instance.

The highlights: Mother Teresa – and tomato salad

The riverbank of the Vardar is lined with busy restaurants, cafés and lounges, all with comfy outdoor areas. That is not to say that the menus are always legible – there still appears to be limited awareness that most tourists from western countries are unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet. But the waiters are all very friendly and happy to help out. I discover my absolute favourite at our first lunch in Skopje: Macedonian salad, consisting of the best tomatoes I have ever tasted, cucumbers, onions and local grated cheese, washed down with a glass of local white wine that also tastes good.

Our after-lunch programme includes a visit to a “must-see” landmark: the Mother Teresa Memorial House built on the very location of the church where the city’s most famous daughter was baptised. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate was born as Anjezë Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje in 1910. The site’s small museum houses historical objects and numerous photographs from Mother Teresa’s childhood years.

An evening in the Old Bazaar, a morning at the market

We return to our hotel and settle into our comfortable room. Towards the evening, and after relaxing in the hotel’s jacuzzi, we take off to explore the Old Bazaar: the beautiful Old Town with its oriental atmosphere is home to an endless slew of little shops selling all kinds of bits and pieces, and to charming restaurants from where irresistibly seductive aromas waft through the air. Following a recommendation, we opt for the “Pcela” restaurant where we dine on kebab and “Tavče gravče”, a very tasty bean stew au gratin. I cannot think of a better end to this exciting day!

Day two in Skopje begins with a walk across the market. How we’d love to purchase one of the huge watermelons, or a kilogram of the wonderfully fragrant peaches – but I wouldn’t know when to eat them, and the thought of checking in a watermelon at the airport… No, I don’t think so! We meet our guide, Kate, at the Kale Fortress that towers majestically above the city. We take a bus and then the cableway up the almost 3500 feet high Mount Vodno to the “Millenium Cross”, the giant steel construction visible even from the city. The view from there is breathtaking: Skopje on the one side, hills and mountains on the other, as far as the eye can see.

A magical place: the Matka Canyon

We take a bus out of the city. Situated half an hour from Skopje is a truly enchanting place: the Matka Canyon. Steep cliffs frame the deep green Matka Lake. The hotel and restaurant terrace by the lake is full; children are jumping into the water from the landing stage; adolescents are paddling in kayaks. We take a boat to the gorge up to the Vrelo Cave, which is one of ten caves in the canyon. Besides the famous stalactites and stalagmites that grow inside the cave, Vrelo houses two small lakes. The exact depth of the cave is unknown; some people speculate that it could be the deepest underwater cave in the world.

As we make our way back by boat, a thunderstorm starts brewing, which gives the entire scenery a spectacular atmosphere. We would have loved to have made ourselves comfortable on the terrace and enjoyed the magnificent view – but the approaching rain forces us back into the bus and to the city. A heavy thunderstorm breaks over Skopje. By the time we reach our hotel, the storm has passed. After such an eventful day, we decide to eat in the hotel restaurant – a decision we most certainly do not regret. The view, that features the city on the one side and the brightly illuminated “Millenium Cross” on the other, is magnificent. The food and the service are just as good. To our surprise, the waiter brings us two glasses of red wine, offered to us by the guests seated at the neighbouring table. They –who apparently grew up in Switzerland and now call Skopje home– heard us speak Swiss-German. “We hope you like Macedonia.” How could we not like it! I have rarely experienced the level of friendliness, helpfulness and unobtrusive self-confidence encountered in this Balkan city. Skopje, I hope you will stay just the way you are, even when no longer an insider tip.

3 Tips in and around Skopje

Bushi Hotel & Spa: Hotel in the heart of the Old Bazaar with nice rooms, indoor pool, jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath, massages, great breakfast buffet and a fantastic restaurant. Rating: highly recommended! (Kjurchiska 21, Skopje 1000, Macedonia (FYROM), www.bushiresort.com)

Matka-Canyon: The Matka Canyon is a good half hour’s drive from Skopje – and a place worth visiting! A hike or a boat trip to the caves is to be recommended. (Street 1; Village Matka, Village Matka 1000, Macedonia (FYROM), www.canyonmatka.mk)

Mother Teresa Memorial House: The site on the very location where Mother Teresa was baptised is a must-see for Skopje visitors. All of the places of interest in the city centre -including “Porta Macedonia“, the Stone Bridge and the Old Bazaar- can be easily explored on foot.

Text: Sandra Casalini