Jim and I arrived in Skopje well after the sun had set, and we had booked our room in a hotel right in the middle of the city. Even though it was after ten on a weekday, the downtown area was hopping. Fountains danced, statues with light shows flashed, people played in the jumping water fountain, watched their children ride bikes and play or stood around talking. It looked and felt like a Saturday night and the fair had come to town. Skopje felt festive and welcoming, it made me smile and I had this sudden urge to buy some cotton candy.
It had been a long, hot, humid day and sitting all day on plastic train seats, we had become pretty sweaty and sticky. We drew straws on who would get the shower first and dropped into bed. The next morning, I woke up to the sunrise. The pink sun peeked over the horizon. It was almost a pretty sight, but there is so much construction going, and so much of it was covered with scaffolding that it took a little away from the view.
Once the sun was up, and we walked outside, Skopje didn’t quite have that same festive feeling. Instead, the city workers were heading to their jobs. Builders, plumbers, electricians, all headed to the various sites that surrounded the main plaza. It was gray and dusty, had a kind of gritty, concrete feel. It really wasn’t pretty, but the Macedonians are clearly making the effort to beautify their capital city, and they have been since they initiated their “Skopje 2014” rebuilding project.
There are plenty of beautiful buildings already built, with fountains, statues, bridges, walkways, and ornate decorations. They just have more to do. In a few more years, it will be the new Prague!
The downtown area is split into two sections, the old Ottoman market area and the modern shopping and restaurant plaza which both have their charms.
We loved walking over the stone bridge, which was originally built during Roman times and has quite a checkered history, with the old hamam on the right, and a mosque and clock tower on the left. These shops and narrow alleyways have a distinct Turkish feel, even selling current Turkish products. We understood some of what people were saying and some signs, because they were in Turkish rather than Cyrillic. From the leather goods and dried fruits hanging outside of the storefronts to the old men sitting on the stoop with their çay, this part of the city could be anywhere in Anatolia. Of course the alleys lead right to the Old Bazaar where you can buy anything from dried nuts, to fruits, meats, cheeses, and household items. We felt right at home. This is also where we found the best food, where kebabs were grilled on the mangal right there in the shop and served on metal plates with flatbread. Delicious!
Macedonia Square hosts the huge central statue of the Warrior on a Horse, or Alexander the Great. It towers over the plaza on its marble base guarded by soldiers and lions. Near it is another fountain installation where the water jumps in a pattern, often accompanied by music and at night a light show. Kids and adults alike run through the water spouts, cooling off and having fun. There are a few restaurants on the plaza, but more are promised. We had a lunch of pizza, and sat under a fan. Every once in a while the mister would reach us, and that felt almost refreshing as Skopje, in early August, is pretty hot!
Along the banks of the Vardar, the area is shaping up to be the best part of the city. There are already a few bridges, very close together where walkers can stroll across. My favorite one hosts 29 sculptures of Macedonian artists and musicians and takes you right to the entrance of the National Archaeological Museum. The museum has an extensive coin exhibit that follows Macedonian history back to before Alexander which is pretty impressive, and the other exhibits are also quite well done.
One of the best deals we found in the city was the twice daily city bus tour which lasts just about one hour. We found just one reference to it, a sign right next to the Porta Macedonia (white gate) which told the times of the tour 11:00 and 5:00 each day and the cost was exactly the cost of a one-way bus ride, about 36 US cents. It was a great way to get an overview, starting with the plaza, going over to the Kale (fortress), up the hill where the largest U.S. Embassy is situated, around the hill to the Vardar River banks, and then back into the main part of the city. It might be the deal of 2015 if not the century!