Skopje. Smiles & statues

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The Great Warrior

Usually I remember the lightbulb moment I think ‘yes. I am going there,’ and decide roughly when & start obsessively looking at flights and accommodation. Strangely, and sadly, I don’t remember this for Skopje. I hadn’t seen friends pictures, I didn’t know anything about it’s history, but can only imagine I …

< STOPPED THERE. I decided to search my emails for ‘Skopje’ to see if there were any triggers to help me remember and I found this, the start of a blog entry… and so we have it! >

“Why Macedonia?

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In all honesty the reason I booked a flight to Skopje was in retaliation to having my Turkmenistan visa rejected. Yes, I’m that much of a petulant child. A trip to Macedonia! Ha! That will show the Turkmenistan Consulate! But, I’m all for silver linings, and if those silver linings are wrapped around statues, I sure got my fair share in Skopje.

I honestly wasn’t sure what I would find in Skopje. I knew almost nothing (perhaps actually nothing) about their history, culture, landscape…  According to the Serbian Government, (as they do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state) it was the final country of the Former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for me to visit. I assumed it would feel more Eastern European than my previous trip to that area; Ljubljana, Slovenia, at the other end of the Former-SFRY.”

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I flew Wizz Air from London Luton and had gotten a really decent deal for the 3 hour flight. I was told by my kayaking guide Alec that the Government subsides the flight costs to entice tourists. Macedonia is not part of the EU and with my trip being only a few months after the Brexit vote I managed to get a few laughs making crap jokes about us also not being in the EU, whilst holding back my tears; it was still so raw…

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So tired, but so happy with my tiny coffee.

From the airport I took the Vardar Express Bus  to the city centre, (£2.70 / U$3.50) taking roughly 30 mins. The buses are scheduled to leave the airport to coincide with the arriving flights. EASY! The friendly driver told me where to get off, and pointed me to the direction to my hotel. Incredibly welcome after a 4am start that morning. I got a little over excited when I first got off, seeing some grand bridges, buildings & statues. I wondered about the history behind them, looking forward to finding out on my walking tour the next morning.

 

 

IMG_2478I checked into my London themed hotel (Hotel London B&B, which I’d highly recommend) and headed out for an afternoon of solo exploration. First port of call was a coffee shop, then to a little stand on the square to buy a flag (yeh, I collect flags…) Everyone I met, EVERYONE, was incredibly chatty and warm, and seemed really pleased, but surprised to hear I’d just randomly decided I wanted to visit their city.

After pottering around the main square I tried to enter the Museum of Macedonian Struggle, which focused on modern history and rise and fall of communism. As you had to go with a guide (no longer the case), I was told to come back later, and headed off to Old Bazaar. The area dates back to the Ottoman Empire, and had a very different feel to the rest of the city centre.

I enjoyed walking about the cobbled streets, eyeing up some tasty Turkish looking restaurants for dinner later, then headed back to the museum. I had a private guide who was equally as interested in an Arsenal game as I was, so his colleagues kept coming in to update us on goals! (We won.) The museum is grand. Every room is grand. Everything inside it is grand. Life size statues depicting various historical moments, I absolutely loved it, which surprised me as I’m generally not a waxwork fan. I’m not sure my guide shared my enthusiasm for the museum itself either, but he gave a wealth of information and answered my usual barrage of questions with interest (feigned or not, I couldn’t tell.)

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We moved through the galleries pretty quickly (a little too quickly) and with such little sleep my brain struggled a bit in piecing all the information together. I learnt about the struggle of independence, first from the Ottoman Empire (when the majority of citizens where Orthodox, illiterate and working in agriculture), rule under the Kingdom of Serbia (1912-1944), the Greek Civil War (1944 – 1949), being part of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (as the ‘Socialist Republic of Macedonia’ 1949 – 1991) and it’s subsequent independence. I liked that there was a focused interest on the role of women as well.

It was here I also first learnt about Macedonia’s problematic relationship with Greece, stemming from a dispute over the borders and the birthplace of Alexander the Great (during the time of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedon, in 356BC).  Macedonia as well as being the country I was in, is also a region of Greece.

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Stone Bridge

Greece refused to acknowledge an independent Macedonia and believes the land should be split between itself, Albania & Bulgaria. It is this refusal that has stopped Macedonia’s entry into the EU and muddied its relationship with other nation states.

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After the tour, before dinner, as the sun was setting I decided to walk across a few of the many bridges admiring the lights on the buildings, and settled down on a bench, alongside the Vadar river in front of the National Theatre. At this point I was still just really impressed with all the neo-classical facades. Incredibly beautiful and decadent, but still managing not to appear vulgar (note: at this point.) Around the city, as well as the  obvious contrast wealth and, I wouldn’t quite say poverty (in the city centre) as well as between old and new.  I hadn’t quite worked out where these buildings fit in the timeline yet.

Whilst I sat writing in my journal I heard my first Christmas Carol of the season (it was October) followed by a variety of famous orchestral pieces; Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies comes to mind. It was very surreal, but rather delightful.

I then headed back into the Old Bazaar area and ate a delicious, hearty meal being served by, yet again, incredibly friendly & chatty locals.

 

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Walking home; exhausted, but so, so happy.

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IMG_2414After a vegan friendly breakfast (they had soy milk, in Macedonia, back in 2016 – woo) & a chat over tattoo designs (I was drawing out my Latvia tattoo) in the London themed restaurant I headed out in the rain for the Skopje Free Walking Tour  (always pay!) The guide was a little late, and asked if we wanted to cancel. Thankfully the answer was pretty much unanimous, fuck no! So me, four other single ladies and a couple headed off  down Macedonia Street whilst stopping to hear a bit about present day and historical Macedonia. 

 

One of the first questions we were asked was what we knew about the statues. Aside from that there where a lot of them, we were all pretty blank. He joked that there were more statues than residents and that they’d run out of famous Macedonians so the artists started making busts and sculptures of their friends.

So why? Why so many?

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Civilizations on Macedonia Bridge

In 2010 the Macedonian Government embarked on a project, ‘Skopje 2014’, to attract more tourists, or perhaps as our guide said, to make some sort of statement to the world. Exactly what, statement I’m not sure.

IMG_2386The thing is, the country isn’t very wealthy and has a high unemployment rate (around 30%). So spending extortionate amounts of money on statues, especially those depicting poor people, beggars and shoe shiners is not only distasteful, but a real waste of money and kick in the teeth for those just scraping by. Money that most believe should have been spent on infrastructure or education.

Figures of the cost of the project range from €80million and upwards of €500 million, but the price tag hasn’t been the only criticism. Seen as promoting a revisionist history, dubbed ”nationalistic historicist kitsch’ and ignoring the Muslim Albanian Community (that played a large part in the country’s history.) More recently the insertion of controversial bronze-cast figures has been reviewed and in February 2018 a commission was set up with the objective to halt the project and start removing them!

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The Great Warrior – despite clearly being Alexander the Great, it  cannot be named that due to  the ongoing issues with Greece… and threats of legal action!

IMG_2369Our first main stop was the Memorial House of Mother Teresa. She was born here (Skopje) in 1910, and a resident until 1928, spending a year in Ireland before moving to India. Ethnically Kosovar – Albanian, the Memorial House was built in 2009 in her honour.  There are plaques and memorials of her dotted all around the city. Inside is a museum documenting her life and above that is a small chapel. It was fairly interesting, and definitely worth visiting, despite personally having somewhat mixed opinions on her, and some very strong opinions on missionaries.

 

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(This was taken the night before the tour…)

Next stop was the old Railway Building, where we were told about the earthquake that struck the city on 26th July 1963. A 6 on the Richter scale, approximately 60% of the city was destroyed, with over 1000 killed and thousands more made homeless. The epicentre was under the main square and the old train terminal was never rebuilt and is seen now as a memorial to this tragedy.

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Macedonia’s main religion is Orthodox Christianity (around 70%) with a fairly large second religious population, Islam, at just under 30%.

 

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St. Clement of Ohrid. Built 1990 – largest cathedral of the Macedonia Orthodox Church

 

Mustafa Pasha Mosque Mosque. The interior was beautiful, and serene. I left feeling very at peace!

We then headed up the hill to the Kale Fortress. Originally built in the 6th Century, it was partially destroyed during the Ottoman occupation. Still, a fair amount remains intact and from here you have a great view of the city.

Heading back down into town our last stop was Kapan An, in the old bazaar. This served as a roadside inn for travellers and traders. As a beautiful enclosed space, it now partially functions as a restaurant.

We were left to our own devices for lunch at a recommend local restaurant. I can’t remember what I ate, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, and the others were given free shots after the meal.

I said goodbye to three of the ladies with the intention of meeting them later. I wanted to head over to the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, and also fancied some solo walking time. It was really weird with rude staff, the only off people I met all weekend.  Even though I got stared at quite a bit, there seemed to be no malice, and generally a smile was returned with an even bigger one, and often a conversation. Inside I was hurried around with constant warnings of how the museum was closing soon (in a hour.. I’m not that interested in old pottery and bits of brass to even warrant the hour…)  amongst a few other irritations I generally wouldn’t expect from staff… Playing music loudly on an iPhone in the gallery they are overseeing? The interior of the building was pretty cool, as grand as all the others. (Note: almost all museums are shut on Monday)

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I then met my tour buddies for dinner and a walk around the town. Good times.

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The next day the weather forecast was heavy rain, and despite my walking tour guide insisting my kayaking trip would be cancelled, Macedonian Experience seemed to think otherwise. We’d agreed if I couldn’t get on the river I’d head to Kosovo for the day instead.

IMG_2480Woke up to decent enough weather and my private guide Alec picked me up in his car and we headed out of the city for about 30 minutes before reaching the entrance to the Matka Canyon. I went with a private guide as it was out of tourist season, and a Monday! You don’t have to kayak with a guide and you can rent them yourself, but I wasn’t confident enough. You of course don’t need to kayak at all and there are many boat-tour operators at the Canyon to take you to the caves and around. You can take a bus or a taxi from town to reach the entrance.

 

You can also hike/walk along the side of it, visiting medieval churches and monasteries buildings and I found out later that my friends from the day before saw me kayaking along, but failed to get my attention!

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The canyon was stunning, and for most of the time there was no one around us. We kayaked down the river heading towards Vrelo Cave, a place where one of my friends scuba diving mentors had dived down to, setting a world record with a rebreather. It is officially just over 200 meters deep, the deepest cave in the Balkans, the second deepest in Europe, and the 14th deepest in the world. Left our kayak for a bit and headed into the cave, and then sat on top of it a while. It was so damn peaceful out there.

Initially I was a little disappointed we wouldn’t be eating at one of the riverside restaurants as we headed inland for food. What wasted emotions! We had lunch at a local restaurant in a village near by and I was given a FEAST! Fresh vegetables, potatoes and mushrooms full of flavour, cooked with spices and just, wow. So so, good! I probably should have taken a picture before I ate, but.. I was hungry, and the food was delicious.

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I haven’t actually mentioned how great my guide Alec was. Full of chat about everything Skopje, Macedonia, Europe, the World! He told me that Macedonians were great people, incredibly friendly and loved to chat, exactly as I’d encountered. Some, he said, could see this as a problem as it can make them a little too laid back and lazy. Ha. On the way back he detoured to show me this incredible view of the city.

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Alec also answered my questions on why so many of the statues and buildings were coloured in colourful paint splodges. The answer, the “Colorful Revolution” that took place a few months before in April 2016. Paint was thrown and fountains coloured in protest against government corruption and mafia influence.

Cool article here with more details and pictures of the actual paint throwing!

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By the time I got back I was shattered. Wandered around a little, sat by the river. Ate a snack at a raw vegan cafe, Vega. Up super early the next morning with my hotel giving me a packed breakfast, flew back to London and headed straight to the office. I honestly forgot how wonderful my weekend in Skopje was. I’ve always said whilst writing this blog, ultimately if no one else reads it, it’s there for me to remember what I saw, what I felt, what I learnt, and this is the perfect example. A beautiful city (and country), unfairly penalised politically and economically due to what I view as ridiculous historical bravado and bullying. One day I’d love to see more of the country after such a perfect, perfect weekend. ROAD TRIP!

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