Skopje isn’t what leaps to mind when you think of European cities, is it? It’s probably among the lesser known capitals, along with Chisinau and Tirana. For me, Skopje was the most convenient way of getting to Pristina to write an article on the fledgling nation of Kosovo. My flight left me with time to spare – a Saturday night and a nice, long Sunday morning in Skopje.
Coming back from Kosovo, Alex, my driver, complains about fuel prices. Who doesn’t? He has better cause than many of us. At Aktiva Petrol on the outskirts of town, unleaded 95 octane petrol cost 65,5 dinars per litre. With one Euro being at 61 dinars, that's pretty expensive for a country where salaries are low and unemployment, according to UNDP, is more than 35%. Alex furthermore tells me a job in a store in Macedonia pays 200 Euros per month, while the same job in the same chain in Greece pays 1,500 Euros per month. People feel this is very unfair, he says.
That’s not the only trouble they have with their neighbour to the south. Earlier this year, Greece rejected Macedonian entry into NATO and will likely do the same when the question of EU membership arises. The two nations are at strife over a word, specifically the name Macedonia, also the name of Greece's northernmost province. Until now, the country has been encumbered with the long and awkward-sounding name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM for short. That’s still its internationally recognized name, but it doesn't stop Macedonia from dropping FY and retaining only ROM.
Arriving in Skopje's Aleksandar the Great airport, you're welcomed to the Republic of Macedonia. The Greeks worry that if the country is allowed to use Macedonia as its official name, it will pave the way for expansion further south. Moreover, the Greeks are none too pleased at the suggestion that said Alexander the Great was a Macedonian rather than a Greek Macedonian.
When I check into my inn, the manager asks my occupation. Replying that I’m a writer, I’m met with an ironic glare.
“Yeah sure,” he says. “Everyone says they’re writers and journalists. But in reality they’re with a company.”
“And which company would that be,” I ask innocently. Seriously. I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“The CIA,” he replies darkly, without humour.
Ouch! First time ever I’ve been taken for a CIA agent. I hurry up and point to my red, distinctly non-US passport, he’s still sceptical. Apparently, there are lots of undercover agents in Skopje. Along with quite a few KFOR soldiers who seem to enjoy, shall we say, a varying degree of popularity among the locals.
Skopje's Stone Bridge is a major landmark. Originally from the sixth century and reconstructed in the fifteenth century, it connects the old and new city. I like this bridge; I walk across it several times. There’s just something about old bridges, that somehow brings to life people who might have crossed in the past. I can easily imagine, a poet for example, strolling across this bridge, on a breezy Saturday evening in April 1708, pondering sentence structure, rhymes, trills and spirants, even the occasional plosive.
On the new side of town is Macedonia Square, a large airy plaza, full of life. A large crowd has gathered around a picture of a young, handsome man with the caption 1981 – 2007 below. The picture is placed in a large bed of flowers, encircled by lighted candles. Nearby, young and old queue to buy 10 dinar candles; some buy 10 or 20. Asking a group of young people, I learn that he was a singer, Tose Proeski, killed in a car accident in Croatia on 16 October. The Macedonian government promptly declared 17 October, the following day, a national day of mourning. Six months later, people still light candles for him on a Saturday night. That's how loved he was. I get all sentimental and suddenly find myself in the candle queue. Must be mass suggestion. At least, I restrain myself to one candle.
Also on Macedonia Square is marked the spot where one Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born. Eighteen years later, she left to do God’s work for the rest of her life, most notably in Calcutta. At least, Mother Teresa is one well-loved Macedonian whose nationality isn’t disputed. Not one to talk about herself excessively, she is reputed to have said she felt as a citizen of Skopje, her born city, but she belonged to the world.
After a nice, inexpensive dinner and a stroll along the main street, I cross the Stone Bridge again. This time I notice a plaque commemorating Karposh, “the leader of the people's great uprising from the XVII century“, executed in 1689 on the stone bridge in Skopje. Food for thought. On this very bridge, he departed more than 300 years ago. For a place where time doesn't exist, probably. So, in a sense, I suppose one could say he is being executed right now. If there is no time, it's all now, right? I like that idea. I'm not sure I entirely understand it, but I like it all the same. A bit weird? Blame the bridge. And Macedonian wine. Time for bed, but first a quick exploration of the area around the bridge.
Early Sunday morning, I head for Kale Fortress, believed to have been built around 1,500 years ago. Several centuries and a few devastating earthquakes later, the bright red and yellow Macedonian flag waves gaily from one of three remaining towers of this one-time stronghold. My jaunt below the bridge last night was short lived as it reeked of urine and the river, sadly, was awash with really unattractive flotsam and jetsam, much of it in blue plastic bags. OK, so that might be the under belly of the town, as it were.
The otherwise cool, labyrinthine set of stairs leading towards Kale was just as malodorous. That detracts severely from a city’s appeal, let me tell you. What is it with this peeing all over the place? Let me hasten to add, this is not a phenomenon unique to Skopje. According to the receptionist at my accommodation, the grounds of Kale are a choice walking area for locals. This morning, I'm all alone, apart, that is, from two seriously large crows and some pigeons, digging into leftover pieces of bread. Sitting by a fountain on a bench with only one of four planks left to sit on, I try not to think about who may have peed where I’m now resting my bum. At least I’m treated to a fabulous view of the river Vardar as is flows gently through the city. A tiger-striped cat joins me on the bench, apparently not too concerned with who’s been there before.
Restaurant Kale is a pretty little oasis with plants, shrubs and a fountain with an abstract sculpture of a sleek woman. Sadly, I can't recommend any particular dish as it isn't open when I stroll by. I potter about for the better part of an hour, ending up at the ruins of a pretty rotunda. Pretty on the outside, that is. Inside, graffiti tells me to “Fuck Fashist Securities”. Also, two young lovers were here 02.02.2008 and inscribed their names within a heart. Don't know if they were the ones to leave a soiled pair of men's underwear thrown casually into a corner, next to a discarded condom and a disposable razor (!) The rotunda has sheer drops to one of the sides and no guard rails. Watch out if you bring the kids – or if you’re drunk – or with enemies.
At the bottom of Kale hill, lies the old bazaar. I amble around the streets and stairways of Ottoman Skopje for a while: shops opening, café owners putting out menu boards, a cat stretching lazily on a sunny spot. I love watching cities wake up. Crossing a busy road, a smell reminding me of Eastern Europe in the 80s fills my nostrils. I remember it from St. Petersburg, back when it was called Leningrad, and from Budapest and Warsaw. Now it's no longer noticeable in these cities. I'm told it has to do with the fuel of old Ladas, and some of these do drive by. I don’t think it’s only exhaust fumes. It also smells of soap, a rough soap, and sweat and dark tobacco.
The Old Railway Station is a natural follow-up to Kale. The building is left as a partial ruin; the clock on the wall has stopped at 05.17. That’s when a shattering earthquake hit on 27 July 1963. Inside is The City Museum, filled with artefacts found during excavations at Kale; some amazingly well preserved, almost intact. My daughter who’s an archaeology major, would love this. For the longest time, I gaze at reconstructed faces based on preserved skulls found in the fortress. One of them looks eerily like one of my old teachers. I wonder what their lives were like and what they thought about. Also, I wonder if the men of medieval Skopje peed everywhere. I bet they didn’t. They probably had designated areas for that, so as not to gross out the women folks and be smacked about the ears.
In conclusion, I would say Skopje is a nice little capital with much to offer. The old city is charming and people are friendly. I’ll take the liberty of offering some unsolicited advice here to the tourism authorities, though: put up rubbish bins and set severe fines for throwing rubbish in the streets and the river, prohibit plastic bags, and last, but not least, outlaw and severely fine urinating in public. Take care of that and Skopje will soon see more visitors than KFOR soldiers.
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