Travelling Light

Skopje, Macedonia, August 26, 2014: Looking For The Old Bazaar And Finding The Heart

Our second day in Skopje started slowly, because Tom had food poisoning from a dodgy burrito at what should have been a very good cafe on the riverside in the city centre. Our hosts at the hostel were amazing – they went out to a chemist and bought Tom some activated carbon tablets and electrolytes, and refused our attempts to give them money for the medicine.

By mid-afternoon, Tom was feeling better, and we decided to go for an early evening walk so he could get some sunshine and fresh air.

We set off from our hostel, conveniently located right on the park by the river, and came across a scale model of a monastery. These show up here and there in Bulgaria, with no explanation or description.

Along the river, we were finally able to capture the gold-decorated statues which line the rooftops of the new buildings in Skopje Center. Someone probably put a lot of effort into making each statue a good representation of a notable historical figure, but from ground level the effect is somewhat lost!

We had wondered, the night before, what they were thinking when they sank piles into the river bed, filled the area with rubble, and started building large objects which block the view of the new buildings from the cafes and walkway opposite them on the river bank.

Today we saw one of the monstrosities … er, lovely new tourist attractions … in its completed state. Still don’t know WHAT they were thinking!

Having walked this far, hunger pressed us to stop at a cafe by the river. We found an establishment on the main city square which had WiFi and hot chocolate (our new minumum standard for an establishment – Tom has given up on trying to get iced chocolate or chocolate frappes in this part of the world), and settled in for a shopska salad and a hot chocolate you had to eat with a spoon (for Jenny) and a banana (for Tom).

While we were eating, some music started up, quite loudly. It had the most recognisable sections from famous pieces like the 1812 Overture, Ride of the Valkyries, and so on. After a few minutes, we heard roaring engines, which got louder and louder, until a bikie gang burst into the square, circled around, and parked facing the large fountain.

One bikie hopped off his Harley, got down on one knee in front of a girl waiting at the fountain, and apparently received a positive response!

We admired Skopje’s Arc de Triumph, and saw the plaques commemorating the house where Mother Theresa was born (the house itself was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake). Tom made the acquaintance of a larger-than-life-sized sculpture in the square, and then it was time to go back to the hostel for a night’s sleep uninterrupted by illness.

With one day remaining in Skopje, and Tom well recovered, we wanted to make up for lost time! We had a plan mapped out – find the Old Bazaar, eat some food at one of the restaurants there, then climb the hill to the kale (fortress), and explore the ruins, before taking the cable car up to the Millennium Cross, the largest Christian cross in the world, which has a wonderful view of Skopje.

The day began with amazement, when we found that some of the passages under the fortress were open! It was lovely and cool inside. We weren’t quite sure what the purpose of it was, but several of the passages had been fitted out with racks, air conditioning vents, and even showers! We didin’t explore too far, because the only light we had was from Tom’s phone.

After circling the fortress hill, we set about seriously searching for the Old Bazaar. Twists and turns and half an hour of frustration later, we had found a caravan hostel (where the trading caravans would stop inside locked gates, eat, bathe, and sleep with a guarantee of protection for goods and persons), and two mosques, but nothing resembling the Old Bazaar.

Eventually, we settled for eating in a cafe in the old town. Fortified by food, we resumed the search. We stopped to ask directions from some men carving wood in one of the side streets, and they asked if we had time to take a cup of tea with them – and thus began one of those magical encounters that make travelling so worthwhile.

The conversation ranged from the causes of inflation and the modern-day slavery of servicing debt to comparative religion, American foreign policy, the perversion of democracy by large sums of money, the breakdown of the extended family, and a business idea for a milk co-operative that might actually get going in Skopje.

Imer does amazing carving in both wood and metal – he made this silver coin by carving the image with a sharp knife. Tom gave his young apprentice some tips about websites where Imer can sell his work online, to expand his audience.

Four cups of tea and a glass of blackcurrant juice later, we regretfully took our leave. The sun was slowly setting, and we really wanted to at least get up to the kale before it was too dark to see the city.

The government has restored the kale as part of the recent burst of civic improvement, so the highest wall and towers are complete and well-maintained. The arrow slits were a little narrow for taking photos in one section, so Tom climbed up into an arrow slit and stood knee deep in the kale wall to get some better shots.

The full range of photos in and from the kale are in our Skopje album here:

There is evidence of a lot of archaeological activity around the kale, which is very encouraging to see. The fortress was built by Emperor Justinian, who was born near Skopje, using stones from an older Roman settlement that was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-500s AD. It was used by the Byzantine empire for nearly a thousand years, and by the occupying Ottomans for 500 years before falling into disrepair in recent centuries.

Some sections are still grass-covered mounds, yet to be excavated, but there is a large section of rooms and walls excavated at one end. It will be a very impressive site indeed when the excavations and access walkways are all complete.