SKOPJE pronounced as Skopae for the uninitiated (like me) was my quick next stop in my south eastern europe escapade.
The otherwise demure town was a surprisingly queer concoction of old and new, frailly connected together by the famous Stone Bridge which was the first “joint” between the two. Though it now has few other “colleagues” serving the same purpose , its hard to escape the aura and erstwhile appeal of the pioneer.
As you , cross the bridge, a remarkable difference between architecture ,eateries , populace and prices is conspicuous.
The bridges seem to rightly “bridge” the gap between the Ottoman and modern era, successfully binding Skopje as a city which has something to offer for everybody.
Here is my list :
Cited as the second biggest bazar in Europe after the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul , the heavy Turkish influence in this wide area abuzz with tea shops , gelato stalls , Louis Vuitton “outlets”, silver jewellery stores, and souvenir shops is almost unmissable. Don’t let the size of tea shops fool you as the smallest ones are quipped with one of the most essential requirements for existence, and no I am not talking about toilets!
The souvenir shops are filled with tokens ranging from 1 euro magnets and embroidered pouches to more expensive showcases made in silver. One of the shop owner shared with me his friend’s shift in perspective of life after his meaningful and soul stirring trip to India. At the cost of sounding presumptuous , admittedly, not the first of many such India-induced life changing stories I have learnt on my travels. As I sipped my Turkish tea in one of the wifi equipped tea stalls I realised the magnetism my motherland possesses.
Old Bazaar makes an affordable and authentic spot to shop for gifts and artefacts to take back home. It also is an apt place to dig in to some cheap eats of fresh salad and kebab. It is the only place I devoured a burger which was bigger than the one depicted in the picture on the menu.
Old Bazaar is 1-1.5 km away from the international bus station and the taxi ride would cost a meagre 1 EUR. Insistence to taxi drivers to switch on the meter would be a good idea, though, unlike other parts of the world , most taxis in Skopje quoted a reasonable price in the first go.
Following the advice on every possible travel blog describing must dos in Skopje and after sifting through the pictures , I succumbed to the temptation called Matka Canyon.Matka meaning womb in Macedonian is an organically formed waterbody.
The emerald clear waters of match canyon are almost unreal.
Kayaks can be hired for approximately 2 euros for half an hour . Boat rides are much cheaper but the boat starts only when they are filled with almost 6-8 persons . Kayaking to the caves would be almost 2 hours however return boat ride would be 1 hour.
While I exercised my arms kayaking in the calm waters, my attention was diverted by incoherent sounds by young kids. Gazing up the cliff, I found the giggling boys folding their hands in the traditional way to greet in India aka namaste. I laughed and acknowledged them with a slight nod.
The kayak guy had the same warm and customer friendly attitude I encountered in most of Skopje.”Pay later. Pay only if you like. No like , no pay.” His broken English didn’t come in the way of establishing his welcoming and friendly demeanour.
The cheapest mode to reach Mataka is public bus costing 1.5 EUR one way. Bus stations in Skopje are equipped with screens showcasing the schedule in real time, however, buses can run late. Bus 60 ran on the route at the time of writing this article. To get a bus ticket, you can ask the driver for an electronic ticket and if you are lucky, the driver won’t have it and he will let you in anyway.( Guess who got lucky !).
Local taxis would make for a 35 EUR ride one way.
On the way back, I ended up waiting for good 45 minutes for the bus at the wooden and almost dilapidated bus stand, till a taxi driver offered a ride for all the people (there were 4 of us) collectively to Skopje for 10 EUR. Needless to say, we jumped on the opportunity and I shared the cab with a French couple , to reach New Skopje in time to enjoy a drink before exploring it.
AS you cross the Stone Bridge, the shift from past to present is almost palpable. Right from sartorial to culinary, sensibilities change. The Archeology Museum is a spectacular example of the gap between old and new Skopje.
The towering statues of soldiers, fountains, presence of high end brands like Marriott and popped up “Bistro London” and “Irish pub” as opposed to my favourite Turkish tea stall.
I spent few minutes observing the flock of admirers , tourist and locals alike , vying for a perfect selfie with the monument. New Skopje is apt for shopping for clothes , accessories etc as a number of International and local brands make their presence felt around the main square.
WHAT TO EAT
Macedonian food is as interesting as the country’s history. Chicken pie commonly called Pastrmajlija was my personal favourite.
I found the food to be a heady mix of Turkish , Greek and Balkans. It is abundant with salads, fresh cheese , oven cooked meat and rake. Interestingly ,unlike eateries in Old Bazar , if you happen to order a burger in a traditional Macedonian restaurant, be ready for a “open burger”.Much to my surprise, the burger came with “beef patty” , some salad and separate bread, instead of the conventional burger form. Skopski Marek was my favourite restaurant.
With live music, smiling servers , delicious food and reasonable price and complementary shot of a “digestif” there was little more I could have asked for.
SKOPJE BUS STATION
As I was on my Balkan tour and my next stop was Albania , I tried unsuccessfully to look for bus tickets online.Most of the schedules online are not uptodate and therefore I was advised by my hostel to go directly to the bus station and look for tickets. Tirana bus station reminded me of bus stations back home in more ways than one.With cheap restaurants ,souvenir shops , various tour agencies and passengers of all kinds. There were big families with even bigger bags fighting their way to the platform only to wave goodbye to their loved ONE. Simultaneously , the joy of a parent on seeing his offspring, the irritation of a young daughter trying to help her mother navigate through the crowd and youngsters nonchalantly smoking before their journey was extremely relatable. Once again strengthening my belief that same emotions run much deep in human race and they easily surpass colour ,nationality and continent. Don’t get astonished if you see young local guys aka randomly assigned passengers collecting passports from all the passengers of the bus, providing them to Border Control Officers , and distributing them to the owners after stamping. No need to get down of the bus and queue!
Talk about comfort 🙂
Skopje Bus station has ATMs , locker room and SAS bus service counters. The Tirana bus from the counters costed 18EUr however if you book it from one of the travel agencies it curiously costs 15EUR. The staff at inquiry office come across as clearly overworked and patience is the key to deal with them successfully. Most of the staff speak reasonable English. Toilets can be used at a sum of 50pence.
My Final Thoughts
Skopje is an interestingly beautiful city and surely a place which deserves much more visibility. For solo women ,modest dressing is advisable. I gathered questioning glances from old women due to my attire of shorts and crop top ..oops. Skopje has a large group of people following Islam and most young women are dressed in long dresses and jeans.Hijab clad women are also a common sight. It is the peaceful coexistence of tradition and modernity in all aspects which made Skopje amazing for me.Comfortable shoes are recommended for Matka Canyon as it includes some walking from the bus station to the canyon.
If you have enough time , a quick activity is to take the cable car up the Millennium Cross to witness Skopje in all is glory beneath you. I could not squeeze the same as I was super tired from my previous travel.
All in all , a day in Skopje, is a day well spent.
PS – This article was written on the road from Tirana to Sarande (Albania) ,more on it in my next post 🙂