Macedonia isn’t on most people’s radar, likely because most people don’t know the country exists. Technically called North Macedonia (or more specifically the Republic of North Macedonia) because we can’t offend the Greeks. In short, the country was called Macedonia until recently, but its name alone meant that Greece wouldn’t recognise it as a country because petty Greece also has a region of the same name, so Macedonia had to change theirs. (Thanks, Greece, that’s very mature. Moldova and Romania seem to get along alright.) Greece might get all the tourism attention, but the secretive nature of Macedonia, its forgotten ruins and fascinating bazaars add an extra exotic flair lost in the crowds of Santorini. The government has put a lot of funds and effort into renovating downtown Skopje, Macedonia’s capitol. Today, the downtown area of Skopje is very modern, and very western, while the domes, minarets and narrow alleys of another era are relegated further down in Skopje’s old town, in the shadow of the fortress. While the bazaar is the soul of Skopje, Macedonia Square is at the heart of the city. The largest square in the whole country, it was here that Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president, declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The city’s summer festivities, political demonstrations and even Christmas markets all take place in the massive Macedonia Square. In the centre of the plaza is the massive statue that commemorates the most famous Macedonian ever to exist, the legendary conquerer Alexander the Great. If you haven’t figured it out yet – he’s the massive dude riding the rearing horse on the enormous pedestal in the centre.
Pro tip: As stated above, a visit to Skopje in winter means Christmas markets and other festivities – though we do admit that the best Christmas markets are found in central Europe (Prague and Vienna are standouts). Though modern Skopje is worth seeing, head into the Old Town bazaar for food, coffee and beer – delicious, cheap and atmospheric! Head up to the fortress (entry free) for great views over the city.
Macedonia – and Skopje in particular – is at a crossroads between old and new, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It is a place that perfectly blends cultures, traditions and architecture. The historic centre of Skopje is made up of an old Bazaar, as well as some 30 mosques and the ruins of several caravanserais (once popular along trade routes like the Silk Road, these were inns for travellers) – all of which are ever-present reminders of the city’s Ottoman past. But the Macedonians have also made the city their own, erecting churches and cafes and basilicas, infusing the conquering culture with that of the conquered. For it must be said that the Ottoman Empire occupied present day Macedonia for a few hundred years, from the 17th to the early 19th century. The Old Bazaar of Skopje contrasts strikingly with the shiny new sections of Macedonia’ capital city – the soaring skyscrapers and glittering statues and perfect grids. But the very best way to experience Skopje is outdoors. Find yourself a cosy cafe in the old bazaar lined by ancient facades and leafy trees and make yourself comfortable. Order platefuls of shish kababs and grilled veggies and Mediterranean salads and sticky baklava, and wash it down with a rich and heavy cup of Turkish coffee. Sit back in the sun with a good book and a local beer and listen to the clamour of bustling Skopje under a midday sun.
Pro tip: Head up to the ruins of Skopje Fortress. No entrance fee and you’ll get a great view of the city and all of its minarets and domes.
The Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, Skopje, Macedonia
Modern and sleek – in quite a contrast to the ancient orthodox that traditionally come to mind in this region – the Church of St Clement of Ohrid was begun in 1972 and consecrated on 12 August 1990 – which just so happens to be the 1150th anniversary of the birth of the church’s patron, St Clement. Impressive numbers aside, the modernity mixed with traditional design so clearly marks with the rest of the Macedonian capital. Wandering the ancient narrow streets of the bazaars, lined with tiny shops, covered archways, local merchants, and ancient mosques, it is easy to imagine oneself transported in time to the Ottoman Empire. Cross the Stone Bridge – a national icon in itself – to Macedonia Square (shadowed by the massive statue of none other than Alexander the Great), and you cross into the modern era, rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake. Neoclassical buildings, shiny high-rises, and fancy rotundas all recently constructed greet the wayward traveller. It is this interesting juxtaposition between old and new, past and progress, tradition and innovation, expressed here in the form of Skopje’s modern Church of St Clement’s, that is the most striking and remarkable thing about this capital city snuggled into the beautifully diverse Balkan Peninsula.