Iiiiiiiin North Macedonia, Born and Raised…
North Macedonia was smack dab in the middle of my July 2020 pandemic grand voyage. A stressful and complicated trip that involved border permits, special health insurance certificates, Corona test result scans, quarantine tracking apps and a handful of other miscellaneous documents and forms. There’s no doubt that traveling through Europe in the midst of a major pandemic–as an American–was brutal. But thankfully, here was a little break in between all the madness. Both North Macedonia, the country before (Turkey) and the country after (Kosovo) were three nations that were actually wide open and easy to enter, with zero restrictions, even for Americans. This was a stark contrast between the restrictive EU nations in the beginning and end of my trip, that would require some tedious research and preparation just to pop in for a couple nights…not to mention plenty of canceled and re-routed plans and a collection of new gray hairs. Here I could finally let out a huge sigh of relief, with no worries of being deported (or worse, thrown in jail)…here I could simply just enjoy myself.
I was in the city center before 9AM enjoying breakfast at Bocata, in the heart of Skopje. The first thing I noticed about the town was the absolutely enormous amount of statues and monuments littering almost every square foot of public space. It’s honestly way too much: The entire city center looked like one big “monument store,” where every single statue in existence–every make and model–was displayed on the showroom floor, all lined up next to each other–in every direction. It looked like one of those garden/outdoor stores, where all of the cement fountains piled up together, for sale. It was all so ludicrous I had to ask Google what the deal was. Turns out, the reason there are so many statues in Skopje goes back to 2008 when the economy crashed – that’s when the government came up with the Skopje 2014 redevelopment project. With a budget estimated to be between €80 and €500 million, they decided to make the capital more “aesthetically pleasing” by building statues. It’s recorded that they built 136 over a five-year period from 2010-2o14, however, the actual number is said to be much higher than this. So you’re not looking at any ancient works of art – these statues are all relatively new. The sheer amount of statues, in such close proximity to one another, was just weird.
I had just one night in Skopje and I still needed to figure out how to get to Kosovo the next day, so decided I better figure out those details now – best to get it out of the way so I can play. I took the 20 minute walk to the central train and bus station to see what the deal was with this mythical Skopje – Pristina train. There were so many conflicting stories of train services between the two cities smattered all over the travel message boards, and all with different stories. I figured the best way to find out what was fact, was to just march down to the station myself and ask. So I did!
I enjoyed exploring the smallish Skopje railway station. Even the messages there were confusing: the monitor displayed a Skopje – Pristina train departure, but the people behind the window were adamant with their finger wagging and repeated “No train, no train” affirmations. I guess there was indeed no train! I slinked over to the bus station floor of the property and purchased a ticket for the next day’s 11:15AM departure to Pristina. Before I left, I decided to drop a twenty in the bus station casino’s slot machine. I’m not much of a gambler, but I’d done the conversion wrong and taken way too much money out of the airport ATM that morning. I ended up winning $250 after my first spin. I took the money and ran. Now I really had more denars than I knew what to do with! I’d never had so much fun at a bus station in my life!
Man About Town
After gathering my intel (and winnings) at the bus/train station, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking a leisurely stroll around Skopje. Starting along the banks of the Vardar River, I admired the grand buildings, bridges with statues and restaurants on the water disguised as big wooden boats. This place sure was quirky. I couldn’t help but stop at Casa Cubana for a couple of fruity drinks. The music was great and the weather was divine. I sipped my Yellow Bird and enjoyed a nice rest. 12 countries in two weeks can wear you out if you don’t pace yourself – I needed to chill.
More Things and Stuff
Continuing my journey on foot, I stopped to take note of dozens more monuments, statues and fountains. It seemed there was something on display every fifteen feet: a guy on a horse, a woman playing a harp, a bridge with 15 statues all lined up on each side and even a bronze statue in the river: feet sticking up out of the water as if the statue has just dove in.
Other Side of the Tracks
In case you tire of the collections of trite statues, busts and monuments, find one of the many bridges that crosses the Vardar and head north to the Muslim Quarter. Here lies a much different Skopje, full of starkly more modest and traditional buildings, narrow stone-paved alleyways and an even an old bazaar. Just a few hundred feet away and across the river from “regular” Skopje, this old-town section will have you feeling like you’re in a totally separate country – so you’re really getting two “Skopjes” for the price of one! After you’ve browsed the nooks and crannies of this beautiful old neighborhood, you can climb up the hill to see the adjacent Skopje Fortress.
See Ya Skopje!
I wrapped it up with dinner in the Muslim Quarter, meeting up with a fellow globetrotting Facebook friend who just happened to be passing through Skopje at the same time I was. We enjoyed great food and even better conversation. Riza is one of a handful of crazy travelers like me, with a mission to see every country in the world. We’d been Facebook friends for years – this would be our first meet-up in person.
I really enjoyed my almost full-day in here. The weather was perfect, the city was tranquil, the people were nice. Never have I seen so many statues and monuments all piled together, so that was neat and a little bizarre at the same time. After that chaotic romp around Istanbul, where I traversed back and forth between two continents in one day, Skopje was a great place to take a breather. On to Kosovo mañana.
Ramblin’ Tip: Accommodations – I rented a private apartment located right there at Pella Square via booking.com for the bargain price of 32 Euros. I usually try and stay at Marriott properties for the perks and points–and there was a Marriott right here in the square–but it was hundreds of dollars per night, verses the pocket change it cost me for my apartment. I just needed a clean room and bed, and this apartment was perfect! You can check out the apartments in Pella Square HERE.This entry was posted in Europe