Magical Macedonia

My wife and I spent five wonderful days in Macedonia, primarily exploring the capital, Skopje. We flew from Hamburg Airport to Skopje International Airport on Monday, albeit with a 40-minute delay (as usual, Wizz Air didn't provide a clear explanation), and returned last night, braving one of the worst storms to hit this part of Europe. Fortunately, our journey back to Denmark went smoothly.

Our room at hotel DOA
Our room at Hotel DOA in Skopje

Upon our arrival in Skopje, it was already very late, and we made our way directly to our hotel, DOA. After a long and tiring trip, we didn't waste any time and headed straight to bed. It's worth mentioning that our stay at Hotel DOA was fantastic. The location couldn't have been better, right in the heart of the Old Town. We owe a special thanks to Mersa, our Bosnian host, who went above and beyond to ensure we felt at home. She was incredibly hospitable and ready to assist in every possible way. Her dedication to helping and her friendly demeanor are truly commendable. When we return to Skopje, Hotel DOA will undoubtedly be our first choice.

The view from our hotel room at Hotel Doa
The view from our hotel room, Hotel DOA in Skopje

The next morning, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast before venturing outside to explore the nearby area. Skopje welcomed us with a light autumn rain, so we took a leisurely stroll through the narrow, Ottoman-style streets of the Old Bazaar district. Afterward, we crossed the Stone Bridge and arrived at Macedonia Square, one of the most surreal places you could ever visit.

Why is it so surreal? Well, the Macedonian government's aim was to attract more tourists to the city, and they achieved this by inundating the city with hundreds of statues representing famous figures from Macedonian history. Many of these statues are of monumental proportions. Take, for example, the statue of Alexander the Great, mounted on his horse Bucephalus. This statue stands at an enormous height of 22 meters, equivalent to an eight-story building. Interestingly, the statue is not explicitly named after Alexander the Great, as this figure holds different significance for different groups. To the Greeks, Alexander was Greek, while to the (current) Macedonians, he is regarded as their ancestor. Therefore, the statue carries the neutral name, "The Great Warrior."

The Great Warrior aka Alexander the Great
The Great Warrior aka Alexander the Great, but shush, we can't say that.

The extensive display of countless statues throughout the city undoubtedly radiates a sense of nationalistic kitsch, with a cost for the Macedonians estimated to be somewhere between 80 million and 500 million euros. My conversations with several locals confirmed suspicions that a significant portion of this expenditure was misappropriated, vanishing into the pockets of politicians. It's no surprise that the former Prime Minister Gruevski fled the country.

Our walk led us along Macedonia Street, eventually culminating at the Museum of the City of Skopje. The building itself, a relic from the Yugoslavian era, bore clear architectural traces of its history. Regrettably, the museum appeared to be quite neglected, with only a handful of visitors. Even the guard seemed surprised when he asked us whether we wished to explore the museum. It was evident that the museum had been stripped of numerous exhibits, and there were no curators in sight. However, we did have the opportunity to glimpse several age-old artifacts, including glassware, jewelry, bowls, and pots, some dating back thousands of years. A focal point of the museum delved into the tragic earthquake that shook the city in 1963.

The interior of the Museum of the city of Skopje
The interior of the Museum of the city of Skopje

I was genuinely disheartened by the construction of two new shopping malls flanking the museum on both sides. I mentioned to Amra that it would be an insightful learning experience for architecture and urban planning students worldwide to embark on a study trip to Skopje. They could witness the city's construction trends and, more importantly, learn what not to do. The methods employed in Skopje for constructing buildings are a genuine travesty, if not a tragedy. It's evident through apartment buildings integrated with ground-level shops and parking spaces inconveniently situated adjacent to buildings, roads, and cafés.

Museum of the city of Skopje
The Museum of the city of Skopje

We returned to the old part of the city and enjoyed a light lunch at a local Turkish restaurant. Subsequently, we rested in our hotel apartment for a couple of hours. Later, we watched "Husbands and Wives", a delightful Woody Allen movie. Then, we took a leisurely walk through the Old Bazaar while light rain drizzled down on us. For dinner, we dined at a highly recommended restaurant called Kaçamaku. Our meal included pide, a pizza-style Turkish pie with cheese, as well as gravče tavče, a Macedonian dish consisting of beans with Bosnian-style ćevapi on top.

Dinner at Kaçamaku
Dinner at Kaçamaku

The next day, we headed east to visit a modern shopping center known as East Gate Mall. Here, we found some lovely presents for our daughters. After our shopping excursion, we returned to the Old Bazaar, but this time, we decided to explore Kale, the fortress that offers panoramic views of the entire city. To reach the fortress, we once again strolled through the Old Bazaar, and since it's located adjacent to the bazaar, it only took us about ten minutes. Just before reaching the fortress, we made a stop at the Mustafa Paša Mosque, which was constructed in 1492 by Çoban Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman statesman from Bosnia.

Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Skopje
Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Skopje

From there, we proceeded directly to the fortress, which, interestingly, is an open area with no entrance. I was somewhat disappointed that there were no accompanying facilities, such as shops, cafes, or even guides. It's a shame that a construction that is 1500 years old is not presented better to visitors and tourists. The fortress itself is not very well-preserved. We strolled around it, capturing some photos, and subsequently made our way back to the city center.

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The Old Bazaar, Skopje

A street in the Old Bazaar, Skopje
A street in the Old Bazaar, Skopje

Here, we took some time to marvel at the surreal statues in the main square. The atmosphere, complemented by the setting sun, was actually quite pleasant.

The main square, Skopje
The main square, Skopje

We wanted to find a traditional Macedonian restaurant, so we decided to stroll through the so-called bohemian quarter, located just below the city park. We chose to dine at the restaurant Chardak. We ordered a large vegetable plate, a šopska salad, chicken breasts in mushroom sauce, and our old friend, gravče tavče. We quickly realized that we had ordered way too much food; there was easily enough for four people. Moreover, we weren't particularly hungry. Nevertheless, it was delicious, and we walked back to our hotel, enjoying the western part of the city during the night.

In restaurant Chardak, and it's only appetizers in this picture.
In restaurant Chardak, and it's only appetizers in this picture.

The next day, we decided to take a bus to the city of Gostivar to visit long-lost friends. The round trip took about three hours in total, and it was absolutely worth it. We enjoyed the landscapes along the way, and our excitement peaked when we successfully located the family we wanted to visit, despite not knowing their exact address. It was genuinely a fantastic day, and our hosts were absolutely wonderful people in every sense. We were very happy to reconnect with them after so many years.

A street in Gostivar A street in Gostivar

We returned to Skopje in the late afternoon and spent several hours walking around both the city center and the old part of Skopje. For dinner, we revisited the Kaçamaku restaurant, but this time we ordered something different, and it was equally delicious.

Mexican-style beef, rice, and fries
Mexican-style beef, rice, and fries at Kaçamaku

From there, we walked to our favorite sweet shop, Ohrid, where we enjoyed another delicious cake with cappuccino. I counted that they had forty-five (45) different kinds of cakes. With great and overwhelming impressions from the day, we went to bed, feeling that it was well-earned.

We tried many cakes at Ohrid, here bajadera.
We tried many cakes at Ohrid, here comes bajadera.

Last day we used to go to Daut Pasha Hamam, which also serves as The National Gallery of Macedonia. It is a beautiful building constructed in the second half of the 15th century. We enjoyed very much Simon Shemov's “Multiverse” exhibition.

Shemov's art is refreshing and unique. He uses a lot of handmade paper, which significantly adds to the sense of loss and ephemerality.

Daut Pasha Hamam in Skopje
Daut Pasha Hamam in Skopje

We had lunch in the old town, and I even managed to buy an old and used Soviet mechanical watch, a Poljot, before we took a planned taxi to the airport. Of course, there was trouble with Wizz Air. This time, it was a two-hour delay, and they never provided an explanation. Let me say one thing first: Wizz Air is the worst airline I have ever traveled with, and I will try never to fly with them again. There, I said it.

The visit to Macedonia, including its capital, Skopje, and the town of Gostivar, was a great and unique experience. It was interesting to be able to communicate with most of the people in Bosnian, even though we talked to ethnic Macedonians, local Albanians, Roma, Turks, and even Macedonian Bosniaks. Wherever we went, we felt renowned Balkan hospitality, and we enjoyed some very good food. I would even call Macedonia the true Orient of Europe, and I don't mean it in a demeaning way. It is a somewhat magical place where many cultures meet and exist side by side, as they have for many centuries. I would definitely like to come again to this part of Europe that many probably don't even consider visiting. If you would like to experience something other than typical European cities and countryside, Macedonia should be on your list.

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