Skopje – Turkish Bazaar and mountain scenery
Skopje. In the summer of 2016, I wanted to go on a two months road trip with my car through Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. I couldn’t go anymore to these countries, so I only went to a few Greek Islands – Thassos, Samohraki, and Lemnos. In 2017, I decided that come June, I’ll be on the road in a foreign country. I stayed overnight in Calafat (at the border of Bulgaria), the following day I crossed Bulgaria (passing Sofia) and entered Macedonia through a mountain pass at Deve Bair.
On my way to Skopje, I set up my watch to the new time zone, one hour behind Romania. I passed through villages filled with mosques with tall minarets which sat just across churches. From the small town of Kriva Palanka, I drove up a narrow road to Saint John’s of Osogovo Monastery. The monastery had two churches – one big and one small, both of them very rich in frescoes. However, the other buildings of the monastery were in restoration, so I didn’t get to see any monks walking by. In the evening I arrived in Skopje, at Simona’s apartment from AirBNB, where I had a credit that was about to expire soon.
On the first day in Skopje
I walked along the main pedestrian street and went to the central square. I crossed the Vardar River and then got lost throughout the Turkish bazaar, the Čaršija. In the afternoon, I went to Tvrdina Kale Fortress on top of the hill and to the Great Mosque of Mustafa Paša. In the evening, I met my friend Ebi in the city center of Skopje.
Early in the morning, I went to the new part of the Macedonian capital. I passed communist buildings and walked along Makedonija pedestrian street, flanked by eclectic buildings with restaurants and cafes at the ground floor as well as hotels and luxurious shops. Double-decker buses interspersed the city, and a round fountain with lions, surmounted by the equestrian statue of Alexander the Great, stood in the middle of the main square Ploštad Makedonija. The square had a bohemian and cosmopolitan atmosphere and nearby, on the Vardar river, a ship-hotel naturally selected its clients.
Next, I crossed the Bridge of Civilizations from Macedonia, which had giant statues all along its length. Further on, other imposing statues dotted the square that preceded the entrance to the Turkish bazaar. A few museums with monumental facades were the last examples of modern architecture from the new part of the town. Unexpectedly, the transition to the Turkish Bazaar was sudden, obvious, and even trenchant. All of a sudden, I was in Asia. The Čaršija Bazaar of Skopje was the biggest one of its kind in the Balkans after Istanbul and it was a proof of the multicultural heritage of this region.
I walked randomly among the narrow winding streets of the Turkish Bazaar, with tiny and shabby houses. The bazaar also had jewelry and luxurious shops as well as restaurants and bars where you could smoke shisha. All of them would open by noon during the Ramadan. A minaret rose at each street corner of the bazaar, but Saint Spas Church survived inside the Turkish neighborhood after it was built two meters’ underground, without competing with the neighboring mosques. Bit Pazar was the fair where you could find anything, cheap and useful items, in a chaotic style typical for the Middle East, but with its particular charm.
While I was walking along a tiny street of the bazaar, Mehdi approached me. He had a shop with antiquities that he had refurbished in a former cellar of Suli Hani – one of the old inns from the bazaar (listed as a UNESCO heritage site). He regretted Tito’s dictatorship (the former communist president), when he had a small factory and earned enough money. Mehdi spoke little English but we talked using the body language and our common Turkish-Serbian vocabulary. Just across Mehdi’s shop, I eyed the Museum of Architecture, refurbished in the former Turkish bath Cifte hamami, where the light came inside through countless small apertures in the brick cupola.
At lunch, I managed to eat in one of the most expensive restaurants at Kapan Hani, refurbished in the inner courtyard of the former inn (pumpkins moussaka with minced meat and Macedonian shopska salad, known for its grated cheese on top of the vegetables). After lunch, I went to the Art Galleries of Daut Paša Amam, hosted in other Turkish baths, where the light was filtered inside the galleries through small apertures made in the elaborately decorated brick cupolas.
In the afternoon, I hiked up to the Byzantine fortress Tvrdina Kale, which was pretty ruined but had panoramic views of the city and of the Vardar River. After that, I went to the Mosque of Mustafa Paša just across the street and got there at the prayer time, when the courtyard was full of people kneeling on their small carpets facing Mecca. After the prayer, I entered the mosque where a few young men whispered prayers and some children had Arabic lessons.
When I exited the mosque, I quickly became friends with El Mansour and Enit, two young Muslim Albanians. They told me they fasted during the whole period of the Ramadan. They didn’t eat or drink until the sunset. After that, they could eat anything (even meat, but not pork) until the sunrise, at three o’clock in the morning. Their motivation was in the Koran, where it says that they’ll go in paradise if they respect some basic principles. When they left, they insisted on giving me a bunch of fresh cherries, which they had just bought from the market.
Later on, I came back to Kameni Most (the famous Stone Bridge over the Vardar River) where I met Ebrahim, my Iranian friend who lived in Germany. We ate traditional kebaps (small sausages) in the bazaar and then we planned the following days.
On the second day in Skopje
We visited the Museum of the City of Skopje and the Memorial House of Mother Teresa. Then we went to the Museum of the Macedonian Independence. Later, we had lunch in the bazaar and rested in the fortress park for a while.
The Museum of the City of Skopje was refurbished in a former railway station with Byzantine influences, one of the most beautiful ones in the Balkans. The clock from the main facade stopped at 5:17 a.m. on 29th July 1963, when an earthquake hit Skopje’s region. After visiting the museum, we walked along the pedestrian street toward the house where Mother Teresa would have been born in 1910. In the house, we noticed her pictures with Yaser Arafat, Kenedy, and Dalai Lama as well as a modern chapel with curtain-walls.
In the Museum of Macedonian Independence, we had a guided tour which took us throughout the whole history of the small country – former republic of the communist Yugoslavia. We were hungry after so much history and went for lunch at Gradiste (the square full of terraces in front of Kapan Inn), where we had baked beans (tavche gravche) and small sausages (kebaps). In the afternoon, we lay on the grass in the fortress park, while crows were cawing in the trees above us.
On the third day around Skopje
We went to Kozjak reservoir lake by mistake. We came back to Skopje and went to Matka Canyon and Vrelo Cave. In the evening we sat on Treska lakeside.
We left Skopje and went to the surroundings of the city, in search for the Matka Canyon. We drove up to the mountain on sinuous roads and passed through a mountainous scenery dotted with scattered villages. Domestic animals grazed freely and we accidentally met a few cyclists. When we reached a mountain pass, we started to drive downhill toward a majestic lake. White mountains of chalk surrounded us while the road slowly snaked among them. The road had endless tight serpentine, with damaged asphalt on some areas. The emerald lake hypnotized us, though, and we continued to go down toward it without hesitation.
When we reached the reservoir lake, we asked the guard about the monasteries and the boat trip through Matka Canyon. He just pointed toward the small church of Saint Nicholas nearby the dam. Then, he pointed over the mountain, where it would have been the canyon. We seemed puzzled so he called Vasko, one of his colleagues who worked at the dam and spoke English. We couldn’t understand each other on the phone, though. Eventually, he drove up to the lake and showed us Matka Canyon on the map. We were at Kozjak Lake, on the other side of the mountain from our destination. We also asked for a car-service for the noise of my car’s breaks. Vasko told us he had a brother-in-law that worked at a service and we could go there the following day.
We turned back to Skopje on another road that passed scattered villages and headed toward the Matka Canyon, the canyon we were so much craving after. However, when we reached the place, it was crowded since it was weekend. After we passed Dolna Matka village, we hardly found a parking place at Saint Bogorodica Monastery. The monastery had a small Byzantine church, built of apparent brick and entirely painted with frescoes. From the monastery, we continued toward the enormous cliffs of the canyon that we could see in the background. We passed a small dam and went straight ahead along a footpath dug sometimes into the rock. Eventually, the road ended when we reached Saint Andrew’s Monastery.
We had a spinach salad with prosciutto at Matka Canyon Hotel, just behind Saint Andrew’s Monastery. After that, I went to search the monasteries along the footpath from the western side of the canyon. I hiked along the exposed footpath for one hour and reached a point where the path was damaged. Everybody turned back because it was too dangerous to continue, so I returned to Matka Hotel and found out that Saint Nichola’s Monastery was in another direction, up in the mountains on the other side of the canyon.
Ebi wasn’t feeling well from the yesterday lunch, but he insisted to come on the boat trip through the canyon. After we passed dozens of colorful kayaks, the canyon opened itself at each bend. We glimpsed gigantic cliffs, wooden dwellings on water, and natural caves inhabited once by hermits. The finish line of the boat trip was at Vrelo Cave, the deepest underwater cave from Europe. We entered the cave along the visitor’s path and heard bats that flew through the dark. At a lookout, we eyed where the real cave started deep down the steep rocky slopes.
On our way back to Skopje, we stopped at Treska Lake, where a tourist village with wooden huts and campers still survived on the lakeside, in a very bad condition though. At dawn, we heard the call to prayer from the nearby villages surrounding the lake. When we arrived in Skopje, we witnessed how people celebrated the victory of their country at the handball championship, with loud horns and colorful flags in the street.
Skopje – the Balkan capital with Turkish bazaar and mountain scenery is the first travel diary about my stay in the city of Skopje and its surroundings (find the version in Romanian at …). Its continuation, my second post can be found at the following link … And here are all my Travel Diaries from the Balkan Countries (x…..).
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