Our random trip to Skopje, North Macedonia
Truth be told, I didn’t know much about Skopje or Macedonia before crossing them last year on our way to Greece.
I did hear about Macedonia being a rather “dangerous” country. However, everyone I personally know that has been there had only good things to say about it: it’s beautiful, it’s cheap, people are warm and welcoming. One acquaintance had their car broken into during the night they spent in Skopje, all their luggage stolen. Yet, they were still willing to go back again – that’s how much they liked it!
For us Romanians living in the Western part of our country, transiting Serbia and Macedonia on our way to Greece by car is the shortest and easiest route. So we decided to bite the bullet and just go.
First night in Skopje
We arrived in the evening after a long, hot, tiring day of driving. It was already getting dark and we were trying to find the hotel (we stayed at Hotel Ibis, right in the centre).
Skopje initially presented itself quite dull, a grey city wearing deep communism scars, very much alike to many Romanian cities.
Driving was quite chaotic in the city, topping it up with a few roads under construction that Google Maps didn’t know. A gang of homeless teenagers aggressively approached our car at a red light trying to wash our windshield. It’s been years since I last saw windshield washers (we used to have them in Romania as well). Honestly, at that red light I started questioning whether it was a good idea to visit Skopje.
But we arrived well and safe at the hotel, dropped all our bags in the room (didn’t leave anything in the car, just to be sure) and headed directly to the centre of the city to see whether we could improve our first impression.
We took a corner and bumped right into the main square (“Macedonia Square“), where a disproportionately large statue (called “Warrior on a Horse”, although some say it’s Alexander the Great) was looming over the surroundings.
The square was full of lights and life and energy. Tourists and locals of all ages having a walk or dining at one of the restaurants, families with children playing by the fountains, young couples taking photos and a lovely lady filling the evening air with beautiful songs.
Besides the giant statue, the next edifice that caught my attention was Hotel Marriott, with its fresh white facade, contrasting blatantly with the vicinity. Its architecture reminded me of neoclassicism, but I was shocked to find out the building actually dates to… 2016.
Once I found out this detail, I started questioning everything I saw in Skopje.
We crossed the river (Vardar River) via the Stone Bridge to the other side, where we encountered… more statues.
Then, we headed towards the Old Bazaar. It was dark, empty, silent, except a few streets that had open bars and restaurants filled with people and music. There wasn’t much to see around at that hour, so we decided to visit it again the next morning.
While returning towards the river, there was a folklore festival taking place outdoors, with people dressed in colourful traditional costumes dancing in the street. Folklore music was blasting in the speakers and, slightly covering it, you could hear the call to prayer from a nearby minaret. Talking about contrasts!
We got back to the hotel by crossing the Art Bridge, which boasts a suite of … wait for it … statues(!) lined up on either side. On our way by the river bank, we took a peek at Mother Teresa Square and its surroundings, where a few more impressive edifices (and more statues) of various architecture styles (ranging from modernist to wannabe neoclassicism) add up to the architectural randomness of the city.
Most of the attractions in Skopje, along with certain administrative buildings and schools are part of a urban “revival” project entitled “Skopje 2014”. It was a highly criticised project, also deemed as a “nationalist kitsch” by many voices, both foreign and local.
For us, Skopje felt like an amusement park, a mix of old and new, real and fake, communism and kitsch, Christianity and Islam, all of these somehow coexisting together, at times blending into a unique result, at other times contrasting strongly.
And, guess what? This randomness was what gave Skopje an unique personality and made it memorable for us.
Skopje during daylight
Next morning, we took a few more hours before check out to see the city in broad daylight.
The poles of interest seemed to have switched places. While the main square was rather empty compared to the previous night, the Old Bazaar was jolly and dynamic.
Although many shops were still closed, you could find everything from traditional clothing, to modern clothing, to souvenirs, to handmade shoes, to cleaning products, to hotels or tourism agencies, rental agencies, fast food eateries, burek eateries, a drinking water fountain, a mosque, the remnants of an old wall…
I haven’t been to Istanbul yet, but I imagine it’s something similar, tenfold.
With a cheese burek in one hand, we were walking aimlessly around the alleys when we noticed a lovely courtyard.
It was an Ottoman caravanserai (roadside inn) from the 15th century, called Suli An (now housing a History Museum of the Old Bazaar and the Faculty of Arts).
We loved spending a few minutes there, hiding from the summer heat in the peaceful courtyard. Plus, we got to learn a few historic facts about Macedonia and Skopje’s past.
And that was pretty much everything we got to do that day. We had to hurry back to the hotel to pack our bags, complete the check out and get back on the road.
And no, we didn’t go to the Millennium Cross (although the views might have been worth a detour).
Is it safe to travel to Macedonia?
Now that we’ve been there and seen for ourselves, I can say that Macedonia and Skopje are safe for travellers. We had a good time, no incidents, never felt unsafe or in danger whatsoever. People were indeed welcoming and nice and it’s a shame we get to judge a whole country just for the ugly actions of a few people.
Of course, you should still practice general safety rules, like keeping your valuables safe at all times and not walking alone at night in dark and empty areas. Don’t leave important belongings in the car and especially not in sight. These are rules you should practice anywhere! There are plenty of European large cities that deal with pickpockets and car robberies, so it’s not something unheard of.
Driving through Macedonia was chaotic in Skopje. However, it was less chaotic than Albania and less aggressive than Montenegro.
Out of the capital it was alright. On the plus side, it has great highways, crossing the country from the border with Serbia until the border with Greece. If you don’t want to stop in any city, you can just hit the road!
As for the prices, Macedonia is super affordable. The food especially is cheap, but very good and in large portions.
All in all, the country surprised me pleasantly and I’d love to go back someday and discover more of the natural highlights, like Lake Ohrid or Matka Canyon.
Ending with a little secret tip! On our way back from Greece we stayed at Popova Kula, a hotel with winery recommended to us by a couple of friends. It was such a lovely place! Had great food, wonderful views over the winery and a fun wine tasting evening. They certainly got wine “tasting” wrong as the wine was poured generously in the glass (not complaining!).
After the 2nd glass I was super talkative and making jokes with the waiter.
By the 5th glass I’m not sure I was walking straight anymore.
Cheers to the fun memories!