After five weeks on sun-warmed Malta, we headed to Skopje, Macedonia. Though the weather was relatively mild when we arrived, during the last ten days snow covered the city. Our initial Airbnb booking didn’t work out due to excessive noise and a pervasive moldy smell (a first in 2+ years of travel via Airbnb), but we contacted their support and within a couple of hours we found a different place. Even paying a bit extra to transfer to a new apartment, we think we got a much better deal. The new space had a view overlooking much of the city, and it was nestled on Vodno Mountain’s lower slopes, near the start of hiking trails. A small fireplace kept us cozy on the coldest nights.
Skopje, the capital of a country that didn’t gain independence until 1991, has been on something of a building streak. In the early 2010s, the party in power put grand monuments and buildings at the top of its agenda. They want to foster a national identity stretching back to Alexander the Great. The airport and highways were named after him, and his likeness graced many of the new statues across the city. Other memorials to poets, writers, religious leaders, and ancient rulers appeared on bridges, in plazas, atop buildings. Picturesque from some angles, the overall effect was a bit jarring. The downtown center is full of Romanesque architecture but the rest of the city (and country) is still struggling. Many Macedonian citizens were angered by this waste of hundreds of millions of dollars, especially when it could have been spent on education or infrastructure.
This construction rush ties into a dispute over the name of the entire country. Since breaking with Serbia, Macedonia’s official name is actually The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Aside from the tongue-twister length, no one likes it. But standing in the way of simply calling themselves Macedonia or the Republic of Macedonia is Greece. Greece insists that because Macedonia is the name of a region within their borders, it cannot also be the name of the nation next door. In fact, both countries share descent from the ‘original’ Macedonians and it is all a bit silly. But to try to reclaim some of that history, the likeness of Alexander, the greatest Macedonian, was sent to grace key points around the nation and serve as bargaining chips. During our stay, the airport and a major highway had ‘Alexander’ removed from their names and there was some hope that the naming fight might be over soon.
On one of the few clear-ish days, we walked to the Kale Fortress. The walls are visible from any points around the city, and have been kept in good repair. But the inside wasn’t so lucky. We strolled along the walls, greeted by a handful of friendly stray dogs. A couple of abandoned half-finished constructions dotted the grounds – it looked like botched attempts at a visitor’s center or cafe. Barbed wire blocked access to a old excavation that now held quite a few plastic bottles and chip bags. But the views were among the best in the Old Town and it was one of our few opportunities to see the distant mountains.
Across town, the Church of St. Clement was probably the grandest in the city. From the outside, its multiple domes and arches look incredibly futuristic. In contract, the inside is all traditional – images of saints ring the lower level and a depiction of Jesus fills the largest dome. Several points around the city honor Mother Teresa, who was born and baptized in Skopje.
This month was marked by great sporting events around the world, and Macedonia’s main TV station delivered. Even though they still shut down for several hours each night, they don’t slack on the coverage. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the PyeongChang Olympics ran uninterrupted by commercials or fluff pieces, as did the events that were shown. Two hours of uninterrupted biathlon are no problem! A cable network picked up the Superbowl, broadcasting it to the Balkans, so we watched enough of it to get our American football fill.
Of course, no sports binge is complete without snacking. Like the rest of ex-Yugoslav countries peanut crisps and ajvar (a pepper and eggplant spread), could be bought everywhere. Doritos are making inroads as well, though the flavors were new to us. We had plenty of cevapi and even some trout as well.
In general, food was cheap, and the wine followed suit. Macedonian wine is exported all over Europe as an affordable table wine. At about $2-3 per bottle, we had our choice of reds or whites. My favorite of the month was a bit pricier than that, but still very affordable by US standards – a late harvest Vranec (a traditional grape in the region), was sweet and rich. Clearly, Macedonia knows their wines.
We’ll be following the news in the coming months to see if they settle on a new name, and hopefully can return in a warmer season when the hiking trails open up in the mountains. Everyone we spoke to mentioned Lake Ohrid’s beauty and gorgeous mountain vistas that were too snow-covered for us to visit. Next time!