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Friday, September 30, 2016

9/22: Skopje: The Vegas of Europe

Our hostel host, Lupcho, kindly took a few minutes to show me where his favorite burek shop was, but I told him we just wanted a loaf of French bread for breakfast and not a meat or spinach pie at that time of the day. So off we went to find a bakery; it was a storefront only and had a window out front where the clerk chose the items I was interested in. There were a lot of what looked like rolls but, it turned out, they were all stuffed with a variety of fillings, meat, cheeses and jams. Lupcho said he wanted to show me then a wine shop. I was getting a tad concerned about time as Steven and I were still hoping to go on the free walking tour of Skopje at 10 and it was after 9 by this time. 

When we got to the shop, the woman filled up a bottle with red wine from a hose! The cost was only a euro or a little over a dollar for a full size bottle of wine! What a cheap place to be an alcoholic! We had some later that night and it wasn’t bad according to my admittedly unsophisticated palate. I’ve had some rotgut wine back in the day and this was quite drinkable surprisingly. I wondered what the alcohol content was as we didn’t seem to get much of a buzz.
Scenes from the pedestrian mall: Very odd seeing what looked the Wall St. bull by a shoe store of all places.
Saw one display of honey products for sale right after another. It would have been an awfully tough souvenir to bring home especially since we still had another almost three months left to go on the trip!

Made it to the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, our meeting place for the walking tour, in time with a few minutes to spare luckily. We’ve been on some tours where there were about 30 some people which was pretty unmanageable. There were about half that number here; three from Canada and Australia each, we were the only Canadian/Americans and the rest came from all over the world.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, known as Mother Teresa, was born in Skopje on August 26th, 1910 and died on September 5th, 1997 in Calcutta (now knownas Kolkatta), India. There were several of her poignant sayings on the outside of the memorial house. Here is one I liked: 'There are so many religions and each one has its own way of following God. I follow Christ. Jesus is my God, my spouse, my life, my love, my everything.’ Here are others:

Mother Teresa was a well known humanist who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and on October 19th, 2003 was declared blessed by the Vatican.
Our guide asked that I not use his name in the blog as he was concerned about a potential backlash from the authorities by what I write what he said during the tour. I told him I would honor his request just as I did with the guides in Mostar and Sarajevo who also didn’t want their names or photos included in the blog. So, henceforth the guide’s name will be Saso which he said was one of the most common male names in Macedonia

FYI: I was strongly asked to change what I had originally written in the Sarajevo War Tunnel post by Armina, our guide there. In an email exchange, she asked me to include specific examples of the city's religious and ethnic communities working together even though that had hardly been touched on in her three hour tour. She then provided me a written list of the cooperative measures she felt were critical to include. I felt very uncomfortable acceding to her request as those developments were NOT included in the tour. As such, I felt that she should have been more prudent at what she said during the tour because her comments on the tour were certainly not as rosy as she wanted them later to appear. I developed a new appreciation for fredom of the press as a result.

Saso ‘warned’ everyone on the tour that it would last three hours and joked that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger! He said that the drummer boys on the bridge and elsewhere in Skopje was just a sophisticated way of begging and advised us to treat them as if they don’t exist. That seemed unduly harsh, I thought, but the goal, he stated, is to stop the begging, get them in school, etc. By giving them money and so called helping them, the opposite effect is achieved.

Saso joked about how much crazier the drivers in Skopje have gotten in the last few years. He cautioned us to make eye contact with the drivers as otherwise they’ll speed up when they see us crossing the street! Good advice, we figured!
The old railroad station at the end of the mall was built between 1938-1940. The mayor at the time said it must be the most modern station in the Balkans so it was constructed with 11 columns, lots of sculptures and Byzantine aspects. There were major earthquakes in Skopje in 1655 and again in 1963. When the earthquake happened at 5:17 am on July 26th of 1963, the station clock stopped. In just a few seconds, 83% of the city’s buildings were wiped out and 1,170 people were killed. 
Because of the severity of the quake, the city had to be rebuilt, not reconstructed. Rather than destroying the station that had extensive damage, the city wanted to keep it as it was and not rebuild it however. It is now the City Museum and the tombstones in front of the museum are from Byzantine times.

The earthquake occurred at the height of the Cold War but American and Soviet soldiers came together for the first time to help rebuild Skopje, Saso said. The city of London loaned double-decker buses after the quake which explained the presence of that style of buses on the streets of Skopje. The new buses were just ordered from China.
This one pedestrian street, now known as Macedonia Street, .has changed names five times in just 90 years. People get confused as to what the name is currently, he laughed. One woman lived on the same street her entire life but ‘lived’ in four different countries because of all the political upheaval in this region over the years.  
Bulls in front of stock exchanges are always intended to inspire confidence, Saso said. However, the stock exchange in Skopje is not located here but 100 meters away from the adjacent shoe shop instead. If we touched the bull’s shiny nose, we would become very rich, he said.

The Orthodox Church on the mall may look like it’s a thousand years old but it’s brand new. The frescoes in the church were just completed two weeks ago. He said 97% of Christians in Skopje are Orthodox and 2% are Catholic. 

Saso explained the annual Honey Festival was taking place on the mall. 
The kids looked so adorable all dressed up as bumblebees!
As we walked back to the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, Saso stated she is the most famous Skopje citizen ever. She was born very close to the Memorial in 1910 and changed her name once she moved to India
When Agnes was 12, she said she wanted to help the poor in India and she left Skopje when she was 18. She was baptized in a church that had been located on this site until it was destroyed in the quake. Her nearby home was likewise demolished in the quake. She joined the Missionaries of Charity which forbade possession of property. 
Normally, tour guides tell the participants to tour the museums we pass by on our own after the tour. For one of the first times in any of the walking tours we've taken, we toured the inside of the Memorial House and had the museum guide show us around. 

A model of her family home:
Mother Teresa wore the sari to blend in better with local people, the museum guide explained. The saris were made by people with leprosy.

Copy of the Nobel Peace Prize she won:
The first PhD thesis in the world dedicated to the charity and humanitarian work of Mother Teresa was written by H. J. Kudo from Japan and was defended at Skopje University.
Saso explained lots of cultural celebrations are held in the upstairs chapel. He pointed out the filigree strands in the windows that resemble butterflies, fish and doves. Fish are a Christian symbol and the doves are a symbol of peace throughout the world as Mother Teresa was always a big proponent of peace.

Still on the mall, Saso pointed out the shoe shiner monument.
Saso deplored how 20,000 people’s shoes would have to have been shined (shone?) in order for the shoe shiner to pay for his own statue as it cost 22,000 euros. 
In a similar vein, he disapproved that 35,000 euros had been spent on this statue of a homeless person rather than directly helping those in need.
The most important building here in Skopje and Macedonia was this corner one at the end of the mall where a pharmacist installed the country’s first elevator in 1926, Saso said. I must admit to not understanding how that made the building so important. Known as Ristic's Palace, it was one of the few buildings that survived the 1963 earthquake. 
The statue is called The Warrior even though it is really of Alexander the Great. But, because of copyright laws, it couldn’t be named that, Saso said. Alexander, born in 356 BC, was taught by Aristotle how to be a great orator. Saso described Alexander as being the greatest general ever, having won 100 battles in just 10 years. He even traveled to India which in those days was akin to traveling to Mars for us. When Alexander saw monkeys for the first time there, he thought they were small, hairy men with no manners!
 Plaque showing the birthplace of Mother Teresa:
Skopje’s Triumphal Arch: Normally an arch like this honors success in a military battle. Not in Macedonia though where there have never been any military triumphs. The country has always been dominated for 2,000 years by other countries, first by the Byzantines, then the Romans followed by the Bulgarians and the Serbs.

I was surprised to learn that Macedonia has 1,000 soldiers in NATO even though the country is not part of it. The country has the second largest number of soldiers as a percentage of the population in NATO after just the US, Saso proudly stated. The Arch cost 4.4 million euros and celebrates the country’s cultural triumphs.
The Colored Revolution took place last year with protests against the government. Rather than taking up arms or using violence, the protesters filled up balloons with paint and threw them against many of the statues and monuments. If they weren’t strong enough to throw them high, they used a type of slingshot to lob them further. What a horrific shame as the damage inflicted on the monuments, etc is permanent.

He pointed out next the Art Bridge aka Bridge of Civilization which was jampacked with sculptures as was the rest of the city. Saso said he bet we’d never visited a city with so many of them. He was sure right on that point! 

There were so many of them, in fact, the city ran out of construction materials to build more so they made them out of clay instead. There was no empty spot to put more statues up, so the city had to put them on top of buildings!
Another pirate ship – we must be in Vegas! The first nude beach in the Balkans was established just 4 kms away in 1926. That was very liberal thinking for that period of time. 

The History Museum:

There aren’t that many people in the country’s history to have sculptures of them but the city is just addicted to statues, Saso told us laughingly! There are so many unimportant people on the statues that he joked, in time, homeowners will have to have 10 statues in front of their homes too!

One of the main symbols of Skopje was the 15th century Stone Bridge that connects the Old Town to the center on the left bank of the Vardar River. The bridge was initially built during the Ottoman times and had been a toll one. It has evolved so much over the years that there were many different construction styles. 
Just a tad strange, don't you think, having this bikini clad swimmer in the water?
Another lovely fountain but it had four statues of the same woman, the mother of Alexander the Great. The statues showed her pregnant with him, nursing him, etc!
As we walked to the large fountain, Saso joked that Skopje’s current mayor is so intent on copying what the rest of Europe has, there will be no need in ten years to travel to the rest of Europe. Instead, tourists can just visit Skopje as copies of many of Europe's famous sights will be all here when construction is completed! A copy of the London Eye is being built as is a recreation of Rome’s famous Spanish Steps. He laughed and said he hoped he mayor never goes to Venice as otherwise Skopje might have its own version of the Grand Canal.

.We walked next into the Bazaar or Carsija area of Skopje that we had visited last night by ourselves. We entered a walled area where there was a  Muslim girls’ madrassa or school, a number of small cafes and offices.
The Old Bazaar, Saso explained, was created for people who couldn't live in the city's nearby Fortress. The first businss was trade as it didn't require any need any specific skills. The term 'shopfront' came from the shops were in front of people's homes. Certainly made sense but I had never really thought of that before.
Ninety percent of all the shops in the bazaar are jewelry stores because gold is so poular among Skopje's Muslim neighbors in Turkey, Syria, etc. Business is way down though now because of the civil unrest in both those nations. Gold is especially popular as gifts from the groom's family when a Muslim couple gets married, we learned. Since it is so easy to divorce in the Muslim religion, gold is the guarantee from the man's family in case their son leaves his wife. If that happens, she has the gold to support herself because she wouldn't be able to return to live with her family or work after a divorce.  
As Saso had talked of Muslim wedding customs, we had seen what appeared to be this young girl going from table to table holding out her piece of cardboard box begging for money. I am writing this in Tirana, Albania, about 10 days later, and anyone begging here also uses part of a shoebox too. We’ve seen people beg all over the world but I don’t remember parts of empty shoeboxes ever having been used before.
We all trooped past an endless slew of jewelry shops along the main streets in the bazaar. The area was known as Gold Alley for aobvious reasons! Saso pointed out the detailed silver filigree items that are so popular and reminded us of the filigree strands in the exterior design of the Memorial House to Mother Teresa.
The doorway led us through the Besitan part of the bazaar which was the central clothing market. It used to have four entrances to the area but now the district is largely abandoned even though it was just a couple of streets away from the main part of the bazaar.

On the way to Kale Fortress, we passed the Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior which he highly recommended we visit after the tour.
The Fortress was situated prominently on a hill in the old part of Skopje. The ramp was partly built of stones from the ancient town of Skupi, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 518. The inhabitants of Skupi decided to build a new settlement on the place where nowadays Kale Fortress is situated. Kayle: Thought of you while we were here as you might imagine!
The old fortress of the city was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century. The present-day ruins date back from the 10th-century enlargement of the fort under Tsar SamoilAfter the earthquake of 1963, only a few restored walls, the main gateway and two towers remained. It was quickly restored and conserved. 

Saso pinted out the huge Millenium Cross on the mountain to our west. It was 63 meters or 217 feet high which is double the Jesus Christ staue in Rio we all saw during the recent Olympics coverage.  

Skopje is even now beginning to copycat items from North America as it is building a tower that will be 12 meters higher than Toronto's CN Tower beside the Cross!
Saso explained that Macedonian special forces were out in force on the Fortress that day because a court case against terrorists was being decided. The Fortress is an important cultural landmark for the city and country and therefore warranted the additional coverage, Saso inferred.

The nearby football (i.e. soccer to us in North America) stadium was a 33 million euro gift from Andorra and Luxembourg, Saso mentioned!
Very close to the Kale Fortress and located just above the Old Bazaar was Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the city's and country's most important religious monument remaining from Ottoman times. It was built in 1492 by Sultan Bajazit II's vizier, a high-ranking political adviser or official in the region, to give thanks to Allah as he had been so successful.
The mosque had a great view over the Old Bazaar and its own garden. It was recently restored but the beauty and simplicity in the construction remain the same from the 15th century. 
Saso stated that a headscarf was not required here because the mosque was less strict. The only other time that had been the case this whole trip was at one of the mosques we visited in Mostar, Bosnia i Herzegovina.

The 'free' walking tour finally ended back at Sveti Spas aka The Church of our Savior. At 3.5 hours long, it had been by far the longest tour ever. Saso, our guide, had been very good and certainly knew all about his amazing city but he was too long winded even for me!

Even though we were pretty tired by then, we decided to spend some time seeing the inside of the church since it had been one of the places on our itinerary. The church, dating from the 18th century, is the oldest preserved church in Skopje and was built on the remains of a 14th century church that was burned during a fire. At this period Macedonia was still under Ottoman rule, and the church had to be constructed with a large part of it underground as the Ottomans did not allow Christian churches to have a dominant exterior look.

The entryway and courtyard to the church:

The tomb of Goce Delcev, Macedonia's foremost national hero, who was killed by Turks in 1903:
The church is most famous for its iconstasis which was built in just seven years beginning in 1817. It is 30 feet long and nearly 21 feet high and it depicts scenes form both the Old and New Testaments. When we first saw it, I could only gaze in awe at the exceptional artistic talent of the three woodcarvers and the abundance of scenes.
It was even more amazing to know that not one drop of glue or one nail was used in any of the iconstasis! Many of the segments were also carved from just one piece of walnut which is a very tough woord to use for carving, the church guide proudly exclaimed.

The stunning ceiling frescoes were painted in the early part of last century. The painting in the center of the ceiling was of a father and never of God, the guide told us.

Just one piece of wood was used here!
The woodcarvers' 'autograph' was in a small, out of the way part of the iconstasis. Luckily, the guide was able to point it out as we would have missed it otherwise.
The church, while modest on the outside, had a luxurious interior. Thank goodness we made time to stop in for a while as it was stunning. It had been an ideal place to stop and recharge our batteries after the tour.

After a very forgettable bite to eat (i.e. code for lousy!), we walked back over the bridge to St. Demetrius Church again. We had been there last night but the interior was so dark it was tough to see and properly appreciate the frescoes. It was still as dark but I was able to get some decent photos after playing around with my camera's settings.

We walked back to the hostel, passing the old train station on the way and its Byzantine era tombstones out front. Again, it seemed bizarre having tombstones in that location!

Nina: Here's thinking about you, hon!
What a fascinating city Skopje turned out to be after learning so much about it from our guide. It would be intriguing to return in ten years or so when the current, crazy building craze has finished and see what the city looks like then. Even though it borders on the tacky now, it still was a place we both loved!

Posted from Tirana, Albania on September 30th, 2016.

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