With a winter weekend in Bulgaria planned, I’d expected to take my time seeing Sofia over the course of two days.
Landing late Friday evening though, my curiosity got the best of me and I started thinking about taking a day trip to Skopje, Macedonia (FYROM). Luckily, I was able to secure a private day trip at the late hour, slated to leave early the next morning.
Admittedly, I mainly wanted to go to see another European capitol I knew I wouldn’t necessarily prioritise going back to once out of the region.
So, cue an impromptu day trip to Skopje.
Was the tour worth it? Yes, I had a great day.
The drive from Sofia to Skopje is long (3 hours each way), but because I had a driver, I used the time to read, nap and relax. I would have loved another day to see Sofia, but still felt like I saw the best the city had to offer in the 15 hours I had to explore Sunday before leaving for my late evening flight back to London.
An exhausting, but fulfilling weekend.
Back to Skopje.
It’s a bizarre place, definitely one of the weirdest cities I’ve visited.
It’s nothing like you’d expect of a Balkan capital, and instead, sits more on the Vegas/Disney spectrum. The reason for that is because of a government project to renovate the downtown area to attract tourism (locally known as the Skopje 2014 project).
It’s a controversial project, and easy to understand why. Many of the statues and decorum aren’t even a nod to Macedonia’s history. A lot of residents feel the money could be better spent elsewhere.
In fact, the largest statue of a man riding a horse is meant to be a tribute to Alexander the Great, but can’t be officially positioned as such because Greece recognises him as a part of their history.
There are literally statues everywhere.
Coupled with covering communist era apartment buildings in ornate facades and constructing elaborate new bridges, it’s all a bit much.
The most interesting part though are the endless (truly, no one knows how many exist) statues ALL over the city.
Most of them are HUGE, too. The bridge pictured below, along with another newly built bridge, have over 55 between the two of them alone.
And, if the statues and facades weren’t enough, there are two massive, operational pirate ships on the river.
It’s a sight to behold, but also makes wandering fun- you’re constantly surprised by what’s in front of you. Though, it’s so over the top, it does feel more like Las Vegas than a Balkan capitol.
If like me, you only have a few hours to see the city, you’ll be happy to know it’s small enough to wander on foot.
In six hours, I managed to see both sides of the city, lounge in a park and even explore some of the side streets/areas off the main section, including the memorial to Mother Teresa.
As part of your explorations, make sure you cross the Stone Bridge to Old Town to see one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the Balkans (aside from the one in Istanbul).
The bazaar in Skopje’s old town is the oldest living witness of the history of this region as every kingdom and empire, every regime and every rule have left traces of their influence. It’s an interesting place to sip mint tea in a cafe front, and people watch on a sunny, unusually warm winter day.
Aside from the city’s decor, its history also makes it an interesting place to visit.
Macedonia has lived through many reincarnations, including being part of the Roman Empire, 500 years of Ottoman rule and part of Yugoslavia before finally gaining independence in 1991.
Even now there are still debates and controversy over the very name of the country – Greece recognises Macedonia as a region of Greece and as long as Greece challenges Macedonia on its name, its access to Nato and the EU is blocked.
In spite of it all, I’d recommend spending a day in Skopje if you ever have the chance. It’s an interesting place to roam, and very affordable.
I spent less than £14 on a hearty breakfast with coffee and fresh juice, a sit down latte, mint tea, two giant bottles of water, and a hearty cheese plate for a mid-afternoon snack. If I really wanted to pinch pence, I could have done it even cheaper. Some places (off the main tourist drag on the west side) offer full meals for less than £3-5.
At the end of my time spent exploring, I was actually happy to get back in the car and venture back to Sofia. I was in need of a nap and keen to finish a book I’d been reading.
A long day, but great one exploring yet another slice of Europe.
Have you ever been to the Balkans? Which country or city was your favourite to visit?