Skopje: A capital with a “nice personality”

By Rob Packer

When Yugoslavia began to fall apart in the 1990’s, the only person I knew who’d been there was my mum, who visited the country twice, most recently in 1980 shortly before Tito’s death. As a ten-year-old beginning to grow curious about the world, I wanted to know what it was like in this place whose violent images of war populated news bulletins. One of the things that stuck in my mind was her description of Skopje as a dump. Unsurprisingly when I visited the city in January, my expectations were far from high.

Not too bad: the view from Skopje's fortress.

Communist-era architecture in Skopje.

When you arrive somewhere with low expectations, you’re easily impressed and as cities go, Skopje isn’t all that bad and I have seen far worse cities to pass 24 hours in; although there’s nothing to make you rush there, and worse, anyone who believed the Lonely Planet’s semi-gushing about the place would probably be bitterly disappointed. Both times I arrived in Skopje, I was greeted by some pretty lousy weather: thick fog when I flew in from Montenegro and a rain storm when my train pulled in from Bitola; both of which were redeemed by a sunny last day when you could actually see the snow-capped mountains that surround the wide valley where Skopje sits.

Despite having over 6000 years of settled history, the city doesn’t have much to show for it as 80% of the city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963: the result is a city almost entirely made up of Communist-era blocks—not an easy architectural style to love; Balkan travel blog, Balkanology, sums it up well by saying “perhaps some day Skopje will be regarded as a treasury of late twentieth century architecture”. And the current Macedonian government, which no Macedonian I met had a nice word to say about, is doing its bit to contribute to this “treasury” with an assortment of historicist vanity projects by the river, football stadia and bizarre urban sculpture. What does remain of its history includes a beautiful Ottoman stone bridge and an Ottoman-era bazaar quarter with coffee and tea houses, and shops selling ćevapčići, called kjebapi in Macedonian and betraying the dish’s Turkish origins.

Skopje's Ottoman-era Stone Bridge.

One thing that really did warm me to Skopje, though, was meeting other people after two weeks of what turned out to be quite a solitary experience: I began speaking to some Estonians where I was staying and was soon invited to a party at a house of EVS volunteers, the European Commission’s equivalent of the Peace Corps and in dire need of a snappier name sounding less like a medical procedure or illness. The night ended in a bar under the train station listening to a live band doing covers of songs I haven’t heard since the late 90’s.

Like the proverbial boy or girl with the “nice personality”, Skopje may not be all that much to look at, but at least it looks like it knows how to have fun.

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