Skopje is the capital and the political, cultural, economic, and academic centre of North Macedonia. It is an up-and-coming city with a population of 550.000, which represents one quarter of the total population of the country. It has a strategic location on the River Vardar and has been an important trading centre for many centuries. Skopje is a city surrounded by high mountains and unique natural features. It has wide streets, and a large part of its centre is pedestrianised. Although Soviet influences can still be found in many constructions, a large number of contemporary buildings have been built in recent years. Despite the city’s and country’s turbulent recent history during and after the Yugoslav war, it is now a welcoming city that has sought its place among the other European capitals.
A brief history
The story of Skopje starts in Neolithic times, but it evolved into a major settlement around 500 BC, as one of the outer reaches of the Illyrian nation. Later, it became part of the Roman Empire and took the name Skupi. After the Byzantine period, in 1392 began 520 years of Ottoman rule. In comparison to the fashionable Monastir (now Bitola), it became a secondary trading station during this period. In 1944, after the incorporation into the Federal Yugoslavia, it became the capital of the autonomous Republic of Macedonia.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, it remained the capital of the now independent country of the Republic of Macedonia. After several political and social problems in 2011, the government started an ambitious programme (named Skopje 2014) to revamp the centre of Skopje. Several monumental public buildings were constructed, over 120 statues were placed in various locations, a large part of the city centre was pedestrianised, and the old town (Carsija) has been renovated. Although now the programme is put on hold, it was enough to transform the city into a more modern capital.
The two sides of Skopje
Skopje is a city of many cultures. The River Vardar divides the city into a predominantly Muslim northern half and a predominantly Orthodox Christian southern half. On the north side of the river lies the old town, named Carsija, and the imposing Kale Fortress. This part of the city houses a large bazaar, many Ottoman buildings, and a buzzling cafe and nightlife scene. The south part of the city, developed around Makedonija Square, houses most of the government offices, hotels, and shopping areas. Finally, in the centre of the two sides of the city and along the banks of the river, all the new spectacular buildings have been constructed, along with a number of iconic bridges.
Skopje: Kameni most
Kamen Most (Stone Bridge): The 214 metre long Stone Bridge, which joins the two parts of the city, is the emblem of Skopje. It was first built in the late 15th century and helped the development outside the city walls to expand in the south and made trading easier. The original stonework of 13 arches still stands, although the top of the bridge has changed many times in the course of time. Today, the bridge is an amazing place for a stroll and offers spectacular views of the city and the banks of the river.
Makedonija Square: Extending south of the Stone Bridge, it is the city’s main square. It is lined with cafes, restaurants, and hotels, most notably the Neoclassical Marriott Hotel. The centre of the square is dominated by the 24 metre high statue of the Warrior on a Horse, which was unveiled in 2011 for the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence. Also, the square and the area around it are the main places where many of the statues of the project Skopje 2014 have been placed (among them the statues of Tsar Samoil and Justinian).
The statues have raised controversy about their aesthetic values, but nevertheless, they give the square a monumental character. Not far from the main square Porta Macedonia on Pella Square is a memorial arch dedicated to 20 years of Macedonian independence and it is covered with reliefs carved in marble, depicting scenes from the history of North Macedonia.
The North Bank
The North Bank: The Stone Bridge and three pedestrian bridges, each bearing statues of national heroes, connect the North Bank of the River Vardar to Makedonija Square. Awesome Neoclassical structures built in the framework of Skopje 2014 line the riverbank. The National Theatre and the Archaeological Museum stand out among them. The contemporary Macedonian Opera and Ballet complex is situated next to the Archaeological Museum in Mother Teresa Square. In addition, a large open space directly behind the North Bank is surrounded by museums, monuments (including the striking Man without a Horse), and the Orthodox Christian church of Sv. Dimitri, which was once Skopje’s cathedral.
Carsija (Old Bazaar): The city’s Old Bazaar has been a hub for trade since the 12th century, but the Ottoman era is credited with giving the area its current appearance. The majority of the baths, mosques, inns, and houses here are from the 15th century. The Old Bazaar is a maze of narrow cobblestone lanes dotted with shops, cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and, of course, typical pastry shops providing distinctive regional delights. The Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the Cifte Hamam (the old baths of the bazaar), the covered market of Bezisten, and the Kapan An, a superbly maintained traditional inn, are just a few of the historically significant buildings the visitor will see. The Old Bazaar is the most touristy part of the city but it is very well preserved and has a really authentic ambience.
Memorial House of Mother Teresa: Gonxca Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje before becoming Catholic and world famous as Mother Teresa. Her Memorial House in Skopje, opened in 2009, is not a replica of her actual house (which was in this location), but it is designed to give the visitors a general idea of how she lived and at the same time introduce them to her ideas and beliefs.
Kale Fortress: Since 4000 BC, people have lived in the area around the Kale Fortress, which is situated on a hill behind the Old Bazaar. Up until an earthquake destroyed it in 1963, it served as a stronghold for the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and lastly the Yugoslav army. Since then, restoration efforts have been ongoing. Even though some of its parts are currently closed, the visit is nevertheless worthwhile because it is still a striking building and provides a stunning view of the city and its surroundings.
The modern face of Skopje
Today, the city is in an effort to become a modern capital despite the economic problems of the country. Modern buildings have been built in the city centre, and shops, restaurants, and cafes have acquired a more contemporary European character. Large shopping centres have been constructed on the city’s outskirts, and everything indicates that the city is progressively evolving into something more modern and fresh while still maintaining strong ties to the nation’s long history and heritage.
Few tourists today consider Skopje as a destination in Europe, yet it is unquestionably worthwhile. It is a welcoming and pleasant destination with a wide variety of activities and sights for the visitors. It is a city where Christianity and Islam, as well as Western and Eastern civilizations, converge and harmoniously blend to give the city its own personality.