The few days we spent in Skopje have been wonderful. Staying with our friends Paul and Elspeth, and their lovely girls Anna and Isabel, not to mention the two dogs and the cat, it’s been a real treat to be in a family environment after a series of apartments and hostels. The family have been so welcoming, Lauren and Isabel got on particularly well being a similar age, and it’s been so nice for me to spend some quality time (in fact, far more than we ever had time for in Maputo!) with Elspeth.
Skopje is an odd place. A mixture of brash nationalistic kitsch and old winding streets, the centre feels like two different cities from two different centuries.
The former government had a highly nationalistic agenda, and in a deliberate two fingers at Greece, who contests ‘ownership’ of Alexander the Great (as well as the name Macedonia and various bits of territory) with Macedonia, everything that could be seems to have been branded Alexander the Great. A number of new bridges and buildings were built, as part of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project, at huge expense, in pseudo neoclassical style, with elaborate columns and windows and domes, but they are really just concrete facades. A vast number of new statues of Macedonian heroes (seemingly, all men – many on horseback) have also been erected, including an odd one of Alexander the Great and his mother at different stages of his life – in the first she is pregnant with him, and then others show him as a small boy growing into a man. While the aim was to promote and highlight ethnic Macedonian history and culture, the result for an outsider is a surreal landscape of bright white ‘old style’ buildings and statues, making it feel a little like ‘old europeworld’ at Disneyland. They even have their own Arc de Triomphe!
A 2-minute walk from the riverside where most of this new development has taken place, winding streets lined first with tourist tat and then with wedding dress shops, jewelers, cobblers, cheap electronics and tea houses, make their way up a hill sprinkled with mosques towards a huge local market. With the old guys sitting out on small stools drinking tea, the smoke from cooking meat and the odd lazy cat, this feels more back streets of Istanbul than Europe, and it’s a bizarre contrast to the riverside.
I found the capital really quite bonkers, but it’s clearly attracting tourists like never before, with cheap flights, good food and the contrasting styles to get your head round.
Another day we travelled out to Matka gorge, a beautiful canyon through steep mountains not far from Skopje, where a dam has created an artificial lake. We had a lovely lunch overlooking the lake, the food was fantastic – to start a selection of salads and warm homemade bread, accompanied by the absolutely delicious Macedonian speciality Ajvar, a mix of roasted red peppers, aubergine and olive oil, and to follow I had chicken stuffed with prosciutto in a pistachio sauce, and Lauren had tagliatelle in white wine and cream, with salmon and caviar.
To work some of that off we headed up the trail that winds around the side of the mountain, clambering over (and sometimes through) the rocks. While there was never any real danger, the girls skipping ahead along the narrow path that only sometimes had an adequate handrail gave me nightmares later that night.
For our last couple of days Lauren went to the lovely international school that the girls attend in Skopje, and had a great time. It’s been so good for her to be able to have some ‘girl time’ and they have got on really well. We will be sad to leave, but we hope they will visit us in Portugal next year.
For now, the night train to Serbia awaits.