08.08.2013. My next destination was Skopje, a city that is quite ‘strange’, according to the Bulgarian lady sitting beside me in the bus from Sofia. “You will see for yourself“, she said. My curiosity was piqued.
I could see where she came from. The capital city of the Republic of Macedonia feels like a work in progress. The government is sinking some Euros 500 million in what is known as the ‘Skopje 2014’ project to refurbish the city, a controversial step for a small country that is hardly the richest in resources. The result is a series of artfully designed buildings, monuments and statues juxtaposed against what felt like nothingness (the city is recovering from a severe earthquake in 1963), coated with a very fresh smell of cement. Whilst aesthetically pleasing for their Roman-esque designs; for a country which is most rich in its Ottoman history, these new icons of the city felt misplaced, or indeed, strange.
While the new part of Skopje seeks to impress, it is the old town where the soul of the city lies. For an European ‘old town’, the Carsija (old Turkish quarter) feels genuine and surprisingly free from tourist crowds. Its streets are lined with real shops selling things ranging from gold to wedding dresses, and for everything else, it is catered for by a bustling and seemingly endless bazaar. I went for a haircut in one such store and as I handed in the 200 Denars (£3) for his service, the barber shook my hands, genuinely happy to receive a foreign guest. It is but one example of the numerous Macedonian pleasantries I received in my 5 days stay in this marvellous country.
If the face lifting project of Skopje evokes feeling of being in a Disneyland, then Ohrid, the medieval capital of the country just 3 hours away, feels defiantly real. Ohrid is known as the crown of the Macedonian jewel, a summer location for families, but which is still largely unknown outside of this country.
Lake Ohrid is pristine, peaceful and absolutely beautiful.
The Republic of Macedonia is currently engaged in a naming dispute with Greece (the word ‘Macedonia’ has implications of a wider geographic boundary, part of it encompasses present day Greek and Bulgarian territories), and for this reason its provisional name is Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The Balkans region is so steeped with history and politics it is intriguing, and this serves as the main fuel for my travel.
“We just want to be able to name our own country“, said Borian the guy who runs the hostel, a remark I found myself unable to comment to, as an outsider. But for now; for a country which has showed me with so much love and delight, I think I am willing to call it just that: Macedonia.