There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Skopje: Part 8 of The Balkans

After our late arrival the night before we did not get off to the swiftest start in the morning, but by nine thirty, after our hire car had been delivered, we felt ready to leave our new car parked for the day and head off to explore Skopje on foot. The weather was warm enough, the cloud cover offered a few sunny intervals but also the possibility of rain (which thankfully never quite materialised).

Skopje is an old city, but not one renowned for its beauty. Since Roman times it has been captured, sacked, razed and rebuilt many times. Most recently, the 1963 earthquake destroyed 80% of the city, killing over 1,000 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. The subsequent drive to rebuild Skopje as a model socialist city added little to its charms.

The Balkans
From our balcony, though, Bulevar Partizanski Odredi looked a pleasant enough city street and we set out with open minds.
Bulevar Partizanski Odredi, Skopje

Macedonia Square was only a couple of hundred metres from our hotel, but first we stopped at the Cathedral of St Kliment of Ohrid, because it was just about next-door.

St Kliment of Ohrid on the road by his cathedral, Skopje
The Virgin Mary Cathedral was burnt down by fascists at the end of WW2, and St Demetri's (see later) was too small so Skopje needed a new cathedral. Built in the early 1970s, St Kliment’s is an impressive structure, traditional in form but modern in execution, both outside and in.
 
Cathedral of St Kliment of Ohrid, Skopje

Orthodox churches have no pews, but they do always have an older person wandering round lighting candles and kissing icons.

Iconostasis (and an icon kisser) St Kliment of Ohrid, Skopje
There are frescoes high on the walls and inside the dome, and icons on the iconostasis and around the walls at eye level. I knew that hand-positions in Buddha images have coded meanings, but had not realised the same applies in Eastern Christianity. On the enormous fresco filling the dome (Christ’s eye is, apparently, 1.5m across) the position of the right hand indicates that this is Christ Pantocrator, Christ Lord of All. The paintings round the walls, all crisply executed, mimic the fifteenth century style - they might be faux-naïve but I liked them.

 
Christ Pantocrator, St Kliment of Ohrid Cathedral, Skopje
Near the square we passed ‘The Musicians’. Macedonians can sometimes seem a bit chippy, particularly in their relations with Greece, and the Skopje 2014 project is filling the city with outsize statutes, mostly of warriors and/or nationalists. ‘The Musicians’ is a refreshing antidote, and if this is the real self-image of the city’s people, they cannot be all bad.

The Musicians, near Macedonia Square, Skopje
Macedonia Square is dominated by the statue ‘Warrior on a Horse’ erected in 2011 to celebrate thirty years of Macedonian independence. The warrior is obviously Alexander the Great, but to keep the Greeks happy (see Flying into FYRoM for the background) the statue does not officially bear his name. Most of the square is currently surrounded by barriers and work is being done inside, so we did not see Not-Alexander at his best.

Warrior on a Horse, Macedonia Square, Skopje
Behind, on top of Mt Vodno, is the 66m high Millennium Cross, the world's biggest cross (reputedly)
At the end of square is the River Vardar which rises in the northern mountains and 388km later flows into the Aegean Sea. In Skopje it is fast flowing and shallow, intermediate between a mountain stream and a mature river.

It is crossed by a stone footbridge, built in the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian who was born locally and wanted to do something for his native turf. He now sits on a huge stone chair to the left of the bridge. The symbol of the city, the Stone Bridge has been rebuilt and embellished many times, most notably by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century. He added the little guard tower at the far end which fell down during the Skope 2014 restoration but has been replaced.

The Stone Bridge and the Boatmen of Thessaloniki, Skopje
The group of six to the right of the bridge is the Boatmen of Thessaloniki, a Bulgarian/Macedonian anarchist group. Between 1900 and 1903 they carried out a series of bomb attacks to draw attention to the suffering of Bulgarians, Macedonians and Thracians under the Ottoman yoke; proof (if proof were needed) that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

I prefer the bathers at the base of one of the piers. Like the musicians, it is an outbreak of humanity among the bombastic statues that crowd out almost everything else.
 
The Bathers, Stone Bridge, Skopje

As big and bombastic as any is the The Warrior (not on a Horse). He is not officially Philip of Macedon either, but everybody knows he is.
Warrior (not Philip II of Macedonia)
Just past Not-Philip we dropped into the little church of Sveti Dimitrija (Saint Demetri). Built in 1886, it is unostentatious and looks smaller than it is, which pleased the Ottoman rulers.
 
Sveti Dimitrija, Skopje
The interior is dark and calm with an aroma of incense and candles. There is a fine iconostasis….

Iconostasis, Sveti Dimitrija, Skopje
…. but the most interesting feature is the pulpit which is extra-ordinarily high and accessed by a steep spiral staircase twisted round a pillar.
 
Pulpit, Sveti Dimitrija, Skopje

Opposite are the domes of the Daud Paša Hammam, now the City Art Gallery, and a reminder that we were entering the Caršija, the old Ottoman quarter.



Daud Paša Hammam, Skopje
Climbing the hill, the narrow pedestrianised lanes are lined with cafés, many with wooden platforms built out into the road. We stopped for our morning espresso which cost 30 Denars (40p) each.


Cafés in the Caršija, Skopje
Detouring a little to the left off the main drag toward the castle, the Kale Fortress, of which only a forbidding curtain wall survives, we reached Sveti Spas (St Saviour’s) Church. The original was destroyed in a fire in 1689. The Ottoman rulers forbade the building of new churches, and it was not until the start of the 19th century that permission was granted to rebuild Sveti Spas. Height restrictions were imposed so that the pencil-thin minarets of the Ottoman mosques would dominate the sky line. They still do - until the 19th century Skopje was overwhelmingly a Muslim city and still has more mosques than churches.

In keeping with Ottoman regulations the outside is unadorned, and to keep down the height the church is dug a metre or so into the ground. In the courtyard are some interesting old gravestones and, standing alone and much larger, the tomb of the Macedonian nationalist Goce Delchev (see previous post).

The externally very plain Svet Spas, Skopje
We bought our tickets and were escorted inside by the amiable guardian. By the door the ground level of the earlier church is obvious, and there are fragments of the original frescoes. The 19th century church is dominated by its icon screen. Deep carved from single wooden blocks, the massive 10m by 6m screen represents seven years work by Makarie Frckovski and the brothers Petre and Marko Filipovski, the pre-eminent wood carvers of their day. With so much detail and intricate deep carving, they must have been busy years. Biblical scenes predominate; particularly pleasing is the depiction of the death of John the Baptist. Salome is shown dancing in traditional Macedonian costume, while Herod wears Turkish costume – in 19th century Macedonian eyes, to be a baddie was to be a Turk. I have no photos of this magnificent piece of work, the guardian stayed too close to defy the ‘no photography’ sign. I have borrowed the photograph below from Alexei Trofimov's excellent Deeper History Blog. If you have time go and pay him a visit, he is a much better photographer than me.
The iconostasis, Sveti Spas, Skopje

Further along, the shops are grouped by type as in eastern bazaars. We passed through an area of wedding dress shops, and then one of gold sellers and jewellers.

The gold and jewellery area, Caršija, Skopje
Many men wore Muslim skull caps, and the women head scarves. Muslim Albanians make up a fifth of Skopje's population, and this was where they lived.
 

Caršija, Skopje
The Caršija ends at the Bit Pazar, largely a fruit and vegetable market which has developed a fringe selling household supplies and bric-a-brac.
 
Bit Pazar, Skopje

Heading back towards the river we followed signs to the Museum of Macedonia but could not find it and ended up at the rather splendid Mustafa Pasha mosque.

Mustafa Pasha mosque, Skopje
We had lunch in one of the many restaurants in the area; minced beef kebabs with stewed beans and a Shopska salad (tomatoes and cucumber covered with a snowstorm of finely-grated cheese). Half a litre of draught Skopsko beer was also very welcome.

There were a couple of spits of rain while we ate, but we were dry beneath the restaurant’s awning. Watching people passing we noticed several groups of young women where some wore headscarves and others did not. Mixed Macedonian/Albanian friendship groups are rare, so presumably they were all Albanian. Whether the wearing of more obvious Muslim dress is on the increase (as we have observed in Cairo) or decrease we could not tell.

Skopje also has some 25,000 Roma citizens, possibly the largest Roma population anywhere. Darker skinned and thinner faced than the Albanians, their clothes are of a more old-fashioned Muslim style and distinctly shabbier. Here, as always, they are at the bottom of the social heap and a couple of Roma women were begging around the restaurants. I have always believed that the best way out of poverty – both cultural and financial – is education, so it was worrying to watch Roma children of 9 or 10 hawking paper handkerchiefs in the streets when they should have been in school,

Refreshed, we decided to have another go at finding the Museum of Macedonia. After studying the map we approached it from a different direction, came across some different signs but again found only the Mustafa Pasha mosque. Approaching a man looking after a scruffy carpark with the question 'museum?' elicited a finger pointing through his yard to the back of a building we had passed earlier. Hearing childish voices we had assumed the unmarked 1960s kit building was a school, but apparently we had been listening to a school party visiting the museum.

 
The Museum of Macedonia, Skopje
I have just noticed that a corner of this building can be seen in my photo of the Mustafa Pasha mosque!
Even knowing the right building we could not at first find the appropriate door but eventually found a friendly ticket seller who directed us first to the frescoes and icons. They have a magnificent collection, but some explanation in a language other than Macedonian would be helpful to foreign visitors.

The history sectioned covered the two world wars and the period in between. There are more English captions here, and a feeling that they were written not just in the time of Marshall Tito, but before Yugoslavia broke with the USSR. I discussed the anti-Greek rhetoric in the previous post.

We finished with the ethnographic section - which necessitated locating another door. The collection of costumes and mock-ups of old buildings were interesting but best were the photographs of people in their homes wearing the costumes. Looking at a photo of a child my initial reaction was that it was from the late 19th century, I was taken aback when I clocked the date and realised that the child was younger than I am – he is probably still out there somewhere, though not dressed like that. National costume, it seems, was everyday dress in rural parts of this country well into the 1960s.
 
Ruined mosque (I think) in an overgrown and forgotten corner by the museum, Skopje

According to the Lonely Planet the archaeology department is housed in Kuršumli An, a 16th century caravanserai and reputedly the largest and finest remaining in Skopje. Taking a short cut back to the road we found it by accident, behind a ruined mosque in an overgrown corner beyond the carpark.
Kuršumli An
 There was, again, no sign, but the door was open so we walked, or rather stooped, in.

Open door, Kuršumli An, Skopje

It was indeed a magnificent two storey caravanserai, the ground floor for animals and goods, the upstairs for people. Except for a middle-aged woman apparently employed to sit at a desk in the courtyard and read a newspaper, we were alone. Our exploration revealed a remarkable building and a small and apparently forgotten cache of ancient gravestones but no other archaeology.

Kuršumli An and the newspaper reader, Skopje

Skopje’s Museum of the Macedonian Struggle and Archaeological Museum are housed in impressive new buildings. We only went to the Museum of Macedonia because we passed a sign for it in the street. Very much the poor relation, it has some fine exhibits, but the building was appalling; unsigned – no wonder we had it to ourselves – and rotting with stains on walls and carpets where the cheap flat roofs had leaked.

Lynne at Kuršumli An, Skopje
From the Caravanserai we walked back down through the Caršija, missing our way in the narrow alleys and reaching the river some way downstream of the Stone Bridge. We walked along the river past two modern footbridges, both lined with statues, as was the walkway itself. The Art Bridge bears the statues of 35 people who contributed to the arts in Macedonia, the other unnamed bridge the likenesses of 35 warriors.
 
Lynne on the Art Bridge, Skopje

Back over the Stone Bridge we walked to the Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch built in 2010/11 and designed by Valentina Stefanovska, who was also responsible for Not-Alexander the Great. The Museum of Macedonia seems starved of funds and I wonder if this was best way to spend €4 million.

Porta Macedonia, Skopje
Nearby on the pedestrian Macedonia Street is the Memorial House of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Opened in 2009, it is on the site of the Sacred Heart Church where Mother Teresa was baptised. She was born in Skopje in 1910 and lived in the city until she joined the Sisters of Loreto in 1928. A Catholic ethnic Albanian (most Albanians are Muslims) of Kosovan origin she was born a subject of the Ottoman Empire but by the age of  8 she had been Ottoman, Serbian, Bulgarian and then Yugoslav – such was the state of flux in the Balkans. The Albanians claim her as one of theirs as do the Macedonians, but she chose Indian citizenship in 1948 and she belonged to India and to the world.

Mother Teresa Memorial House, Skopje
Later we walked back to the restaurants around Macedonia square. Plenty of tables were occupied by drinkers, but few people were eating. After wandering around for a while we chose the inappropriately named London Bistro. ‘Traditional’ Macedonian pork and mushroom stew with sour cream was very good – we seem unable to buy mushrooms which taste of mushroom at home - though not very large (nor was it very expensive which might be connected). Lynne had a pizza, but it was a ‘Macedonian pizza’, with sour cream and pickled chillies. A bottle of Vranec, a grape who’s dark, smoky, plumminess I especially like, was an excellent accompaniment.
Macedonian pork and mushroom stew and a bottle of Vranec, Skopje
The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)

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