The capital city of the North Macedonia
(formerly "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia") in the southern Balkans has at least two sights put in on the dark tourism map – but it is also a place worth visiting for other reasons and deserves better recognition as a tourism destination.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see:
Skopje doesn't have the best of reputations as a city – one of grey blandness, mainly. The taxi driver in Sofia
, who took me to the bus station from where I travelled to Skopje, even said "why go there? – there's nothing to see." That's unfair, though. OK, it can hardly compete with Bulgaria
's capital as a metropolis, but it does have its undeniable charms.
The grey modernist (in particular 'brutalist') architecture may indeed be a delight only for a niche audience; but the wild redevelopments and construction work that is currently going on all over the city does not promise an awful lot either – on the contrary: it's almost a lesson in "how not to redevelop a city centre" (maybe the city planners went on an apprenticeship in Yerevan
?). The pseudo-neo-classical monstrosity that was nearing completion when I was in Skopje in April 2011 is a particularly vile example. So is the gigantic video screen on the main Macedonia (Makedonja) Square which showers the population with garish advertising around the clock. Even worse: some prime examples of brutalism are being covered up by fake pseudo-classical plaster facades. It's an architectural travesty.
But there are counterexamples. In particular the maze of little alleyways of the old Turkish quarter across the river is a marvellous delight. Several mosques' minarets poke out of the labyrinthine quarter, adding to its distinctly oriental flair. At its northern there is a market area that has aptly been described as the last genuine bazaar in Europe. It does indeed feel a lot more real than even the bazaars in Istanbul, Turkey
, which are more tourist attractions than markets. (Skopje's bazaar, on the other hand, reminded me more of the bazaar in Ashgabat
For the dark tourist, there are two main points of interest:
In addition, some of the weird and brutalist modern concrete architecture that still survives may be to some dark tourists' taste too – also given the fact that much of the city's modern appearance came about as a result of rapid rebuilding efforts after the 1963 earthquake that had levelled large parts of the older city.
The star piece in the weirdly shaped grey concrete category has to be the grand Central Post Office, near the bridge that takes Bulevar Goce Delcev across the Vardar river. The inside of this bizarre circular edifice is worth a look too, especially for its modernist socialist wall murals. The entrance to the Post Office is at the back of the building, on the opposite side of that facing Bulevar VMRO.
Nearby are also a few more stunningly bold concrete buildings. Some of the post-earthquake rebuilding of Skopje was organized by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange who had gained similar experience in the rebuilding of Hiroshima
and the design of its Peace Park
! The new train station, in a different location to the east of the centre, is one example of his work in Skopje.
Most of Skopje's ordinary post-earthquake apartment blocks, however, are decidedly drab – which is probably the main reason why the city's reputation is so poor too.
But then there are all those sculptures and statues – Skopje is positively teeming with such installations. Some are old and more or less historic, some are very new and expressions of modern art rather than commemoration of any historical figures. Note, for instance, just below the Stone Bridge at its south-eastern end the sculpture of a woman ready to dive into the river … and then note the pair of feet disappearing into the pebbles of the shallow river just in front of her. Could this imply a warning that swimming in this river is dangerous?
The monument involving a cluster of statues on its top that stands nearby on the southern bank of the river by Macedonia Square also has a ring of bronze reliefs around its base that is noteworthy in that it evidently represents episodes of the city's history, including parts that graphically allude to the 1963 earthquake.
To the north-west of the inner city centre, in front of the government buildings, stands a grand monument dedicated to the liberators of the city, which is executed in the true old-fashioned tradition of socialist realism sculptures.
The most in-your-face sight of Skopje is the fortress, towering over the northern banks of the river west of the Turkish Old Town. Like much of the city, this fortress was severely damaged by the 1963 earthquake. Apparently much of it still lay in ruins only a few years back (going by a 2006 city guide brochure). But now it all looks like new – refurbished to its former (outward) glory – but no longer of particular interest to the dark tourist.
Of Skopje's many eateries and bars, one in 2011 stood out for this website's clientele: Kaj Marshalots on Bulevar St Kliment Ohridski near the New Cathedral. This was a splendidly tongue-in-cheek post-socialist nostalgia feast – for the eyes at least. Not only did it offer a wide range of cheap and cheerful, and very decent, typical Balkan food and drink, it doubled also a shrine to good old Tito. There were even Tito photo albums and dozens of books you could borrow from the central shelf whilst waiting for your food to be prepared. In addition to Tito, there were also posters of several of the other usual suspects, including Lenin
and Che Guevara
, alongside the somewhat more surprising appearances of Churchill or John Lennon (the Beatle, not the author of Dark Tourism
). The waiters even wore pioneer outfits complete with the typical red scarves … even though some of them were solidly and visibly past pioneer age, making the outfits on big bellies look even more comical – but they were cheerful and competent all the same (including a good knowledge of English). UPDATE: the restaurant at the original location has meanwhile closed down and a new incarnation opened further west in the city at ul.Prashka br.1.
in the north of Macedonia
, about a 110 miles (175 km) from Sofia
to the north-east, 100 miles (160 km) from Tirana
to the south-west, and 124 miles (200 km) from Thessaloniki in Greece
to the south.
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to, not quite as cheap as elsewhere in the Balkans.
being the capital city of this relatively new country, Skopje had to feature an international airport, of course, and so it does. There are numerous connections to other places in the Balkans, and also some Western destinations such as Vienna
or Zurich, though fares are often not exactly a bargain.
For medium or shorter distance travel, buses are most the convenient (and cheaper), e.g. to/from Sofia
, and also to places further afield, such as Istanbul or Belgrade
. The train station above the bus station is less convenient for regional travel (generally too slow to compete with buses), though there are long-distance connections that may be useful, such as to/from Thessaloniki in Greece
, or Belgrade in Serbia
Skopje is not big, and the centre in particular is perfectly walkable, so you won't have to bother with public transport as long as you stay in or near the city centre. For easy short rides, taxis are readily available – but beware that those from the train/bus station and airport often screw newly arrived foreigners. Either phone one of the more reliable taxi companies or at least make sure the driver uses the meter.
Accommodation options in Skopje are plentiful, though in many cases not quite as affordable as you might expect, compared to many other cities in the Balkans. Still a few good mid-range hotels are perfectly alright value for money. The same applies even more so to eating out, where a good meal can be had for relatively little money (e.g. at Kaj Marshalots – see above).
Time required: the dark bits listed here can be done in less than a day, but it's a nice enough place to linger a little longer. A full day or two can easily be filled, though after that you might indeed begin to get a bit bored.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
none that I am aware of within the region. But combining a visit to Skopje with onward travel to some of the neighbouring countries makes much sense: from Skopje you can easily get to Pristina
or to Sofia
, to the west, is also close (though somewhat more tricky to reach), as is Greece
to the south (just don't mention the name of the country you've just come from over there – and don't get confused when you cross the border and see "welcome to Macedonia" signs: they mean the Greek province of the same name). To the north, Serbia
is also within fairly easy reach.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see Macedonia
– Skopje itself is, as I've already said, not particularly touristy in a mainstream way, but it does have its attractions. Most tourists head to the Stone Bridge and the fortress. But the lower parts of the Turkish Old Town are evidently geared up for tourism too, with plenty of cafes and shops to nose around in.
Mother Teresa, the Skopje born "saint" of Albanian descent and the city's by far most famous daughter, is represented by a very realistic statue (note the twisted toes!) and behind it a Mother-Teresa-museum-cum-shrine (officially "Memorial House of Mother Teresa") on a square off Macedonia Street, which is another one of the city's most popular sights with tourists. You can't miss the quirky museum building.
- Skopje 01 - old Stone Bridge vs faux neo-classical brutalism
- Skopje 02 - an excercise in how not to redevelop a city square
- Skopje 03 - relentless advert overload
- Skopje 04 - drab housing block
- Skopje 05 - flags vs grey concrete
- Skopje 06 - modernist architecture
- Skopje 07 - modernism in concrete
- Skopje 08 - modernism in reflection
- Skopje 09 - post office
- Skopje 10 - interior of post office
- Skopje 11 - interestingly warped ruin by the river
- Skopje 12 - Stone Bridge and diver sculpture
- Skopje 13 - no diving for real here
- Skopje 14 - brutal new construction and monument
- Skopje 15 - earthquake detail
- Skopje 16 - classic soc real monument
- Skopje 17 - big mama with big gun
- Skopje 18 - Marshal Tito-themed restaurant
- Skopje 19 - some of the usual suspects
- Skopje 20 - old town Turkish quarter
- Skopje 21- various towers over old town
- Skopje 22 - minarets old and new
- Skopje 23 - Turkish old town
- Skopje 24 - in the bazaar
- Skopje 25 - very gory offerings in the bazaar
- Skopje 26 - fortress by night
- Skopje 27 - quirky hotel
- Skopje 28 - Mother Teresa statue and museum
- Skopje 29 - old cultural centre