Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Undiscovered Skopje

The capital of Macedonia is one of the undiscovered gems of the Balkans. It is Macedonia's political and cultural centre and is one that have been overlooked not only as a Balkan destination but a European one at that. It lies between Belgrade and Athens, looking over Vardar River. Once occupied by neolithic people, Romans, Ottoman Turks who were finally ousted at the onset of the Balkan War in the early 1990s. This city, as you can imagine, has a lot to offer in the realm of historical monuments, a collection of lingering influences from the many people that once inhabited the city.

The city had to rebuild itself after a devastating earthquake in the 1960s, tearing down most of the city's infrastructure that was built up after the Second World War and damaging many of the city's ancient ruins. The city rebuilt and today has a trendy and modern feel to it.

What to see:

Stone Bridge: This bridge dates from the time of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, around 1450s. It has become an emblem of the city.

Old Town: The city bazaar is found between the Kale Fortress and Vardar River. It was historically, as it is today, the the economic centre of the city. The city's best Ottoman architecture can be found here as well, head to the part known as Charshi (which means market place).

Kale Fortress: On the hill is a large fortress that was built by the Turks. The castle walls still stand today and was originally built in the 6th century. From here you can see the entire city.

St. Pantelejmon: A humble monastery, St. Pantelejmon was built in the 12th centuryand houses some of the more impressive examples of Byzantine artwork, not only in Macedonia but in Europe. There is a restaurant on-site that gives visitors a chance to taste authentic Macedonian cuisine, cooked up by the resident monks.

If you want to just hang out in Skopje, there are dozens of caf├ęs and bars that line the Vardar River, always busy on summer evenings. Many have outdoor patios too. A popular place to watch the locals is called New Age, its a garden shed that was turned into a coffee house and is located beside the Catholic Church. There's a treasure trove of old wooden chairs, wobbly tables, very used chess boards and soft cushions and herbal tea.