Rome of Balkans: Skopje, home of Alexander the Great, Mother Teresa

While Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, shines with Parisian romance at night and enchants you, during the day it transforms into Rome with its sculptures and buildings that resemble an open-air museum. Of course, these sculptures and structures don’t have as deep-rooted a history as Rome. However, Skopje wants to leave behind a deep-rooted history, a city with the flavor of an open-air museum and a legacy for the future, especially with the statues and gigantic structures erected in the city square, around the Stone Bridge and in many different places . Skopje, trying to put down roots in these lands, is a place where you can spend a lot of time day and night, even if it may seem small.

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Skopje assumed the title of the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, which declared its independence in 1991 after spending centuries under the rule of the Roman, Byzantine, Serbian, Ottoman Empires and Yugoslavia.

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The city is the capital of the country, which was renamed “North Macedonia” on June 12, 2018, as well as its largest and most developed city.

Skopje, which makes me feel at home and at peace every time I come here, has a different spirit. It is neither exactly a European nor exactly an Ottoman city. As you follow in the footsteps of the Ottomans on one bank of the Vardar River, a bright, modern city welcomes you as you cross the stone bridge to the opposite side of the water.

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Skopje during the night.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

Skopje during the night. (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

stone bridge

The stone bridge that connects the two sides of the Vardar River is also known as the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Bridge – as it was built under his patronage – and as the Vardar Bridge. This Ottoman-era bridge actually divides the city into new and old. The bridge leading to the Old Bazaar at one end and Macedonia Square at the other end is one of the symbolic structures of Skopje.

It’s fun to watch the city fly above this iconic structure. I spent quite a long time on the bridge. I walked over the bridge, then came to the middle and put my arms on the stone walls of the bridge and watched the river Vardar flow for a long time. I dreamed of living in this city with a deep rooted history. As I watched the two opposite banks of the Vardar River, I couldn’t help but wonder if the stone bridge connects or separates these two banks. This bridge, smelling of melancholy, became a place I often visited during my stay in Skopje.

The Stone Bridge in Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

The Stone Bridge in Skopje, North Macedonia. (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

Old Bazaar

If you leave the east end of the stone bridge and continue along the road, you will reach the Old Bazaar or the Turkish Bazaar. In this part of the city, which we can call Old Town, you can follow in the footsteps of the Ottoman Empire. In narrow cobblestone streets one can come across inns, baths, mosques and tombs from the Ottoman era. The bazaar was later re-established by the Turks and has been the city’s main trading center since its foundation in the 12th century. After visiting the souvenir shops and historical sites in the bazaar, be sure to visit the covered market set up towards the end of the bazaar. You’re sure to find something to take home at the market selling local fresh produce from Skopje’s villages. I heard that very tasty beans from Tetova, another city in Macedonia, come to this market especially on certain dates. I couldn’t find it when I went, but if you do, you’ll definitely get it. In fact, this local bean is served in most restaurants in Skopje. Even if you don’t buy it at the market, you should definitely eat beans at a restaurant.

The Old Bazaar in Skopje, North Macedonia, May 8, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

The Old Bazaar in Skopje, North Macedonia, May 8, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

Macedonia Square

As you leave the western end of the stone bridge and walk onwards, Macedonia Square will greet you. Unlike on the other side of the bridge, you’ll find a more modern, big-city vibe here. The square, bright at night, is full of modern buildings and sculptures made after 2010.

The most striking of these statues is the statue of Alexander the Great in the center of the square. Across the river stands a statue of King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. This mutual attitude of the two statues is almost as if father and son are greeting each other.

Apart from the sculptures, the square has shopping, restaurants and nice cafes where you can have a drink.

The Archaeological Museum and the Freedom Bridge in Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

The Archaeological Museum and the Freedom Bridge in Skopje, North Macedonia. (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

Archaeological Museum

The statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

The statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, North Macedonia. (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

The Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, which is located very close to the Liberty Bridge, another bridge in the city, fascinates people with its white marble and sparkling appearance in the evening. In the museum, where you can see about 6,000 to 7,000 historical artifacts, there are objects from ancient, medieval and Ottoman times, archaeological remains, wax sculptures, paintings and old coins. One of the most important works of the museum is the copy of the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. On both sides of the Liberty Bridge near the museum there are statues of important figures of that time.

I think I have to emphasize again, as I have emphasized throughout my article, that the night in Skopje is bright. Especially the area where the museum is located and the bridge offers incredible views at night with lights and sculptures.

Mother Teresa House

Born in Skopje in 1910, Mother Teresa was of Albanian descent and will be remembered throughout her life for her kindness and helpfulness. In Mother Teresa’s memorial house, built in her memory, there are many photos and objects related to her childhood and life that began in Skopje. The lower floor of the house is a museum and the upper floor is used as a church.

The Mother Teresa House is one of the places you can see on the street if you go to the front from the square.

The memorial house of Mother Teresa in Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

The memorial house of Mother Teresa in Skopje, North Macedonia. (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

old trainstation

Part of the Skopje train station, built between 1938 and 1940, was destroyed by a major earthquake in 1963. During this earthquake that caused great destruction in Skopje, the clock on the wall of the train station, which was not destroyed, stopped at 5:17 am, the time of the earthquake. The wall and the clock on it are still preserved today as a symbol of this day. At the same time, the station currently serves as the City Museum of Skopje.

Inns, baths and mosques

The number of inns, baths, mosques and historical buildings that bear the traces of the Ottoman Empire in Skopje is quite high. Among the mosques, the Sultan Murad II Mosque, Yahya Pasha Mosque, Ishak Bey Mosque and Mustafa Pasha Mosque are the most prominent.

The inns from the Ottoman period are also worth seeing. Again, the most famous of the inns on the Turkish Bazaar side are Kapan Han, Kurşun Han and Sulu Han. Another Ottoman artefact in Skopje is the baths. Double Bath is one of them. The restored double bathroom is now used as a modern art gallery. Apart from these, the New Bath, Sultan Murad IV Bath, Davutpaşa and the Jewish Baths are some of the baths in use today.

The old train station clock that stopped working during an earthquake in 1963 in Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

The old train station clock that stopped working during an earthquake in 1963 in Skopje, North Macedonia. (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

These artefacts bearing the marks of the Ottoman Empire are must-sees and can be encountered when visiting the east side of the Stone Bridge and the Turkish Bazaar.

Skopje Castle

As in every city, I know a beautiful place in Skopje where you can watch the sunset. Skopje Castle is a place where you can both spend the day enjoying a wonderful view and get a bird’s-eye view of the square. The castle, which was used during the Ottoman period, is one of the sites damaged in the 1963 earthquake. I recommend you to go to Skopje Castle and see the city from here.

Porta Macedonia

If you have seen the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, you will immediately think of it when you see this arch. This memorial arch in Pella Square symbolizes Macedonia’s independence and was inaugurated in 2012.

Mountain Vodno and Millennium Cross

From every point of the city you can see the huge cross on Vodno Mountain. However, those who want to take a closer look can take the cable car to this highest point in the city. The huge cross made in the name of the 2,000th Year of Christianity, is at a height of exactly 66 meters. Where the cross is, there are cafes and restaurants. If you want, you can take a short break here and look at the city.

The Matka Gorge, Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

Skopje Castle, in Skopje, North Macedonia.  (Photo by Özge Şengelen)

Matka Gorge

This natural paradise, half an hour away from Skopje, deserves to be discussed in more detail in a separate article. This gorge is a lush natural wonder and a must-see for anyone traveling to Skopje. In this canyon, which extends over a very large area, there is also the Vrelo Cave, one of the deepest underground water caves in the world. The Matka Canyon, where the Vardar and Tresla rivers meet, is definitely worth seeing with its very different atmosphere.

I don’t know what kind of place you think of when Skopje is mentioned, but I think you may have added it to your list of places to visit after this article. Skopje, perhaps one of the most must-see cities in the Balkans, will offer you a completely different travel experience with its night, day, nature and history. You will witness different cultures with Albanians and Turks living on one side of the river and Macedonians living on the other side. Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning of my article, I think that you will fall in love with the night of this city.

Every time I come to this city that feels like home I have stayed in a ship hotel on the Vardar river. The sounds of the rushing waters of the Vardar River at night accompanied my sleep in Skopje.

The glass of brewed tea I drank in the Turkish Bazaar with a side of pastries in the morning made me feel at home again, while one of Skopje’s most famous desserts, Tres Leches, which I had around noon, made it one of what stuck in my mouth after returning home was the taste of this trip.

Before leaving Skopje, I sat on the top deck of the ship and watched the fast-flowing Vardar river for a long time. I looked at the Stone Bridge referred to as the Neck of Skopje. I said I rejoice in every beautiful moment I added to my memories by traveling in the face of people running somewhere fast, the water flowing and time.

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