Friday, June 29, 2007

FRYOM Part One: Skopje

“Why did you come here?” It’s the question we were asked all day long by just about everyone we met in Skopje, the capital of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)

We traveled to Skopje by bus from Sophia since it was on the way to Dubrovnik. Moreover, our guide book described it as an up-and-coming city with a lively café and restaurant scene, an interesting old town, and a new town designed by the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, following a disastrous 1963 earthquake.

Once again, we arrived at the station without any local currency, assuming there would be an ATM and it would be easy to exchange some money. I was wrong. There was no one to exchange my few remaining Bulgarian levas for Macedonian denars. I eventually found a money changer who would accept Bulgarian money, but he admitted his exchange rate was so unfavourable he wouldn’t give me a receipt. But I could have my money back. There was a bank machine. However, it only dispensed large bills. Life on the road would be so much easier if ATM machines dispensed smaller denominations. It’s hard to pay for the toilet or negotiate a cab fare with a 1000 denars note! (even though it’s only $23.

Unfortunately, none of our favourite hotel web sites had any suitable listings for Skopje. The other sites required a longer lead time to book. Not knowing anything about the city hotels, we picked The Bristol since it had an interesting listing in our guide book and the price seemed reasonable for the location. Most importantly, my dad was born in Bristol!

When we arrived and saw the available rooms, we wished he had been born in Sheraton!

We had a late lunch and spent the afternoon walking around the old and new towns. Unfortunately, the temperature was in the low forties, and it felt a lot like being back in India. While I found the old town interesting, and charming in places, other parts were very run down and dirty. Shopkeepers were watering down the pavement in front of their businesses in an effort to keep the dust down.

We climbed up to an old fortress from where there were some impressive views of the city. But the heat made it difficult to enjoy the experience.

Mr. Tange would not be pleased with how his ‘new city’ looks today. Many buildings have been poorly maintained and much of the infrastructure is in disrepair. However, his attractive pedestrian street was very lively and there is a new riverfront walkway lined with restaurants. But many of the men hanging around the streets, with their short brush cuts, angular features, and dirty t-shirts and blue jeans, seemed like pretty tough characters. Even the women looked a bit menacing. Well, not all of them. Some looked absolutely fantastic in their revealing tops and tight pants!

As we wandered around the old town, there was a surprising number of jewelry shops; reminiscent of Turkey. There was also a bazaar area with an excellent choice of nail clippers, sun glass cases, batteries and electrical cords.

Since we didn’t have lunch until 4, we went out for dinner around 10:30. We were astounded to find the street outside our hotel teeming with people. It seemed like Robson Street on a Friday night. Gone were the menacing men and women, replaced by very trendy and sexy singles, amorous young couples, and families with young children. They were milling around the wall-to-wall cafes and restaurants. Suddenly we understood why our guide book described Skopje as the buzzing capital city of Macedonia. While the city seemed somewhat sad in the daytime, it was a happy, lively, and attractive place at night.

Around midnight, it was just as busy. I asked the couple at the next table why so many people were still eating and drinking. “Don’t people have to go to work in the morning?” I asked. The young man responded in excellent English that it was too hot to go home. Moreover, he said, Macedonian people like to be out with other people. “It’s our culture”

Everyone we met was curious to know why we were in Skopje. “Do you have a friend here?” asked the lady managing the internet cafe. It seemed like they weren’t used to North American tourists. At the same time, they were playing American music almost everywhere we went. Especially songs from the 80’s and 90’s; although we did have to listen to ‘Only You’ by the Platters at breakfast!

When we told people we were on an around-the-world trip, they all said we had to see Ohrid in southern Macedonia. So we decided to take their advice, even though it meant heading southwest instead of northwest. But it gave us new choices. We could continue on to the Albanian coast that looked wonderful in travel agency posters, or return to Skopje and catch a bus to Dubrovnik as planned the next day. But first things first: we were off to Ohrid.


anusska said...

For God's sake why do you people keep calling us FYROM when it's MACEDONIA, just MACEDONIA. Would you like to be named Former Indian Republic of Kanada?!? Get real!

Martin said...

Poor you!!! "Around midnight, it was just as busy. I asked the couple at the next table why so many people were still eating and drinking. “Don’t people have to go to work in the morning?” I asked" You know why you asked this? Becаuse you don't have friends, becаuse you are alone, in your country everything is formal. And we are friendly people. You have to be MACEDONIAN to understand this magic, but thank God you are not! And yes my friend anusska i wright we are not FYROM, we are one and only REPUBLIC OF MAKEDONIJA!!! And please don't come another time here ! You have your beautiful Bristol!!!

Anonymous said...

As Martin said - Please dont come back again!!! you wasnt here to see the beauty of MAcedonia ...Sorry if we disappointed you with our kindness and you werent robed or attacked buy gangster! We actually like the visitors and we try to pay some attention to them, which means if someone asked you why you are here it means he/she was only trying to be nice to you!
PS our country's name is Macedonia.

Anonymous said...

Sorry guys I know you love your country and are proud of it, but I have just visited Macedonia and I think the blogger is right. Macedonia seems to have a lot of worn down houses and things look pretty old and need to be renovated in order to attract tourists. But Ohrid lake is very beautiful.

Mark said...

Wow.. I was planning on visiting Skopje in the near future, I have been to the rest of the former Yugoslavia and loved it. However, after seeing how vicious this author has been attacked by narrow minded trash, I will just go back and spend time in Slovenia's alps again. I love lake Bled and I was hoping to see Ohrid as well. It is your narrow mindedness that keeps your country in the condition that it is in.

Eli buelena said...

It was interesting to see my country through your eyes.
But please call Macedonia by its name, because when people don't, it's a big insult to us, almost like saying we are donkeys and not men - when people don't acknowledge our identity.
I didn't read everything you said thoroughly, but some of the things you said are true. Like the poorly maintained buildings and garbage on the streets. I think this is mostly due to the country's poverty and corruption of officials that need to be taking care of the town. Also, unfortunately people still have not developed a good sense that this is theirs and they need to maintain and cherish it, and this is as a result of so many things being owned by the state during Socialist time.
However, I am very proud of the current government because they have passed some very good - though unpopular laws, and don't favor some people and not sue them only because those people have "connections" - influential friends.
An example of such a law is the one about clean environment according to which there are big fines for those who break it. I can tell out city is much cleaner now! :-)
I apologize for my fellow countrymen and women, and what they said was wrong - but please understand that we feel a lot of frustration because many of the reasons why Macedonia isn't advancing and developing as fast as it could are obstacles deriving from Greece' problem with our constitutional name.
As a result, many of our young people have not had the chance to experience and understand other cultures, and have wrong impressions about them.

Still, I am afraid that it is almost impossible to try to understand Macedonian culture because of its complex and multi-layered nature and history. Some aspects I appreciate about it are how relational it is and the colorful threads of Ancient Macedonian, Slavic and Turkish cultural distinctions weaved into it.
If coming to visit Macedonia for a bit longer (a week up to a month), except for the usual tourist destinations here - there is some neat village and monastery tourism, beautiful mountain sides, lakes and waterfalls to be seen and delicious flavorful fruit, vegetables and other food to be sampled.

Because of the summer heat I do recommend springtime or very early summer as the ideal time for a visit.

And keep your ears up for good surprises from Macedonia, as I believe and trust will come to pass.

I believe in Macedonia!

Anonymous said...

outstanding article, and very nice photos. i live in Skopje, when i was little and i enjoyed this photos. Thanx for that and nice story about Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Greetings from Belgrade

Anonymous said...
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michael geller said...

So I just re-read my post, to try and understand why it generated such a negative response. I am confused, I must say. But thanks for taking the time to write.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

> Bad response

Because, if you noticed, noone offended other countries in your blog posts about neighboring countries, while many did so here (and I recognized comments from several countries). I hope that tells something more about them, then about us Macedonians.

All the best

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