Skopje and Matka Canyon
SKOPJE, MACEDONIA: Situated by River Vardar, Skopje is the capital, the largest, and the most diverse city of Macedonia. It gave birth to some of the greatest people of the history, like Mother Teresa and Alexander “The Great”. Historically, the earliest traces of life in Skopje Valley are from the early Stone Age around 5000 to 3000 BC. From then on, Macedonia came under many rulers, empires, and kingdoms since its foundation, from the Byzantines, Romans, Ottomans, Serbians, then became a republic of Yugoslav Federation. However the Ottomans left the most and greatest marks on Skopje than any other rulers. Ottomans ruled Macedonia for many decades until the 20th century and built a large numbers of mosques, Turkish baths, and other architectures. Even now, Ottoman’s legacy is extremely visible in all over Skopje. Overall, there are 40 mosques in Skopje and more than 100 mosques in Macedonia. This is a city where you can see a harmonic and peaceful combination of Christianity and Islamic culture side by side.
Unfortunately, a major earthquake in 1963 destroyed about 75% of the city in just few seconds. Many of Skopje’s historic and important buildings were leveled to ground that day. But the city did great job pulling itself back to its original look with more modern and futuristic style.
River Vardar runs thru the city and can be seen from the city center. The capital is surrounded by mountains in all directions and you can see them in the far distance. Skopje is a clean and tourist friendly city. It’s very well-marked and organized with information boards and signs near all the sites…small or big. Walking is the best way to get around but taxi is much cheaper than other parts of Europe if you need them for further distance.
TIME of TRAVEL: Skopje was one of the destinations we covered during our Easter Break Trip of 2014. After visiting Podgorica in Montenegro and Tirana in Albania, we drove more than 4 and ½ hours to reach Skopje. I know it may sound like a long one, but when you are driving thru hills, snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, small villages, and pretty valleys the few hours in the car is nothing. We entered in Kosovo for a short time too before entering Macedonia. Just an FYI, if you have a rental car and don’t have insurance to drive in Kosovo (most rental companies’ insurance doesn’t cover damages occurred in Kosovo), drivers have to buy car insurance for 15 euros at the border. From Skopje, our next stop was Pristina, Kosovo.
OUR HOTEL: The hotel we stayed in Skopje, Hotel Victoria, was a family run place with luxurious rooms and excellent customer service. The owner himself gave us some ins and outs of the city and recommended us a nearby traditional Macedonian restaurant “Macedonian House” on the first night and to Matka Canyon and lake for the day we checked out to go to Pristina, Kosovo. The hotel had free breakfast buffet, Wi-Fi, and parking. It’s located in a quiet residential neighborhood, about 15 minutes of walk from the city center. We really got a homely service from the owner, his wife, and their daughter here, and our kids got some special treats before leaving the hotel.
EATING and SHOPPING: “Shkembe” is somewhat popular here since I’ve seen it in the menu of few restaurants. This soup is made with cow intestine (may be lamb too, not sure)…didn’t dare to try it. Other than that fried cheese or Greek salad are also common in many restaurants. We had our first dinner in “Macedonian House”, a place which was recommended by our hotel owner. This is a top class place to try some traditional dishes. It is a big place decorated with traditional and handcrafted items from the locals. We had breaded cheese, chicken casserole, rolled chicken with cheese, eggplant with feta, fried zucchini, and onion soup. The price was way less than our expectation and the service was fantastic. There was also some live piano at the end. Next day lunch was in the old town opposite of Daut Pasha Double Hammam. This was a small street-side place with good food. We had some hot dogs, Greek salad, and breads. Again, price of the food here is a lot cheaper than Western Europe. Next day we had lunch in Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant when we went to see Matka Canyon and Lake. This is a pleasant place for meal by the lake. It’s a bit pricey but the food was great. There were more options near the entrance of this canyon.
Old Bazaar of Skopje is a very good place for those souvenir hunters. Many Turkish stores sell traditional and handmade goods. You can find carpets, Macedonian dolls, home decors, and almost everything else in this market.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Skopje is a city where you can do and see countless things and you won’t get bored for a single moment for a long time. We had only a day in the city of Skopje and about half a day in Matka Canyon which is less than an hour drive from city center. We only saw the highlights of this capital in a day. Some of the places we didn’t visit but sounded interesting are Holocaust Memorial Center, Macedonian Revolutionary Struggle, some old Turkish inns – like Kapan Inn and Suli Inn, Daut Pasha Hammam, and tons of museums all around the city. Most of the main attractions of Skopje are close to Macedonia Square and are within walking distance.
1) MACEDONIA SQUARE: This is the main and the liveliest square of Skopje. I just loved its big space and energetic atmosphere. There are countless interesting statues and sculptures all over this square, mostly of Macedonian revolutionary figures. But the grandest sculpture is the one in the middle with the prettiest fountain of this city. This is the statue of Macedonia’s bravest son, Alexander the Great on his horse-back (though some say it depicts a Macedonian warrior on horse). This 26 meter statue was built not too long ago in 2011 to commemorate 20 years of independence of Macedonia. At the base of the sculpture are 8 bronze soldiers and 8 bronze lions. The fountain plays classical music with the water show every now and then, not sure of the time interval.
Stone Bridge and Porta Macedonia can be seen from this point. Lots of grand buildings surround the square. There are many cafes, hotels, restaurants, and bars here. The place really comes to live in the evening. This is a just a fantastic place to hang out in the heart of the city.
2) MOTHER TERESA BIRTHPLACE and MEMORIAL: Mother Teresa is the most renowned woman of Skopje who was born here very close to the city center in 1910. After spending 18 years in this house, in 1928, she left her native town and went to India, where she dedicated her life to the missionary work, selflessly caring for the sick and the poor. This Memorial Home was built in her honor, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.
The memorial represents a modern and transformed version of the house where she was born. It was erected on the spot where a Catholic Church used to be. The new building is a tranquil place that depicts her entire life and represents a temple of spirituality, humanity and charity, as well as an eternal memory of her noble mission. Part of Mother Teresa’s remains was transferred to her sanctuary, consisted of many rooms: music room, private room, prayer room for Mother Teresa, multimedia room for chamber music and souvenir shop.
We didn’t go inside the memorial or the museum. Museum is little bit further, this particular building is just a memorial.
Feudal Tower is a 17th century tower from the Turkish era behind Mother Teresa Memorial which once served as a defense tower.
3) MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENT: We walked a bit from the memorial to come here. Macedonian Parliament is a pretty nice rustic orange building. In front of this modernistic style parliament stands a statue of Nikola Karev on the back of his horse – a Macedonian revolutionary and socialist who perished in the war with the Turks. Opposite of the parliament, on the other side of the street is like a big memorial park – a complex of many statues. The biggest one there, facing the parliament is known as “Monument to the Fallen Heroes of Macedonia”.
4) PORTA MACEDONIA: After visiting the parliament and the big park in front of it, we entered the city center again thru the grand Porta Macedonia. This is a white triumphal arch gate in between the parliament and Macedonian Square. The gate is dedicated to the 20 years of independence of Macedonia. Not sure of the statues of two gentlemen sitting on the two sides of the gate…may be two Macedonian heroes.
5) STONE BRIDGE and RIVER VARDAR: Another beauty of Skopje is their old Stone Bridge on River Vardar that connects old bazaar and main square. The original bridge is from the 6th century, from the Byzantine’s period; different reconstructions and renovations took place in the later centuries. The Watch Tower shaping like a Mihrab was reconstructed in 2008. You can see the original 6th century stone block and 13 arches of this bridge from the sides. Many important and historic buildings stand by the river bank. River Vardar cuts thru the city here and creates a pleasant place to hang out at any time of the day. There are tons of interesting statues on the both sides of the bridge and near the water. Look for the statue of a lady posing to dive into the water.
6) OLD BAZAAR: This is an old bazaar in the heart of Skopje and when I say old, it’s from the 12th century. But the bazaar had its greatest rise in the period between the 15th and the 19th centuries. This significant town site, where the narrow paved streets form a labyrinth, possesses a distinct oriental look. The stores, although situated between somewhat civilized frames, still nurture the traditional form of organization. They are attached to one another and most of them share identical minimalist dimensions. Apart from the numerous jewelry stores, taverns, tearooms, pastry shops, and other types of stores, in the Skopje Old Bazaar you can see the most important monuments of the sacral Islamic and profane architecture. You can find a big community of Muslims in or around this bazaar.
This is a good place to buy Turkish or Macedonian trinkets. It is quite big in size with countless small alleys. There are plenty of traditional cafes, restaurants, and bakeries at every corner of this bazaar.
7) SULTAN MURAT MOSQUE and CLOCK TOWER: Also known as Sultan’s Mosque, this is the biggest mosque in the Balkans and the main mosque of old part of Skopje. It was built in 1463 by Sultan Murat II on the foundations of an older monastery.
The mosque stands next to a Clock Tower, dated from the 16th century. There is a wash area in front of the building and a tall minaret beside the mosque. Sultan Murat Mosque is still active and holds daily prayers. Visitors are to respect the worshippers and need to take off shoes before entering the prayer area.
Sultan Murat Mosque is a bit away from the center. We asked some young men about its location and they were kind enough to actually take us, which took about 10 minutes. Opposite of Sultan Murat Mosque is another 15th century mosque, called Isa Beg Mosque. You don’t have to pay anything to visit these mosques but donation is always appreciated.
8) CHURCH of the HOLY SAVIOUR: According to some historians, the original church dates from the 14th century. It is the oldest preserved church in Skopje. The church suffered a great deal from a fire in 1689. The church itself is tiny but has a pleasant courtyard.
The sarcophagus of Macedonian’s greatest revolutionary hero Goce Delchev (who fought against the Turks) lies in the church courtyard. His remains were transferred to this church in 1946. There is also a museum dedicated to the life and revolutionary activity of Delchev. I loved this small but calm courtyard with trees and a small gardens.
The church is interesting for its specific structure. Having been dug into ground to the depth of about 2 meters, it is a silent witness of the subordination of Christian edifices to Turkish dominant religious structures at the time. Inside the Church of the Holy Saviour, you can see an impressive iconostasis on the altar – a masterpiece of Macedonian woodcarving. This deep wood carving was done from whole wood boards and is not covered with golden paint. It is 10 meters wide and 6 meters high. It was handcrafted in the 19th century and took 6 years to finish this art. The earthquake of 1963, the south wall collapsed and unveiled a fresco dated from the 17th century.
The church is located in the Old Bazaar, near Fortress Kale. It was 120 Denar per person to go inside the church but no fees to look around the courtyard or Sarcophagus of Goce Delchev.
9) MUSTAFA PASHA MOSQUE: This significant monument of the Islamic architecture is located on a plateau east of the main entrance to the fortress Kale. This historic mosque was built in 1492 by Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman commander of Skopje. It was severely damaged by the earthquake in 1963. Currently TIKA, a Turkish organization, is conserving and taking care of Mustafa Pasha Mosque, a beautiful example of common historical and cultural heritage.
Mustafa Pasha is one of the most beautiful Islamic buildings in Macedonia with vibrant blue and white interior. Inside the mosque is very elegant, spacious, and well-preserved. The mosque has a square plan and it’s covered with a dome elevated on three-centered arches. Inside the mosque, there is a mihrab with plastic decorations carved in marble, and above the entrance door there is a gallery for muazzins (man who calls for prayer 5 times a day). The minaret of the mosque is built of freestone, and the extended part is built of marble decorated with ornaments. An ablution fountain, former structures, and several tombstones are part of this complex too.
This old mosque is still in use, therefore visitors need to take shoes off before entering the main prayer area to respect the place and worshippers. There is no fee to enter but donations are appreciated. It’s located opposite of Kale Fortress.
10) SKOPJE FORTRESS: The Skopje fortress Kale, also known as Upper Town, dates from the 4th century BC and is the oldest known settlement from the Copper Age. It sits on the highest hill in the Skopje valley. The construction of the enormous ramparts on the Kale are mainly from the 6th century by the Byzantines. However, the fortress experienced its largest growth in the 10th century. In 1391, angered by the strong resistance of the people in Skopje, the Turks destroyed the city and parts of the city ramparts. But it was during the Turkish rule when the number of towers was up to 70, now only 3 remains. After that Kale continued to function as barracks. As a result of the disastrous earthquake in 1963, a large part of the Kale was completely destroyed.
From the ancient impressive fortress today are preserved only one 121 m long rampart, three towers, and an enormous treasure of archeological finds. Among the find there are also remains of a number of churches, craftsman workshops and forges, and from the 12th century there are rare luxurious dinning dishes ornamented with painting, engraving and enameling. Some of the excavated dishes are true works of art, and the entire collection of such ceramics is one of the richest and most valuable in the Balkans.
Kale Fortress is only in ruins now. But you get a fantastic view of Skopje from the castle hill and it is very attractive. We spent about little more than hour walking on its ground and on the old defense wall. There isn’t much to do other than enjoying the view and surroundings. A lot of spots were under restoration when we went, some new excavations were taking place on some spots too.
There wasn’t any fee during our visit and it is right opposite of Mustafa Pasha Mosque.
11) MATKA CANYON and LAKE: This was recommended by our hotel owner in Skopje. Next day, we checked out from the hotel and drove about half an hour to come to this beautiful gorge before heading towards Pristina, Kosovo. Matka Canyon is a fantastic place for the nature lovers, hikers, climbers, or even some expert scuba divers. This place is surrounded by mountains, lake, caves, monasteries, and appealing views. The long and snaky Matka Lake is about 35 meters deep.
We hiked more than 1 km to the boat rental station. The boat takes you to a bat-cave, called
“Vrelo” (means “Spring”) where hikers can’t reach without crossing the river to the other side. You can hike more after the boat station if you don’t want the boat ride or not interested in cave. It’s 400 Denar per person to take a one hour ride on a small engine boat. It took us about 15 minutes to get to this cave which is about 6km from the boat dock. This 3000 years old cave was discovered only 35 years ago. We could hear the bats screeching and smell their poops. But the best part is that it is kept in its natural state. There were some light bulbs and some wet stairs to guide you thru. Surprisingly, there is a small lake inside the cave which you can see from few meters away.
After the boat tour we sat down for lunch at Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant in a nice setting by the green lake and hills. This is the only eatery near the boat rental. There is an old monastery, St. Andrew’s Church, very close to the boat station and this restaurant. It was built in 1389. It’s a tiny place but has beautiful original frescoes on its old walls. It was free to enter.
There was a kayak competition that day we visited this canyon. Therefore we couldn’t park closer to the lake. We had to park near an old monastery on a slope. There is no entrance fee to check out the canyon and lake.