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by Irene Butler
(for Travel Writers' Tales) A more inviting city centre is hard to come by! The Vardar River flows lazily through it. Folks mill about from early morning until the after dark blaze of neon lights. One side of the river holds a plethora of restaurants and cafes to pop into; the other side boasts a museum, national theatre and government buildings in neoclassical and baroque style.

Photo #1

And here, there and everywhere are stunning monuments of historic figures and national heroes. I am amazed to learn that most of these edifices and statues have been constructed as part of an urban renewal project "Skopje 2014", only officially announced in 2010!

Photo #2

All the statues are impressive, but Philip II of Macedon is outstanding! Towering above in gleaming bronze with his fist raised, I envision him mouthing a phrase attributed to him, "Divide and conquer!" And he did just that – being the first to conquer the Greek states, and later uniting them. He was king of Macedon from 359BC until his assassination in 336BC, when his son Alexander the Great continued his mission for empire building in the worthiest of manners.

Photo #3

Across the river in Macedonia Square (Ploštad Makedonija), an eight-storey monument dwarfs its surroundings. "Alexander the Great," is offered by locals, as we stand mesmerized by a heroic figure perched on a rearing steed atop a gigantic fountain with soldiers and lions around its base.

Photo #4

Two bridges cross the Vardar from this central area. The showy Art Bridge is a pedestrian walk-way lined with statues of famous painters, sculptors, writers and philosophers – twenty-nine in total.

Photo #5

Within a stone's throw is a second crossing – the Old Stone Bridge (Kameni Most) built on Roman foundations by the Ottoman in the late 15th century. It leads us to ?aršija (Old Bazaar) where the Ottoman past lingers in architecture and colourful market streets.

From here we climb a lengthy set of steps with bustling eateries built on platforms that jut out from the hillside. The jovial mood of the customers is catchy, and our resistance to the tantalizing aromas lasts but a minute. We are soon feasting on Tav?e grav?e, a delectable bean, onion, dried red pepper dish served in the earthenware bowl in which it was baked.

Photo #6

Fortified for the remaining climb, we reach the Kale Fortress, originally built on a hilltop in the 6th century by the Byzantine rulers of the day. Some towers and walls have been restored, while others remain in the crumbled state of battles once fought. From the fortress cliff, although the day is misty, we are eye-to-eye with the Millennium Cross. This 66m (217ft) high cross was erected on Vodno Mountain in 2001, for the 2000th Anniversary of Christianity in Macedonia and the world. At night it is illuminated with 20,000 light bulbs.

Photo #7

Another day we seek out the triumphal arch, Porta Macedonia, completed in 2012 to commemorate 20 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia, the newly formed country taking the name Republic of Macedonia. However, neighbouring Greece objected to this name usage, also having a region named Macedonia, hence in 1993 the new nation gained UN admission under the ‘provisional' title - Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The issue remains unresolved and hopefully the two countries will someday agree on how to share the name.

Leaving the arch behind, our mission is to locate a small museum, built on the birth-home of Mother Teresa, now a canonized saint. We follow this ethnic Albanian's life-journey from precocious child to tenacious nun who dedicated her life to the most destitute. In a heart-wrenching photo she holds the head and comforts a dying leper in Calcutta where she began her charity work. Others portray meetings with world leaders, being recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and listings of the many facilities she began around the globe.

Photo #8

We walk further to see the Old Railway Station with its clock that remains at the time it stopped at 5:17 a.m. on July 26, 1963 when the catastrophic earthquake struck. Eighty-percent of the city was destroyed, over a thousand people died, thousands were injured, and 200,000 were left homeless. Part of the exterior has been left in its ruined state; the interior houses the Museum of the City of Macedonia.

Our relaxed wanderings through Skopje were akin to a walk through history showcasing the rich blend of cultures that make up this country, enhanced by red-carpet treatment shown to us by its citizens every step of the way!

For more information:

PHOTOS by Rick Butler

1. City Centre with Vardar River
2. Philip II of Macedon statue
3. Alexander the Great monument
4. Art Bridge
5. Old Ottoman market
6. Kale Fortress with view of Millennium Cross
7. Triumphal arch - Porta Macedonia
8. Old Railway Station Clock

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