x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

My Kind of Place: Skopje

Flydubai's new direct route to Skopje has made the Macedonian capital more accessible.

The Turkish bazaar, home to the city's Muslim Albanian and Turkish minorities, is the historical heart of Skopje. Mariwan Salihi.
The Turkish bazaar, home to the city's Muslim Albanian and Turkish minorities, is the historical heart of Skopje. Mariwan Salihi.

Why Skopje

A modern fleet of London-styled double-deckers roam its beautiful, Parisian-inspired boulevards, while towering Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches dominate the skyline: Skopje (population 700,000), the capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is more than 6,000 years old and was known as Scupi under the Romans.

Unfortunately, 50 years ago, a massive earthquake destroyed most of the city and killed more than a tenth of its population - today it's a city with newly reconstructed "ancient sites" of pre-earthquake times.

One of the few places in town that mostly survived is Old Town, a miniature version of Istanbul. The Vardar river divides the old town with its newer version, but also separates the city's Muslims (mostly Albanians and Turks) from the Macedonian Orthodox majority.

Skopje is a confusing south-east European city: see parts of "Skopje 2014," a controversial regeneration project financed by the nationalist government. Many neo-classic edifices, museums, fountains and statues of mostly Greek heroes and other historical figures have been erected to give the capital a sophisticated appeal. Now you know why it's referred to as "Europe's Pyongyang" (the capital of Communist North Korea) by the annoyed locals.

A comfortable bed

Skopje is not a city of luxurious properties managed by global hoteliers. Less than three kilometres from the downtown area is the five-star Aleksandar Palace Hotel (www.aleksandarpalace.com.mk; 00 389 2 3092 190), which has the city's best spa and gym, a casino and indoor pool. Double rooms start from US$320 (Dh1,175) per night, including Wi-Fi, breakfast and taxes.

For all the action in town, the best option is the self-proclaimed five-star Stone Bridge Hotel (www.stonebridge-hotel.com; 00389 2 32 44 900), on the banks of the Vardar river, next to the eponymous 15th-century, Ottoman-built Stone Bridge. Double rooms start from $142 (Dh552), including breakfast and taxes.

Find your feet

Explore the city from the Museum of the City of Skopje (free entry; Tuesday to Sunday; www.mgs.org.mk; 9am to 3pm). Built in 1949 as a railway station, its partly ruined exterior - one of a few remainders of the earthquake - has a clock that is frozen at 5:17 on the morning of the tragic Skopje earthquake of July 27, 1963. The museum's humble yet important collection includes artefacts dating from the Neolithic period, but also a recently found marble sculpture of the "Shy Venus".

From here, walk the pedestrianised Makedonija Street. On the right, there's the Memorial House of Mother Teresa (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm; www.memorialhouseofmotherteresa.org), dedicated to the Skopje-born and Noble Peace Prize laureate Mother Teresa. Opened in 2009, the memorial house and chapel is one of the newest landmarks in Skopje and is built in the same location of the once Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church where she was baptised.

A short walk away, where Makedonija Street ends, is Macedonia Square, home of nationalistic kitsch associated with the Skopje 2014 Project. A Disneyland of fountains, overly sized statues, monumental buildings and several new museums, the area is a showcase of the new Macedonian identity - ironically, also where it ends. Cross the Vardar river, spanned by the Kamen Most (Stone Bridge), to the Old Town.

In this part of the capital, there are several beautiful Ottoman-styled mosques, including the 15th-century Mustafa Pasha Mosque, the largest in the Balkans, from where there's a nice view of the 11th-century Kale Fortress. The 12th-century aršija(Turkish bazaar) is the largest of its kind in the Balkans.

Meet the locals

Residents love to hike or bike on Mount Vodno, which has panoramic views of Skopje and the surroundings, topped by the newly built Millennium Cross (also reachable via the cable-way ride). The 66-metre tall structure, which is seen from most parts of the city, is made of steel and divided into 33 parts, symbolising the age of Jesus Christ.

Book a table

Set in an old Ottoman inn, in the narrow Turkish Bazaar, Pivnica An (www.pivnicaan.com.mk; 00 389 2 321 2111) is where everyone should try Macedonian food (inspired by Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisines).

Traditional Macedonian d'oeuvres include cream, cheese, green salad, fried zucchini and aubergine, prosciutto and homemade bread. For the main course, the Pasha meatballs and selsko meso, a traditional dish with veal and vegetables, are exquisite. For dessert, try the thin pancakes topped with melted halwa. A dinner for two sets you back €30 (Dh142).

Remember, this is a high-end establishment, so expect to pay much less in other eateries in the area.

Shopper's paradise

From paintings by young Macedonian artists to jewellery and T-shirts reading "I Love Macedonia", the best place, of course, is the Turkish Bazaar.

What to avoid

Don't discuss Macedonia's horrible relations with its neighbouring countries - it's a taboo. For instance, Greece doesn't recognise the name of the country, nor their association with Alexander the Great, which the Greeks claim is part of their history.

Don't miss

About a two-hour ride from Skopje is the Unesco World Heritage Site of Ohrid (www.ohrid.org.mk), situated on a gorgeous turquoise lake with the same name - the crown jewel of Macedonia.

Getting there

A return flight on Flydubai (www.flydubai.com) from Dubai to Skopje takes about five hours and 45 minutes and costs from Dh1,716 return including taxes.