Leisurely start this morning. The dining room is next to our room, nice buffet breakfast – terrible coffee. 9:00 we took some taxis for the twenty-minute ride to Matka Gorge. There is a bus but it runs every two hours, takes an hour and costs half the taxi fare so not an attractive prospect.
There are some churches and monasteries in the gorge. The oldest was built in 1389. They were once high above the river but the gorge was flooded by the construction of the Matka dam in 1938.
We took a small boat about 20 minutes up the valley to Vrelo caves. There is a huge difference in temperature between the heat of the sun outside and the damp cool air just a few steps inside the cave. The whole system carries on a long way underground; the full extent isn’t yet known but we saw two small lakes within the 70m or so that are accessible. There is a constant background noise of water dripping and the calls and flapping of a colony of bats on the roof. The caves have been used for classical music concerts recently; it must be quite an experience.
The boat trip back was into the breeze and a bit more pleasant. After the boat we had a look in the tiny St Andrew’s Monastery, the interior is only about 15 feet long but at least twice as high as that, it feels like a miniaturized version of the three large monasteries we‘ve seen before. The walls and ceilings are covered with biblical scenes, saints and the builder of the church, Andrijaš, son of a Serbian King. No photography allowed inside.
We stopped for a leisurely coffee, drink, cake etc, before taking taxis back to town. Four of us went straight to the Museum of Contemporary Art which was closed yesterday – we had better luck today. The collection was started in 1963 following a large earthquake in the city which destroyed a lot of older works. A number of galleries around the world lent or donated works to the gallery including Picasso, Jasper Johns and Barbra Hepworth. Today however none of these works were on show, the whole gallery was taken over by an exhibition of works by Petar Hadzi Boshkov, a Macedonian sculpture and painter who died in 2015. His work is often simple but very graphic and it feels like there are layers below the surface.
After the gallery, we walked back to the restaurant on the central square where we had lunch yesterday. We had another combination of salads which were very good and tried some of their beers too – between four of us we had sour cherry, strawberry and mint pilsners, all very refreshing.
Our lunchtime break prepared us for an afternoon of museums, starting with the Holocaust. The first thing you see is a sculpture consisting of electronic photo frames repeating pictures of Jewish families from Macedonia who were killed. The museum is on three floors, the central space across all floors has an art work consisting of 7,141 threads of beads – one for each Jewish person killed. They are all different but combine into a much greater whole. The exhibition tells the story of the migration of Jews across Europe following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They found it hard to settle in Central Europe but were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire who valued their craftsmanship and commerce skills. One reason for the persecution of Jews in Western Europe postulated by the exhibition was that there was only Christian majority and any outsiders were always suspect. The Ottomans had always been an empire of many races and were therefore naturally more tolerant. After the migration, the upper floor concentrates on the events of World War 2. Macedonia had German forces to the south in Greece, Bulgarians to the east who at the time were sympathetic to the Nazis, and Italians fascists to the west in Albania. The Italians refused to join in the transporting of Jews to death camps in Poland thereby saving many lives.
After the history on the upper floors the ground floor has a number of paintings reacting to the Holocaust and a single Cattle Truck with its doors open, no explanation is given and none is needed, just looking inside to imagine how many people might have been crushed inside on the six day journey to Treblinka was enough.
Across the square is the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence. Lonely Planet had warned us that there was a string degree of propaganda in the museum but we weren’t prepared for quite how much. You can only visit the museum with a guide. A tour had just started but we were allowed to join anyway. The museum couldn’t be better designed to disconcert you – all the rooms were very dark, walls and ceilings were predominately black, everywhere there were waxworks of significant figures from Macedonian history and large scale propaganda paintings. The Greeks, particularly the Clergy, the Bulgarians and the rest of Yugoslavia were all singled out for criticism. We had very little knowledge of the individuals or events being described, this left me feeling a bit underwhelmed by the museum. In a final surreal flourish the balcony above main entrance was filled with recognisable but fairly random figures – we could pick out Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, Eisenhower and Ataturk among many others. Unfortunately neither museum allowed photography inside.
We left the museum and headed for the nearby bazaar. The heat was now unbelievable; we thought it was one building reflecting the sun but it continued. We checked out a restaurant for dinner and had a short walk around the bazaar, retracing our steps from yesterday to the donut stall.
On the way back to the hotel we plotted a route to see a few mores sites – there’s a surprising amount to see here.
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, her birthplace is marked by a simple stone plaque in a small garden, the house is no longer there. Skopje has its own Arc de Triomphe. Beyond that is the Monument to Fallen Heroes for Macedonia, this follows the ‘more is more’ style of the rest of the new city centre. North of the central square is a museum about Mother Teresa’s life – we didn’t have time to visit, nor did we have time for the Museum of Skopje, housed in the old railway station that was severely damaged in the 1963 earthquake. Our final stop was a statue of Tito, the man who somehow managed to unify Yugoslavia.
After a short break to cool down five of us headed out for dinner in the Old Bazaar. The restaurant is housed in a 15th Century Caravanserai – the food was traditional Macedonian, the wine was all local, very nice atmosphere, a very pleasant evening.
Skopje is a strange mixture of old and new, it has been fascinating, surprising and absorbing. A few more days here would be worthwhile but tomorrow we must move on.