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Phespirit goes to F.Y.R. of Macedonia
Skopje     September 2006

Prior to this trip, Phespirit had visited thirty-seven of the forty-eight countries that exist wholly or partially within geographical Europe. Of the remaining eleven, some - the likes of Portugal and Russia - are easy to reach by flying direct from London. Others, such as Moldova and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, are less accessible. Direct flights from London are either disproportionately expensive, too infrequent or altogether non-existent, so alternative arrangements have to be considered. When Phespirit went to Bansko, Bulgaria, he planned to travel overland by bus from Bansko to Skopje. The journey took him almost ten hours to complete.

At first sight, it would not be unreasonable to take an instant dislike to Skopje, with its ugly tower blocks and oceans of concrete. As at all times, however, an open mind is essential. Phespirit found that with each passing moment he spent around its streets and shops, or down by the riverside, or in its parks and public buildings, the more charming, unpretentious and appealing Skopje became. With a little less than a day and a half for sightseeing, Phespirit quickly set about taking a closer look at the place.

The River Vardar cuts through the centre of Skopje, separating the old Turkish town in the north from the more modern developments in the south. Phespirit started his explorations in the south, at Makedonija Square; a broad expanse of concrete paving-slabs with a token flowerbed situated alongside the Trgovski Shopping Centre; itself a multi-layered concrete mall. Like the rest of Skopje south of the river, these are 20th century creations of the most aesthetically unappealing kind, redeemed only by the bright and lively easy-going bustle of the Macedonian people. The 15th century 'Stone Bridge' leads from the square over to the north side of river, where the really interesting sights are to be found. It was tempting to cross immediately, but for now Phespirit stuck to the south.

He walked along the riverbank, away from the shopping centre, passing anglers and rollerbladers, until he reached the national football stadium. This was a place of topical interest for Phespirit as it was here that England had beaten Macedonia one-nil in their Euro 2008 qualifying match just twelve days earlier - they were fortunate to get away with it. Phespirit wandered around the outside of the stadium and found an open gate leading to the dressing rooms and all the way through onto the pitch. Players were milling about after what had presumably been some kind of practice session. Amongst all the youngsters Phespirit found one senior gent with the appearance of a kit-man but whose no-nonsense gravitas said: this is the man who runs the show. Gravitas-man gave Phespirit permission to photograph inside the stadium. As he slowly walked around its athletics track, he was pleased to see the England flag still up on the scoreboard.

After the stadium came the City Park, then a walk along the river, back to the shopping centre. Here Phespirit found Ristorante da Gino and settled down for a meal. Sitting at an outside table with the evening temperature still up at a very pleasant 23°C, he first ordered an Alexandria Riesling 2004. This excellent chilled wine, product of Macedonia, 11.5%, was a snip at 400MKD for a 750ml bottle. Genuine Italian-style Margharitta pizza followed, with lemon and mandarin ice cream for dessert. Total bill, including tip, roughly £7.80. Phespirit challenges anyone to show him the same quality and service at those sort of prices anywhere in the centre of London.

The following day's sightseeing was more intensive, taking in: Skopje Museum; the Cathedral of St Clement of Ohrid, Fortress Kale, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Mustafa Pasha Mosque (closed for renovation), the National Museum of Macedonia, Kursumli An, the Bit Bazaar, the Daut Pasha Baths Gallery, the Church of Sveti Dimitri, the Church and Monastery of Sveti Spas, the Chifte Amam Gallery, Murat Pasha Mosque and finally Sultan Murat Mosque. The National Museum of Macedonia is a large, comprehensive museum spread across a couple of buildings, and features quaint exhibits such as the shepherd's chair fashioned and polished from what was probably a gnarled tree root. A fantastic complex, with no visitors except Phespirit - the lights had to be switched on especially for him. Tragic.

During his visit to Sultan Murat Mosque he was shown around by Liman Ismail, the Imam, who spoke only Turkish but was well able to communicate the history of the mosque and its surrounds. He unlocked the door of the clocktower and accompanied Phespirit up to the top for a view across the city. When they descended Phespirit fell into conversation with some men arriving for four o'clock prayer. Great characters, but it's clear that more than just the magnificent River Vardar divides the people of Skopje. Blows were exchanged when the old Yugoslavia fell apart and wounds have not yet had time to fully heal.

The towering cross that overlooks Skopje from a southern hilltop was almost certainly put there to irk the Muslims of the Carsija quarter (the old Turkish town) in the north. The Muslims in Carsija lament the fact that their part of the city has remained a "ghetto", whilst the Christian south has been modernised for the rich. This may indeed be the case, but when Skopje finally and fully opens up for Western tourists it is the Muslim north to which visitors will flock and where they will spend their money; it is the Muslim north that will be forever photographed and remembered; it is the Muslims in the north who, if they play their cards right, will have the last laugh.

Skopje is a city for living in, with housing throughout its compact centre and ever-expanding outskirts. It's not locked in the middle-ages, neither has it sold its soul to business. It is a city for modern urban life. English-language speakers are well looked after, too. There's an English-language bookshop, an English-language newspaper and magazine shop, many locals speak good English and many signs are written in both Macedonian and English. Phespirit was glad he made the effort to visit.

His next move was overland by train from Skopje to Niš; a journey from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia into Serbia, where Niš is the third largest city .....

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