Skopje. The Game.


The ugliest city in the Balkans. The capital of kitsch. Avoid. That’s what I kept stumbling upon when I did my Skopje research. But it was conveniently on my way to Kosovo and I’ve always been a rebel, curious about places people don’t like.

What I saw there wasn’t pretty. Mostly. Not in a traditional sort of way. But it was interesting. And exploring Skopje surprisingly resembled playing some sort of treasure hunt game. They really should promote it that way.

Level I – Kitschy spread
Level II – Ugly/interesting/bizarre brutalism
Level III – Ottoman hidden sights
Bonus level – Bit Bazaar maze


Skopje


But first a quick overview. The current country of Macedonia formed when it split from Yugoslavia in 1991. By a referendum, not war. The name pissed off Greece though, who wants all the rights to the name ‘Macedonia’. And to Alexander the Great, born in Macedonia. It’s arguable whether born in Greek Macedonia or Macedonian Macedonia. Personally I love the idea that if you raised him from the grave to ask his opinion on this matter he would just say: I’m a world citizen, fuck off! There’s his statue on the main square in Skopje. But it’s not him, it’s the man on the horse. Officially.

Also, from what I heard there’s a strong Albanian lobby in the government. Muslim Albanian mostly. Not to mention Turkey wants to keep its Ottoman heritage intact. And government seems to think Macedonia has an identity crisis, which resulted in ‘Skopje 2014’ project worth over 500 million euros. Those are the kitschy constructions in the center that Skopje is so famous for recently, at least among travel community. Weird, as it seems like they would have enough identities to choose from already.

Game objective: find the most expensive statue.


Skopje


But before this controversial project happened there was one distinctive turning point in Skopje’s history – the earthquake of 1963. Over 1,000 people died and 80% of the city has been destroyed. You can see what is now a reminder of that tragedy – the clock on the Old Railways Station building that stopped working when the earthquake struck – at 5.17.

So what do you do with the ruins of a city? You rebuild, of course. And they did, creating some of the most spectacular examples of brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen. The post office itself looks like an alien operating center.

Game objective: How many air conditioning units does one post office need?


Skopje


With stepping into the Old Bazaar we switch to a more traditional tourism. After the earthquake there was a thought circulating among decision makers to destroy what was left in that area and use this space for new development. Luckily, that didn’t happen. And we still can get lost trying to find our way between gold street and shoes street (traditionally each street had a ‘theme’ – by the crafts it hosted). It is worth wandering into the smaller streets – the contrast from the main one made a huge impression on me.

Game objective: what, besides gold, is popular on gold street?


Skopje


And now for my favorite part and what charmed me in Skopje – the hidden buildings of Old Bazaar. The hammam turned art gallery. Caravanserai with a madrasa inside. Or another one hosting an art school. Hidden in plain sight, between other buildings, with an entrance through restaurant, which forced me to circle it a few times before I finally found a way inside.

Game objective: find all caravanserais (old Ottoman inns).


Skopje


Bonus level: survive in the maze and a mess that is Bit Bazaar.

If you cannot find something here, you haven’t looked hard enough.


Skopje

Porto part II &around

Porto

Just a few steps from Ribeira’s lively waterfront is an unassuming green square called Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique. With an even more unassuming statue.

So unassuming, in fact, that I don’t remember it at all. But Uncle Google just informed me that it’s Henry the Navigator. The one and only, who pretty much kickstarted Portugal’s maritime empire, colonial power and Age of Discovery. Very fitting place for his statue, as he’s surrounded by three buildings that, for me, ideally portray Portugal’s grandeur past.

Bolsa Palace has got to be the first. Former Stock Exchange and a representation of power for Commercial Association of Porto. Ironically, it was built in 19th century, not long before the whole country was declared bankrupt. Twice.

While that is interesting and all, it were the pictures I saw online that made me wanna visit it in the first place. And shoot some myself. Unfortunately, our guide – a guided tour is the only way to see Bolsa Palace – didn’t share my enthusiasm for running around looking for angles and staying behind the group. Not sure why;)


Porto


Few steps away from Bolsa Palace, built only around 40 years later, and yet completely different style and a representation of iron period in Europe is Mercado Ferreira Borges. Surprisingly elegant, with its original red construction and modern grey elements inside.

The last of three previously mentioned buildings is Igreja de São Francisco. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, as photography is prohibited there. But I do have a special message to the lovely malcontents I met there: yes, I also have seen something like this before. Compañía de Jesús in Quito, to be exact. But a lavish, completely gold-covered church interior is still not something you see every day. Think how many earrings that would make.


Porto


There is another building worth wandering into – Photography Museum located in a former prison with vintage mini-cameras, thick stone walls, barred windows and dark corridors. Where around every corner it’s just as likely to see elegant conference room in lovely light colors, girl in an optimistic polka dot blouse staring at you from a picture or a mysterious boy with sad eyes.


Porto


Being so close to Atlantic ocean, it seemed a shame to miss it. To get to Foz do Douro I took the shamelessly touristy old tram from just in front of the previously mentioned lavish gold church. While pretty and old – the tram I mean – nothing beats Lviv’s falling apart vehicles moving at snail’s speed.

To even things out, after some walking around and a spectacular slip&fall on a slimy pier that left me with a bloody hole in my hand and dripping water with every step, I took a completely not touristy Flor de Gas across Douro River. It’s a small boat taxi to Albufeira that allows you to admire the estuary from a different perspective, while cooling yourself in a lovely breeze with just a hint of burning gas powering the engine.



My goal for that day was to finish it, and my whole trip to Porto, with a sunset in Miramar. Another place I found scrolling through pictures of Porto, this time on Instagram. An idyllic little town a short train ride from Porto (though from Albufeira, the way I went, it took some asking around) with a picturesque tiny chapel sitting on top of a tiny rock hill, which itself occupies a place where the cold Atlantic waters reach sun-heated sand on Miramar’s beach.


Porto


As this is the end of my trip and my choice of pictures (as I took 1,400 of them, believe me, it wasn’t an easy choice), I leave you with a quick glance at often slightly run down, but definitely not lacking in character, Porto’s streets. And a tip: if you have to walk down just one, Rua do Almada is a solid choice. A close second for me would be a seemingly deserted Rua do Bonjardim.


Porto

Porto: Pretty. Windy.

 


That’s exactly how I can describe Porto – it really was very pretty. And it was also very windy. What I imagined it to be was the azulejos city on hills. Special explanation for The Clueless: azulejos are those painted, glazed tiles associated with Portugal, classical version being white and blue. In other words – Porto seemed like a perfect place to test my new old camera.


 

 


There’s this old saying going around: “Porto works, Coimbra studies, Braga prays and Lisbon has fun.” Porto works? Yeah, right. It seems more like it’s leeching off of tourists. Maybe it used to work, when it was an important port for Douro valley wine trade and a starting point for Prince’s Henry the Navigator world discovery ambitions. To be fair – those huge steel bridges, copyright by Eiffel and his protege-whose-name-no-one-remembers, are impressive and give the city somewhat industrial flair. The life under the bridge seems pretty real too.


 

 


For some magical reason (new Prima Aprilis holiday?) Porto was filled with tourists. And photographers – which was great. I got to snoop on other people’s work. Kinda like free workshop. There was one place that didn’t feel so touristy though – the old market hall and surrounding old shops. The falling off paint, wet walls, farmer market’s trash and shops working on a basis: tell what you want -> get a piece of paper with a number on it -> pay and go.


 

 


Speaking of azulejos, the most famous ones are in the hall of Sao Bento railway station (built on the spot of a burned-down 16th century Benedictine monastery) and Igreja do Carmo (the most Instagrammable wall in Portugal). Curiously, the word azulejos has Arabic origins, at first was used only for North African tiles and Seville in Spain was the center of their production. And yet – they are mainly associated with Portugal. Wider use? More advanced technology? Better marketing?


 

 


There’s more going on on Porto’s walls (and not only walls) than just azulejos. When it comes to street art, what fueled the creativity and growth was… surprise, surprise – a rebellion. The Street Tailors described it a whole better than I ever could. In short: a stiff former mayor created the Anti-Grafitti Squad. And when they covered one of the famous artist’s work, people in protest started painting one straight black line and a sentence: “Continua a pintar” (keep painting) on those walls cleaned by the squad. Over and over again.

As for “Quem es, Porto?”, that’s an art project by Locomotiva – 3,000 tiles with Porto’s residents’ answers to just that question: Who is Porto?


 

 


Next time – tram-huggers, what else is going on on Porto’s streets and where to pray at the beach (or, you know, just stare at the picturesque chapel at sunset).

Tchau!