Thursday, February 11, 2016

Our Lifestyle Adventures: Why Macedonia Should Not Be "Least Visited"

Alexander on Macedonia Square
Macedonia is a Balkan state bordered by Kosovo to the northwest, Serbia to the north, Bulgaria to the east, Greece to the south, and Albania to the west. Only 3 ½ hours away from Razlog, Bulgaria where we were based, we wanted to go to Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, mainly because it is the birthplace of the much admired Mother Teresa whose work gave her the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and beatification as the "Blessed Teresa of Calcutta." A second miracle was credited to her intercession by Pope Francis last December 2015, paving the way for her sainthood in the Catholic Church.

fall color, leaving Bulgaria
Balkan Jewel Resort hired a car and driver for us. Unfortunately, unlike in Malta, there was no medium for conversation; he did not speak any English, and we did not speak a word of Bulgarian! The drive was surprisingly lovely because fall colors were still everywhere as we left and then trees I had not seen before punctuated Macedonian hillsides. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, so the drive seemed shorter than what it was supposed to be. At the border, I was a little nervous, completely unaware of the talks between our driver and the heavily-armed men. It was good the Balkan languages have the same roots, so our driver was able to negotiate our safe crossing.

unusual trees along the way in Macedonia
MOTHER TERESA MEMORIAL 

We wasted no time going to the Mother Teresa Memorial, just a few blocks from our hotel. First we were so delighted with her statue in front of the House, the lovely gift shop on the ground floor and the magnificent trees behind. Then a gracious lady led us to her chapel. And as we entered, we were entranced in complete awe. We felt that, if this was the only thing we would see, our trip was already beyond well worth it. There can be no words to describe the place well. Even the picture does not capture the moment. At the museum, we touched the bed and table she used as a child. And there was a lot of memorabilia about a life well lived and aptly honored.

the Chapel of Mother Teresa in Skopje
An Albanian Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary, Mother Teresa was born in Skopje then part of the Kosovo in the Ottoman Empire. She lived in Macedonia for eighteen years, after which she moved to Ireland. But it was in India where she lived for most of her adult life and where she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation. In 2012, it consisted of over 4,500 sisters in 133 countries and ran hospices and homes for the disadvantaged. Members vow chastity, poverty, obedience, and "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor,"

Mother Teresa's Home
MACEDONIA SQUARE AND MONUMENTS

Skopje had been inhabited since at least 4000 BC and remains of Neolithic settlements have been found within the old Kale Fortress that overlooks the city. After that, the city became held by many conquerors who won through many conflicts and wars: Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, and Serbs. During WWII, it was captured by Bulgaria for the Axis powers but in 1944, it became the capital of Macedonia as part of Yugoslavia. Skopje developed rapidly after World War II, but this growth was interrupted in 1963 when a disastrous earthquake hit the city.  In 1911, it became the capital of an independent Macedonia.
Kale Fortress at night
Independence was declared in Macedonia Square, which would have been a short walk from our hotel if not for the undergoing redevelopment and the many new buildings being constructed around it. In 2011, a striking fountain with a monument of Alexander the Great was unveiled, marking the 20th anniversary of their independence. The magnificent Porta Macedonia lords over the pedestrian street leading to the Square on the opposite side from our hotel. But, aside from this Square, we were awed by the many gorgeous monuments (about 50, they say) of men who led various periods of Macedonia struggles strategically placed all around the city of half a million.

Porta Macedonia
THE MILLENIUM CROSS

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to go to the Millenium Cross, about 35 minutes from the city center. But it shines so brightly at night from many places around the city no one would miss it. The landmark is a 217-foot high cross situated on the highest point of the Vodno Mountain, constructed to serve as a memorial to 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia and the world. Construction began in 2002 through donations from the Orthodox Church, the Macedonian government, and Macedonians from all over the world. A smaller cross had been on the spot at the time of the Ottomans. It was so mesmerizing to see and again, the pictures do not tell the whole story!

Millenium Cross at night
I do not want to leave this post without talking about where we stayed, Hotel Ibis. We chose because it is a reliable mid-value European hotel chain. And we were not disappointed. Not only was it next to Macedonia Square. It was also a bright, modern, efficient lodging option that seemed to target tourists or business travelers on the go. Although Jingjing and I are ordinarily far from this profile, during our two weeks together we were those! Furthermore, all the staff spoke excellent English. They helped us maximize our one-day, one-night stay and were instrumental in our trip to Kosovo (next post).

Hotel Ibis