When the Euro 2012 draw was made, this away match in Macedonia was a big attraction for many Irish supporters; It was one of the few Saturday games, in a hot country, on a (for the Irish anyway) bank holiday weekend. It didn’t start well though. Upon arrival at the Alexander The Great Airport on Friday, the heavens opened and a tropical downpour bucketed down. Thankfully it cleared by nightfall and it remained dry and warm for the rest of our stay.
Skopje, capital city of Macedonia – and it is just called Macedonia, despite Greek objections – is a compact city of 700,000 and is very manageable on foot. Despite having no map, or previous knowledge, and with few street signs around (which, in Cyrillic script, would have been unintelligible to me anyway), I was still able to navigate my way from my hotel on the outskirts to Macedonia Square in the centre (disappointingly covered in scaffolding and building works, as were much of the nearby buildings) across Stone Bridge (built in the 15th century, the symbol of Skopje) to the old town (hilly cobbled streets with a Turkish Ottoman influence).
Towering over Skopje is the Vodna Mountain, atop of which is the Millennium Cross, which you get to via a free cable car ride. The Millennium Cross is less than 10 years old and was built by the Macedonian Orthodox Church to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity. It stands 66m tall and can be seen all over Skopje, especially when it is lit up at night. You can take the lift and go up the cross itself for magnificent panoramic views of Skopje and the surrounding area. But through the grill floor you can see all the way down to the ground below and although it is perfectly safe, it didn’t feel like it.
In terms of sustenance, the local snack food of choice is the burek, a piping hot pastry filled with mincemeat, cheese and spinach. I practically lived on them during my stay. As for drink, Skopko, the local brew was as good as any, but I had way too much of it. On previous Ireland trips I, being the sociable sort, often bought rounds of drinks and thought nothing of it. I never realised that I was owed so many in return. It was “I owe you a drink from Bulgaria” and “I need to get you one from Armenia” and on and on. Saturday afternoon at the St. Patrick’s Irish Bar was a blur…
The match was at the Filip II Stadium; a 15-minute stroll from the city centre along the Vardar River. A fine looking newly renovated ground – think Emirates Stadium with a running track – that holds 40,000 and was staging its first international since refurbishment. Only about 900 Irish fans made it here. A sad indicator of the harsh economic situation in the Emerald Isle. During the Celtic Tiger days, the numbers travelling would have easily been over four times that. What’s more, our match tickets cost €20, whilst the locals only had to fork out €5 for theirs.
Still, at least Ireland won 0-2 in a fine performance. With Robbie Keane grabbing his 50th and 51st goals for Ireland, overtaking Bobby Charlton as the all-time leading international scorer in the British Isles. Macedonia was awarded a penalty, but Goran Pandev blasted it against the crossbar. Had it gone in, you just know they would have proceeded to scrape a last-minute equaliser. But 0-2 it finished, Ireland’s first competitive away win against half-decent opposition since goodness knows when.
Sunday morning, I make a pilgrimage of sorts to the museum dedicated to the life of Skopje-born Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known to the world as Mother Teresa. For all her legend and fame, I knew little of her story – did you know for instance, Mother Teresa studied in Rathfarnham, Ireland? – So it was an educational experience. The guest book was overflowing with signatures from Ireland from the past two days. Catholic guilt is a powerful thing…
Another fine trip
So there you have it. Another fine trip, with the added bonus of an away win. Skopje is a great destination to visit; hot sunshine, cheap drink, lovely people. But the city’s tourist industry still has a lot to learn; there was supposed to be a tourist information office at the main train and bus station. But it was closed and was being used for storage space. Plus none of the sights I visited had souvenirs for sale. Must try harder.
Ciao (that’s goodbye in Macedonian too)