Skopje’s Old Bazaar (Стара чаршија / Çarshia e Vjetër) is said to be one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the Balkans. As well as being home to countless shops across a warren of stone streets there’s also a clock tower, a few hans (inns), hamams (baths), many mosques and the odd türbe (mausoleum). Skopje’s commercial centre has been here since at least the 12th century and the area is just as lively today.
To be honest, when I first came to Skopje’s Old Bazaar, I didn’t know much about it. The first thing that struck me though was that the vast majority of people there were speaking Albanian, even the Roma/Ashkali gypsies. I did already know that around 25% of Macedonia’s population were Albanian but I wasn’t expecting to find the Albanian language as the lingua franca in Skopje’s bazaar. It turns out 57% of the people who live in this municipality (Čair) are Albanians and it seemed most of the business owners were too. Delighted at this discovery I was soon ordering some classic Albanian sweets in Albanian at an Albanian café. They did boza (a drink from fermented millet) and salep (a drink made from orchid root) the latter being advertised in many places with Turkish language signs. There were a lot of Turkish tourists in Skopje and it seems they like to have salep when they are in Macedonia too. This café in the Old Bazaar also did sheqerpare (Tur: şekerpare, almond-based pastry dipped in lemon syrup) and trileqe (Tur: trileçe, a butter cake soaked in three types of milk). There is a really random story behind trileqe, a cake really popular amongst Albanians (I found it in Kosovo as well). It is said to come from tres leches, a cake which appeared in Mexico a few hundred years ago and more recently in South American countries too. One theory as to how it came to the Balkans suggests that it became popular through Albanians love of a Brazilian soap opera inspiring them to replicate the recipe, from there it has spread to Turkey too. To complete the Albanian cultural journey, a number of the shops in the bazaar sell Albanian themed souvenirs, you can also buy bottled water from Kosovo and there was a few times an old Albanian man, wearing traditional Albanian clothes and playing the gusle. (N.B. Mother Teresa was an Albanian from Macedonia and a number of well-known Albanian singers are from Macedonia).
But of course, Albanians aren’t the only people in the bazaar. There is also Christian heritage to discover, such as the sunken 16th-century origin Church of the Holy Salvation. There are also Macedonian restaurants in the bazaar which do traditional Balkan meat dishes such as meatballs and burgers with Macedonian salt-glazed bread. Some places also did borovnica, a drink made from blueberries. The bazaar is a really interesting place to walk around and if you continue to the North-Eastern end of the bazaar it changes dramatically from stone paved streets lined with shops to a much more rough and ready market which sells all manner of things. Literally everything. This end is also the location of the Zelen Pazar (Green Market) a covered area full of wooden counters piled high with fruit, vegetables, oils and honey, the smells are incredible. You could easily spend a whole day in this area of Skopje and I felt like I didn’t get to see everything. Will definitely be returning.
P.S. It is really easy to get a bus to Prishtina in Kosovo from Skopje. I did the same journey the other way round. You can read about my time in Kosovo here.