I am gazing at a huge statue of a warrior on a horse in a fountain in the middle of a square. Behind, a street leads to the Stone Bridge, which was built in the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Past the Stone Bridge I can see a stone castle, which locals tell me sits on an ancient fortress-like structure built long before the Roman civilization came into being.
This is Skopje, capital of the Republic of Macedonia. It has been ruled by Romans, Ottomans, and the Yugoslav conglomerate before Macedonia's independence, and has been twice rebuilt, once in the 17th century when destroyed by an Austrian general and again after a devastating earthquake in 1963. It is a wonder that anything old remains at all.
My wife and I have little knowledge of the city so it is a pleasant surprise to find there are many things to see. We soak in the scene from the central square of the new town then explore further. We find that museums, churches, markets and art galleries all have appeal.
A visit to the Skopje City Museum housed in the old railway station is interesting and we see the clock still stuck on the time the 1963 earthquake struck. Our next stop is at the City Art Gallery set in what used to be the largest Turkish bathhouse in the Balkans.
Walking the winding, cobbled streets at the Old Skopje Bazaar we mingle with locals. They are buying bread, shoes and clothing while we look at strong Turkish teas, cheap jewelry and tourist souvenirs.
The Mustafa Pasha Mosque with its tall minaret is nearby reminding us that the city was under Ottoman Rule for centuries. Not far away is the Sveti Spas church with its giant wood-carved altar.
We are surprised to learn that although she was born to Albanian parents, the woman who became respected as Mother Teresa was actually from Skopje. There is a marker where her house used to be, a small statue and a new memorial house museum.
Macedonian cuisine has both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Spicy stews are popular and are always eaten with bread. Many meals include feta cheese; roasted peppers; and zelnik, a flat pastry with cheese, leek, or spinach filling. We are fortunate one lunch time to eat on the terrace just in front of the main square at Pelister restaurant. One night we go to Stara Kuka in a nicely restored traditional 19th century Balkan house and eat in the courtyard. Both meals are excellent.
As far as nightlife goes there is certainly a huge emphasis on casinos, many of which are associated with hotels. There are bars, discos, and nightclubs in the downtown area and there are plenty of coffee shops, selling Italian and Turkish coffees well into the early morning hours.
The best hotel in the city is probably the Aleksandar Palace but it is a kilometre or so from the central area. If you need this level of accommodation you may be better off at the Stone Bridge Hotel or the Bushi Resort and Spa in the city centre or the Hotel ARKA in the Old Bazaar area. Down market there are something like 60 places to choose from.
The tourism jewel in Macedonia is Ohrid. It was made a UNESCO site in 1980 and since then the city and adjacent lake have become a major destination. The town is one of the oldest settlements in Europe but it has had the Ohrid name only since 879 AD.
Ohrid is most famous for its ancient churches, basilicas, and monasteries but it is a great place to wander even if you don't go into any of these. The 11th century St. Sophia church is the oldest and inside there are some wonderful 11th century frescoes. The 13th century St. Bogorodica Perivlepta is also worth seeing and it contains several important frescos and a world-famous icon gallery in its courtyard. Both were used as mosques during the Ottoman period.
We take a small path through the woods to Samoil Fortress. It has 18 towers and four gates and walls up to 16 metres high. On the way back we stop at an ancient theatre, which was built by the end of the 3rd century BC and had about 4,000 seats. Only part of the original still exists but performances are still held here.
One of the things we most enjoy is walking the lake shore in the town. There are some cute little beaches and a long promenade so you have the best of both worlds.
Costs here are probably a little higher than in some other areas of the country but frankly most things are attractively priced for visitors. Some of the rural areas are still quite poor and we see some villages that are clearly struggling. Tourism is helping the country but it appears the benefits are not evenly spread.
Macedonia's second biggest city, Bitola, was once a centre for diplomacy. The stately old architecture goes back to when the town was a centre for international diplomats to the Ottoman administration.
Bitola's beginnings date from the 4th century BC when the town was named Heraclea Lyncestis. It was a busy town during Roman times and continued to grow until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 518 AD.
The remains are situated two kilometres south of the present-day town. There are dazzling mosaics, an ancient theatre and Roman baths.