North Macedonia

IS IT REALLY ABOUT MAKEDONIYA-A-A?

Slavi Trifonov, the showman and crooner credited with propagating chalga culture in Bulgaria, could not have put it more plainly. As he "withdrew" his ministers from the outgoing Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's reformist government, thus causing a major political crisis, he let out a rallying cry: "It's for Makedoniya-a-a!" His message was simple, yet powerful.

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BIG MACEDONIAN QUESTION

The "Macedonian Question" is one of those Balkan conundrums that even outsiders with more than just passing knowledge of the history and geography of the region can have trouble understanding. Because the troubles, the controversies and the historical and present-day injustices have accumulated to mind-boggling proportions it is impossible to detail them in a single magazine article. Here are some of the main points.

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BULGARIA'S MANY CAPITALS

Over the centuries after Bulgarians settled in the Balkans, they moved capital more than once – sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for strategy, sometimes out of despair. Some of these places became the beating heart of a state commanding vast territories. Others were the seats of ambitious lords trying to carve their own place out of a contested political map. Here is a list of the most important and interesting official and alternative Bulgarian capitals, in chronological order. They cover, in broad strokes, some 13 centuries of Bulgarian history.

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ISSUE OF NORTH MACEDONIA

In Bulgaria, Winston Churchill (who held southeastern Europe in contempt) is sometimes quoted as saying the Balkans have more history than they are able to stomach. The 20th century offers many examples of internecine conflicts and wars anyone, not just the Balkans, would have found too difficult to come to terms with.

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NORTH MACEDONIA

The Balkans are associated in the common imagination with bloody conflicts, but in recent months a series of events challenged this notion. After years of grandstanding and disputes two Balkan countries finally agreed on... a name. Greece accepted to stop referring to its northwestern neighbour as Skopje, the name of its capital city. Said neighbour, for its part, agreed to stop calling itself Macedonia, recognising that there is a Macedonia in Greece, too. Thus, the republic of North Macedonia was born.

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MONUMENTAL GAMES

Until recently Skopje, the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (if we are to go by the name the United Nations uses to refer to it in offi cial correspondence), was worth a visit for a handful of reasons, but the list was not very long. It consisted of the juicy chevapi and tavche gravche, or baked beans, taken with zholta, or yellow, rakiya, in the small canteens in the charshia, or market place.

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THE BALKANS' LEAST KNOWN CAPITAL

A car comes racing out of the Ottoman charshiya, or bazaar, in Skopje, screeches past the steps in front of the Tito-era shopping centre and slams into a streetlamp. The driver throws the car into reverse and speeds away. Moments after he disappears into the dark streets of the old town, the lamp post snaps in two and crashes down onto the pavement.

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THE CITY WHERE TIME STOPPED

The girl was standing on the rocky headland, by the crimson walls of St John-at-Kaneo Church, and looking at Lake Ohrid at her feet. Her eyes searched for the Monastery of St Naum on the opposite shore. Then they drifted to the left, lingered on the boats in the turquoise water – she had ridden in one of them the previous day – and finally wandered off over the roofs of the old city's houses and churches.

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WELCOME TO TETOVO

You don't have to be a sersem to visit Tetovo, an Albanian city in Macedonia. But it helps.

Legend says that Tetovo was named after the mythical Teto, who cleared snakes from what was once a village at the foot of the Šar Mountain many centuries ago. But perhaps this fable alone won't persuade you to leave the Skopje to Ohrid highway and visit this city in northwest Macedonia close to the border with Kosovo. Indeed, Tetovo has hardly been a magnet for travellers. For a long time the only tourists near here were those en route to Macedonia's most famous ski resort, Popova Šapka.

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