30 years ago today (May, 1987): Five days in Skopje with the greatest seismologist of them all.


Previously: 1987 European Summer: “Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of cosmic concrete communist-era architecture.”

The journey from Dubrovnik to Skopje was an inadvertent and completely ridiculous exercise — a farce, to be truthful — and a recap of the day is in order.

Day 41 … Tuesday, May 26
Dubrovnik → Belgrade. 5:00 a.m. bus. K (strikeout) in Belgrade, punt … on 11:45 brzi to Skopje (arriving Wednesday, May 27)

In route to Belgrade, there had been a brief mountain stop: Tjentište War Memorial, Yugoslavia, then and now.

At three in the afternoon on a pleasant springtime Tuesday, after a ten-hour bus ride from Dubrovnik, I was standing outside the combined train/bus station in Belgrade looking for the many enterprising Serbs who’d be competing, capitalist-style, to rent me a room in one of their flats.

I was mindful of this warning: “The difficulty of finding adequate accommodations is probably responsible for 90% of Belgrade’s bad reputation among travelers.”

So wrote Let’s Go: Europe, which also helpfully advised bargaining with the inevitable room hawkers outside the station, and as an even better alternative, strongly recommended visiting a helpful tourist information office in the underpass at Terazije square.

The problem? There were no room hawkers outside the station — not even one. I milled around for at least an hour, looking as cluelessly touristic as possible (it wasn’t hard), and still they stayed hidden. I even asked a couple of cab drivers, who shrugged.


The tourism desk in the train station wasn’t equipped to help travelers find lodgings. The only hotel I saw was out of my price range and had no English speakers on duty. At this point I should have walked the scant quarter-mile to the Terazije square office praised in Let’s Go, and yet for some reason I refused to go there.

Why didn’t I make this short trek?

Evidently I was having a bad day, and felt ready for a childish temper tantrum of the sort that always left me worse off than before.

Eventually I went across one of the side streets near the station and had a meal of leathery roasted chicken, rock-hard vegetables and wilted salad. The beer was passable, and I may have had two.

It’s conceivable that I took a couple more with me in bottles.

Back at the station, stubbornly refusing to abandon the notion that someone should be offering me an inexpensive bed, I needed to use the WC. Following my nose, it soon became apparent that one of the toilets had disintegrated; a rancid mixture of water and sewage cascaded from the vicinity of the stalls, flowing across the floor, out the door into the common area and onto the train tracks.

Needless to say Belgrade wasn’t impressing me, and it was time to study the rail schedule, wherein a brzi (“fast” — a mere euphemism) train to Skopje was listed for departure later in the evening.

This idea had possibilities. After all, I knew someone in Macedonia: Radojko “Rady” Petkovski, the amiable seismologist who’d chatted with me on the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb. Surely I could find him, get some advice on cheap rooms, and hang out for a few days in Skopje.

The decision was made, and I bought a second-class ticket for the overnight journey.

(A week later, returning to Belgrade by rail from Bulgaria, I made a second and more determined effort to spend the night by boarding a tram and locating the Yugoslav capital city’s only accredited youth hostel — only to see it in the final stages of complete demolition, with a replacement structure to be built and ready for occupancy by the time of my next visit in 1989.)

In other words, welcome to breakfast in Skopje.

Day 42 … Wednesday, May 27
 → Skopje. Bodily recovery, somewhat.

Day 43 … Thursday, May 28
Skopje. Skopsko pivo and ćevap. Around town and to the duty free shop.

In this previous installment …

“Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of cosmic concrete communist-era architecture.”

 … occasioned by the changing nature of Skopje’s architectural interface from Brutalist to Walt Disneyist, during our contemporary era of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, I provided an overview of my arrival in the city three decades ago.

To be more detailed, armed with a map and Rady’s business card, I elected to walk to the earthquake institute, his place of employment, which was two miles from the train station.

I must have been getting more adept at map reading, because the institute was where it was supposed to be, up there, perched on the hillside.

I presented the card at the guard shack. The incredulous booth attendant phoned, and pointed me toward the front door, where I was met by a young English-speaking colleague of Rady’s named Alexander, who informed me that Rady was busy attending a meeting.

Alexander listened intently as I told my story, then surprised me by asking where in America I’d studied seismology. Taken aback, I replied that I’d majored in philosophy, not seismology, whereupon I learned Rady was somehow convinced that he’d met a fellow scientist on the train, not an itinerant Hoosier bartender.

Suddenly I was worried. There had been no intent to mislead Rady, and yet Alexander’s demeanor was very serious. All I could think to say in order to lighten the mood was that while I wasn’t an earthquake professional, my home was somewhat near the New Madrid fault.

The joke worked. Alexander laughed, and finally I managed to breathe. When Rady emerged and heard the explanation, he smiled, too. Soon coffee was being made and selection of delicious sweets appeared; guests in the Balkans invariably are pampered with caffeine and sugar — and I’d had nothing to eat since the rubber chicken in Belgrade.

I agreed to meet Rady later in the afternoon at my station of arrival, where I’d left the backpack at the luggage storage room. He pulled up in a late 1970s model Zastava — known as “Yugo” for export only, and derided in America as among the worst cars ever. It had a manual transmission, of course, and my new friend was a highly skilled urban driver.

This Google street view from 2014 may or may not show the building (on the left) where Rady lived at the time, but it’s very reminiscent of the neighborhood.

And so it transpired that Rady opened his apartment to a complete stranger from America, exhausting his limited English, awarding me his couch for sleeping, showcasing the local sights during the scant free time he had, putting me on a round-trip bus to Lake Ohrid for a day trip, and finally driving me back to the bus depot stupidly early in the morning when it came time for my getaway to Bulgaria.

Most importantly, I was able to bathe and wash my clothes. It had been 48 hours since my last shower, and I felt like a complete greaseball.

As a city, Skopje is interested in earthquakes because earthquakes have a thing about Skopje. The most recent earthquake stuck in 1963. The old railway station (built in 1938) was one victim, along with more than half the buildings in the city and 2,000 of its citizens. The ruins were left standing to serve as a monument to the devastation of the earthquake and the lives it claimed.

On the platform: Cyrillic alphabet on the left, Latin on the right.

The inscription on the wall no longer exists.

Day 44 … Friday, May 29
Skopje. To Lake Ohrid and back.

The town of Ohrid was a three-hour long trip each way by bus, but Rady had a long day at work, the ride was cheap, and I had ample time on my hands. One part of it that stands out in my memory was a woman listening to a transistor radio, and the song “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna playing hourly. Apparently pop radio worked just the same way in Yugoslavia.

Ohrid’s adjacent lake is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest. Lake Ohrid’s ecosystem is unique and much studied, and I’ve always been glad I endured the length of the commute. The Church of St. John Kaneo might be the most photographed man-made object in Ohrid.

Hermetic Albania was completely inaccessible, even if visible on the other side of the lake. It was the second time I could see Albania, but not touch it (spoiler alert: the time finally came in 1994).

Day 45 … Saturday, May 30

Skopje. Discussing import/export with Rady. Fruitful day

Day 46 … Sunday, May 31
Skopje. Evening with the boss man Rady

If memory serves, Rady was divorced or separated, and had a son, Milan, who lived with his mother. If I saw Milan during my visit, it was for a very brief time; he’d have been just a boy. There was time during the weekend to experience a bit more of Skopje, and once familiar with the location of the old bazaar area, I returned several times to eat grilled ćevap, a type of fragrant homemade sausage.

There was fish stew, too, though not the edible kind.

Riblja Čorba (Serbian Cyrillic: Рибља Чорба, pronounced [rîbʎaː t͡ʃɔ̌ːrba]; translation: Fish Stew) is a Serbian and Yugoslav rock band from Belgrade. The band was one of the most popular and most influential acts of the Yugoslav rock scene.

The poster reads 5 June 1987, which means I missed one of the region’s biggest names by less than a week.

A walk along the Vardar River provided this view of the Stone Bridge, completed by the Ottomans in 1469, and a symbol of Skopje ever since.

This crazed example of concrete Brutalism captured my attention in 1987, and again in 2017 when the slides were digitalized. It’s the post office complex, and the rest of the story is here.

The statue is a monument to the liberation of Skopje during World War II, and behind it can be seen the rebuilt walls and towers of the fortress, which in turn is near the historic bazaar.

Finally, one of the ubiquitous kiosks, this one located by a taxi rank. Most were clustered around transit points, and I loved them. While there might be seating space inside, most customers grabbed a beer and a sausage — eating, drinking and smoking while standing outside.

I was in Skopje long enough for several interesting side conversations to develop. One of these was the prospect of exporting Skopsko Pivo, the local lager beer. Neither my knowledge nor resources was sufficient to achieve this, but I promised to make contacts once having returned home.

Nothing came of it, as was the case with a friend of Alexander’s named Pero Dimchevski, who wanted to emigrate to the United States. Well into 1988, a correspondence managed to be kept tenuously alive, although the truth of the matter was that as with the beer importing idea, I simply didn’t have the wherewithal to help.

On Monday morning, June 1, Rady dropped me off at the bus station and I took my place as one of seven passengers to Sofia, Bulgaria — and the only American.

Time passed, and life went on. I’ve never seen any of these people again. Five years after my visit, Yugoslavia was in the process of consuming itself. The closest I’ve come to Skopje since 1987 was Albania.

Odd, the turnabout.

In 2008, it occurred to me to write about the Yugoslav segment of the 1987 trip, fragments of which made it into this 2017 narrative. The story of my acquaintance with Radojko “Rady” Petkovski on the Zagreb bound train was briefly told, wherein I mentioned searching his name on the internet and seeing a few highlights of his professional “earthquake engineer’s” publishing career.

Shortly after the piece was published here at the blog, this comment was made.

I googled the internet for the same reason as you did, and I found your text. My father was Radojko Petkovski, Prof D-r. seismologist, who maybe you met in the train, probably returning from his visit to his brothers in Slovenia. It gives me a smile to see that he made an impression on you during yours short trip together.

Sadly, he passed away on 1st of June 2007.

Best regards,

His son, Milan

P.S. I can write you what happened after, since most of my youth has gone through that bloody period, but it will just ruin my smile.

It’s always good to know, though knowing is sad. In the larger scheme of things, I’ve no idea whether Rady was a “good man.” At the advanced age of 57, I’m no longer certain how we measure such things, or whether we even can.

However, for those few springtime days in Skopje during that far-off time, Rady was extremely gracious and helpful to this fumbling and disorganized budget traveler. I’ll never forget Rady’s hospitality.

May he rest in peace.

Next: The yellow brick streets in Sofia.