”Most of what bemused me about the city today wasn’t even here a decade ago. Millions have been spent in recent years turning the centre of the city into something of a bizarre theme park of garish architecture – some 130 structures (buildings, statues, bridges, water features, and even a triumphal arch) were erected between 2010 and 2014 as part of the Skopje 2014 project, one of Europe’s biggest urban renewal schemes centred around both banks of the city’s Vardar River.”
Image || Crossing the iconic Stone Bridge in Skopje, Macedonia. April 24, 2017.
Yesterday I left Pristina, Kosovo, a Balkan capital that hasn’t a bean to rub together, to arrive in another Balkan capital – this one – that has spent many hundreds of millions of dollors turning its city centre into something of a tacky mock-up of a Las Vegas-esque mock-up, if you follow? It’s quite the sight and even after two days of exploration I still don’t know what to make of the revamped Macedonian capital of Skopje.
dMb Country Overview - Macedonia
Region – Southeastern Europe/The Balkans (dMb tag: The Balkans). Capital – Skopje. Population – 2 million-plus. Official Languages – Macedonian, Albanian. Currency – Macedonian Denar (MKD) GDP (nominal) per capita – US$6,140 Political System – Unitary parliamentary republic. EU Member? – No (as of April 2017). UN Member? – Yes (admitted April 1993 using the name, under the instance of neighbouring Greece, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)). G20 Member? – No. Size – 25,700 km² (Europe’s 14th smallest country is approximately half the size of Costa Rica and slightly larger than the US state of Vermont). Topography – Mountainous and rugged. Brief History – It’s complicated, as Balkan history tends to be. Inhabited since Neolithic times, the region was the homeland of one Alexander III of Macedon (aka Alexander the Great, born in Pella in present-day Greek region of Macedonia in 365 BC) who set forth from here to conquer the ancient world in the 4th century BC. The Romans held sway (from approx. 160BC), the Byzantines (from 395 AD), the Bulgarians, Serbia, and finally the Ottoman Turks who ruled for over half a century (from 1389 to 1912). Then came almost a century of more upheaval and Yugoslav Communist rule, before independence in 1991, something of a novelty up to that point for the long-oppressed Macedonians. Formation/Independence – 1991 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (and in what was the only peaceful withdrawal of the former Yugoslav army from any of its former republics). UNESCO World Heritage sites – 1. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – Macedonia Timeless. Famous For – Alexander the Great; Mother Theresa (born in Skopje); Lake Ohrid. Highlights – Shimmering Lake Ohrid, the jewel in Macedonia’s crown; remnants of the ancient past – Roman ruins and Byzantine-era churches; wilderness hikes; garish ‘New’ Skopje.
Name Note (2019 Update): – What’s in a name? A lot, seemingly. The naming of this little country has always been a thorny issue, one that has stoked tensions with neighbouring Greece for close on 3 decades now – Greece felt that the use of the name Macedonia following the mini-state’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 constituted a territorial claim on its own northern region of the same name (international recognition of Macedonia’s independence was delayed by Greece’s objection to the new state’s use of what Greece considered a “Hellenic name and symbols.” Greece finally lifted its trade blockade in 1995 and the two countries agreed to normalise relations, this despite continued disagreement over the use of “Macedonia” in the name). Since independence Macedonia was forced to call itself the rather convoluted Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on the international stage, a title given to it by the UN and a title the Greeks were happy to roll with, even if 132 countries had recognised it as the Republic of Macedonia, its former constitutional name. In a bid to end one of Europe’s longest-enduring diplomatic rifts, and after years of negotiations, the country agreed, in 2019, to prepend the word ‘North’ to its name to help distinguish itself from the neighbouring northern Greek region, a move the Macedonians hope will accelerate its path to eventual EU accession. On my two visits to the country (in 2007 and 2017), the country was called (the Republic of) Macedonia and is thus referenced as such throughout my postings as opposed to its new official name of (the Republic of) North Macedonia.
Visits – 2 (April 2017 and September 2017). Where I went/What I saw – Ohrid (2007 & 2017); Skopje (2017).
This isn’t my first Skopje rodeo. I was first here during the summer of 2007. That was a brief sojurn and I don’t remember a whole lot about the 2007 city of Skopje, but it certainly wasn’t back then what it is now (trust me, I’d have remembered). Skopje 2014 has been and gone in the interim, and just look at what it has left in its wake.
White white elephants stand out. A lot of white white elephants really stand out. Most of what bemused me about the city today wasn’t even here a decade ago. Millions have been spent in recent years turning the centre of the city into something of a bizarre theme park of garish architecture – some 130 structures (buildings, statues, bridges, water features, and even a triumphal arch) were erected between 2010 and 2014 as part of the Skopje 2014 project, one of Europe’s biggest urban renewal schemes centred around both banks of the city’s Vardar River. The over-the-top building bonanza, estimated to cost a whopping US$700 million, was financed by the then Macedonian government. Its official purpose was to give the city a more aesthetically pleasing and classical appeal (and it’s wholly subjective as to whether it succeeded or not), but simultaneously it served to advance the overtly nationalist government’s so-called “antiquisation” policy: at a time when Macedonia’s identity was perceived under threat because of the long-running dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia, the policy, it is believed, sought to claim ancient Macedonian figures like Alexander the Great and Philip II of Macedon as national heroes, much to the ire of the Greeks (both were born in Pella in the present-day northern Greek region of Macedonia). While some might have lauded the project’s ambition to create a showpiece Balkan capital that both boosted national pride and built a national identity (even though this is a nation that already boasted an oh-so complex and fascinating history), the project was widely derided by architects, locals (who dismissed its works as nationalistic kitsch), and subsequent governments, the latter obviously keen to redress the antagonistic overtures of the past in a bid to improve regional relations – in early 2018 some of the project’s more controversial structures were removed altogether while the remaining structures were renamed and marked with inscriptions honouring Greek-Macedonian friendship.
Thankfully there’s more to Skopje than city centre kitsch, and it’s a tale of two cities once you get away from the banks of the Vardar River which conveniently divides the city into distinct north and south districts: north of the river is the older part of the city where the you’ll find the cafes, kabab shops, Orthodox churches, and Ottoman-era mosques among the cobbled lanes of the Old Bazaar/Stara Carsija, not to mention the stunning views from the reconstructed walls of Skopje/Kale Fortress, the highest point and oldest structure in the city; whereas south of the river, the so-called New Centre, is home to a proliferation of classical Communist-era Eastern European concrete, most of which was hastily erected following the devastation caused by the 1963 earthquake that rocked the city, changing it forever.
Crossing the Stone Bridge over the Vardar River and negotiating a path past the proliferation of Skopje 2014 statues brings you to the lanes of the city’s Old Bazaar/Stara Carsija, the historical core of the city. Well removed from the socialist era buildings found south of the Vardar River, there’s very little here that is dull and boxy.