After two weeks we finally made it to Skopje. I visited the Macedonian capital 12 years ago and remember finding particularly the river front a wasteland with derelict concrete buildings from the years of Yugoslavian communism. A run down yet magical place.
The Skopje I once got a taste of no longer exists. The city we spent our last night in is not the city I knew back then.
We started in Dubrovnik, where the Game of Thrones fever had turned the inner city into King’s Landing with GoT merchandise and tour groups analysing the television-series to the bone.
We are ending up in a city which looks like the temporarily built setting for an imperial world in the Star Wars universe with large white neo-classical buildings and thousands – and I mean thousands – of statues. While it looks like a setting from Star Wars, it also brings associations to the bombastic and over-the-top architecture and art of the Soviet Union. It seems as if it can’t get big and opulent enough, with the white neo-classical houses and the unknown number of massive statues of people – famous and not so famous.
One of the government’s arguments for this total revamp of Skopje is to rebuilt the city in the light of what it was prior to the massive 1962 earthquake. Sadly, the faux-European style mastodon buildings seem disconnected to reality and one large battle for euro-nationalist trends in a Macedonia which seems to have forgotten the equally central cultural and historical past of its Albanian population.
It is tacky and bad taste and, as so many locals inform us, evidence of the crime and corruption which is running the country. According to Balkan Insight, the so-called Project Skopje 2014 has so far cost 670 million euros. I really do not recognise Skopje at all.
After returning home I have read that a new government which took over in the spring intends to halt the project and restore some of the buildings to before 2010. That is removing columns and statues. There is agreement amongst architects that the government headquarters which was built by famous architect Petar Mulickovski in 1970 and which in 2014 was revamped from its modernist look to a replica of the US White House should be restored to its original look. Hopefully the worst disasters will be undone though again it will cost money.
Days in Skopje
We arrived around midday from Prizren with the good fortune of a front row seat in the bus. Tired but pleased to have made it this far we found our hostel with a detour by a confused taxi driver. Not only did he request 500 dinars and then end up with a meter stating only 86 dinars, he also misread the address after five minutes checking the map on my phone and let us off on the wrong side of the river with the message that the car could go no further and we had to walk. I only paid the meter money for that tour.
After a short break and a shower in yet another well air-conditioned room we ventured out into the streets of Skopje starting with lunch at the lovely Old City House Restaurant only two minutes from our hostel.
After too many days with pizza and biftek as the only options we finally found a place which offered excellent and local food. We started with ‘Dried Plum and Pancetta Kebab’ and ‘Canapes with Pinjur’, whereafter we got the ‘Old House Pot’ and the ‘Smothered Lamb’. All of it was delicious and if we’d had more time in Skopje, we would definitely have returned.
Before our trip to the Balkans, yet unfortunately after we had booked the flights, we’d discovered that this years Super Cup was to be held in the Macedonian capital. This is an event which I have never previously heard about though during our visits we were constantly informed by locals that it was the biggest football event of the year.
Super Cup is the match between the winners of Champions League and the winners of Europa League. This year that meant Real Madrid and Manchester United. The fact that we had to leave on the same day as the match was heart-breaking, because this might have been the only real chance for mortals like us to watch such a match between two of European football’s greatest giants.
However, we survived and at Macedonia Square we got to experience some of the football fever and see the three trophies on display. Or replicas probably. We got to experience how the entire city was full of Man U flags and football fever.
The Copy/Paste Syndrome
On our second day in Skopje and last day of the vacation, we started out with a walking tour of the Macedonian capital, eager to hear more about not only the history of Skopje, but also the massive development of the last decade.
Our tour guide was very accommodating in offering both.
It seems not everyone is happy with the new neo-classical high-rises and our guide was far from the first who had offered his opinion on the underlying corruption and addiction to commission fees. But unlike many of the locals we had quickly chatted with, he was able to give a more fulfilling account of the development of the city and the possible future development.
Project Skopje 2014 was announced in 2010 and at the time consisted of around 40 buildings, monuments, facades and sculptures. Today the number has more than tripled and I imagine that it would be impossible to count the number of statues included in the project.
Our guide was far from pleased with the result and called much of what has been done a symptom of the governments copy-paste syndrome. Why on earth, did he ask, does Skopje need a Triumphal Arc worth 4.4 million euros, when the country has not had a victory in the last 500 years. He particularly feared the rumours of a planned copy of the Spanish Steps in Rome.
He also told us that the massive statue of Alexander the Great, which is called Warrior on a Horse, because Greece seems to think they have patent on the name of a 2300 year old warrior, has cost 8.2 million euros to construct and is 14.5 meters high. Thessaloniki in Greece is apparently constructing one that is even larger.
A game of mine is bigger than yours has been added to this sad animosity between two neighbours who could gain so much from each other and through facing their shared past together rather than fighting over names and historical figures.
However, if there is one historical personality which the Greek cannot claim it is Mother Teresa born 1910 in Skopje. A shop owner told us that the government is currently building the platform for a massive 30 metres high Mother Teresa statue. I wonder what she would be thinking of being immortalised in such an opulent way.
After walking across the River Vardar and past the massive new statue of Philip II King of Macedonia and Alexander the Great’s father, we entered the old and much more authentic and picturesque old town.
Here we were treated to rakija and cold water at a local restaurant before we entered one of the old towns many cavanserais Kapan Han from the 15th century. Skopje old town is dotted with old Ottoman cavanserais or inns, which were used for people travelling to stay over night.
We’d seen one in Lefkosia in the spring and now this one. I have a particular liking for these cultural and historical buildings, not only because they are always very beautiful, but also because they tell a story of how people have travelled and crossed borders long before our time.
After walking through the old town we took the road to the fortress. It was 42°C and I was boiling like a lobster, but our very competent guide had a spot under a tree at the top ready for us to cool off in the shadow and breeze.
The tour ended after we got down from the fortress and my boyfriend and I found a local bar where we sat down for a drink. I took the chance to shortly visit the Mustafa Pasha Mosque which is one of the most remarkable architectonical and cultural buildings of Skopje and smack in the middle of the old town far from the new building boom.
Just like in Prizren I felt a sincere sense of calm in Mustafa Pasha and enjoyed the fact that a few were still praying.
Afterwards we ventured into the Old Bazaar to window gaze at all the filigree shops. While the Old Bazaar has not undergone new development projects it has definitely seen a restoration process since I was last here. Everything is very neat and tidy and all the shops cater to tourists.
The locals go to the real bazaar. Whether it is old I do not know, but behind the Old Bazaar you will come across a massive indoor market with foods and vegetables, household items and clothes – and most importantly – all the local inhabitants whom are not to be found anywhere near Old Bazaar. This is the authentic Skopje, and a magnificent place to get lost.
It stands as the best part of our Skopje visit, and I sincerely hope the many development projects of the Macedonian government wont destroy it or turn it into something else. We bought a set of tea glasses here for 2 euros which I look forward to using at home.
As our vacation has come to an end, I can only say that I am very happy to have seen Skopje last. The melancholy from seeing how much the city has changed would not have been a great companion earlier on. Both my visits to Dubrovnik and Kotor felt like coming home, but Skopje feels like meeting an old friend who has changed so much that you do not recognise each other at first.