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I arrived in Skopje Macedonia a little lighter than expected thanks to Jat Airways forcing me to check my carry-on bag and then promptly proceeding to leave it behind in Belgrade. With a completed claim form in hand and a promise that it would be delivered to my hotel the following morning (I was certain I would never see it again) I caught a cab into town to check out Skopje.
When Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it was the only nation to do so without a fight…from Yugoslavia, anyway.
Greece immediately protested – accusing the new country of staking claims to Greek territory and trying to separate ancient Macedonian civilization from Hellenic culture. Athens refused to recognize the Macedonian name or flag and organized an embargo which was later lifted when Macedonia agreed to be referred to internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia.
To this day, both sides are still negotiating a new name and tensions remain.
I checked into the Stone Bridge Hotel, dropped what little stuff I had and crossed the 15th century stone bridge over the Vardar River to explore a little before dark.
Two things immediately struck me about Skopje. One, the entire downtown area is a massive construction zone. Cranes loom overhead, buildings are completely obscured behind scaffolding and piles of cobblestone rubble mark every corner. I wondered if I’d missed a memo and Skopje had just been awarded the Olympic Games and needed to spruce the place up a bit.
The second thing it would be impossible to miss about Skopje are the dozens of enormous statues scattered about. After a little research, I discovered both of these observations are directly related to the comprehensive and controversial “Skopje 2014” renovation project currently underway in the downtown area.
The expensive, sweeping program consists of fifteen grand building projects, including a new foreign ministry, constitutional courts, statues and public spaces. Older state buildings, such as the Parliament are due to get complete face-lifts, as well as new decorative features. Seventeen different monumental statues of great and historic locals, assorted intellectual heroes and an enormous statue of Alexander the Great are planned.
Recently christened in Skopje’s central square, the 30 ton, 47-ft tall bronze statue of Alexander the Great has further aggravated relations with Greece who accuse the Macedonians of trying to appropriate Greek culture. In other “thumb in the eye” news toward the Greeks, the current government has also given the Alexander the Great name to Skopje’s airport, a highway and a stadium. Keep it classy, Macedonia.
In the view of many here in Macedonia (a nation of two million with a 31% unemployment rate) the neighbors have been bullying this struggling little Balkan nation for a long time. If it can’t have riches, it wants recognition. Playing up ties to an ancient global celebrity seems to inspire national pride in the local community.
After a powerful earthquake in 1963, downtown Skopje was rebuilt in colorless, block concrete soviet style. Believing the city was lacking in aesthetic virtues and seeking a way to build the economy with direct investment, the government conceived the Skopje 2014 plan.
Supporters characterize the plan as the key to revitalizing the depressed city, but the program has drawn criticism both domestically and from abroad. Domestic critics say the plan is a waste of vital funds (more than 200 million euro) that would be better spent building roads and upgrading infrastructure.
One local critic said, “Only in Macedonia the people live in poverty and the authorities throw millions on splendor.”
But the program continues apace and despite the absurdity of the ubiquitous giant statues, I would image the renovation will be quite impressive once it’s finally completed.
The next day, my suitcase actually did arrive at the hotel as promised. I pronounced it a Macedonian miracle and briefly considered buying a lottery ticket.
I spent the rest of the day wandering through the old Turkish bazaar and around the city fort of Tvrdina Kale (it was closed) before settling into a café along the modern ul Makedonija for lunch.
Later that afternoon, I made a trip to the bus station to buy my overnight bus ticket to Sofia, Bulgaria for later that night. Six hours on the overnight bus, coming up!
I’m not sure I’d recommend a trip to Skopje, Macedonia at the moment. Perhaps if you’re some kind of construction or statue connoisseur, you might enjoy it.
Otherwise, I’d wait until 2014 and give it another try. It might surprise you.