Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Las Vegas of the Balkans: Skopje

Skopje is probably the strangest city I have ever visited. Let's begin by saying that the capital of Macedonia is mostly new, because the city was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and also because most of its monuments were built in the last 6 years.
As a matter of fact, in 2010 many new statues, monuments and museum buildings were built thanks to a big project called "Skopje 2014". Most of them share a pompous neoclassical style that seems to mock Macedonia's neighbour, Greece. There are so many statues of famous Macedonians that local people laugh and say that every Macedonian by now has a statue somewhere in Skopje.

Statues in Skopje

The project was intended as a way to revitalize the city centre and make it more monumental, but it failed to gain consensus from the local population. Some of the new monuments (like the triumphal arch, a bad-taste imitation of the Roman ones) got hit by paint balls in protest against the corrupted government. The monuments and museum buildings intend to build an identity for a country that has almost never been independent in its history and whose name and symbols are not recognized by Greece.
Skopje's art bridge and the archaeological museum by night
The most famous and controversial monument is a 22-metre statue of a warrior on a horse sitting on top of a marble column and surrounded by fountain jets that are lit up at night. Most visitors recognize him to be Alexander the Great, a historical figure claimed by Greece as its own and that Macedonia uses freely (even the airport is called after him). This politics, sustained by the political party in power, is known as "antiquization" and it claims that ancient Macedonians were not in fact Greeks. According to  this theory, modern-day Macedonians, even though Slavic in language and culture, descend from the ancient Macedonians who once had an empire that reached India.

The huge statue of the Warrior in Skopje
As a result, the modern part of Skopje is kitsch, a sort of Las Vegas reconstruction of ancient Greece gone wrong. There are so many statues that it becomes hard to pay attention to any of them. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, Skopje is a unique and interesting city to visit. Contributing to this amusement-park atmosphere are the Chinese-built red double-deckers that you can see everywhere, an exact copy of the London ones.
In Italy macedonia is another name for fruit salad, a mix of very different elements, as Macedonia is, a meeting point of different cultures and religions. While walking on the southern bank of the Vardar river and passing by these huge new monuments, I was in an unmistakably Balkan city, even though the façades of Socialist buildings have been cleverly covered to give them a new look. 
This is  the area of the city where you can find trendy cafés and shops, but also Mother Teresa's memorial house, built in the place where she was baptised. Born in Skopje in 1910 of Catholic Albanian parents, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embeds the cultural mix of this city. The memorial house is free to visit and a new church in a curious neo Byzantine style is being built here.
Memorial house of Mother Teresa
To add to this mix, everywhere in the city you can see Roma families, with children playing in the streets. As a matter of fact, Skopje hosts one of the largest Roma settlements in the Balkans. I realized how much more of a mix it must have been in the past with Macedonian, Albanian and Roma people living side by side with Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish people, of whom little is left in present-day Skopje aside from plaques and small museums.

Statue of Mother Teresa

On the northern bank of the river lies Çarshia, the old bazaar, which is known by locals as the Albanian neighbourhood (here Albanian is almost synonym with Ottoman). 20% of the population of Skopje (and 25% of all Macedonia) is of Albanian heritage and all official plaques are in both Macedonian and Albanian. I wandered for a couple of hours through reconstructed caravanserai, old mosques and Turkish baths, some of them reconverted as art galleries or museums. The Çifte Hamam, for example, now holds the national gallery, with plenty of contemporary paintings and installations from Macedonian artists.
Çifte Hamam
The Kurşumli Han is one of the few remaining caravanserai (the roadside inns of Ottaman times) in Skopje and it now hosts the modest Museum of Macedonia. A world apart from the opulent new museums, this area is more traditional, even though little is left of old Skopje and all the shops sell modern goods. While you walk though its paved streets, you can always spot the minaret of a mosque.
Old Baazar, Skopje
The two worlds - the Slavic and the Albanian - run virtually parallel one to the other and sadly there is not much interchange between the two. To divide these two parts of the city there is the 15th-century Stone Bridge, one of the few things left from the time of the Ottoman empire.

View of Skopje and the Stone Bridge

No comments:

Post a Comment

01 09 10