If I would like to make a list of the ugliest cities I’ve been to, somewhere between Przasnysz and Slough, there would be a place for Skopje. But, if I would like to make a list of the most beautiful cities… there would be a place for Skopje too. Ugly? Beautiful? Does it really matter anyway? What matters is that the capital of Macedonia will stay in your mind long after you will leave it. Why is Skopje so special?
Back in time
I am old enough to remember how Poland looked like in the nineties. Grey blockhouses. Terrible roads. Booths where you could buy literally anything. Chaotic, untidy streets. The country was slowly awaking, but was also confused and didn’t exactly know what to do after such a long slumber. The stamps of communistic boots were still visible in its face. Oh, cigarettes costed fifty pence. The first impression of Skopje was just like that – we go twenty years back. Getting to the city by a coach, we can see bleak suburbs – crumbling blockhouses and neglected yards. Poverty and hopelessness are looking through our window. Main bus station is a ghastly post-soviet block. But busy and buzzing. There are thirty-year-old red Ikarus buses everywhere. I don’t know why, but somehow I already like it here.
Be my guest
Looking for a cheap accomodation, we have found backpackers hostel, in the blockhouse few steps from the bus station. Really hard to find without a map. Really modest and unpretentious place, but we are not searching for amenities. It’s clean, tidy and, what’s more important, the atmosphere is great. We have a nice chat with the young owner. She’s got that traveller’s spirit. You can tell that also by hostel’s decoration. In a tidy garden we can see the owner’s family. They are smiling and waving us welcome. We feel like home. You can go to London, Barcelona or other cities with millions of tourists. Not many people will see a human being in you. You will be just another invoice number. In Skopje, people will show you their interest. They care. They ask where are you from? What do you do for living? Where are you going to? What the hell are you doing in their small country, in the forsaken part of Europe?
The first walk on the centre of Skopje is a shocking experience. Central part of the city is enormous Macedonia Square. Let’s take a look around… We can see a huge statue of Warrior on a Horse. Its his official name, but, in fact, it’s Alexander the Great. Next, we can see… hundreds of other monuments. H-U-N-D-R-E-D-S. Legions of monuments surround us. Mother Teresa, various saints, heroes, kings, symbolic figures, animals… It seems that in Skopje there is more statues than people. They are everywhere – small, average and giant ones. They are on the buildings, streets, bridges (oh, there’s a lot of bridges too – I counted five in the distance of half a mile), parks and totally random places. We are also surrounded by colossal museums and government buildings with classical appeal. Add to that modern office buildings and restaurants, outdated shopping centre and, on the bank of river… merry-go-round with horses. Two galleon-shaped restaurants (?) are being constructed on the river. There is also a triumphal arch. Pure grotesque. You have no idea what’s going on here, but it’s pretty cool.
This is war
To try to understand, why does Skopje look like a madman’s dream, you need to roughly know Macedonia’s history and their conflict with Greece. In short, Greeks don’t like using name Macedonia by the Republic of Macedonia… Want to know more? Here’s a link to Wikipedia. A bizarre playground, which is the capital of Macedonia, is the government’s work. Project Skopje 2014 was financed with the purpose of giving the capital more classical-era appeal, and of filling residents with pride, of course. The other purpose was to simply irritate Greeks and to underline ‘ancient’ history of Macedonia. The Government spent a pretty penny for that ideological and historical war. Buildings in the centre cost around 500 millions euros. Now go back to the first paragraph, where I wrote about crumbling buildings… Macedonia is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
A colourful city
To make your Skopje walk even more unusual… Most of the government buildings and monuments are stained with paint in every colour possible. A few months ago there was so-called Colourful Revolution in Macedonia. Thousands of people have taken part in the anti-government demonstrations. The crowds on the streets protested against president, corrupted authorities and general political situation in the country. People lost their patience after the wiretapping scandal, which involved over 50 officials. Protesters have used paint-filled ballons to target Skopje 2014 project buildings and monuments.
Is it Istanbul?
Let’s leave Macedonia’s problems for a while. Skopje is not only the absurd architecture. Just go on the other side of the river. After 10-minute walk you will get to Čaršija – The Old Bazaar. It seems like a completely different town. Like a town in Turkey or Albania. Well, don’t be surprised – Čaršija is inhabited mostly by muslim Albanians. It’s the most charming part of Skopje. Mosques, Turkish baths and booths make it hard to believe that it’s still Europe. After vast spaces and huge buildings in Macedonia Square, it’s really nice to walk in narrow, shady streets. In the countless cafés, you can try strong, good coffee and delicious baklava. On every corner there is a kebab bar or restaurant with Turkish food. Lots of tourists, but you will surely find a table. Prices are suprisingly low, even for Macedonian standards. Čaršija is especially nice in the night. The must-see is the large marketplace, where you can buy fresh and cheap fruit, vegetables and spices. And anything else.
Just go there!
I am not a big fan of cities. I mentioned that few times on this blog. But Skopje is a special city. I will always remember it. And I will miss it. A bizarre mix of socialist realism, classicism, the orient and the modernity maybe won’t win your hearts, but will surely keep you interested. If you think you can handle that mix… book your tickets today. There is many really cheap flights. There’s still not so many tourists in Skopje (and Macedonia in general), but there is a big chance that it will change very soon. There is a great potential in this country.
One more thing. Not long after our departure Skopje was hit by several rainstorms. They resulted in very strong winds and floods. At least twenty people died, many more were injured or missing. As if Macedonians didn’t have enough problems. We hope that they are doing alright now. Someday we will go there again. We will sit with the pint of cold Skopsko beer. We will have a nice chat. Like a Pole and a Macedonian. Like old pals.