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North Macedonia 2021: Part 1

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

20th August:

It was a weird quirk that the only car colours I saw on my first drive into Skopje were either white, grey, or black. I’m not sure what metaphor is hidden in that observation, but feel free to experiment for yourself.

If I didn't already know how small Skopje is, I might have assumed we were passing through a different city on the way. The capital of North Macedonia is about the size of Liverpool, population-wise. You can certainly feel it; this is not the same as the other capitals I’ve been to so far. The atmosphere is different on a fundamental level. Case in point, I went out for the first evening to explore the city and find some food. I was confused by the contrast between architectural styles and the hundreds of statues everywhere. I couldn’t tell where the city centre was, but assumed it was around the massive statue of Alexander the Great in the main square. However, if you walked one street in any direction, you’d be back into nondescript surroundings. No grand avenues here to draw your attention, but plenty of statues and random monumental architecture set against buildings that were unfinished or falling apart. Even the hostel is covered in scaffolding. The burrito I ended up with for dinner (recommended by a woman at the hostel) was terrible. For a first night, it wasn’t exactly the best impression.

The second day was a little better, insofar as I finally gained some context for why the city is the way it is. I took part in a free tour of Skopje (one of 3 people) and learnt about the specifics. Did you know that the reason so many of the buses here are modelled after London Route-Master buses is because of an earthquake in 1963 that destroyed about 80% of the city. Britain’s contribution to the rebuilding effort was to send 5 buses from London to help with their decimated public transport system. The people loved them so much, that after Britain took them back after 3 years (rude) they adopted the style for the new buses. That was a fun fact. Less fun to discover was the story behind the statues and monuments. The previous government wanted to rejuvenate national pride, and part of that effort involved commissioning hundreds of marble and bronze statues. So many were produced that there was a national shortage of tin and copper after the project was completed. So many were produced that they outpaced the space available to display them; they are everywhere they can possible be. The statue subjects were random. There was no contextual relevance taken into consideration outside of a few deliberate placements, such as the Eye Bridge and the Bridge of Art. The statues there were dedicated to historical figures of great significance to Macedonia, “and others”. I didn’t recognise any of the local figures. I wondered if foreign figures had been included so the bridge could be filled. Perhaps my ignorance has created an unconscious prejudice.

A specific statue pointed out by the guide was a bronze bull - symbol of the stock exchange - about a mile away from the stock market.

“Don’t invest in the Macedonian stock market, you will lose all your money,” was the guide's advice.

Additionally, all the newer building projects scattered around the city have no architectural consistency. They were built in this style to “pivot” the cultural dial of the country towards Western Europe, to connect it to that legacy over the more recent legacy of the Cold War. To prove the hollowness of the attempt, the guide pointed us towards a triumphal arch at the entrance to the main square. There was no meaning behind its construction, the guide said, because there were no great military victories to celebrate. Instead, it’s used to celebrate sports events as nobody’s sure what to do.

“But Alex,” you shout in unison, “what about all the victories Alexander the Great won? Are they not dedicated to those?” First, there’s no need to shout, I’m right here. Secondly, that question has a pretty incredible answer. I mentioned earlier that in the centre of the city is a colossal statue of Alexander the Great. Greece was vetoing Macedonia’s (then referred to as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”) candidacy for the EU in part because the name of the statue, “Alexander the Great”, suggested that he was a Macedonian figure instead of Greek. The compromise agreed was to change its name to “Warrior on a Horse”, as was the country’s name changed to North Macedonia to distinguish it from the Greek province of Macedonia. I was amazed by the story for all the wrong reasons. Politics can be so petty.

Yet the surroundings were also jarring. Here in the centre was the “Warrior”, rearing back on his horse, sword aloft, supported by a giant column decorated with scenes of his great victories. Around the base are several statues of hoplites ringed by fountains. This beautiful display of national pride is opposite two casinos housed in some of the best-looking buildings on the square. Scarcely a hundred metres down the road is an unfinished high-rise next to that triumphal arch. It is demonstrative, said the guide, of the corruption of previous governments: instead of rejuvenating the city, they painted over the mould. He pointed out the Danish-style caravel replicas in the shallow river. Another sign of corruption, rented to friends of the government for a fraction of the price you’d expect. There is no historical association with those types of ships, and they clash even with the classical style constructs they commissioned. It felt to me a soulless city, denied its history by outside influences, and its identity muddled by corrupt governance and vanity projects. Our guide clearly loves his city, but it’s hard to ignore the dust.

Then again, after the 1963 earthquake, almost all the city was destroyed. The old train station is mostly missing and now converted into a museum, but the clock stopped at exactly the time of the disaster. It’s probably too harsh of me to accuse the city of lacking soul when the soul was unceremoniously ripped away, just as they had to surrender the most famous aspects of their cultural legacy to appease their southern neighbour. “North Macedonia” was not a popular name change, the guide tells us. It sounded like they were less than whole. I suppose it’s too early for me to conclude, and I worry I’m drawing the wrong conclusions. At the very least, I can recommend the guided tour. It told me more about the city and country than I ever would have discovered by myself. And all for free!

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