Macedonian Disneyland

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was on my list of must-see places. I headed there from Ohrid on a regular bus. But we are in the Balkans, so on the road the bus broke down, in the afternoon heat we waited for a replacement bus, so instead of three hours as declared the trip took over five. On arrival in Skopje I now had less than half a day to see it. I hastily checked in into a random hostel by the bus station and run to see the city.

The first thing I saw were the bridges over the Vardar river. Each one of them was decorated – I would even say crowded – with incredible number of statues of all kinds of famous and less famous characters.

Мост Око, the Eye Bridge:

The same bridge – it leads towards the Archeological Museum of Macedonia. The building of the museum is rather curious. From this vantage point it appears very impressive, you imagine a huge building extending behind the glorious façade. In fact the building is very narrow, there is practically nothing else but the façade that runs along the river. This is a kind of a leitmotif of everything in Skopje. The wildly exuberant form that dismisses the substance.

The historical Камени Мост, Stone Bridge. It was built by the Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror on Roman foundations. It connects the modern city in the South – focused on Macedonia Square – with Čaršija, the Old Turkish quarter in the North. This spatial division of the city reflects a key dichotomy in Macedonia – the one between the majority Macedonians who correspond to the modern town and the minority Albanians who occupy Čaršija.

Looking South from the Stone Bridge we observe the main square of the city, Macedonia Square, and of course Warrior on a Horse statue that dominates. Make no mistake – Warrior on a Horse is its official name, although no one would ignore the fact that it depicts Alexander the Great.

Up until today, the formal name of Macedonia in the eyes of various international organisations, such as the UN, the EU and NATO, is F.Y.R.O.M. = Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This is due to the firm refusal of Greece to recognise Macedonia as F.Y.R.O.M.’s official name. The reason is that the Greeks consider that only they are the true heirs of the historical Kingdom of Macedonia, the one that Alexander the Great ruled. There is also a Greek province called Macedonia, with the capital in Thessaloniki, which borders Macedonia the country. From the Greek perspective, to let Macedonia own its name is to accept its historical continuity with the ancient Macedonia and to give it a pretext to demand Greek territory.

The Balkans are a complicated place. As a matter in fact, as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart in 19th century, the borders here have been shifting many times. There were three Balkan wars involving Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and others. After each war the borders like ocean waves moved this way and that. For example the Thessaloniki-centered area that we perceive today as Northern Greece for a number of years formed part of the country of Bulgaria. The Greek fears therefore are not entirely without basis. Of course in the Europe of today it seems absurd to fear that a neighbour would start moving your borders by force. (Unless your neighbour is Russia.)

The statue-erecting fever that has taken hold of the Macedonian capital is no doubt a way making a decisive statement in the debate about the identity and the historical continuity. And yet when the Macedonians built the gigantesque Alexander in the very centre of their capital, it led to such a scandal that they had to retreat and call it Воин на коњ, Warrior on a Horse. Sure.

Warrior on a Horse by night:

If you look down on the river, with some surprise you discover the city beach “Stone Bridge”, as a board declares. Seems like only men are in the mood for getting some sun on the “beach”.

Central Skopje really does look like Disneyland. Statues of all thinkable historical characters are standing next to each other in a tight circle, as if trying to prevent Warrior on a Horse from galloping away in terror. Car Samoil, Cyril and Methodius, Philip II of Macedon, Emperor Justinian and so on and so forth. As I was walking around in astonishment, I could think of only one compliment – I’ve never seen anything like it. The locals though seem to be quite content to do their evening passeggiata in this amusement park.

A little furhter to the North you reach the historical Ottoman quarter.

Inside Sveti Spas church, the main church of Macedonia, the iconostasis is considered the main attraction.

From outside the church looks buried into the ground. The reason is that in the Ottoman times the Christian churches could not be built taller than mosques. Although the Ottoman Empire was a relatively tolerant state in religious terms for its time, to demonstrate your Christian affiliation too strongly would have been unwise.

The streets of Čaršija:

Muhammad Pasha mosque in Čaršija – one of the many still functioning historical mosques in the centre of Skopje.

From Čaršija I climbed the Kale Fortress that dominates over Skopje. It is being restored currently but is in fact open. Some views of the Fortress and Skopje from it:

One of the main tourist attractions of Skopje is the Memorial House of Mother Theresa. Although she was ethnic Albanian, Mother Theresa was born and grew up in Skopje and called herself “a citizen of Skopje” till her last day. Today Skopje does its best to reclaim her as one of its own – to the detriment of others, as I wrote in the post about Kosovo. This House is not the original house where she was born – that one no longer exists. But it’s a fascinating place nonetheless.

This room on the second floor of the museum attempts to give an idea of the living conditions in the actual house she was born in. You can also see a number of curious photographs of her childhood.

The catholic chapel on the third floor:

Right behind the Memorial House a huge church is being built – I assume it’s Catholic, although Macedonia is of course majority Orthodox.

I guess the most traditional way of preparing food is using hot pots. This dish – called Tava Antiko – is a speciality of the eponymous Antiko restaurant in Ohrid. A juice mix of meat, cheese and vegetables.

One more dish in the same style, this time in Skopje. It’s called selsko meso – “peasant meat”.

With my obsession with mushrooms, in the wonderful Palester restaurant I simply had to check out the item simply called “mushrooms”. The waitresses could not provide any specifications despite my pleas – I was wary of getting simple champignons – but it turned out to be a delicious serving of huge forest goodies.

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