Skopje: Brand new old city on the battlefront of the ketchup wars.

A few days ago, I posted a picture on Colin’s Notes’ Facebook page, featuring a modern-looking shopping mall near Skopje’s central bus station. My friend Angie, who had worked in the region almost ten years ago, asked me to take more pictures if I saw the new face of this part of the former Yugoslavia. As it turns out, not doing so would have been difficult. Simply put, the centre of Skopje is a gigantic construction zone. The project is called Skopje 2014 and is highly controversial.

A new Government building.

Not a single structure in this picture is not brand new or under construction. From left to right, the Museum of Archeology, the Financial Police Building, and two more I could not identify.

Same for this one, with the National Theatre and the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle. In total, the project includes 20 buildings and 40 monuments.

And the Macedonians are not building simple cubicle-filled concrete blocks. They are clearly trying to build themselves a capital with all the grandiose buildings found in other European countries. It is important to note that 80% of Skopje was destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake in 1963. The main criticism is that it is kitsch and instead of building modern buildings, the Government is trying to build a Disneyland-type fantasy classical city.

And they are not doing it on the cheap either: marble handrails for the pedestrian bridges. The estimates of costs, cost overruns and value for cost vary greatly but range, for sure, in the hundreds of millions of euros.

Away from the waterfront the sight is the same. In this shot: new facade for the Macedonian Parliament, new statue, and new twin deck buses!

New private office tower.

New Holocaust Museum.

New shopping centre.

New memorial, to the Fallen Heroes of Macedonia, which seemed to puzzle this old man.

Near the Government buildings, an enormous plaza, with statues and fountains.

And through the new triumphal arch, the Porta Macedonia, the statue of Alexandre the Great.

Actually, technically is it not a statue of Alexander the Great; it is called “Warrior on a Horse”. Of course, who else could it be? It certainly bears no resemblance to Mother Theresa. Apart for the Statue of Liberty, this is the most grandiose statue I have ever seen, and it sits on a fountain almost worthy of Las Vegas. Building it, but avoiding the name, might be a way to annoy the Greeks, but not too much. In case you did not know, Greece strongly opposes the name of the new Republic of Macedonia, because Macedonia is also the name of a Greek province. Officially, in the United Nations, Macedonia became a member under the temporary name “Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia – FYROM for short). I think the Greeks should worry about other things first. I know if New York State became a country and called itself the Republic of Quebec, I would just find it funny!

Alexander’s warriors now face an incessant and unbeatable attack of twirling water jets.

Given the incredible accomplishments of the young warrior king, I find it ironic that his statue now has to spend its days watching Heinz ketchup commercials.

A competing ketchup company goes a step further and parades people dressed as ketchup bottles. So that’s Alexander’s reality today; the ketchup wars.

After all this novelty, I wanted to see some of the city’s ancient monuments, so I headed for the Kale Fortress, atop the hill. It turned out to be closed to visitors because, you guessed it, they are rebuilding it.

Some people I talked to thought politicians were getting rich with the reconstruction projects, but I read nothing factual about this. Politically, the town was rather quiet, given that I visited in the middle of an election. They also thought the money would have been better spent helping people who live in these kind of houses.

Or these ones. No, wait this is my hotel! That’s what happens when you travel full-time, you get used to less than stellar accommodation. Inside, this place was actually quite nice, but the neighbourhood was less than ideal, as is often the case around a city’s bus station.

And finally, the old bazaar, just a short walk from all the construction, located across the river in Čair, one of Skopje’s 10 municipalities. It really felt a like a completely different country. Not surprising, since it is inhabited in majority by ethnic Albanians. If you also count the Turkish, Bosnian and Gypsy minorities, there’s not a lot of Macedonians left in Čair.

All in all, a very pleasant short stay in Skopje, but to my friends, I would recommend waiting a year or so before visiting. Instead of seeing a whole bunch of museums under construction, you will be able to actually visit them.


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