Tuesday 21 April
“We’re buying chocolate when we can’t afford bread”, or words to that effect, apparently delivered by the Macedonian government’s opposition leader in response to the state of the country today. He’s got a point. As I cross a new border in for what feels like forever, I’m struck by how much of the countryside could do with some shake n’ vac. Now I don’t like to tarnish the whole nation with the same brush, but by and large the overall impression I get as the bus swings through scattered villages, is that it’s one giant rubbish dump. Stark contrast to the capital Skopje. Chocolate where bread is needed.
It’s here that the old meets the new, and the strange meets the stranger. As you wander from one part of the town to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the monuments are scrupulously clean. They’ve done a damn fine job in sandblasting the ancient history here! Ahhhh but you are deceived! Because literally everything has been thrown up in the past few years. Your eyes turn to the crane littered skyline. The endless building site barriers festooned with One Republic world tour posters. The mountains of concrete, bricks and glass. For this side of the river at least, Skopje is having one hell of a face lift.
The centre was decimated by a massive earthquake in 1963 or thereabouts. The recent government has therefore taken it upon themselves to restore the city to its former glory, and are clearly getting the money from somewhere. One could ask Mother Teresa (Macedonia’s most famous daughter) exactly the same thing; and what was it all spent on? The cogs turn on in the corridors of power and corruption.
Regardless they’re doing a grand job. On the South bank of the river Vardar, Skopje is turning into a modern playground, and you have to say it’s got potential. It’s a hotch potch of ideas (and some designer somewhere has been hammering the acid), but by and large it works. It’s uniquely charming with strange statues and random sculptures, brand new public squares, and three bizarre half galleon ships built into the river presumably for restaurants and night life. One can see Skopje attempting to prise the stag and hen crowd from the likes of the big hitters of Krakow, Riga, Bucharest and Prague.
The North bank, over the old stone bridge, is decidedly different. Here the famous Old Bazaar is located, a beautiful labyrinth of Turkish influence, with shades of Sarajevo, and throwbacks to the Ottoman Empire. And they do the best damn ćevapčići you’re likely to taste in the Balkans. Fort Kale sits dominating the proceedings from its vantage point on the hill, and has quite the view from the top. This looks like it’s getting its own makeover, and it takes a few moments for the penny to drop that this isn’t that old at all. It appears to be being rebuilt from the ground up. They don’t miss a trick these Macedonians! Interestingly enough, “Kale” is an old Turkish word for “Fort”; so it tickled me to know its name must literally be “Fort Fort”. I had a chuckle to myself. Traveling solo has its drawbacks when there’s nobody around to exalt such rapier wit.
With the beautiful outdoor playgrounds of mount Vodno and Matka gorge a stones throw away, and you’ve got a vibrant city with a bright future. Macedonians are a friendly bunch too, as a fellow traveler and I experienced on a night out. They treat April 1st as a similar holiday to Halloween, so the town was adorned with colourful costumes and masks, and the kilt has now been aired in 40 countries. I wonder how they’ll take it in central Asia?
You might wander around with a big question mark over your head for much of your stay, but I defy anyone not to smile in this city. As puzzled as to why you might find yourself with the thought, there’s a definite moment where you’ll stop and quite reasonably say to yourself; “I like it here.” In both glorious sunshine and miserable rain, it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve visited; just so long as they don’t overdo the chocolate.