What I knew about Macedonia (as in the Republic of Macedonia and not the region in Greece) this time last week could have been written on the back of a wine-bottle label. Not the fat one with details of the winery, the sulfites, the alcohol content, but the narrow one around the neck. Slightly bigger than a postage stamp but a long way shy of anything substantial. Four days in-country hardly qualifies me as an expert but when has that ever stopped me from holding forth?
Macedonians say that Skopje (the capital which sits half-way between Belgrade and Athens) is the Disneyland of Eastern Europe. Personally, I think it’s more like a movie set at Universal Studios. The mass of new buildings that have gone up in the last couple of years is quite something. Likewise the new bridges that span the River Vardar and the myriad statues that are popping up left, right, and centre. My comment that the Baroque facades were remarkably well preserved and very clean was met with a derisive snort – they’d been ‘added’ in the last year. The government is a fan of that architectural period apparently. After the first few hours, I gave up asking how old anything was. The answer was always 2013 (give or take a couple of years).
The city’s defining moment came on July 26, 1963, when an earthquake killed more than a 1000 people, injured thousands more, and left 200 000+ homeless. It destroyed 80% of the city. Since then, people measure time in two halves: pre- and post-1963. One woman I was told of went to Ohrid – a lakeside resort in the south of the country) on her holidays in July 1963 when she was about 17. When she returned a week later, she was homeless and orphaned with no living relatives. This same woman never saw her father: he was murdered for his part in the resistance before she was born. Stories such as these bring home to me how blessed my life has been.
Throughout the city, lest anyone forget, plaques mark the event and serve as a constant reminder that Skopje, despite being inhabited since 4000 BC, is a city that is in the process of being reborn. The official population is about 500 000. Unofficially, some reckon that about one million people live in the eight municipalities, of which two-thirds are Macedonians and more than a fifth are Albanian. In those municipalities where Albanians number 25% or more, Albanian is an official language.
As you cross the Goce Delcev bridge from the new town to the Old Bazaar, you meet a pair of contentious lions, which along with their counterparts on the far side of the Vardar, cost an estimated €1.2 million, despite the sculptors being paid less than 10% of that.
When they went up in August 2010, lots of people had lots to say about them. Mind you, I quite like the idea that the old traditional lions stand guard on the road to the Old Bazaar while the newer, modern animals pave the way to the new, far more modern (?) town. These are among the few statues in the city that actually made any sense to me. But more on that later.
Like Universal Studios (or Disneyland, whichever you prefer), Skopje is veritable vineyard of pictorial tastes suitable for all palettes. Love it or hate it, it won’t leave you unmoved. At night the buildings and the fountains come alive and while the whole effect is rather other-worldy, I can’t help but cringe at the thoughts of the electricity bill that sits alongside an ‘official’ unemployment rate of 30%+, chronic organised and exploitative child begging, and a homeless problem that has only surfaced in the last decade or so.
Where best to spend the euro? Is this a chicken and egg thing? Spend the money to attract the tourists whose spending will in turn fund social programmes and infrastructure development or simply spend the money on these programmes from the outset? A universal question…