Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, welcomed me with a quirky cityscape of gleaming, neo-classical buildings, gaudy embellishments and over 284 statues. The city’s new bounty of statuary, fountains, bridges, museums and rooftop figures of nymphs and soldiers were not here just a few years ago. There is even a miniature replica of the Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. It is a scene that is just plain kitschy, but very amusing! Welcome to Disneyland Balkans!
The statues of Skopje, Macedonia: The remodeling project, called Skopje 2014, was launched in 2010 by the Macedonian government. It was initiated to make Skopje more “visually appealing,” to draw tourism and to try to reclaim aspects of the country’s history from its close neighbor Greece.
The Macedonian government dropped somewhere between €200-€500 million for this project. For a poor country, many locals believe that spending this much on such a Las Vegas-esque redesign was a frivolous display of nationalism, and others are upset with the transparency of the contracts given to the architects and designers.
I certainly understand where these critics are coming from, especially since there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to where the statues are placed, how they are organized, or really, why some of them exist in the first place. From bronze and marble statues and a memorial to fallen heroes to a triumphal arch and a slew of odd equestrian statues, it’s a confusing mess of chaos. But it is interesting, that’s for certain.
All of the statue’s are fully clothed. Even Aphrodite and Prometheus are covered up – and when are these Greek gods, especially the Goddess of Love, ever clothed! All of them that is except this PG one where Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother, is breastfeeding.
Skopje’s Alexander the Great – Skopje’s largest monument stands at over 23 meters high and is surrounded by water-sprouting lions and a nightly light show – a feat rumored to cost at least €10 million. Here in lies the twist. The interesting part about this monument is its title, “Alexander the Great.” That’s what the locals – and all the guidebooks – call the monstrosity.
Macedonia’s government, on the other hand, claims that the official title is simply “Warrior on Horseback” so as not to offend Athens. Greece does not want Macedonia to use the title of Alexander the Great at all, especially as one of its historical symbols and they are vehemently trying to halt Macedonia’s entrance to the European Union.
After I gawked at as many of Skopje’s 284 statues as I possibly could (probably 100 of them), I wandered around the Old Bazaar, also known as Carsija. The bazaar is home to the colorful Turkish and Albanian Muslim population and also, baklava and delicious tea shops. .
Bright red carpets, trinkets, and shops selling brass tea and coffee sets fill Skopje’s winding cobblestone alleys. It was an interesting area of town to meander for a few hours. The locals were pleasant and very eager for conversation. I loved how curious and friendly they were. I sat for Turkish coffee with a few lads and we chatted about American soccer…which I actually know nothing about.
Many people don’t know that Mother Teresa, or Agnes Gondzha Bojaxhiu, was actually born in Skopje. She lived here throughout her childhood before moving to Ireland and eventually Calcutta where she dedicated her life to the missionary work. Skopje’s Memorial Home was built in Mother Teresa’s honor, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.
Hiking in Matka Canyon – Matka Canyon is a stunning gorge and lake situated west of Skopje – a fantastic day trip for nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts. The gorge flaunts beautiful monasteries, several hiking paths and caves. It takes at least 5 hours to hike the entire canyon from one end to the other and back again, and the path is slippery and extremely narrow in many places. I teetered on the edge quite a few times. But the hike was serene and desolate, a perfect opportunity for a wonderful day in nature. I may have encountered one other hiker during my afternoon of hiking. Aside from the birds that crept up to steal my sandwich crumbs, I was alone with the echoes of the canyon.
From Skopje, bus number 60 travels to the beginning of the Canyon’s national park. A short walk leads to the hotel and restaurant standing on the edge of the canyon, and the trail begins just behind the restaurant.