Skopje, Macedonia: A conflicted city with an epic facelift

skopje

Going from Sofia to Skopje is like checking out of a youth hostel and checking into a 5-star resort. Everything is brand new and shiny and beautiful.

I was immediately impressed when we arrived at the clean and orderly bus station, with an electronic board showing the day’s timetables and appropriate platforms. It’s one of the first bus stations I’ve visited in a very long time that doesn’t feel like there are at least half a dozen people trying to rob you.

We walked along the river to our hostel, where the receptionist kindly offered to hold our bags in our private room while we visited Ohrid overnight at no additional charge. The hostel is just outside city center in a cultural complex that has a concert venue, a restaurant and a bar. And people were packed downstairs listening to jazz until the wee hours. I would love to catch a concert at that venue before heading upstairs to my room. Though I’m an avid concertgoer, I’ve never had that kind of luxury.

Skopje is an interesting city because it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1963 while it was still part of Yugoslavia. Many countries pitched in to help Macedonia rebuild, so many streets and buildings bear their name in gratitude. And rebuild they have. A very controversial urban project called Skopje 2014, which was started eight years ago, has filled city center with giant statues and renovated buildings, including the Alexander the Great statue in the center of Macedonia Square. For many locals, the project is seen as a waste of money which emphasizes architecture that was never part of Macedonia’s history. And in protest, a lot of the new buildings and structures have been splattered with paint.

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While I understand their frustration, as a visitor, I think the city looks amazing. And that’s definitely what they hope to attract. I understand the importance of ancient history and preserving and honoring the past. But I think there’s nothing wrong with embracing change. Walking around Skopje feels like visiting Athens must have felt like at the height of the Roman Empire. It’s grand and impressive, even if it’s a little overdone. Because let’s face it, a lot of people throughout history have overdone it. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris is not any less gaudy just because it’s older. And we consider it beautiful just the same, as I do the center of Skopje. The spirited protest of the Macedonian people only adds to the unique look of the city’s immaculate center.

But maybe my favorite thing about Skopje is that when you leave the center and you go into the “real” parts of the city like Debar Maalo, where locals grab a beer after work and people walk their dogs, it’s still beautiful. It definitely has a hipster vibe with craft beers and sidewalk cafes galore. By the Old Bazaar area, you can see more of ancient Skopje, with cafes, antique shops, and tons of mosques. In fact, there are so many mosques that we can hear the Muslim Call to Prayer throughout the day being amplified over the city. The areas that are not designed to be grand and perfect are still well-maintained. You can see many street sweepers keeping the streets of the Old Bazaar clean.

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The city feels safe whether you’re in crowded or popular areas or walking home after the bar through a desolate street. And because tourism isn’t huge here (at least in March, it isn’t), the beautiful things to see aren’t crowded with other tourists or with locals preying on tourists. And the locals you do encounter greet you warmly anywhere you go. No one is pushy, even when they’re trying to sell you a service. When we turned down a cab ride at the bus station, the driver simply waved and said “Sorry, maybe next time!” The friendly cafe owner who beckoned us to his restaurant thanked us for returning to have a coffee.

Skopje is a place where a lot of racial and religious diversity coexists peacefully. People are welcoming of outsiders, and many seemed both surprised and pleased that Americans would come to Macedonia on vacation. Though they may not like the way their city is being changed, they do appreciate the fact that foreigners are coming here to enjoy it. Skopje may be a city going through an identity crisis and even a bit of political turmoil, but it’s a lovely place to vacation. And I suspect that there will be a tourism boom in the coming years when people start realizing that.

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But until then, the city tours stay cozy and small, the views unobstructed by crowds.