Skopje – City of Two Halves

It may have been late September, but the temperature was pushing 40°C. On the south side of the Vardar River and around Macedonia Square, it wasn’t the only thing that was over the top.

Skopje’s statues are not understated and, of course, it is Alexander the Great that dominates proceedings. A non-too-subtle 22-metre high bronze figure mounted on a horse on top of a white marble plinth is hard to miss. By the river, more statues and buildings, mainly in neo-classical style, continue to be erected as part of a project started in 2010. The project divides opinion, but, like the statues, is impossible to ignore.

Macedonia Square

Macedonia Square

While some work takes place on the northern shore – indeed, Philip of Macedon is given similar treatment to his son on the opposite side – most of the activity takes place on the south side. The northern part is the old, Ottoman town and has a completely separate character to its rather flashy southern neighbour. The result is a curious contrast that gives the visitor the feeling that they are staying in two different places.

Macedonia Square is the city’s hub. All kinds of events go on here, but even when there’s nothing happening, it’s still full of people just sitting, talking and wandering. With its ever-increasing band of statues and a fountain that doubles as a light show, the square is never going to suffer from being overlooked.

Another gloriously over-the-top feature is the Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch built to celebrate 20 years of independence. It is, essentially, an Arc de Triomphe lookalike in neoclassical style and is part of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project that has spawned all of these buildings and statues. Not surprisingly, some take the view that the cost involved in what they regard as a vanity project cannot be justified.

The triumphal arch

The triumphal arch

For a glimpse of some truly ghastly, and slightly older, architecture, Skopje’s main post office takes some beating. The base is a vast Soviet-style concrete block, on top of which a cluster of slightly surreal metallic limbs has been added. The effect is to make the whole thing look rather like a giant space-age insect that is unable to get off its back.

A walk by the river brings some rather more pleasant aspects. Strolling west from the city centre, you pass the multi-purpose Philip II of Macedonia Stadium, shared by the football clubs FK Vardar and FK Rabotnički, as well as being the venue for the national team’s home games. On a warm day, a stroll back through the shaded park adjacent to the stadium is pleasant and even a casual birdwatcher should be able to spot quite a few species, along with the odd water vole. There are also plenty of places to stop for a coffee or cold drink.

National stadium

National stadium

On the northern side of the river, everything is rather different. The Old Bazaar is determinedly Ottoman and mosques and hamams give the area more than a hint of Istanbul. Look out for the quaint little art gallery situated in the old baths. The ubiquitous Skenderbeg, celebrated in Tirana and Pristina, can be found here. Skopje also celebrates another famous ethnic Albanian, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, who was a native of the city.

The old baths

The old baths

Near the Old Bazaar is the strangely understated National Museum of Macedonia. It does not seem to feature strongly in maps or guide books and there aren’t exactly lots of signposts to it, but it’s well worth a visit. The museum is spread across two buildings and is more of an ethnographical or folk museum, but is nonetheless a great deal more interesting than its low profile would suggest.

The few parts of the old town that are not Ottoman are Byzantine. This is most obviously manifested in the shape of Kale Fortress, built during the reign of the inveterate builder Justinian. It’s the highest point in the city and offers a splendid view across the river. Nearby is the Museum of Contemporary Art, worth a visit at the same time to spare the aching legs a little.

Nothing is especially expensive in Skopje and as usual, the cheapest places are away from the main tourist areas. Shoppers should have no trouble finding a bargain in the Old Town. Even around Macedonia Square, the restaurants and bars aren’t too pricy. The local beer is Skopsko, a slightly vigorous 4.9% ABV for a session, but more than welcome at the end of a hot day. There are also plenty of places selling very good (and very cheap) ice cream to keep the heat at bay for a while.

The ‘Skopje 2014’ project might not be to everyone’s taste and indeed, much of it does seem rather overblown, but there is much to enjoy. Skopje is cheap, has a good climate and does not get besieged by tourists. There is plenty to see and do, and a stroll down by the river on a sunny day is just the thing to take your mind off the relentless grey drizzle you just know will be waiting for you when you get home.

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