Travelling into Skopje, from Alexander the Great airport, I was expecting to see refugees walking along the road heading for Serbia. I was told that people were no longer allowed to walk on the roads and along the train tracks as there had been too many accidents in the preceding months. Now, the refugees were bused from the Greek border to the Serbian border and weren’t allowed to spend more than three days in Macedonia otherwise they would be returned to their point of entry and thrown out of the country.
Macedonia was one of the republics that comprised the former Yugoslavia. However, since the breakup of that country, Macedonia has struggled to find an identity. This is largely because Macedonia was forced to join the United Nations under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because of Greek objections to the use of the name Macedonia. The ancient kingdom of Macedon, ruled over by Philip II and then Alexander the Great, covered the area around Ohrid in modern day FYROM, some of south-west Bulgaria, and most of northern Greece including Thessaloniki. Greeks living in this area of Greece refer to themselves as Macedonian and aren’t related ethnically to the modern day Slav people living in FYROM.
This dispute is still going on and needs international arbitration. Greece believes FYROM has tried to appropriate Alexander the Great from them, even though Alexander was undisputedly born in Pella in modern day Greece. Greece has also blocked FYROM’s EU membership application, though it is thought Bulgaria would block such an application if Greece didn’t. When I heard this, it seemed as though FYROM could soon become alienated in their own backyard and possibly look to Turkey for friendly relations. I started to feel sorry for the country I was visiting, which I shall now refer to as Macedonia. I continued to feel sorry for Macedonia for the rest of my visit.
Apparently the brand new Skopje bypass was closed because a French film company was filming an action sequence on this road. The bypass was closed for three weeks in total. The local drivers hadn’t had a chance to use the road yet. As a result we took a convoluted route into the city and I was dropped off at my hotel. It didn’t look too promising from my window. There was a lot of traffic and many blocks of flats. Looking at the map, I was relieved to see the city centre and the old town were in a different direction, a direction I immediately headed in.
After two hundred yards I found the Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, the largest house of worship of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Construction of this Orthodox Cathedral began in 1972 and the consecration took place on 12th August 1990, the 1150th anniversary of the birth of St. Clement of Ohrid. This church seems to be composed of only domes and arches and from a distance appears like a giant, bald spider.
Five hundred yards further on things started to get interesting. I saw a large equestrian statue on top of an enormous plinth; sure enough it was Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus and striking a dramatic pose. When this statue was raised the Greeks were upset because they believed the Macedonians were making an unfair claim on Macedonia being the birthplace of Alexander. A strongly worded note from Athens to Skopje outlined the reasons for the Greek displeasure. Underneath rider and horse, a co-ordinated display of leaping water caught my attention. The word fountain doesn’t come close to describing the choreography of the jets as they played in tune with the classical music emanating from loudspeakers attached to nearby lamp standards. The music was Johann Strauss waltzes and extracts from Wagnerian operas such as “Ride of the Valkyries”.
On a street running from the square, there was an Arc de Triomphe, which was completed in 2014. Called the ‘Porta Macedonia’, the 21-metre high arch symbolises the triumph of a nation that had won its independence 21 years previously. This arch cost 4.4 million Euros and both this arch and the Alexander the Great monument were part of a 200 million Euro construction project to build monuments and neoclassical buildings in the Macedonian capital; the cost of the project has almost tripled, but at least it is now almost complete and the visitor and their camera can reap the benefits, although the locals regard the new buildings as a colossal waste of money.
The oldest structure in this area is the Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, spanning the river and taking visitors to Carsija, the old town of Skopje. Just as I was about to walk across, I noticed a statue of someone about to jump into the river and a pair of legs sticking out of the river. Further along the bank was a sailing ship made from concrete blocks and serving as a restaurant. I walked past the ship and crossed another, modern bridge imitating the Charles Bridge in Prague, although the statues of the famous Macedonians were a lot smaller and closer together than their Prague counterparts. This bridge landed me at the main entrance of the brand new Museum of Archaeology, but I resisted the temptation to visit the 6000 artifacts from prehistory to the Middle Ages, found on three floors, as the weather was good and I wanted to visit Carsija.
The beautiful Macedonian flag was flying from most of the buildings in this area. This flag depicts a stylised yellow sun on a red field, with eight broadening rays extending from the centre to the edge. This was the second attempt at a new flag by the newly independent Macedonia. Their first attempt had also depicted a stylised yellow sun centred on a red field, though this design had eight main and eight secondary rays emanating from the sun, all tapering to a point. Like me, you may think the flags have similar styles. Well, the difference is that the sun and rays on the first flag were actually an ancient symbol, known as the Vergina Sun, named after the Greek town where the symbol had been discovered in archaeological excavations. Hence, the Greeks regarded the Vergina Sun as a symbol of continuity between ancient Macedon and modern Greece and so objected to the symbol’s use on the Macedonian flag. They felt so strongly about this that it was decided to impose an economic blockade on their new neighbour until the design of the Macedonian flag was altered to the Greeks’ liking. After more than a year, to end the blockade, Macedonia decided to introduce a second flag, which was the one I saw fluttering in the breeze around Skopje, but in few other places (and that’s another story). The fledgling country of Macedonia couldn’t even have the flag it wanted.
There were more grand water features on my way to Carsija. One denoting the role of women in society and another depicting Philip II of Macedon. The official title of the latter piece is “Warrior with accompanying elements”, a vague description designed to avoid upsetting Greece. This vagueness didn’t work, of course. The unveiling of the Philip statue in 2012 was even planned to happen one day after a NATO meeting where Macedonia’s application to join this organisation was under consideration. The application was blocked and you can probably guess which country blocked it.
Carsija is a pedestrianised area of old stone-paved streets with many coffee houses, souvenir shops, restaurants, tour operators offering cheap flights to many Turkish resorts, shoe shops, and tailors. Carsija was clean and litter-free. Browsing in the shops was expected and there was absolutely no pressure to buy any item you took an interest in.
I visited the Sveti Spas church, partially built underground around the turn of the 18th Century, because the Turks wouldn’t allow churches to be taller than mosques. Located just outside the church is the tomb of Goce Delcev, Macedonia’s national hero, killed by the Turks in 1903. I walked up the hill to the Mustafa Pasa Mosque, built in 1492, with its gardens and fountain for washing hands and feet. On the other side of the road and through a park was the entrance to the Kale Fortress, whose ramparts provide a great view over Skopje and of the surrounding hills.
I could see the 66-metre high Millennium Cross built on the highest point of the Vodno mountain. Construction of the cross began in 2002 and was funded by the Macedonian Orthodox Church, by the Macedonian government and by private contributions from all points of the Macedonian diaspora. A lift was installed in the cross during 2008 and in 2011 a cable-car system, three and a half kilometres long, was built to whisk visitors to the top of the mountain from the lower slopes. At night the cross shines down over the city. Some people believe the cross was chiefly built to upset the Albanians, but I am sure no one will ever admit that.
I decided to eat at the London Cafe with its extensive menu and long list of local beers. An interesting feature of the menu, which I have never seen anywhere else, was that next to the list of ingredients for each dish was another list of all the allergens that would be triggered if you ate this meal. If dairy was included in the meal then dairy was included in the list of allergens. Celery was included in the list of allergens. I had never heard of this before. Celery allergies are apparently a serious problem in certain Western European countries and the cafe was being careful in informing tourists of the presence of celery, or celeriac, in their meals. Gluten-free meals were also available.
In the main square the fountain next to the Alexander the Great statue was now coming into its own as night fell. There were sixty small holes in the main square, six rows of ten (check this!!) out of which water would pour. Each hole contained a light that could switch colour. The water could either shoot out vertically, to a height of about six feet, or at an angle of about 45 degrees, so that it appeared to be jumping into another hole close by. This display of playing streams of water was choreographed to the accompanying music. The jets would play at the same height and then gradually decrease from one end to the other in a line, so one jet at the end of a line would have completely disappeared whilst the jet at the other end was still playing to a height of four feet. All the time the colours in each of the lines was changing. This fountain drew a large crowd, some of whom thought they could run through the fountain without getting wet. They were wrong.
I looked up and saw the Millennium Cross shining in the darkness behind the Alexander the Great statue. Illuminated by a spotlight, a Macedonian flag fluttered on the top of a hotel. I looked at the playing waters in front of me and realised that this fountain hadn’t upset any of Macedonia’s neighbouring countries, a not inconsiderable feat for this new country, which is trying to make its way in the world and, at the moment, is being thwarted by the overly sensitive natures of the surrounding countries.
From the book: Travels through History: The Balkans