In my mission to replace my 90s news memories (i.e. war) of the Balkans with vibrant, positive memories, we visited Skopje for 3 days at the beginning of November. Even though it was November, the Balkans were still balmy at around 20 degrees and sunshine. We couldn't really get used to Sofia, which felt old, stuffy and unfriendly, but a 3 hr ride through the mountains landed us in Skopje, where it seems a major building boom has gripped the city.

The bus station felt more like India or Africa, with guys at every corner asking us if we wanted a ride in their taxi (aka private car). But as soon as we stepped outside the bus terminal, everywhere was a building site. It wasn't only modern apartment, office and leisure buildings that were being built, though. Macedonia Square, the main city square, is full of statues in the Greek and Roman style. The surrounding area boasts more hotels and museums that might make you believe that you are in Florence or Westminster. Yet, as soon as you are more than a few hundred metres away from the square, the cityscape turns into one Soviet high-rise after another. Scattered in between are sleek modern buildings that wouldn't be out of place in London's Canary Wharf of Düsseldorf Medienhafen.

The population of Skopje is similarly varied... men and women in their 20s and 30s look like in any other cosmopolitan European city, if not sharper. Everyone we spoke to had both impeccable English and fashion sense. Yet, there were older guys, hanging out in cafes, smoking and drinking their coffees like it's Morocco or Turkey.
just go in if there if it's open!
The Kale Fortress is where the Ottoman of Skopje rulers used to reside – if you look it up online, you will find contradicting information on whether its open or not. When we climbed up, the sign saying the fortress is closed had been vandalised, and even though there were restoration works going on, the gates were open and plenty of people, locals and tourists alike, just walked in. The scale of the place is impressive – although currently it's just some crumbling walls, the size is similar to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I can imagine them charging a high entrance fee once they are done.


view from the fortress... and smog!

Skopje reminded me a lot of cities in Asia (particularly Vietnam!), where you can see remains of the many different cultures that have lived the city over the centuries. Some might think it's an odd mix and that today's brutalist city planning is no better than the Yugoslav one, but in a strange way, all of this worked together. The city is very proudy of their Greek ancestry, and the fact that Alexander the Great was Macedonian. Roman, Greek, Ottoman, Renaissance, Soviet and 21st century architecture – you can find it all in Skopje.

Where is Skopje on the “tourist” or “backpacker” scale? I'd say it's a 2 out of 10. There's barely any hotels or hostels, and we didn't actually see anybody who would fit into the “backpacker” category. Instead, it seems to attract a few Americans and Brits and the usual culturally and historically interested middle-aged French and German visitors. There isn't an awful lot to do or see in the classical “do and see” way, but there is a lot to explore and discover in the city (and Macedonia overall – I'll be back for sure!). The Ottoman quarter felt more touristy than in, say, Sarajevo, but it might be because they are just so much less used to tourists. The city museum, on the other hand, felt very low key (and was free - I would have been so happy to leave them a donation). 

A friend referred to Skopje's building style as “brutalist”... but it's neither modern investment nor Soviet planning that made this necessary. In 1963, a terrible earthquake destroyed more than 80% of the city, which goes back over 4.000 years. Ten thousands of people lost their home. Personally, I don't think the want to re-build your home town is unnatural. Yes, the statues are a little Las Vegas-y, but at the same time, you can tell that people have a lot of pride in their city and roots.

Which kind of architectural style is your favourite? Do you think all modern architecture is terrible?

I dare you show me another city with more statues!

I can't wait to see those boat-buildings finished!


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