The ugliest city in the Balkans. The capital of kitsch. Avoid. That’s what I kept stumbling upon when I did my Skopje research. But it was conveniently on my way to Kosovo and I’ve always been a rebel, curious about places people don’t like.
What I saw there wasn’t pretty. Mostly. Not in a traditional sort of way. But it was interesting. And exploring Skopje surprisingly resembled playing some sort of treasure hunt game. They really should promote it that way.
Level I – Kitschy spread
Level II – Ugly/interesting/bizarre brutalism
Level III – Ottoman hidden sights
Bonus level – Bit Bazaar maze
But first a quick overview. The current country of Macedonia formed when it split from Yugoslavia in 1991. By a referendum, not war. The name pissed off Greece though, who wants all the rights to the name ‘Macedonia’. And to Alexander the Great, born in Macedonia. It’s arguable whether born in Greek Macedonia or Macedonian Macedonia. Personally I love the idea that if you raised him from the grave to ask his opinion on this matter he would just say: I’m a world citizen, fuck off! There’s his statue on the main square in Skopje. But it’s not him, it’s the man on the horse. Officially.
Also, from what I heard there’s a strong Albanian lobby in the government. Muslim Albanian mostly. Not to mention Turkey wants to keep its Ottoman heritage intact. And government seems to think Macedonia has an identity crisis, which resulted in ‘Skopje 2014’ project worth over 500 million euros. Those are the kitschy constructions in the center that Skopje is so famous for recently, at least among travel community. Weird, as it seems like they would have enough identities to choose from already.
Game objective: find the most expensive statue.
But before this controversial project happened there was one distinctive turning point in Skopje’s history – the earthquake of 1963. Over 1,000 people died and 80% of the city has been destroyed. You can see what is now a reminder of that tragedy – the clock on the Old Railways Station building that stopped working when the earthquake struck – at 5.17.
So what do you do with the ruins of a city? You rebuild, of course. And they did, creating some of the most spectacular examples of brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen. The post office itself looks like an alien operating center.
Game objective: How many air conditioning units does one post office need?
With stepping into the Old Bazaar we switch to a more traditional tourism. After the earthquake there was a thought circulating among decision makers to destroy what was left in that area and use this space for new development. Luckily, that didn’t happen. And we still can get lost trying to find our way between gold street and shoes street (traditionally each street had a ‘theme’ – by the crafts it hosted). It is worth wandering into the smaller streets – the contrast from the main one made a huge impression on me.
Game objective: what, besides gold, is popular on gold street?
And now for my favorite part and what charmed me in Skopje – the hidden buildings of Old Bazaar. The hammam turned art gallery. Caravanserai with a madrasa inside. Or another one hosting an art school. Hidden in plain sight, between other buildings, with an entrance through restaurant, which forced me to circle it a few times before I finally found a way inside.
Game objective: find all caravanserais (old Ottoman inns).
Bonus level: survive in the maze and a mess that is Bit Bazaar.
If you cannot find something here, you haven’t looked hard enough.