Imagine if Mariah Carey rebuilt Ancient Rome.
Struggling? Well, thankfully, you don’t have to conjure images of glitzy statues and wedding cake-style buildings. Such a place already exists. And it’s of course called Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.
From faux neoclassical façades to willow trees plonked in the middle of the River Vardar, every nook and cranny of the city center is an Instagram photographer’s dream.
I visited after an exhausting journey late last year on a rickety, freezing and positively archaic Deutsche Bahn carriage. I was traveling from Pristina, the capital of next-door Kosovo; we were thrown off at the border. ‘Train stops here today’ was all we got from the guard. Somehow, we flagged a taxi the rest of the way.
We were dropped in the city (population 536,271) in front of the socialist-era Gradski Trgovski Centar, or GTC to those in the know. Built in 1973, this architectural hulk was the country’s first shopping center. Although handy for its supermarket, it didn’t give any clue as to what was lying on the other side.
We emerged into glorious sunshine on Ploštad Makedonija (Macedonia Square). It was then that I saw a fountain unlike anything I had seen before.
‘Warrior on a Horse is a homoerotic sight’
At nearly 50 feet tall, Warrior on a Horse [above] is a homoerotic sight to behold. Completed in 2011 to commemorate 20 years of Macedonian independence, the warrior sits on a cylindrical column. It appears to contain some of the largest kitchen downlights going.
Underneath, bronze lions gush out water from their mouths into a giant pool, which also sees jets of water leap upwards in beautiful synchronized patterns.
From this moment on, we were hooked on Skopje. And at this point, we hadn’t even seen the fountain lit up at night in garish pinks, purples and greens.
Just off Macedonia Square, we caught a glimpse of Porta Macedonia, a 21 metre-high triumphal arch covered in nearly 200 square metres of reliefs carved in marble. It depicts scenes from the country’s history but looks oddly flimsy.
Elsewhere, the statues themselves kept coming, and didn’t get any smaller. After dropping off our bags in the hotel, we crossed the 15th-century Kameni Most (Stone Bridge) to be greeted by another near-50 footer depicting a warrior.
‘An oversized female breastfeeding in bronze’
Also in Rebellion Square, we stopped to admire an oversized female breastfeeding in bronze as part of the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia. Said woman’s breasts did not spurt out water. But we figured it would be only a matter of time before this tweak is made.
The Čaršija (Old Bazaar) looked far too historic and authentic for our liking. So we turned around and continued our journey along the North Bank of the river. With its tall columns and huge glass windows, we immediately got snap happy at the sight of the Museum of Archaeology.
Along with similar structures in the city center, this building is clearly all about the façade. Inside, the museum was laid out like a dimly-lit Ernest Jones, although the security guards seemed more bothered about stopping us from taking photographs than protecting the cultural gems themselves.
‘Town planning inspired by “Pirates of the Caribbean”‘
Back in the sunshine we were serenaded by the classical music pumped out into the streets. River a bit underwhelming? No worries, just shove a few fountains and gigantic plant pots in it! Oh, and why not add some pirate ships for good measure? This is town planning inspired by ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ at its very best.
We crossed over the stream-like River Vardar, over the Eye and Art bridges, with 28 and 29 statues respectively depicting great Macedonian leaders, philosophers, artists and musicians – all overwhelmingly male.
There was a statue to photograph at each step. Plus, at one end of the Art Bridge lies the Financial Police Building, with its cylindrical body and dome-shaped roof.
As well as the statues, Parisian streetlights have been seemingly plonked at 20cm intervals on both bridges. They were most enjoyed by the thousands of moths that gathered around their luminescence come sundown.
‘By day, statues ooze testosterone; by night, they reveal their inner divas’
Moths aside, it was at night that this capital truly demonstrated its showy side. By day, the statues ooze testosterone; by night, they reveal their inner divas. A sea of ever-changing lights washes the façades and statues in glorious technicolour. It makes a quiet drink in one its squares feel like a packed dancefloor during pride. Occasional musical interludes and gallons of water gush at you from all angles.
As luck would have it, we were in town on 8 September 2017, Macedonia’s Independence Day. It was marked with a red and yellow light show on the city’s main buildings, echoing the colours of the country’s flag.
Plus, if the city lights aren’t enough, in the distance on the top of Vodno Mountain stands the 66-metre Millennium Cross. It shines bright towards the urban area at night.
‘Quotes from Skopje-born Mother Teresa adorn plaques across the city’
Christianity is evident throughout the streets too. Various quotes from the Skopje-born Mother Teresa adorn plaques across the city center. These give a much-required softer touch to the macho statues everywhere else.
Looking like a university architecture project that should have remained at concept stage, the Memorial House of Mother Teresa finds its home amid a popular shopping and leisure promenade, Macedonia Street.
The building betrays nothing suggesting a memorial or religious refuge. And although there are some interesting relics inside, there’s little to garner about the saint’s rich life. Other than a few photographs of her meeting some celebrities and visiting her birthplace in her old age, that is.
‘Ever wondered why Macedonia’s announced with the FYR prefix on Eurovision?’
Back to the kitschiness. Not everyone is happy with how Skopje is trying to reinvent itself. Front of the queue to rain on Macedonia’s multi-coloured parade is, of course, Greece.
Ever wondered why Macedonia is announced with the FYR prefix on Eurovision? Well, that’s Greece’s fault. Macedonia – sorry, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the United Nations goes with FYROM) – borders a large region of Greece called, you guessed it, Macedonia.
The Republic of Macedonia is accused of appropriating symbols and figures that are historically considered part of Greek culture. Such as Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II. Certainly, gigantic statues that bear an uncanny resemblance to the aforementioned Ancient Greek figures don’t do FYROM any favors.
Although a compromise is now on the cards, this debate has rumbled on for over 25 year since the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia. Don’t expect a definite resolution anytime soon.
‘Skopje’s makeover has cost anywhere between €80m and €500m’
Furthermore, as we all know, flamboyance comes at a cost. In carrying out one of Europe’s biggest urban renewal schemes, Skopje’s mega makeover has cost anywhere between €80m ($71m, £96m) and €500m ($601m, £443m) depending who you ask.
Officially known as Skopje since 2014 (the date by which the Government hoped to have given the capital a more classical appeal) from its inception in 2010, an impressive 136 structures were bankrolled by the state for the project. As you can imagine, critics to this building bonanza have suggested the money could have been spent elsewhere. The work could have been completed for far less money. There are even those who feel the construction of more modern buildings would have been more resourceful.
The detractors may have a fair point. Particularly given Macedonia’s high unemployment and poverty rates. Nonetheless, Skopje’s nationalist silliness seemed to be bringing in the punters during our visit. We were surrounded by a multitude of languages and tour groups as we minced our way through the city.
‘There was no visible gay scene to explore as tourists’
I was hugely attracted to Skopje’s gaudiness. But Macedonia needs to undergo a serious change in its treatment of LGBTI communities before the pink denars start flooding in.
Furthermore, when my fiancé and I checked into the plush Hotel Solun & Spa, eyebrows were raised among the front of house staff when we asked for a double room. There was no visible gay scene for us to explore as tourists, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to get to meet any local queer people during my brief visit.
Of course, the situation for the wider population is generally tougher than for tourists. Gay sex was legalized in 1996, but reports describe a country still inherently homophobic. Positive change is a long way off, despite the best efforts of local groups such as the LGBTI Support Center and Equality for Gays and Lesbians (EGAL).
‘I urge you: vote Macedonia’
According to United States’ Macedonia 2012 Human Rights Report the LGBTI community is prejudiced and harassed by society, media and the government. Furthermore, there is very little protection against discrimination and there is no legal recognition for same-sex couples.
However, I would suggest you book your flights to Skopje sooner rather than later. A Bulgarian news report suggests that that the over-the-top feel of the capital is set to be curtailed going forward.
In the meantime, I urge you all to vote Macedonia in next year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The party there would be incredible. The Skopje setting would be almost as gay as the main show itself.
Furthermore, for those struggling under Macedonia’s archaic mentality, it would give a new sense of belonging among their European counterparts. It would also force the authorities to reconsider their stance. With the world’s media and forward thinkers questioning why LGBTI acceptance hasn’t come to Macedonia already, so might they.