I’m spending most of this summer in the south-eastern corner of Europe. Aside from Scandinavia, it’s the one region of Europe I am yet to properly explore. You may also know this area as the Balkans.
I wasn’t exactly sure what counted as ‘Balkan’ and what was seen as ‘eastern Europe’ so I took the liberty of looking it up. Many sources state that it is countries that lie on the Balkan peninsula, i.e. the bit of Europe that sticks out at the bottom right moving towards the Middle East on a map, that are classed as Balkan. You can look at the link here and the map below rather than me listing off all of them: more than I thought.
It turns out that I’ve visited many of these countries before, most recently Greece last year but also Slovenia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and (European) Turkey on my grand Interrail trip in 2008 as well as Croatia both then and in 2012.
The part which is currently unbeknown to me is the south-western part of this peninsula. It is here, specifically in the land abbreviated to FYROM, in which my latest summer adventure begins. FYROM is an abbreviation of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We’ll just call it Macedonia to save time.
Do you know of anybody famous from Macedonia? I have to admit it’s one of the few countries in Europe which I wouldn’t be able to name a single footballer who originated from there. There are a couple of famous folk whose roots are firmly planted in this landlocked country and are proudly celebrated in the capital city of Skopje.
|The Warrior statue which I'm 99% sure is Alexander the Great|
|The statue of Mother Teresa|
Alexander the Great, legendary warrior and builder of one of the largest empires of the ancient world, was originally known as Alexander III of Macedon. That would have been a giveaway. The airport which we flew into is named after him; more impressively, he is (probably) represented by the main statue in Macedonia Square, the capital’s main social meeting point. Towering 26 metres above the ground, he is able to stay dry when the fountains erupt beneath his pedestal.
|The fountains seem to run constantly during the day and are part of a light show at night|
More surprising might be the fact that Mother Teresa was born in Skopje and spent the first eighteen years of her life here before emigrating to India. I always thought she was Albanian but reading up on the topic has led me to learn that this was the nationality of her parents. If I get to Albania on this trip I’ll be sure to find out. Meanwhile, back in Skopje her house – one assumes, looking at the picture – has been renovated and made into a museum. Adorned with a statue, naturally.
|The Mother Teresa house in Skopje|
The government clearly love their statues here. It’s difficult to put a number on how many there actually are (I accept seven million as suggested in the title may be a tiny bit of an exaggeration). Statues to celebrate kings, princesses, artists, ruthless rebels, even women breastfeeding. It seems every corner turned in the centre of Skopje unveils another shiny, bronzed statue. We were told at one point that the joke locals have is that their population is 80% Macedonian, 15% Albanian...and 5% statues.
|A statue celebrating the role of women in Macedonian history|
Many of these have been erected recently, which is the same as many of the buildings lining the Vardar River. The archaeological museum, arts museum and numerous other extravagant structures have been built within the last five years. This is all part of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project, which seems to be aimed at celebrating Macedonia’s heritage whilst bringing in tourists. You can read about it here. Where the money comes from, as there is no significant oil or gas to export, is anybody’s guess.
|The Archaeological Museum in Skopje at night|
|A bridge of statues depicting famous figures from Macedonian history|
Some of Skopje pre-dates independence from Yugoslavia (achieved in 1991), such as its lovely stone bridge joining the old and newer parts of town. Don’t worry, both sides have plenty of statues to stare quizzically at. The old town shows a significant Islamic influence with its towering minarets and narrow streets in a bazaar.
The city is in a valley, with the older side dominated by the high walls of a fortress. It works well as a fortress; we found it very difficult to get out once we were inside.
|Almost all visitors...|
The hill on the other side of Skopje is steeper, taller and adorned by a gigantic cross. It is the largest Christian cross in the world, built around the year 2000. Funnily enough, it's called the Millennium Cross. When the rest of the city is dark, it is illuminated so brightly that it looks like it is floating in the night sky. It's possible to hike up to the cross if you have sufficient time. We settled for hiking halfway before taking a cable car the rest of the way. The views of the surrounding forests are stunning.
The strange buildings…the creation of a modern concrete jungle along a river…the mass of statues…the Cyrillic alphabet…people sounding Russian when they speak…I can’t stress to you how much Skopje reminded us of Astana, our previous home in Kazakhstan. Even the supermarket is the same!
Skopje is a strange one. Two streets away from the glistening fountains and stylish, open-air restaurants you can find shambolic structures and pot-holed roads. The lavish spending on certain aspects of Skopje may bring in more money in the future but as of now it seems grossly unbalanced. This concrete jungle is an interesting place. Just beware: there’s always a statue watching you…
Love you all