Rough diamonds in Skopje

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Hey, hey English! Taxi? Thessaloniki? Hey!”

Several men continued to pursue us as we exited the station in Skopje and politely declined in our best Macedonian.

“Where you go, my friend?”

“You have hotel? I know a very good hotel!”

“Come, I take you wherever you go. You go to Greece? Macedonia?”

We looked conspicuously touristic and infinitely approachable to the hordes of unlicensed taxi drivers awaiting the morning train from Belgrade – our rucksacks well-packed with compression straps, our feet in hiking shoes, our confused faces staring befuddled into a hand-drawn map to the hostel.

Seeing off their advances and walking confidently away seemed a sensible move, until we found ourselves on a dual carriageway, having walked for a good five or so minutes without seeing a single road sign. We looked back at the predatory pack of taxi drivers, and looked around us at the unnamed trunk roads surrounding us. We walked a further twenty minutes or so with the aid of landmarks alone (“OK, that must be the flyover that I marked there, so if we walk with it to our left then we should find this intersection here…”), but to no avail. We were tired and disoriented in a maze of huge, grey roads connecting crumbling industrial estates, pock-marked with deserted, yellowy-tiled cafés with chipped paintwork and fading stickers in their windows advertising local beers.

After asking directions from a group of Coca-Cola delivery men, who flailed their arms and debated and joked among themselves before sending us in the opposite direction, we found ourselves with a vague sense of our position and eventually found the hostel. The place was locked and silent, and our freezing fingers and empty stomachs we desperately shouted and banged against the door. At the point of resigning ourselves to our fate, the hostel receptionist appeared and warmly welcomed us. Waking ourselves with a hot cup of tea and some breakfast, we pondered our next moves. Skopje – once a grand old city akin to Sarajevo or Zagreb – had been all but destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and had never quite recovered. Looking at our boxy, grubby surroundings, we feared a re-run of Belgrade’s frankly horrible architecture as we made our way into the centre of the city. Everywhere, people were waking up and heading for work or school. Skopje suddenly became more human and less desolate.

A half-hour trek into the centre of the city revealed a modern but pleasant place, with a large, angular, modernist park littered with abstract sculptures. Close to the centre sat the attractive Mother Teresa House, commemorating Skopje’s most famous daughter. Through a grand arch – currently obscured with green-netted scaffolding – a large public square opened up, revealing vast bronze sculptures: a soldier rides a sleek, muscled horse; another soldier in antiquated dress brandishes a musket and sports a large, bristly moustache; angels look up at yet more war heroes, adoringly gazing upon them with gentle amazement.

Contrary to their appearance, however, these symbols of Macedonian nationalism were not old monuments from the Macedonian struggle against Ottoman rule. These were chiefly modern in origin, mimicking the monuments of liberation that might otherwise have been. After Macedonia’s peaceful breakaway from Yugoslavia, the government set about building a near-mythical national history for a people – or, more accurately, a group of peoples – with little historical or ethnic coherence. They were a land made up of ethnic Slavs, Greeks and Turks, with large Albanian populations in the north and west, and Serbians to the north and east. A long history of struggle between competing external powers had left Macedonia a distinct territory without any particularly coherent identity.

Settling on the monicker of Macedonia – a term borrowed from the Greek region overlapping significantly across its southern perimeter – the Macedonians set about constructing a (partially) imagined national history to unite this nascent state. While Serbia and Albania had their own conflicts and internal problems in the early 1990s, Greek eyes turned angrily to their north, where the annexation of the name of one of their regions had been coupled with the appropriation of many of the Greek Macedonian traditions and histories, including their much-loved Ancient Greek lineage. The central square in Skopje became an ode to this appropriation, and with its growing collection of oversized, retro statues came a growing resentment from Greece. Under Greek insistence, the state’s name, Macedonia, was forced to change to the clunky and unhappy compromise of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – or FYROM.

North of the central square, over a mediaeval bridge – one of only a few old structures still standing after the earthquake – is a living relic of Ottoman rule. The old Turkish quarter is a meshwork of tightly-knit roads, largely pedestrianised but for the occasional scooter. Bursting with human life, cafés are rammed full and everything from house ornaments to wedding dresses are being peddled from shop windows or makeshift market carts.

At one edge of this area is the market, a covered grid of stalls selling fruit and veg, spices, meat at its core, and at another market close by mobile phones, tobacco and other under-the-counter goods are hawked in full view. Fruit and vegetable sellers are ostensibly the farmers themselves, each with huge piles of two or three huge piles of produce, and rough hands stained the same colour as the rusting cast iron scales in front of them. Any slight hesitation or glance at their goods immediately leads to a friendly shout and a gesture to come nearer. Elderly women pass by with bags so heavily laden with potatoes, leeks and cabbage that one wonders which will give first – the flimsy plastic bags or the frail arms that hold them.

Unaccustomed to foreign interest, especially in the dead of winter, the stall-holders are intrigued by our presence. Helen’s camera marks us out as a novelty, and we are immediately beckoned over by a young man selling mobile phones and his friends.

“Hey! Where are you from?”

“England – London…”

“England! Wayne Rooney! Yeah!” He proudly points to his Manchester United bobble hat. “Take a photo!”

His friends gather around him while Helen’s numbing fingers fumble at her camera controls in the cold. They laugh from their bellies and relish the chance to practice their English. Minutes later, a kebab house worker runs out into the street and asks Helen to photograph him cutting Doner meat through the smeared window of his shop. Their faces give off the sense that they are more intrigued by us than we are by them. Why would a young English couple be visiting their grubby little market in a major city that has nonetheless been largely forgotten even by the more alternative travel itineraries?

Across town, overlooking the city high atop a long, windy plateau, sits the Contemporary Art Museum. The further we walked, the dirtier and less inhabited the terrain became. Piles of flytipped detritus sit in streams down the grassy hill, and we pick our way through long-discarded detritus and faded chocolate wrappers along a dirt and gravel path. The museum itself is architecturally imposing and elegant; its clean white lines jut out beautifully from the face of the hill and its large windows reflect what little sun has made it through the low clouds on this greyish, overcast day. But as we draw nearer, the place looks increasingly deserted: cracks in the concrete walls appear, weeds spring up from the pavement, and benches overlooking the city are weathered and their bolts are unrecognisably rusted orange-brown lumps. No light shines from inside the building, and we fear it has closed down as we peer through the glass windows and squint to see where the artworks might once have been.

All of a sudden, a voice calls, and a security guard beckons us in through a glass door. The building is lit only with the diffuse light coming through the grey clouds, and the security guard scurries away. A huge thunk summons the lights to blink and flicker on, illuminating a large gallery space with three square white pillars down the centre. We walk into the gallery space, aware of the inquisitive eyes following us – another person seemingly fascinated as to why we are here.

The art itself is interesting – much of it dark and moody; other pieces comical or quirky – little better or worse than any other Western European collection, only smaller. After fifteen minutes or so examining the artworks, we head towards the main entrance and are ushered into the gallery shop, where a young woman is now sitting expectantly. The security guard points us to some interesting books – “This photographer, Macedonian, very good. Documents life in city with beauty.” – and earns himself the title of probably most artistically knowledgeable security guard we’ve ever met.

We thank the security guard but do not buy anything. He is visibly disappointed, but slips a free brochure into our hands as we leave. Perhaps we were the only people who visited that day. Stepping carefully through the eerie silence of the empty car park, we wind our way back down the hill towards the centre of the city. Dusk is beginning to fall, and the poorly-lit streets are dotted with loose rubble and conveniently foot-sized potholes.

Tomorrow, we will be heading to Priština, the capital of Kosovo, and the warnings of the Serbian receptionist in Belgrade still ring around our heads. Although the Macedonian border is currently peaceful, peace in Kosovo is always a relative term, and tensions on the Serbian border have led to greater restrictions for all. To the south, the economic meltdown in Greece has led all international train links to be cut off indefinitely, leaving three early morning buses a week as our only route back into the troubled Eurozone.

The lost city of Skopje, with its friendly, energetic residents, may not have the solid tourist infrastructure or aesthetic beauty for a booming tourist industry, but perhaps it does not really need one. It seems to have made the choice to invest in its own sense of identity and belonging, rather than to attract foreign tourism and investment. Even if it has been enacted somewhat disingenuously and problematically, through a powerfully nationalistic framework at the expense of their Greek neighbours, the Macedonians have a peculiar knack for developing within you a fondness for their messy and flawed little chunk of the Balkans.
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