Macedonia really wants you to come to Skopje. This may be a poor country, but they’re spending big money turning the capital city (pronounced “scope-ya”) into the Caesar’s Palace of the Balkans.
It was strange. We started walking around after checking into our hotel and Mark just said “This feels like a big Caesar’s Palace. I’m not sure exactly why, but it feels very Vegas.” As we continued to explore it became obvious. Everywhere you turn there are statues, big ones, huge ones, massive ones, even some small ones, but statues everywhere. Shiny new museums, too, that must be as expensive as any you’ll find anywhere. And ornate pedestrian bridges, too, all with statues, trying to make the city look like some ancient Macedonian cultural center. Except with all the statues so new and shiny it comes off more like a fake version – ala Caesar’s Palace – than an ancient city.
And then to add to the Las Vegas comparison, as we would walk to dinner we saw more casinos than I’ve ever seen anywhere outside of Vegas. Strange.
At any rate, Skopje is an interesting city largely because Macedonia is a fascinating country. It’s not clear to me, for instance, exactly what its name is. They use the name Republic of Macedonia. Greece, though, strongly objects to that name since much of ancient Macedonia including the old capital of Pella is in Greece. So when the country was admitted to the U.N., it was admitted as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, often abbreviated as FYROM; that’s the name used by NATO, the European Union, and the U.S. All because Greece doesn’t want anyone to think that modern Macedonia has anything to do with the ancient Macedonia that was home to Alexander the Great.
Which is interesting because as I recall the history, Greeks in the 4th century BC didn’t consider Macedonia or its conquering rulers, Philip and his son Alexander, true Greeks. Sure, they spoke some variation of Greek but they were interlopers, from the hinterlands, definitely not classic Greeks. Fast forward 2,500 years, though, and boy they sure are Greeks.
The role that Greece plays in determining just what Macedonia is permitted to do extends in a lot of directions. The major, massive statue in the center of the city, for instance, is obviously a statue of Alexander the Great, the most famous Macedonian of all time. The Greeks, though, claim him as Greek (and his home town of Pella is in modern Greece), so the statue is known simply as “The Warrior.”And it extends to the flag. When I first saw the Macedonian flag I thought it was one of the coolest flags I’d ever seen. It was not, however, their first choice. Originally (and by “originally” I mean after their 1991 independence from Yugoslavia) their national flag was based on the Vergina Sun, a solar symbol of 16 rays used extensively as a symbol of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia. The Greeks objected to this, as well, insisting that the U.N. not allow it and instituting an economic embargo against little Macedonia. Finally the country capitulated, agreed to a new flag and to be referred to by others as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Spending time in Skopje is like seeing all the complexity of the Balkans distilled. As one writer put it every country on the peninsula once had its day in the sun; at one time or another the peninsula experienced a Serbian empire, a Bulgarian empire, a Hungarian Kingdom, a Greater Albania, ancient Macedonia, Byzantium, the Ottoman empire, and so on. And basically every country refers to the time of their greatest strength and says that that should be the extent of their current borders. And we’ve experienced it: Albanian friends showing us how much of ancient Albania has been swallowed by awful neighbors; Bulgarian friends doing the same; and now Macedonian tour guides showing the true border of Macedonia and how Greece is evil and awful and stupid but getting away with grand theft.
We toured two museums in Skopje, one of which was a museum of Macedonian Independence. The short story is that as Yugoslavia was breaking up in the early 1990s a referendum was held on September 8, 1991 and some 95 percent of Macedonians voted for independence. The longer story, though, is that nationalists had been fighting for independence for many decades, going back to the Ottoman era. The museum was interesting but peculiar in one way: you could only go through it with a tour guide; you couldn’t just experience it on your own. That’s normally a big turn-off, since we hate crowds and groups and you usually can’t hear or understand anything that’s being said. In this case, though, there was no one else there at the start so I (Mark was taking a break) did much of the tour with just the guide, giving me the opportunity to question him a fair amount about this history.
His story was interesting. The Greeks are awful, throwing their weight around all because silly Westerners have this love affair with an ancient Greek civilization that hasn’t been around for millennia (there’s some truth to this, of course). And the Serbs are worse. The section of the museum dealing with Tito’s dictatorship was a very different experience than what we saw in Belgrade. Very different and, I would add, more accurate. A brutal dictator who had opponents tortured and murdered. And you can’t trust the Bulgarians at all; they’ll steal all the Macedonian land they can.
And that’s the problem with the Balkans: everyone hates everyone else, typically because of some battle 400 years ago or something.
Still, it’s a great place to travel, so far at least. The food continues to be great and breathtakingly cheap. In Sweden it was hard to have a dinner for two for under $150 if you had wine and all. Here it’s hard to spend over $50 even if you select a nice wine.
And the hotels are a bargain too, though in this case there was one very weird feature. We stayed at a Marriott right in the center of things. Very nice hotel, new or recently renovated and a great value for the price. Because of the recent merger with Starwood we’re treated well there and get access to the executive lounge. We’re staying on the 7th floor and the lounge is on the 5th floor. So we go down, have a drink or two, then go back up to the room to get jackets to go out for the night. Except there’s no “up” button for the elevator, just down.
That can’t be right, right? Only a down button even though there are three floors above? Somehow, though, in this classy, shiny, flash hotel they only have down buttons. Strange indeed.
And speaking of strange, the other museum we toured, an archeological museum, was … odd. You just didn’t know what to make of it. It had an enormous collection of ancient coins that was awe-inspiring, just display case after display case of coins dating back thousands of years that appeared to be in mint condition. Could they be real? It just didn’t seem possible. And all sorts of other stuff in stunning displays with great lighting that made you feel you were in something truly special. All surrounded by manikins dressed up in period costumes that just looked so tacky. It was all interesting but all just strange, too.
So two days in Skopje. Fascinating, beautiful, affordable, and weird all at the same time. Next stop on this Balkan road trip: Lake Ohrid.