Architecture / Macedonia / Travel

Skopje’s Makeover: Ambitious and Audacious

New Buildings 1

Large government spending programs attract controversy like bees to honey, and Skopje’s contentious, large-scale building project, called “Skopje 2014” is no exception.

It’s a huge, city-wide effort to improve and upgrade the look of the city, but the primary focus is in the city center. There are three published objectives for the makeover. It was intended to:

    • present a more “historic” look
    • draw in tourists
    • instill a sense of patriotism in ethnic Macedonians.

But not everyone agrees that it was a good idea to spend such huge sums of money on big government and civic buildings as well as hundreds of statues scattered around the capital. We won’t argue the merits of either side here, and we don’t know what Skopje looked like before, but it’s undoubtedly very lovely now.

New Buildings 4

New Buildings 3

All of the new construction we saw was along the The Vardar River in central Skopje. Standing proudly on the west side of the river, a number of gleaming, Neo-classical government offices, museums, and a new opera house are the keystone of the program.

Directly across the river from this string of attractive buildings is a tree-lined promenade with so many inviting outdoor attractions and restaurants that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. This beautiful section of the river could rival any waterfront in Europe.

Stone Bridge

A few hundred yards north, the nearly 600 year-old Stone Bridge forms the top of the “T” where we left the realm of fancy new buildings and entered the world of grand plazas, huge statues, and geyser-like fountains. We don’t know who designed this wonderland of patriotic kitsch, but it’s a good bet there was a stop in Las Vegas for some inspiration.

Alexander Fountain 1

On the west end of the T, Macedonia’s most famous native son, Alexander the Great and his rearing warhorse sit mid-fountain on a huge carved pedestal surrounded by warriors at the ready.

Fountain Playtime

The warriors stand guard over a large, snow-white plaza with a kid-friendly fountain in the center and benches on all sides. With all his madcap running and hysterical laughing, this little boy had a hard time staying dry.

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At the other end of the T directly in front of the entrance to the Old Bazaar, a giant bronze statue of Alexander’s father, the warrior King Philip of Macedon, overlooks a smaller square.

Oympia, Alexander, Philip Fountain 2

 At the base of the column, a young Alexander sits between his loving mother Olympia and father Philip.

Our favorite fountain paid tribute to the Mothers of Macedonia.

This whole extravagant show was a delightful surprise that brought smiles to our faces time and again. We’ll leave the criticism and controversy to people who know more about Macedonia’s economy, unemployment, and infrastructure problems. Maybe there was a better way to spend some of this money. But in the meantime, if one of the objectives is to attract tourists – well we’re tourists and it certainly got our vote.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

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23 thoughts on “Skopje’s Makeover: Ambitious and Audacious

    • The central part of Skopje is lovely Liz. I haven’t been able to find a photo of what the river looked like before the renovation, but the money they’ve pumped into it has made it an impressive promenade. ~James

  1. I don’t know anything about the controversy either, so I can’t say if what is there now is better or worse than what came before. The city certainly comes across very well in your photographs, however. The highlight for me, though, is the little boy splashing wildly through the water. It reminds me of my own children at the same age.

    • With tons of benches and a large fountain, this is one very user-friendly plaza. This kid had the fountain to himself when we visited, but I can imagine that on a hot summer day it’s packed. The plaza is also a prime people-watching spot. ~James

    • Laura, like most of the rest of the Balkans, Macedonia has its share of issues. Our blogging buddy and commenter Lexie has a friend from Macedonia who had this to say about the project: “I did ask my Macedonian friend today about the transformation of Skopje, and as you said, it is quite controversial with the people there! She kept using the word “facades” and I thought that was a perfect word to capture the idea of making the face of Skopje look more beautiful and appealing to tourists, but underneath the city is still inefficient and much of its infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped and unimproved. She cited recreation facilities for local people that are moldy and decrepit while big fancy pools and fountains are built for visitors, as well as the many smaller towns that are left to decay while Skopje is made a showpiece.” So it’s not all rosy there for sure. ~James

  2. Like others have already commented I can not speak to the controversy but from your photos and description a wonderful draw for visitors. The photo of the boy and the fountains reminds me very much of Nice and the huge redevelopment of their inner city. Perhaps in the same theme I don’t know what it looked like before but what a beautiful place to meander about now.

    • Sue, in addition to the area by the river, the commercial part of downtown was also very attractive and walkable. We didn’t get out of the center much, so I can’t really comment on the rest of the city. But, the number of statues and monuments around the city center was incredible. They even have their own version of a small Arc de Triomphe. ~James

  3. You’re so right — this is a lovely upgrade even though I don’t know what it looked like before. But I could definitely see my self sitting at an outdoor table, sipping coffee and enjoying the view of these newly designed buildings and fountains. Thanks for sharing.

    • Rusha, Skopje really was a pleasant surprise. It also helped that our apartment was perfectly located and everything was within easy walking distance (including the bus station and a supermarket). It’s unfortunate that there’s so much controversy, but I guess that most people can express their discontent on election day. ~James

  4. Change is always controversial, but maybe when increased tourism brings more money and jobs into the city people will start appreciating it more. Amazing sculptures, my favourite fountain is also the one paying tribute to the Mothers of Macedonia, beautiful.

    • Succinctly and well put Gilda. When the dust settles most people will forget about the changes and just get on with their lives. As for tourism, I don’t know what Skopje was like before, but now it’s a place that I would recommend to any traveler. ~James

  5. Those top three photos are kind of surreal. It almost looks like a strange attempt to create a past. I have a Macedonian friend who doesn’t think the spending is going to the right place, but upgrading a city can have long term benefits for sure. Thanks for sharing.

    • Good observations Jeff, but I think it might be an attempt to create not just a past, but a more attractive past. It’s always easy to criticize projects like these, but you’re absolutely right about the long term benefits. The human animal resists change, but hopefully, in a few years the project will be forgotten and the residents will just be proud of their capital. ~James

      • It makes me think of Oklahoma City, the capital of the state where I grew up. About 25 years ago they invested heavily in the downtown, which was a real dump. Now they have an NBA team, it is the home for Olympic training for rowing and other sports, they have a great minor league baseball park, and there are tons of restaurants, movie theaters and shops. I doubt you could find anyone who doesn’t think the investment was worth it.

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