Big 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 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 North Macedonians.
But not everyone agrees that it was a good idea to spend what some see as staggering sums of money on government and civic buildings, as well as hundreds of statues scattered around the capital. We don’t know what Skopje looked like before, and we’re not taking sides in the argument, but it’s undoubtedly lovely now.
Like most visitors to the city, most of the new construction we saw was along the The Vardar River in central Skopje. 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 shops and restaurants that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. This beautiful section of the river could rival any appealing waterfront in Europe.
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 display of patriotic kitsch, but it’s a good bet there was a visit to Las Vegas for some inspiration.
On the west end of the T, North 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.
The warriors stand guard over a large, snow-white plaza with a kid-friendly fountain and benches on all sides. With all his madcap running and hysterical laughing, this little boy was good entertainment for the bench-warmers.
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.
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 North 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 North Macedonia’s economy, unemployment, and infrastructure problems. Based on what we saw outside the city city center, there probably were better ways to spend some of this money. But in the meantime, if one of the objectives is to attract tourists – well we’re tourists, and given all the city has to offer, we can recommend a stop there.
James & Terri
Indeed, it is quite a lovely city that you have captured here!
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
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
It sounds like an absolutely fantastic place to sit with a refreshing drink on a hot afternoon and just watch the world stroll by.
I don’t know if the rebuild instilled any patriotism, but they certainly nailed the other two objectives. Love the stone bridge and the Mother’s fountain.
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
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
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
It certainly happens in the good ol’ USA — that discontent expression thing!
I imagine not knowing much of the controversy ahead of time allowed you to enjoy the area as any newcomer would. The photos look enchanting.
Susan, the riverwalk and area around the Stone Bridge really is beautiful, and the amazing contrast to the Bazaar nearby makes is a wonderful place to visit. ~James
Controversial to many I know, but we loved it actually 🙂
Spike, we felt exactly the same way. It’s unfortunate but understandable that opinions are so polarized, but in the meantime, it certainly makes for an interesting destination. ~James
If I lived there I might feel bad about the way the money was spent but for a visitor I looks like a good idea.
Well that’s always the way it is, isn’t it Marie? It depends on one’s point of view. We really enjoyed Skopje, and as travelers, the new cityscape is great to see. ~James
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
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.
Chris, thanks for the link to our Skopje post. As you point out, and as we did in our post, opinions about the incredible amounts of money spent on this revitalization are definitely polarized. The riverfront and center has been tarted up and it presents lots of eye-candy for tourists and locals alike. As to whether it will actually help the city’s long-term prospects remains to be seen and only time will tell. In the meantime, hopefully, voters there will decide if it’s a good or bad thing and let politicians know at election time. But regardless, Skopje is a memory that will stick with me. ~James