Vegas of the Balkans

“What IS this place?!” I said as we walked along Macedonia street toward the main square. In front of us, high above the trees, was a massive bronze statue of a warrior on a horse. The area opened up into an expansive plaza covering over 18500 square feet. Along its edges were towering, Greek style buildings faced with rows of thick ionic columns. High end hotels, a shopping centre, a museum, and important looking office buildings edged the decorated plaza. All the while, soft elevator tunes emanated from lamp posts and filled the air with music. 

A river runs through the centre of the square, separating the old bazaar from the new town. In the river are three full-sized pirate ship replicas; the ships have been transformed into fancy restaurants a hotel and a casino. And everywhere you look there are statues. So. Many. Statues. We dubbed Skopje “The Vegas of the Balkans” and apparently we weren’t the only ones. 

The statue of the warrior on the horse turned out to be Alexander the Great. Although that name is always said with a sly grin here in Skopje. The contempt that exists between Macedonia and Greece is insane. The Greeks will forever claim the name to Macedonia, and are appalled that the country wants to claim Alexander the Great as their national hero. In fact, they are so upset about it, they won’t even consider the country joining the EU unless it changes its name. But Macedonia could care less. When Greece was going through their recession, they took advantage of the situation and built a statue of Alexander the Great (officially referred to as “Warrior on a Horse”). This was to be the greatest statue of Alexander in the whole world. The statue stands at an impressive 8 storeys high (nearly 100 feet). It is made of Bronze, sits above a fountain surrounded by life-sized carvings of lions, and cost $13.5 million USD. But with the financial crisis in Greece, there was no way they could compete. Macedonia’s foreign minister stated “This is our way of saying [up yours] to them”. 

The statue was one of MANY erected in a project called “Skopje 2014”, the Prime minister’s attempt to modernize the capital and create a sense of national identity. It was projected to take 4 years and cost 80 million euros. To date, it’s been 6 years and is projected to cost over 1 billion euros by the time it is finished.

Although the consensus is that most citizens HATE the project and find it both hubristic and wasteful of tax dollars, it has definitely left an impression on Skopje. The city is unlike any I’ve ever seen. Prime Minister Gruevski has replicated some of the most impressive parts of the world and placed them together. An Arc du Triomphe, faux-classical architecture, figures of famous rulers from around the world, and soon, a replica of Rome’s Spanish Steps. Our tour guide called it “Copy-paste” syndrome. He says he prays every night that the Prime Minister never visits Venice or else all the streets will be torn up and replaced with canals!

I’m not sure if anyone can count how many statues there are in and around the city of Skopje (and even if you did, new ones are added all the time). I counted 21, life-sized statues on a SINGLE BRIDGE. If you count the three standing at the end of the bridge, the 20 or so on the roof of the two buildings, the 10 that run along the river side connecting the next bridge, and the 21 on the next bridge over, you have 75 statues within a single block! We’d heard Skopje was the city of statues, but not even we were prepared for this kind of over-the-top display. 

I vote Skopje as the most unique city in the Balkans. Other travellers have mixed views on the city: some like the over-the-top nature and others find it too kitschy. But, regardless of their view, everyone agrees that if you’re in the area, you HAVE to see it.