Skopje reminded me of Tomorrowland. I mean that in every sense of the word. In the Disneyland sense, it looked like a 1960’s version of what the future thankfully didn’t turn out to look like. In the modern sense, new, futuristic buildings and public spaces were popping up everywhere in the capital of Macedonia.
There were two reasons for this. First, in the 1960’s an earthquake leveled most of the city. Skopje was largely rebuilt in the Brutalist style that most people think of when they imagine communist-era architecture in the Balkans.
Much of the city center was characterized by gray buildings and strange space-age structures. This was not least personified by the post office, which was created to resemble an insect. It looked vaguely reminiscent of the old spaceship ride at the entrance to Tomorrowland.
Second, the powers that be in Skopje are on a building spree. From the brand new Museum of the Macedonian Struggle to the semi-finished triumphal arch, from the overabundance of sculptures in public spaces to the grandiose statue-fountain-and-light-show combination, the city has entered the 21st century with a riot of construction.
Never mind that most of the construction is in the neoclassical style. Every city has to have its share of buildings that make it look like the center of a great empire. And Skopje does have some claim on that status, what with Macedonia being the birthplace of Alexander the Great.
I witnessed all of the old and the neoclassical when I arrived in Skopje on a three-hour-and-45-minute bus ride from Lake Ohrid. After taking a taxi to Hotel 7, my accommodation in Skopje for the next two days, I settled into my room and walked the 15-minute distance into the city center.
On the way, I walked down a large pedestrian street filled with cafes, bars, and shops. At one point there was a small square next to which stood the new Mother Teresa Memorial House, a museum dedicated to the life of one of Skopje’s most famous inhabitants.
A bit further up the street was the main square, Plostad Makedonija. In it was the aforementioned grandiose statue-fountain-and-light-show combination, as well as a Greek-looking temple and a smattering of sculptures and statues. It was surrounded by an eclectic mix of architectural styles that ranged from fin de siecle to “Tito special” and a contemporary building that was buried under scaffolding. It was intense.
The square was built right next to the Vardar River, over which the historic Kamen Most bridge rested. Said structure transported me from the modern era to the Ottoman Empire. Gone was Tomorrowland. Here was Yesteryear.
But as I delved deeper into the Carsija neighborhood, I realized that the narrow lanes and bazaar-like atmosphere were only a facade. In reality, this too was Tomorrowland.
I walked past old Turkish baths that retained their 15th century exteriors but now housed contemporary art museums. I ducked my head into historic courtyards that featured modern restaurants. And I walked down ancient narrow streets with shops that sold sparkling new gold jewelry and white wedding dresses.
Up the hill was a fortress that seemed to hold the promise of history. But it too was just a front. The entrance was closed, and inside the castle walls were bulldozers and land movers, all of which were working to make something modern.
Back over the bridge, I stumbled upon a folk festival in Skopje. A live band played traditional Macedonian music, and large groups of children dressed in regional costumes took turns performing dances for a crowd in front of the river. It was tomorrow’s generation celebrating yesterday’s cultural feats, and was perfectly fitting with the surroundings.
The following night there was more activity in the square. People were out in droves—old people, young couples, parents, children, babies in carriages—and everyone was enjoying the evening. The fountain was lit up like a Disney Electrical Parade, and looked as if it were having a good time as well.
As I made my way back to my hotel, the pedestrianized street was booming with live concerts, busy bars, and pop-up restaurants in the middle of the streets. If this frenetic scene was any indication of the Skopje of tomorrow, it is going to be a very exciting place.