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It’s the monument in front of which everyone wants to have their photo taken: Skopje’s largest statue features Alexander the Great, who is considered a national hero.
It is one of around 80 statues erected in the Macedonian capital as part of its recent makeover. But this is not a futuristic project, rather Skopje 2014 takes a look back in time, with the aim of glamourising the heros of the past.
“If you have big ancestors and you don’t crystallise them in reality, then you are doing something bad not only for them but also for your future,” says architect Vangel Bozinovski, who designed some of the buildings that are part of the project.
The makeover has attracted a growing number of tourists in recent years – visitors curious to see the city’s new monuments and statues. Skopje’s new look leaves nobody indifferent, although not everyone may agree with the style. But inhabitants are mostly pleased with their city’s new neo-classical architecture, which breaks with its austere, socialist past.
“The city’s Baroque architecture was smashed, damaged and burned at the end of the 17th century. It was the first Baroque city in the Ottoman Empire, we are trying to revive that era,” says Vangel Bozinovski.
Among the great men of Skopje is a little lady: Mother Teresa was born here. Four years ago, Vangel Bozinovski built a memorial museum in her memory.
“It’s not only an architectural project, it’s a result of my admiration for the work of Mother Teresa as a citizen of Skopje. Here you have her non-religous life and her spiritual life mixed together. This house is not only a house, it represents the city as a whole,” says the architect.
Soon, another 30-metre high memorial will be built in the city centre – a gift from an Indian millionaire. Mother Teresa, an Albanian and a Catholic, is a symbol of the multiculturalism that characterises Skopje and other cities in the former Yugoslav republic, which it was a part of until 1991.
Albanians make up one quarter of the country’s population. Their home is the Carsija neighbourhood, the Old Bazaar.
Akif runs the Destan restaurant, a must for any visitor to Skopje. For five generations, his family has been serving a single, popular local dish: the famous Kebapcinja. Destan, which means Legend, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and has witnessed a century of change in Skopje. Akif has been working there since the age of 11.
“Skopje used to be home to the textile industry, so people used to come from all over Yugoslavia to buy goods in the Old Bazaar. It started at six in the morning. Businessmen from neighbouring towns used to take the early bus at five and left again on the 11.30 bus, just in time to grab a kebab,” he says.
The clock on the wall of old railway station is forever stuck at 5.17 – the exact time a devastating earthquake destroyed three quarters of the city on July 26th 1963.
Among the few remaining historical sites is an old Ottoman bridge that runs over the river Vardar and some Turkish baths, that have been turned into a museum.
Fashion designer Olgica Giorgieva gets her inspiration from her country’s tormented history and rich heritage. Her goal is to help the spirit of Skopje live on – a city once famous for its tailoring.
“For the past four years, Skopje has held its own Fashion Week, twice a year. Tradition must serve as a basis even if you are looking to the future, it’s essential to keep alive Macedonia’s ancestral know-how. Whatever the new project are, I always remember where I come from,” says Olgica.
The sun is setting on Kale fortress, a 14th century castle, which overlooks the city and its 700,000 inhabitants. The soft evening wind carries a jazzy tune from a nearby restaurant. Toni Kitanovski is playing. Described by some as the father of Macedonian jazz, Toni has returned to Skopje after a 10-year stint in Boston.
“Something that’s unique for me is that I always feel good when I come here. I travel a lot and I think there are two kinds of cities: happy cities and ‘not happy’ cities. And Skopje is happy city,” he says with a smile.