Three years ago I visited Skopje. At that time, many people were talking about „Plan 2014“, initiated by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. It was the government’s intention to redevelop the existing city center to include around 20 neo-classical and baroque buildings on the banks of the Vardar River, as well as over 40 monuments and many statues depicting the historical and cultural past of Macedonia. The plan also called for the construction of two new bridges in the same „antique“ style. Budget? Around 80 million Euros – to begin with.
During our last camper trip through Macedonia last week we revisited Skopje and I must say: I was shocked by what I saw. We were accompanied by our friend Nikola, who guided us around the city center and told us a lot about the latest developments. We entered the central square through the new Triumphal Arch “Porta Macedonia”, 21 meters high, with 32 reliefs carved on the outside (photo 2). I just wonder: can you imagine any other city in the world building a triumphal arch in the 21st century?
Macedonia Square is dominated by a giant statue of Alexander the Great, 24 meters tall, surrounded by a group of warriors and a magnificent fountain. The cost? Eleven million Euros! Alexander sits on his horse, raising a sword up in the sky. But what a pity: the official name of the monument had to be transformed into “Warrier on a Horse”, as the Greek government protested against the name of the statue on the very day after its inauguration. A large part of the square is still a construction site and numerous facades are obstructed by cranes.
Approaching the dark-brown Vardar River we were flabbergasted … A series of bombastic buildings on the bank of the river, together with two kitschy bridges appeared in front of our eyes. The beautiful old Stone Bridge from the 15th century, the symbol for Skopje, could hardly be seen. It was flanked by two fountains in the river that spurted jets of dirty water in the air. Three willows were planted in boxes somewhere in the middle of the river and we could also see a big wooden ship (two other ones were under construction) that is meant to be an exclusive restaurant (photo 3). Honestly, it looked like a movie set for Captain Cook!
But most surprising were the Art Bridge and the Eye Bridge, new pedestrian bridges jammed with sculptures – personalities from Macedonia’s historical and cultural past (photo 1). One bridge leads to the new Archeological Museum, a neo-classical building fronted with Ionic columns (photo 4), the other one to the Financial Police Building (photo 7) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (photo 5). It was absolutely surrealistic so see such a townscape in Skopje, a city of around 700,000 inhabitants, capital of a 2 million population. I did not know what to think… Is this a joke?
We passed the river hoping to feel the real atmosphere of Skopje in the Old Bazaar. But … at the entrance of the old town some other “works of art” were waiting for us. The monument “Mothers of Macedonia” (photo 6) showed us sculptures of the mother of Alexander the Great with the child on her lap or in her arms, and behind it was another huge monument (photo 6 on the right): Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, shaking his fist at the sky, while bronze horses jump out of a nearby fountain.
Little change had taken place in the narrow cobbled stone streets of the Bazaar. The stores still sell everything: from hand-made carpets to gold, souvenirs and baklava. But nice restaurants have been opened along the winding streets and markets, and the Kale fortress offers a beautiful view of the city.
Finally, we visited the Museum of Mother Theresa and the old railway station that was destroyed by a disastrous earthquake in July 1963. The station clock still shows the time of the earthquake that took away 1100 lives and destroyed 80% of the city center: 5.19 AM. It was Tito’s wish to transform the railway station into a museum – but this never happened and the building is totally dilapidated.
In one of the trendy pubs of Skopje, Nikola told us that Macedonian people are divided about the project. It is well-known that the cost of the Plan has already exceeded the amount of 500 million Euros so far. And the construction works are still going on with an incredible speed! Many people see this project as a waste of resources in a country with high unemployment (30%) and poverty (30%). Some critics also see it as a distraction from these problems. But there are also Macedonians who are happy to give Skopje a more monumental and visually pleasing image.
It is my personal opinion that Plan 2014 will have serious detrimental consequences for society and democracy in Macedonia and that the next generations will have many problems to pay off the loans taken by the government for the completion of this “remake”.
However, I was informed that this absolutely grotesque plan seems to be helping Macedonia to attract foreign tourists – according to the Ministry of Tourism. Thanks to this spectacular movie set, there has allegedly been a 25% increase in foreign tourists in the first seven months of this year. It is the first season that mass groups of foreign tourists are seen downtown and in the Old Bazaar. But even if this would be true, it does not justify the fact that there are many other priorities in Macedonia: good hospitals, infrastructure, road repair, new jobs and new investments …