Greetings from Skopje, capital of what the UN calls “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. Skopje is an amazing place. I’ve been here four days and I’m still to get my head around it. We arrived by cab at night. After 30 minutes of driving past open fields and humble farmhouses, we hit the city and were flabbergasted. It’s hard to describe first impressions of central Skopje. We drove in on an ornate bridge over a fast-flowing river. Magnificent palace-like buildings lined the banks. There were statues and plinths and fountains and more statues. It was like a cross between ancient Rome and Las Vegas.
It was only when I went for a walk next morning that I realised what had looked very old in the spot-lit darkness was in fact very new. The bridges and buildings were completed three years ago. The statues are a work in progress. As best as I can figure, Macedonia is a country that has been belted around for centuries by invaders and occupiers who have stripped it of its cultural heritage. Now the Macedonians are putting it all back. Fast and big. You’ve never seen statues as big. In the middle of the city square is a statue of Macedonia’s favourite son, Alexander the Great, on horseback. The statue of Lord Nelson in London’s Trafalgar Square could fit into Alexander’s saddlebag. And it’s just one of hundreds. There are gigantic statues of Alexander’s father, Philip, and of priests and politicians; men holding flags and books; enormous statues of enormous women with enormous breasts holding enormous beatific children. And lions. Everywhere lions.
I must say it’s got a weird feel to it, but then you cross another bridge – and this one really is ancient. It takes you to the old part of the city with its narrow cobblestoned streets and cafes. And antique shops selling old swords, guns, helmets, uniforms and identity cards. Remnants of painful memories Macedonia is doing its best to cover over with statues.