Sunday, August 18, 2013

Taking In A Statue (Or Two) In Skopje

A city being rebuilt: the
bronze dome of the new
 municipal water
Skopje, Macedonia, a.k.a. FYROM, was the final stop on our Balkan road trip. We pulled into Skopje on day 13 of our journey hot and a bit travel weary but excited about what we would find.  Friends who had lived or spent time in Skopje had told us that it was a wonderful city that was undergoing a grand renewal so we were ready to see this for ourselves.  After all, each of the other Balkan capitols we had visited had pleasantly surprised us so we expected more of the same here.

I had been told that Skopje was a city full of statues but until I saw it for myself, I didn't fully comprehend what this actually meant.  Seeing as Skopje is a city in a former Communist country, I fully expected to see my share of statues portraying stern looking men armed with weapons.  After all, these nationalistic statues had graced every city and town and many of the roadsides we had traveled through over the past two weeks so it would make sense that Skopje would have more of the same.  But what I saw in Skopje was different.  Very different.  Sure they still had their share of Cold War era monuments but new modern looking statues, monuments, and fountains were being built throughout the city at a scale unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Additionally, new municipal buildings, museums, theaters, and hotels were being constructed along the renovated riverfront.  Yes, we found Skopje to be a city under construction and it was all very exciting.

The Stone Bridge at night; a renovated original
Skopje is a city of contrasts. We wandered through the cobblestone streets of the old Turkish bazaar filled with its non-descript cafes, stores selling everything from gowns and precious metals to housewares and tourist trinkets, and abandoned buildings.  We climbed up to the Skopje Kale, or fortress, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire.  The grounds and fortress itself were in turn rebuilt, over grown, and somewhere in between.  In true Balkan form, resident dogs held court over the paths making me look twice before turning each corner.  The original walls had been refortified and from the top we took in the sweeping view of the city below us and the Millennium Cross perched atop the looking Vondo Mountain.  But the most interesting part of our experience in the city was the statues and monuments that appeared on so many street corners and public squares.  Upon returning home I did a little researched and discovered what this public art building craze was all about.

One of 15 equestrian statues

Under the moniker of Skopje 2014:  The New Face of Macedonia, Skopje aims to revamp its image by constructing twenty new public buildings, 15 equestrian statues, and a memorial dedicated to fallen heroes.  The center piece of the project is a grand, 22 meter high bronze statue of Alexander the Great that sits in the city's main square. (A corresponding one of his father Philip of Macedon sits on an opposing square).  During our visit on a very hot August night hundreds of people were in the square taking in the sights.  Children and adults, couples, singles, and teens alike splashed in the fountain as they took in the multi-colored water and light show that accompanied the classical music that was pumped into the square. The whole experience was simultaneously impressive, surreal, and over the top.  It was unlike anything I have ever seen before.  (Many of the other fountains also had light shows with both the lights and the music lasting well into the early morning hours).

Because words can't adequately describe the experience here are a few pictures to give you a better idea of what I am talking about:

Alexander the Great in all his greatness

Close up of the water display

Another magical display- all part of the Alexander the
Great monument

And there were other statues and monuments as well:


and heroes

This fountain (below) located immediately outside of our hotel was perhaps the sweetest of them all.  As series of mother figures flanked its perimeter.  Each mother held a child at a different stage of their childhood.  It was touching and unlike any of the other statues we saw.  And Sidney, of course, was more interested in the water than the touching significance of the figures.

I called this the mother-child fountain; all of the figures
portray mothers with children

Celebrating music
and theater
And then there were the public buildings.  A new municipal water building was being constructed with a shiny bronze dome.  (Who does this these days?).  It would only make sense that a new national theater, which itself celebrates arts and culture, located in a city celebrating public art on such a grand scale, would have its own statues.  Although much smaller in scale than the grand ones flanking the main square, the statues surrounding the still under construction national theater were the first ones we noticed as we made our way to the hotel.  In true new Skopje fashion, the theater building has statues flanking its entry ways and its grand veranda overlooking the river.  These were whimsical and a welcome change from the warriors perched on horseback.

Naturally, any project of this scale is going to have its critics.  People are unhappy with everything from the concept and costs to the architectural designs.  The contracting of public projects is big business all over the globe and as is often the case, accusations of a lack of transparency abound.  One year into the project officials are reporting that to date,  208 million Euro has been spent while critics place the number at a figure closer to between 500 million to one billion Euro.  (Either way, during these fragile economic times, that is a lot of money to spend).  Some claim such a project detracts from the larger issues that are pressing to many Macedonians.  High unemployment rates, potential NATO membership, and the ongoing name controversy that is hindering the country's entry into the European Union are issues that many feel need to be addressed before erecting new monuments.

Being neither Macedonian nor living there I have a different perspective.  As a tourist I was entranced by the spectacle that is the "new" Skopje.  We found the city to be a pleasant place to visit and one we would readily return to.  If the city's goal is to attract foreign tourism and we are any indication, they seem to be succeeding on this front.  As an urban planner I was pleased to see a level of thought and development that I have found lacking in most of the other Balkan countries and cities I have visited.   Having sat on both sides of the public project table I can only imagine the talking, planning, and negotiations that have gone into the implementation of this project to date and the amount of work that has yet to be done.  But having been involved in the implementation of large scale public projects, I am well aware of how much these endeavors cost.  During our short visit I repeatedly found myself wondering how the project was being funded.  Tax dollars?  Private investment?  A combination of both?  During lean economic times I wonder whether this is truly the best use of public dollars.  I do hope that the work is completed before the money and public will dry up.  Too often projects that begin as a good idea never reach fruition leaving a community no better off than they were before they began.  This I have seen throughout the Balkans.  For Skopje, only time will tell.  Regardless of it all, Skopje was a grand way to conclude our Balkan adventure.

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