Wednesday, July 24, 2013


I grew up thinking of Macedonia as a region of the ancient world that was almost synonymous with Greece, and most of my exposure to it came through the many times it is mentioned in the New Testament. (See, for example, Acts 16:12, I Corinthians 16:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:8.)
To be completely honest--and I am really embarrassed to admit this--until we planned this trip I did not know that since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, there has been a country named Macedonia in the Balkans. In my defense, it's a pretty small country--about the size of Vermont. Also, there is some controversy over the name "Macedonia." Greece is ticked off about the use of that name as Greece still has a region named Macedonia, which includes part of the ancient Macedonia. See the green area below:
Many Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians and feel no connection to the Slavic people who are the residents of the country of Macedonia.

Of course, the current country of Macedonia also includes part of that same ancient region of Macedonia. (Confused? Yeah, me too.) Anyway, because of the fight over who gets to use the name "Macedonia," the country Macedonia is called the "Republic of Macedonia" or "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)," which you can see on the map above. On the map below, the Republic of Macedonia (hereafter called simply Macedonia) is the yellow, land-locked country.
That is all a very simplified version of a very complex issue, but it will have to do because I have other things to write about.

Our first introduction to the Macedonian flag was at the border. Macedonians love their flag, and we saw it flying more than any other Balkan country's flag.
We were a little confused at the border when we tried to decide which line to get in. "EU" would be "European Union." We weren't sure what "EEA" or "CH" were,
but we weren't Macedonian (MK) citizens, so we chose the EU/EEA/CH line. It was the right choice.

Almost immediately we were introduced to Macedonia's obsession with Alexander the Great:
This is also an issue for Greece, which considers Alex the G. as part of their history and culture, not part of the Slavic culture. Ah, but Athens is far, far away, and so for now, we will head to the capital city of Skopje and enjoy our Slavic Alexander.
Wonder of wonders, a street sign! It had been days
since we had seen something like this!
A 6.9 earthquake in Skopje in 1963 killed over 1,000 people and destroyed 80% of the city:

If there is any bright side to such a tragedy, it is that old buildings made way for new construction, and fifty years after the earthquake, there is a lot of construction going on. Overall, Macedonia seems to be positioning itself to be the next great tourist destination in the Balkans. A project entitled "Skopje 2014" is revitalizing the capital city with huge building and arts projects at a cost of up to 500 million euros ($660,000,000). The Marriott Hotels Corporation must believe in Macedonia's future, because the first Marriott Hotel in the Balkans is being built next to Skopje's main square. I would have guessed Dubrovnik or one of the other cruise-friendly coastal cities would have beat Skopje to the punch.

The first sign we saw of this grand building scheme was the 70-foot-tall Triumphal Arch, just completed in January of 2012 at a cost of 4.4 million euro.
It is just a few feet taller than this famous arch in Paris.

Then on our way to our hotel, we saw this massive bronze statue. We were beginning to get the idea that size is a very important part of Skopje's master plan.
Vasil Chekalarov (1874-1913), a revolutionary and soldier in the First and Second Balkan Wars
After checking in to our truly lovely hotel, the Hotel Rose Diplomatique, we walked a half mile or so to Macedonia Square, the tourist and city center.
Just a note on accommodations. Because there are no big chain hotels, there are no "American" hotels, which is a nice change. In our little hotel, which I believe was a personal home converted into rooms for rent, we were surrounded by travelers from all over. It had a very cosmopolitan atmosphere, which we enjoyed. In talking with the other guests (at least those who spoke English), we met some guys from Germany who gave us some great tips that led to our choice of destination the following day.
Signs with English translations point the way for tourists
This is a brand-new, still-under-construction building, one of 20 buildings and 40 monuments
that are part of the Skopje 2014 plan.
The dominant monument in Macedonia Square is this one officially called Warrior on a Horse (to appease Greece), but known popularly as Alexander the Great.

The statue itself is 48 feet tall, and the base is 33 feet. It is enormous. See those little lions around the perimeter of the fountain?

They are bigger than we are.

The soldiers around the base of the intricately carved support column are about twice life-size.
The lighting at night is, well, a bit on the gaudy side.

Macedonia Square is bisected by the Vardar River, and the major pedestrian bridge that connects the two parts of the Square is known as "The Stone Bridge."

Not far down the river is another bridge under construction:
On the far side of the river and facing Alexander the Great is this similarly-sized statue of Philip of Macedonia, Alexander's father. I like Philip's raised fist. Is he saying howdy? Signaling victory? Warning Alex to be a good boy?

The official name of this statue, erected in May 2012, is Warrior with Accompanying Elements, another title designed to avoid upsetting Greece. I don't buy it.  Do you think the Greeks do?

This photo taken from a news article about the installation
gives some perspective on the size of these pieces.
Like Alexander, Philip is guarded at mid-level by a group of soldiers that make Chuck Norris look like a scrawny teenager.

At the base of the statue, however, is a tender little family scene of the young Alexander flanked by his mother Olympias, his father Philip, and what must be their pet lion.
The statue is frequently sprayed by the surrounding fountain, so the happy family is
appropriately sculpted with somewhat revealing wet clothing.
The statues of Alexander and Philip supposedly cost 9 million euros each, or almost $12 million.

While those two statues dominate, they are surrounded by dozens of others. None are quite so massive, but most are bigger than what I would consider the norm.

Tzar Samoil, the ruler from 996-1014 who greatly expanded the empire
Karposh, the leader of a great uprising in the 17th century who was executed 
in 1689 on the Stone Bridge. (Great mustache!)

St. Cyril and St. Methodius, brothers born in Thessalonia in the 9th century.
Cyril created the first Slavic alphabet (aka the Cyrillic alphabet) based on
Macedonian speech, and then, with his brother, spread literacy
 and Christianity all over the Balkans.
Justinian I (483-565), first ruler of the Byzantine Age,
author of a code of laws known as the Code of Justinian, 
and builder of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople
Dame Gruev (1871-1906) and Gotsi Delchev (1872-1903), two revolutionaries around the turn of the century.

This one looks like it was just plopped down
in the middle of the construction zone.
I have no idea who he is.

Dimitrija Pop Georgiev-Barovski (1840-1907),
yet another revolutionary
MORE revolutionaries--the Boatmen of Thessaloniki,
a group high school-age anarchists active around 1900.
Four bronze statues of mothers with children. A very nice change
from all those warriors, revolutionaries, and anarchists.
Horses springing forth from the cement? Not sure what this one is all about,
or if there is more to come on that bare podium in the center.
This huge expenditure of funds has been widely criticized. With an unemployment rate of about 30% in Macedonia (actually quite low for the Balkan countries), many feel the money could be better spent. However, this bizarre combination of Athens and Las Vegas will no doubt draw in tourists, and Skopje may come out ahead in the long run. 

In addition to all the hysterical historical statues, there are plenty of other styles to enjoy:

We especially liked this one of two women diving into the 
river right below the Stone Bridge. The water wasn't 
really this mossy green color--it's just my photo.
Another favorite on the outside of a jewelry store, this one entitled
"I'm Still Waiting."  (He is checking the watch on his wrist.)
All of these statues/sculptures/assemblages are either in Macedonia Square or within a block of it. Kitschy though it may be, it felt self-consciously kitschy, and I loved it. In a year or two when all the art is in place and the buildings are complete, I would love to go back for another look.


  1. I find it incredible that they could even finance these statues. That are so ridiculously huge--I bet it was fun to see them.

  2. I think they have more statue per square inch than the Louvres. I love the group of anarchists statue. They give Skopje a unique flair. I think if they add gambling they'll have it made.

  3. Quite the art tour! Wow--you are right--lots of statues, and the size and scale are fascinating. I don't think Americans are quite as enamored of the statue as are Europeans--what is it that we like? Is it because after Lady Liberty, nothing could compare quite with her?