Why do we do it to ourselves? Our lives are short and the world is so interesting. So why do we spend so money of our weekends away in well behaved cities that are so meek and mild, so boring and band? Macedonia’s capital in anything but. Skopje has swagger. It swears and pokes, it jolts and jostles, it preens and poses. Walking around it is like a night out with Alex Higgins. Snowy peaks punch above it, a muddy river slices through it, drivers speed around in mud-caked cars narrowly avoiding fatal smashes, stray dogs bark and pout, beautiful women look dismissive, fat men smoke and squabble, the air is thick with all kinds of opportunities, many of them sinful.
It’s a city that’s alive. Most of all it is exotic, and that exoticism seeps from every pore. North of the River Vardar, minarets puncture a smoggy sky, and the bazaar throbs with a million sensations. The call to prayer echoes from tinny loudspeakers, the smell of Turkish tea wafts along, switchback alleys offer that most delicious possibility: the chance to get completely lost in a place where you see virtually no Western European tourists, hear virtually no English or French or Italian apart from the names of famous football players shouted at TVs. Creaky wooden buildings lean over each other, shoddy souvenirs are flogged by shysters who wink and waggle fingers.
An Ottoman spice grinder? Yeah, I think, why not? I make a mental note to check nothing’s been stashed inside it before I go through customs. A slice of burek? Yep – the spinach and feta one, always the spinach and feta one. I try to remember the name of the stall where I buy the flaky pastry pie – the Balkans’ second most popular export after Drina fags – but even if I were a better journalist I’d never find it. Just go looking, you won’t regret it.
Serendipity, rather than good research and keen mapping skills, bring me to the Water Inn and then the old hammam that signal how important the Ottomans were during their five centuries of colonisation of these lands. Their dominance ended at the river, where the famous old Stone Bridge sails out from the Muslim world and lands in the Christian one. On a wall, on the Muslim side, graffiti in English (for maximum effect) reads “fuck nationalism”. Someone has tried to scribble it out – probably the police and probably because the current right-wing government is very much for nationalism.
And that’s why the centre of Skopje now looks like nothing less than a Las Vegas mega-resort, an unholy marriage of The Bellagio and Caesars Palace with hundreds of yard sale statues thrown in for free. These new buildings are an absolute architectural abomination with their pediments and whitewash. But they’re gripping and they’re absolutely a part of what this city is all about. This is what happens when former communist countries try to jettison the 20th century. There’s a new theatre that looks like a belle epoque theatre and a new archaeological museum that looks like a casino. The whole point of this Skopje 2014 ruse was to project a civilised, cultured, mitteleuropa feel.