The end result is the exact opposite – it looks like a despot’s playground in Central Asia or the Gulf. Macedonia wants to connect with Europe, to be more western. This comical building spree makes the place feel as sinister as Bahrain or Baku. Still, you can’t stop looking – the city is like a huge theme park. Skopje today is trying to look back. A huge guy on a horse in Macedonia Square is supposed to make you think of Alexander the Great. He was the Macedonian icon who cowed even the Persians, a national hero who also has the airport named after him. And looking on to the square is a new Marriott hotel, which is currently being built. Except it looks like something from fin de siecle Paris. The sense of surrealism and absolute confidence on display is breathtaking. Sensibilities are offended at will.
And in a sense that’s nothing new. Because the city’s best buildings were doing that when they were built in the 1960s. The difference is that they were looking towards an exciting, rational future, too. The problem for them now is that future was a communist one. Skopje wras flattened by an earthquake in 1963 and the rebuild was spectacular. It could have been even more spectacular. The famous Japanese architect Kenzo Tange proposed a whole series of superblocks that would have made Skopje look like the most futuristic city on earth, never mind in Europe. Some of the plan was realised, and space-station chic is still alive and well in the telephone exchange and post office complex, which is a perfect piece of brutalist bluster – hard, heavy, abstract and annoying.
It’s a head-scratching delight. The railway station is zen; minimal – austere concrete boxes rise above eerily empty platforms creating one of the most remarkable railway stations you’ve ever laid eyes on. The Skopje City Mall is a multi-level riot of shops, markets, picture framers and clothes menders. By its side, jutting up to the river, are dozens of bars that pump out Eurodisco into the early hours. Plonked on top of the mall is the Holiday Inn, with its mix of communist kitsch and decor from an episode of Dallas.
I love it, and eating a solitary breakfast of fat olives and crumbly sheep’s cheese, plump tomatoes and aubergines in a room surrounded by mirrors, I allow my mind to play out my war reporter fantasies – didn’t war reporters in the Balkans always stay in a Holiday Inn? There’s so much to look at in Skopje -the remarkable 1960s towers of the National Bank of Macedonia, the postmodern museum on the site of the house where Mother Teresa was born, the shocking new triumphal arch leading off Macedonia Square.
Your lungs will fill with ciggie smoke, exhaust smoke, the stench of chestnuts roasting at stands on corners, the noise of banging and clattering as yet more new monuments go up. Skopje is busy, buzzing, bolshy. This is an old city in a very new country that’s finding its feet. And, despite the way it all overwhelms you, there is a spirit that’s pure at the heart of it all. The people here are welcoming and friendly, even the dogs are – they won’t bite you, they’ll just look mournful. Life’s too short to go to boring places. Come here instead.