Rebecca West would be appalled. I spent the first three months of the year reading her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – well, I did do quite a bit of work too, but it really is a monster of a book, over 1,100 pages (originally in two volumes), and one of the great travel books. Actually a large part of it is taken up with musings on the roots of fascism (it was published in 1941), the history of ideas and human nature, but it’s also a detailed account of three journeys through Yugoslavia (except for Slovenia, which she may have seen as too civilised for her tastes). In any case, she makes it clear that Macedonia was her favourite part of Yugoslavia, because of the beautiful souls of the people, largely a side-effect of centuries of mis-government by the Ottoman Turks and brutalisation by anyone else who got a chance, notably the Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians.
It’s a serious book, but there are some very funny bits, notably this description of what she calls ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe’, right in the centre of Skopje – ‘of turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod’. This was the Officers’ Club, embodying the domination of the mainly Serb army, and particularly offensive to the Muslim population as they’d torn down the beautiful fifteenth-century Karlizade or Burmali mosque in 1925 to make room for it. It was badly damaged in the massive earthquake of 1963 and left unrepaired, although after the break-up of
Yugoslavia the city’s Muslims campaigned for the mosque to be rebuilt. In 2013 a Greek company was given permission to rebuild it as a hotel, also providing a new office for the mayor and a wedding hall. As of April 2019 there’s not much sign of progress.
In fact West would be spinning in her grave if she had any idea of the further architectural desecration wrought upon the long-suffering city of Skopje in the last few years – the notorious Skopje 2014 project has seen some of the world’s ugliest and most grandiose buildings constructed along the city centre’s riverfront. Beyond kitsch, beyond surreal, beyond Ceaușescu’s most fevered dreams, they’re simply appalling – I’ll just let my photos below do the talking. One might think they were trying to create a European Las Vegas if there were any casinos, and if Batumi hadn’t got there first. The city was largely flattened in a massive earthquake in 1963 and rebuilt in communist concrete – one can understand a reaction against that, but this was not the way to go.
What’s more they are decorated with and surrounded by an incredible array of statues – they’re not all awful, but their sheer number is exhausting. I thought Bratislava’s riverfront exemplified the Central European love of public statuary, but this is on another level. I hate to think how many hospitals all this could have paid for. Not only that, but the city also has a fleet of red double-decker buses that look like the illicit lovechild of a London Routemaster and a Tonka Truck. And not one but two ‘galleons’ set on concrete blocks in the river. On the other hand, there’s a large traffic-free area and plenty of cycling, so they must be fundamentally good people.
The bazaar area has kept its dignity and its authenticity, and is what most visitors most enjoy here; just above, the Mustapha Pasha mosque (built in 1492) is the most interesting of the city’s mosques. Large chunks of the city’s museums are currently closed awaiting restoration, with just a few rooms displaying a fraction of their collections. It has to be said that the modernist communist architecture of the Museum of Macedonia and the Museum of Contemporary Art actually looks pretty good compared to the monstrosities down by the river, while others are beautifully housed in former baths and markets. The M of M has a propagandist display on how the Macedonians of northern Greece were driven out in the 1940s, and a good ethnology display with a huge array of traditional costumes as well as pots, pans and farming implements, which show that Macedonia is part of the cultural continuum of central Europe that I’m familiar with from working for so many years in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and elsewhere (see my recent post on Bratislava). I also went to the City Museum (with some good Roman relics and a room on the 1963 earthquake), the National Gallery (in fifteenth-century baths that make a great space for temporary shows), the Museum of Contemporary Art (also largely empty – part of the impressive worldwide response to the earthquake was to create this museum and donate a Picasso, a Calder and other art works, but these are not currently on display), and I also popped swiftly into the Mother Teresa Centre (she was born here) – the M of M costs about £1.30, the rest are free. I’m informed that the Archeology Museum has lots of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics and a particularly good collections of ancient coins, all well displayed – but the building is a nightmare.
It’s said that Pristina is Europe’s ugliest capital – it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to Skopje.
Time for a beer
One plus is that you can find a decent pint in a couple of places, courtesy of Pivnica Temov aka Old Town Brewery, founded in 2009, who now have a couple of outlets, the original slightly ramshackle place at the top of the old town,and a lively bar right on the main Macedonia Square. They do IPA and a double IPA, stout (I think they spell it staut), porter and weissbier, all unfiltered and unpasteurised and using only the four basic ingredients of barley, hops, yeast and water. My limited sampling indicated it was just fine, and the food was good too.
Then I want home by a different way and found a load more laughable statuary jumbled together – it’s too much for anyone to take in.
What’s in a name?
The long-running fight with Greece over the country’s name has finally been resolved, and it is now officially North Macedonia – an admission that South Macedonia exists and is part of Greece (and a small East Macedonia also exists and is part of Bulgaria). Perhaps Upper Macedonia would have been better, along the lines of Upper Hungary, which is now Slovakia. It’s annoyed some nationalists, but really the country couldn’t go on for ever as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The particularly huge statue of Alexander the Great (the second most famous Macedonian after Mother Teresa, and she was ethnically Albanian) is still officially called Warrior on Horseback to avoid ruffling Greek sensibilities (and the national flag was also changed to placate the Greeks).