Today on Macedonia, is born
the new sun of liberty…
– National anthem of North Macedonia
The entire Western Balkans have been undergoing a major rebirth after a full decade of brutal war 30 years ago. Croatia and Montenegro enjoy a thriving tourist economy thanks to a priceless coastline while Bosnia and Herzegovina fall back on medieval world heritage sites. Kosovo is an up and coming destination that draws the adventurous souls and North Macedonia manages to find a novel niche: tacky art!
From Pristina, Kosovo, it is a short two-hour bus ride to Skopje, the capital city, and another three hours down to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Ohrid Lake. Then it is easy to reach anywhere in Albania to the West, Kosovo up North, Greece to the South, and Bulgaria to the East. North Macedonia might not be on top of your bucket’s list, but you won’t regret a quick visit. Few other Balkan countries showcase a more dramatic makeover in terms of image and identity that would leave no one indifferent!
Skopje Memorials: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Bazaar is Macedonia, Macedonia is the Bazaar.
– Old Macedonian saying.
From the Kale Fortress ruins, one enjoys a commanding view of Skopje, old and new. A narrow lane by the 15th century Mustafa Pasha Mosque leads the visitor down to the National Museum and the remains of a 16th century Ottoman inn, the Kursumli An. What joy to meander through the bustling Old Bazaar, the “diamond” of Skopje, filled with jewellery, bridal, and antique shops. The only bigger and more beautiful bedesten from the one in Skopje was the one in Damascus, according to Evlija Celebija, an Ottoman traveller who visited Skopje during the 17th century. With a greyish sky and plummeting temperatures, December might not be the best season to visit Skopje. But I enjoy strolling through the bazaar in its morning calm, feeling at once joy and humility. No photo seems capable of capturing the timeless presence of this old Balkan city.
As a pedestrian axis in the capital city, the Bazaar leads directly to the Skanderbeg Square and then the Macedonian Square through a beautiful 15th century old Stone Bridge. This is where the national art spectacle unfolds. Outsized statues and murals dot the cityscape that screams passion about its hard won independence and ongoing identity struggles. There is even a local version of Arc de Triomph – Porta Macedonia – sans Champs Elysees. With a diverse ethnic mix – 58% Macedonians, 24% Albanians, 4% Turks, and the rest Romani, Serbs and Bosniaks – every sculpture or statue can be and is often seen as a provocation. Albanians love their Skanderbeg, a national hero, while Macedonians find it instrumental to remember Alexander the Great – or “Warrior on a Horse” to be politically correct – despite vehement Greek opposition out of fears of Macedonia’s claim over part of Northern Greece. Just to complicate things a little further, Bulgaria argues that Macedonians are in fact Bulgarians…! Mother Teresa – bless her soul, the most famous native of Skopje – must be stirring in her grave in faraway Kolkata, India. If you are an art teacher/critic, all this might be up your alley! But few locals are bemused by all this sudden faux enlightenment. The scale of the project for a city this size is all wrong and frankly the pace is frightening, says Danica Pavlovska, the head of Macedonia’s Association of Architects. With 35% unemployment rate, the mega SK2014 project that cost Macedonians US$700 million proves to be an extravagant fancy, now the object of investigation by the Special Prosecutor’s Office. So much about re-imagining a country and city!
UNESCO World Heritage: Lake Ohrid
I am happy to leave tacky art behind and head south to the beautiful lake Ohrid region. On the border between North Macedonia and Albania lies one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. A popular destination for foreigners and locals alike in the summer, the lake exudes a certain old timer charm even off season.
The town of Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe dating back to the Bronze Age. Strolling through the old centre is a step back in time through magnificent stone heritage houses set in a maze of alleyways and medieval monasteries and churches, climbing steadily to the Tsar Samuel’s Fortress overlooking the sprawling lake. For lovers of Byzantine arts and architecture, Ohrid is a great base for exploring the old monasteries and churches around the lake and the nearby villages.
Who’s A Macedonian?
For five decades in the previous system, there was a declarative emphasis on equality between Macedonians, Albanians and other communities; that they are equal, that they have equal rights to education and work. But the actual situation has shown that over the past 50-60 years there has been great and evident discrimination against minority communities, especially the Albanians.
– Vlado Popovski, a professor of law
The peaceful looking country betrays a troubled past. In 2001, twenty years post-independence, a civil conflict erupted when ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), formed from veterans of the Kosovo War, attacked Macedonian security forces around Tetovo due to repression against Albanians in North Macedonia. Some radical groups even declared the Republic of Illyrida as an attempt to reorganize Macedonia into a confederacy between Albanians and Macedonians that would be called Ilirida-Macedonia. While that never came to pass, the subsequent Ohrid Framework Agreement, signed in August 2001, did promise more rights including the recognition of Albanian as an official language.
Meanwhile, Greece and Macedonia finally reached an accord called the Prespa Agreement in 2018. Macedonia agreed to change their name to the Republic of North Macedonia, distinguishing it from the Macedonian region in Northern Greece. In exchange, Greece lifted the blockade of Macedonia’s NATO membership. All this convoluted political manoeuvring probably eludes the passing visitor who only sees the tip of the Balkan iceberg, as locals love to say. My quick-in quick-out visit to North Macedonia has been a total eye-opener.
Stay tuned for the next art instalment!
In the lift of the world
Freedom always presses the wrong button…
“What does she look like!” they whisper
then run up the stairs to their homes and lock the doors behind them
afraid that Freedom might
lean against their door
sprawl at their threshold
ask them for water, bread or a bed.
– Lidija Dimkovska, Freedom
This is part of a series on my three-month journey revisiting the Balkans.
Next: Traversing the Balkans: Albania!
Traversing the Balkans: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Traversing the Balkans: Kosovo
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan