Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Skopje: Where’s the Old Stuff?

I was in Skopje, Macedonia last weekend with my girlfriend, but it was technically a business trip, so I only had one night free to check out the city. We asked a local Macedonian what to do with our night and he said two words: “The Mall.”
The mall?’ I thought to myself in disbelief, ‘We’re in Europe for christsakes, why would I want to go to a fucking mall?’ My girlfriend’s expression echoed my sentiments.
We had a taxi drop us off in the center of downtown Skopje, figuring if there was anything to see that it would probably be in the center; the centrum; the centro. The taxi dropped us off in front of Porta Macedonia—an imitation Arc de Triomphe-type monument. The only difference was that it was a bit smaller and looked like it was constructed in the last twenty years—much like all the buildings surrounding it. That and there was a KFC and Burger King across the street. 
“That’s kinda cool,” Itoro said, looking at the huge, well-lit porta.
“Yeah,” I said, thinking it was not as impressive as it was simply a good indication that we’d been dropped off in the right neighborhood. But there must be some older buildings and cobblestone streets right around the corner, I thought.
As we walked down a concrete pedestrian road, I noticed statues and small monuments every ten meters or so. These Macedonians really like statues, I thought. The street led us to a big circular square with an enormous statue of Alexander the Great on a horse that dominated the entire space. They really like their monuments here, I thought—and that wasn’t the only large statue. They were everywhere!

 Strolling through the square, I appreciated the massive effort, yet was a little bit humored by the in-your-face nationalism of all the monuments and pseudo-classical government buildings (some of their Doric columns bottom lit with pink and purple lights). But my American-traveler-in-Europe instincts told me there had to be something more worthwhile. The old town. Where’s the old town? --Narrow cobblestone paths, medieval buildings, old brick fortifications, leaning towers, etc.
At the end of Alexander the Great square, near the re-modeled old bridge, I found a tourist map. I quickly located on the map the section across the river that had narrow, windy, maze-like streets, hints of old churches, and an ancient fortress. I pointed to it.
“Here’s the old part of town. Let’s go,” I said excitedly.
 Itoro agreed and we crossed the bridge. On the other side was a construction site with a lot of well-stomped dirt and concrete rubble on the side. Graffiti riddled advertisements in Macedonian Cyrillic covered up the construction zone we were walking through. Soon we saw a mosque made of old, weathered brick. Then we spotted a cobblestone street and some architecture that wasn’t brand new. We gravitated toward it, but all the shops and businesses were closed. Only a few shady bars on these uneven streets remained open. After walking through the dark, deserted old town for five minutes, we realized that Skopje didn’t specialize in “Old World charm.” 
And I realized something about myself that night which is slightly embarrassing because it connects me to the average American tourist more than I would ever want to admit. Here it is: I want Old World charm. I seek it out. It satisfies me.
I want to see the ancient, the medieval, the Gothic when I’m in Europe, and I don’t think I’m alone. It seems that when Americans are traveling in Europe they want to see the old stuff, the history that they never had-- not the more recent or modern developments; certainly not malls! We want to see Roman or Greek ruins, medieval churches or castles—almost anything that looks aged over 200 years. I can picture an American tourist now, coming upon a standard 30 year-old office building or 20 year old apartment complex in Paris or Rome, and turning their head in disgust as if trying to avoid a blinding light. It’s what makes Munich more appealing than Berlin; Rome more popular than Milan. Old world vs. New. 
So I’ll have to question myself now when I feel that inner voice pulling me toward the old stuff, and shunning the new like the plague. The question is simple: Why?

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