Located in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, Skopje lies in the heart of Balkan peninsula. With over 500,000 inhabitants, the city is built on the banks of Vardar river, while the narrow streets in the Old Bazaar – biggest bazaar preserved in the Balkans today – remind of times gone by. The area is home to charming coffee shops and traditional art stores, with an ever-present Turkish feel.
While Skopje and North Macedonia are making international headlines over internal political disputes regarding Prespa agreement with Greece, little else about this part of the world grabs attention beyond the region. Apart from, of course, being the birthplace of Mother Theresa.
Skopje was under Ottoman rule like the rest of the Balkans for around 500 years. During that time, the city was renowned for its oriental architecture. In 1912, North Macedonia was annexed by Serbia and it became part of newly formed Yugoslavia after the World War II. In 1963 the city was hit by a devastated earthquake that measured 6.9 on Richter scale. More than 1,000 people were killed and over 3,000 injured. The earthquake flattened most of the city, with 80% of its buildings damaged or destroyed. Countries from around the world helped rebuild the city, in a completely new architectural style and layout, with several large new urban zones added to the east, west and north. What emerged was a mix of modernist buildings, brutalist structures and depressing Soviet-style apartment blocks. Though most of the Ottoman architecture has been destroyed, the city’s Old bazaar stands defiant against time.
The capital of kitsch
The second time Skopje was rebuilt was when the previous government came up with the project Skopje 2014: a plan to revamp the city which some interpreted as an attempt to reclaim Macedonian national identity. The result was more than 130 new sculptures erected around the city with the tallest of them all – a 22-metre statue of Alexander the Great – gracing Skopje’s central square. The monument was named Warrior on a Horse, rather than Alexander the Great as Greece doesn’t want North Macedonia to use his name as a part of its history. The project also included adding false facades to numerous communist-era buildings and planting palm trees along the river banks in a city where temperatures in the winter drop below zero. Initial budget for the project amounted to EUR 80m but an investigation by the Balkan Insight revealed the actual cost was around EUR 560m – in a country where average wage is around EUR 400. When it came to power, the current government’s first move was to stop all projects, including the building of the London style Ferris wheel on Vardar river.
Though sculptures with dubious art qualities adorn the city, there are many hidden gems that showcase local talent. Acanthus gallery, located in the bustling Debar Maalo district, is a place where many aspiring, young artists organise their first exhibitions. It’s a great spot to discover new talent, from modern art, ceramics, jewellery and fashion. Another great place appreciating local artisans is the Error Kolektiv concept store, whose interior resembles an ongoing art exhibition. Fashion, accessories, art prints, photographs, stationery and many other unique objects decorate the shop’s shelves. Like many other concept stores around the world, Error Kolektiv also organises parties and events to promote electronic music, introduce young artists and different types of collaborations.
Skopje has been listed by the World Health organisation as one of the most polluted cities in Europe. High particle pollution in Skopje is above average 269 days per year. The air pollution caused more than 1,300 premature deaths in the capital, according to official statistics. The problem is biggest during winter due to industrial emissions, smoke from wood-burning stoves and exhaust fumes from old cars. The geography of Skopje, surrounded by mountains, means that the polluted air is effectively trapped. The city authorities deploy emergency measures on days with high air pollution such as time off from work for pregnant women, people over 60 years of age, and those suffering from chronic asthma and related conditions. The city also offers free public transport while any sporting events on such days are cancelled.
The government is now attempting to address the problem, announcing a strategic plan last November to reduce pollution in the capital by 50% in two years. The funds allocated amount to EUR 1.6m per year, which some environmentalists say is below what is necessary to resolve the pollution problem. The plan includes buying new air pollution monitoring stations; reducing VAT tax and subsidies to encourage inhabitants to replace wood and other pollutants with central heating; reducing car traffic during winter as well as adding more green areas in the city.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development approved a USD 13.5m project to upgrade Skopje’s older diesel buses to low-emission, compressed natural gas buses. The government itself approved a USD1.8m programme in November 2018 to tackle air pollution.
Introducing electric buses
Part of the council’s priority list to address Skopje’s public transport problem is not only to combat air pollution but to improve the service overall. In 2018 the council adopted a budget for subsidies for procurement of eco-buses in the amount of MKD 100m and for private transporters in the amount of MKD 20m. In 2019, at least 30 new eco-fuel buses will be driven down the Skopje streets and will replace the old bus fleet of the public enterprise JSP-Skopje.
“Investing in public transport that is energy efficient and does not pollute the air is an investment in creating a healthy environment”, says the city’s mayor Petre Shilegov. “Skopje deserves bus transport that will not pollute, that will be energy efficient and that will fully meet the needs of the citizens who use it.”
Skopje currently has two gas powered buses and one electric bus which consumes a minimum amount of electricity and is equipped with a quick charging system. Two e-charging stations have been set up on the first and last stops on this bus line.