The center of Skopje
Skopje - AFP
It already puzzles many at home but Skopje's high-priced makeover of its drab communist skyline has now infuriated neighbouring Greece with the arrival this week of a huge statue resembling Alexander the Great
The massive equestrian bronze, to rise 12.5 metres (41 feet) atop a base of similar height, looked harmless enough as it lay in parts in a fenced-off area around the central square where it will be erected.
It is the latest addition in a massive, government-backed facelift for the Macedonian capital, adored by some and blasted by others as "grandiose and outdated".
But for Athens, which also claims the fourth-century BC hero whose empire ran from the ancient Greek city states to the Himalayas, the colossus is a direct affront "with the aim of stirring up nationalism and conflict".
Skopje officially calls the statue "Warrior on a Horse" but sidestepping the name Alexander has not appeased Athens.
Greece warned there would be "repercussions" for Skopje's EU and NATO aspirations, already blocked by Greece in a name row over "Macedonia" which Athens says implies a claim over its northern region of the same appellation.
The "Warrior" -- which press reports said cost a hefty nine million euros ($13 million) alone -- is only one of some three dozen gleaming bronze statues of historic Macedonians popping up around town.
Elsewhere, flashy art halls and new buildings are going up in a mix of neo-classical and baroque architecture, while some older structures are being revamped in the same style.
There is even a bold triumphal arch taking form that has many in the impoverished country jokingly wondering what there is to celebrate -- notably since the arch's details have been kept secret so far.
"Many here do not even know how to live in a city but we are getting a triumphal arc in the centre of town," said a contributor to a special Facebook page on the revamp that has drawn thousands of comments. "It's a triumph of poverty and disorder."
Love it or hate it, the facelift, dubbed Skopje 2014, has left the centre of this lively town of just over 660,000 residents unrecognisable to many locals since the project was announced last year. Some areas resemble a huge construction site, others are covered with scaffolding or fenced off while foundations are laid.
Since a devastating earthquake struck in 1963 and destroyed 80 percent of its buildings, Skopje has not exactly been known as an architectural gem with its drab 1970s communist era public buildings and housing blocks.
Even critics concede a spruce-up was sorely needed.
The government has not officially confirmed figures, but estimates say the project -- which should be completed in 2014 -- will cost some 200 million euros ($285 million).
Fans like 45-year-old Suzana Stefanoska are thrilled the capital will finally get a new theatre and concert hall. "Skopje will at last become a truly metropolitan city and why not have statues of horses and lions in the centre," the fashionable blonde told AFP.
But others question not only the expense in a time of economic crisis but also the choice of style.
"Instead of building factories so that people can work and earn money, the government is spending money on stupidities --- like lions, horses and museums," businessman Stefan Jakimov, 55, told AFP.
A computer generated presentation of the project on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iybmt-iLysU) has become a local hit -- and fodder for anti-Skopje 2014 Facebook groups.
One critic said it "looks like a scene from Avatar", the 2009 science fiction box office hit, while another quipped, "I would like the same drugs the founders of New Skopje are using."
On a more serious note, 27-year-old Ivana Krstevska, part of a group of young architects opposed to the project design, found plans to add domes and other baroque embellishments to old buildings strange.
"Usually, new building projects are trying to fit into the old surroundings. Now, we have a situation where the old buildings are going to be adjusted to the new ones," she said.