Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Among Prilep's Thunder and Lightning

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
Treskavec, Macedonia’s most inaccessible monastery, stands in the eye of the hurricane.

“I’ll drive only as far as I can!,” the driver waves his finger around and angrily scratches his three-day stubble. The taxi is a beaten up Zastava, like most cabs in Prilep. This makes sense, considering that, on the Balkans, taxies are the default transportation means for any occasion – from the crossing of borders to conquering alpine heights. We’ve been advised to take a cab in order to get to Macedonia’s most remote and difficult-to-access monastery: Treskavec.

We get off the Prilep’s unattractive streets and, soon enough, we take a turn onto an unpaved road. The tyres kick up an off-white ash, which starts to crunch between our teeth, and some clouds gather ahead. After a while, we hear thundering.

Prilep is surrounded by karst mountains, which – besides their hypnotic profile, are known for their ability to attract lightning like a magnet. “Pay attention if it gets really dark!,” the driver advises. I nod in consent – I have always believed that if I concentrate very hard, I can redirect lightning bolts

After a couple of kilometres on a path suitable only for a four-wheel drive vehicle in dry weather, the driver gives up. We continue on foot. We’ve been told that the monastery’s only monk – Kalist, manages to reach the top by jeep, but even he is glad if his engine only dies five or six times on the way up.

The Treskavec monastery is four kilometres up the mountain. Initially, we think getting there would only take us an hour, as everyone refers to the trip as a “leisurely walk.” However, it turns out to be more of a steep-terrain hike. The sun, occasionally peaking from behind the clouds, makes the heat unbearable. Along the road, the karst rock is crumbling into shiny, white sand, on the sides there are silhouettes of trees burnt during the summer fires and beyond them is the ring of mountains surrounding Pelagonia – all of them unnatural shapes and colours.

We only know the approximate direction in which we’re headed but the monastery is nowhere in sight. When we figure that we’re halfway there, we finally see Treskavec high above us. The distance between us makes it appear bluish.

We climb for a long time - two more hours. As a reward for the sweat dripping from us are the ever more stunning views towards the surrounding landscape. It never does start to rain, even though it constantly looks like the thunder is only 500 metres away.

We realize that the monastery’s name [in Macedonian, treskavec means a constantly thundering place] lacks in creativity – it simply describes the way things are at the top. In the hours we spend there, there are clouds hanging above us, lightning bolts coming down as if on fast-forward, while the 360 degree view reveals that all the valleys below are sunny.

The thunder problem is apparently very serious – when the monastery was built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, underneath the region’s highest peak (1,422 metres), the monks installed a lightning rod in the shape of a large golden apple. They say that the peak’s name Zlatovrav (‘golden peak’ in Macedonian) originated from it.

The contraption later disappeared – according to the locals, it was stolen by the Ottoman Empire’s army, which conquered these lands at the end of the fourteenth century. This assertion is questionable – firstly because it is unclear whether the lightning rod ever actually existed and secondly, because the Balkan Slavs tend to blame all their historical woes on the Turks.

The old wooden bell tower was torn down more than a hundred years ago. Now it can only be seen in a picture hanging on the monastery’s walls.


Treskavec was built in the architectural traditions developed in the region under the influence of the Byzantine school. An early example of that style is the St. Panteleymon Church in Markovo, dating from 1095. Churches from the same period are St. Georgi in Kurbinovo, near Prespa, from 1191, St. Cyril in Ohrid from 1295 and St. Nikola in Varosh, near Prilep, from 1299.

The monastery’s façade is made from faded red bricks, with ornamental external niches and – with its uneven roof, it looks like it was created at the same time as the gnarly rocks surrounding it.

Before the monastery, there was an early Christian temple here and, according to the excavations, the region was inhabited since at least 2000 BC.

In the monastery, it turns out that the priest, Kalist, is on vacation. His substitute in taking care of the monastery is Yovan from Prilep, and Bruno, the San Bernard, who barks twice, just to ensure we take him seriously.

Yovan gives us tips on what to see around the church, the old dining hall and the kitchen, shows us parts that were added on in the fourteenth century and then starts preparing Turkish coffee.

We are the only visitors, which seems to be the norm. There is no regular church service here and, as a result, Treskavec is visited more by adventurous foreigners than by Macedonians. Our quick research later on reveals that not many of Prilep’s citizens have visited the place.

Only on the Dormition of the Virgin Mary holiday – which according to local calendar falls on August 28, a crowd of pilgrims gathers.

In the dining room, we find traces of that day, when the monks’ quarters didn’t suffice and some visitors slept here. There are brightly coloured rugs still hanging over the dining room’s stone benches. Otherwise, the room is similar to that of the world’s first monastery – St. Anthony in Egypt’s Eastern desert. The furniture is perfectly simple – made out of stone to the last detail. The long table has hollowed spots for food and bowls, niches for legs and simple long benches of massive stone blocks on its sides. The only difference is that there are frescos on the walls here. Dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they are in pretty bad shape, partly revealing a layer of an older mural from the 1300s.

A pungent coffee smell grabs us by the nose, bringing us to Yovan, who is already seated at a small table on the porch. Leaning against the wall behind him is the cross which, after falling from the church’s dome, is a little twisted now.

We take our seats and engage in typical Balkan talk. First we discuss the crisis of Balkan Orthodoxy. Then, in turn, we go through the peculiarities of the Greeks, the Bulgarians, the Macedonians and the Serbs. Yovan comes to show us a different way back to Prilep. He walks with us to a sign pointing to Stockholm (2,108 km).

From here, it is six kilometres down to Prilep. The walk goes through the Markovi Towers and the St. Archangel Mihail Church. “First, you pass by three water fountains and then the path goes down the cliff – there is a rope you can hold onto. Don’t be afraid, it’s not that steep, it’s made for old people.”

We take our farewells and start descending, along the way appreciating the ability of early Christian monks to pick spots with beautiful views for their monasteries. We walk along the ridge of the karst massif, steep meadows sloping down on both sides towards the plains. We pass the time by betting on which one of the boulders, looking like they are resting on the rocks precariously and for a short time only, will be the first one to roll down with a roar.

All in all, we reach the third fountain in great spirits. Then, by the cliff with the rope, we discover that we are in fact old people. Crushed by reality, we crawl, limping down. We cheer up at the sight of three flushed and breathless ill-fortunate people on their way up to Treskavec, but our schadenfreude is short-lived, quickly replaced by a growing hunger.

At that moment, we realize how unique the Treskavec monastery is – unlike thousands of others on the Balkans, there is no restaurant nearby and it cannot be reached by taxi.




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