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New Europe

Day Thirty: Prilep

The Treskavec monastery 
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A boy lights a votive candle in the church. Many of the worshippers are young people, asking for God's blessing at the start of a new school year.
Michael Palin - New EuropeTreskavec is packed tight as the time comes for us to leave and yet in a couple of months it will be the start of winter. St Mary's Day will have come and gone, the children will be hard at work and the only occupant of this mountain-top eyrie will be Brother Kalist. I wish him luck and ask him when he will become a fully qualified monk.

He looks bashful. 'It's not up to me. The bishop is deciding that.'

'I'm sure you're wishing he'll make up his mind soon.'

'The monks don't have wishes,' he smiles and looks around him and out over the great sweeping plain beyond. 'But if I had some wish, my wish would be to die here in the mountains.'

It's a three-hour drive to the Bulgarian border, through lakeland scenery, green meadows and wooded steep hills. The human scenery is less attractive. Towns are small, run-down and dominated by shoddy apartment blocks. I have the feeling, admittedly on very short acquaintance, that Macedonia may have suffered most from the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation. Within Yugoslavia it had the strength and support to survive. Without, it is fragile and vulnerable. Average earnings, I'm told, are around 250 euros a month. Their security depends on old Russian fighters and Bulgarian tanks and Mafia influence is widespread. Even their national flag, an eye-catching gold-on-red rising sun, which we see for the last time fluttering above the border post beyond Delcevo, had to be changed after complaints from the Greeks that it incorporated the star of Vergina, the symbol of the ancient Macedonian kingdom to which the Greeks lay sole claim.

Unlike comfortable Croatia or even ignored Albania, Macedonia is a country trying to convince the world that it should be taken seriously.

We walk up the hill into Bulgaria. The first, and indeed only building beyond customs and immigration doesn't look promising. It bears the faded name 'Snek Bar', and it looks as if it closed down years ago. Then I notice signs of life. A donkey is grazing in the long grass beside it and from within I hear a dog bark. A man with a wild look in his eyes and an axe over his shoulder appears from nowhere and heads inside. I follow him, a little cautiously, thinking a cup of coffee might not go amiss. A fetid smell, a combination of bad food and unwashed dogs, makes me move smartly away, but not before I catch a nightmarish glimpse of an old woman, and a dog, dressed up like a child, sitting in a chair.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty: Prilep
  • Country/sea: Macedonia
  • Place: Prilep
  • Book page no: 73

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