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New Europe

Day Thirty: Prilep

Journey to the Treskavec monastery 
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Driving up the mountain to the monastery in my Alfa Romeo-powered jeep.
Michael Palin - New EuropeSunrise on Saint Bogorodica's day and I'm being hauled slowly and noisily up the damp clay track to the monastery in a thirty-five-year-old, ex-Yugoslav army, Fiat jeep.

'Alfa Romeo engine!' shouts my driver above the screaming roar, as he revs us round another steep and slippery bend.

I'm put to shame by the column of people already making their way up on foot: old, young, male and female, families with children, many carrying gifts and money for the monastery.

We also pass quite a few groups of spiky-haired teenagers. In England you'd be pushed to find them out of bed at this time, let alone walking to church.

When we reach the top and are welcomed once again by the ever-attentive Brother Kalist, I ask him about them. He tells me they always have a lot of students at this particular festival day, as it's just before the schools and colleges go back and they're here to get the Virgin Mary's blessing for the next school year. He gestures approvingly at the groups already staking out their places on the grass, even though the sun's barely risen.

'We are a young church.'

It points to the remarkable resurgence of religion in Macedonia after the Tito years when priests were not allowed to practise. Brother Kalist won't be drawn on politics, but he speaks with great admiration of the people of Prilep who made sure their monastery was kept open and looked after during those difficult times.
I suggest to him that the church may appear to be above politics but it's surely
a much sought-after political ally.

He concedes the point. 'Oh yes. That was why the mayor was here last night.'
A middle-aged man appears up the last steep slope of the path. He's clearly run up the hill and his T-shirt is sodden with sweat. He stops, rocking on his legs, takes huge gulps of air, crosses himself at the threshold of the monastery and walks respectfully inside. He's followed by groups of young men, sprinting then sauntering up the hill and pausing to hurl schoolyard abuse at their friends below. But no matter how laddish they are, they too cross themselves before entering the monastery complex, and three times if they're going inside the church.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty: Prilep
  • Country/sea: Macedonia
  • Place: Prilep
  • Book page no: 71

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