Small city surrounded by the rugged mountains of Macedonia, home to the nation’s tobacco industry and a mix of city and village life.
The modest Republic of Macedonia is not known for many big name tourist destinations. This meant I had to be creative with my itinerary when visiting the country in July. Gladly, I decided on making my way to the city of Prilep in the centre of the country. Prilep turned out to be a fun place to explore the local way of life, within a very rugged and scarce landscape. During my time there, I only came across a single small German tour group and not another tourist.
The History of Prilep
The city of Prilep has a long and illustrious history, stretching back beyond the Romans to Ancient Macedonia. Many of the events that shaped the city happened between the 11th and 14th centuries, when the city bounced between the Bulgarian Empires, the Byzantines and the Kingdom of Serbia. It was under the Kingdom of Serbia where one of the city’s biggest local heroes emerged, King Marko.
King Marko is an important local figure to the people of Prilep as he is a national folk hero and the city’s last sovereign ruler before Ottoman rule. Even before the Ottomans, Marko’s reign was plagued with troubles. While he was crowned the King of Serbia in 1371, the regional lords refused to recognise his rule and were quick to claim lands. Eventually his kingdom shrunk to effectively the western half of modern Macedonia and the only major town still left under his rule was Prilep. He would die fighting for the Ottomans in modern-day Romania in 1395.
While this may look like a rather poor resume for a beloved historical figure, it is the poetry, folklore and legends surrounding him that warrant his national hero status. In fact Marko is not just a national hero in Macedonia, but also Serbia and Bulgaria. There are countless legends surrounding the figure of Marko, many of which revolve around the man having superhuman strength. In fact sometimes he was said to be a giant, capable of hurling boulders, hence explaining huge, lone boulders found on a landscape. Another legend says that Marko is immortal, living in a cave and feeding off moss.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise after all of this that at the centre of the Prilep sits a statue of King Marko in the Town Square. The statue atop white marble, depicts the king on horseback which is reared on its hind legs. For those that missed my explanation on the significance of this, this indicates that he died in battle, which he did. As with every city in Macedonia, you will also find a statue to Alexander the Great – another important historical figure – in the nearby park.
Ok, enough history and legends. For visitors to Prilep, a logical place to start to a visit is with the city’s compact old town. From the Town Square, visitors can enter into the city’s Old Town Bazaar. Today the bazaar still serves the same function as it once did and you can find plenty of shops and cafes inside. The region around Prilep is well-known for the white marble mined there, some of which is on display lining the streets of the bazaar. The bazaar may pale in comparison to the size and atmosphere of the ones in Bitola and Skopje, but there are some interesting buildings of note there and the bazaar is well looked after.
Beyond the bazaar, you arrive at two of the city’s landmarks, the Old Clock Tower and the Carshi Mosque. Carshi Mosque, now in ruins and awaiting restoration, dates from 1475 and has the distinction as the oldest European mosque with two balconies on its minaret. While you’d expect its destruction to be from centuries ago, in fact it was in 2001 that saw the mosque burned down during protests. The nearby Old Clock Tower built in 1858 stands somewhat crookedly over the city. Despite its lean, it is quite a beautiful tower.
Tobacco and Countryside
Outside the attractions of the city’s old town, much of Prilep’s draw comes from its terrain and climate. While the landlocked Macedonia is mostly a rugged, mountainous country, Prilep lies in the dry and bare Pelagonia plain. This would be a dull landscape if not for the mountains that surrounded the city on the horizon in nearly every direction. Visiting in the middle of summer, I noticed and appreciated the dry, windy heat after the surprising humidity of Bulgaria.
It is this climate that fosters Prilep’s signature industry, tobacco. Prilep is one of the Macedonia’s main centres for tobacco processing, cigarette manufacture and tobacco research. Throughout the city you will see make-shift racks on the side of the road – or even in people’s yards – covered in drying tobacco leaves. The tobacco processed in Prilep is used internationally by some of the world’s biggest cigarette companies.
I couldn’t help think that it takes a certain level of trust to leave a huge pile of tobacco out unprotected in public, but that’s exactly what they do in Prilep. I came across the racks in various stages of the process from ones with freshly harvested leaves to leaves a sickly brown colour. I may be fairly anti-smoking, but I did find seeing this simple, agricultural practice in a European city extremely fascinating.
Prilep is also known as the “City under Marko’s Towers”, after the now-ruined hilltop fortress that sits above the city. This iconic landmark of the city is known in Macedonian as Markovi Kuli and is generally visible from most places in Prilep. Now I’ll give you one guess who the Fortress last belonged to. Yep, you guessed it, our old mate King Marko from before. The fortress actually predates Marko, with the earliest written accounts of fortifications coming from the 10th century. However this is where King Marko had his palace after losing so much territory.z
To reach the ruins of Marko’s Towers, you need to head towards the edge of the city and then head uphill until you reach the dry, grassy plains below the hill. The gravel road that leads to the top winds its way through the countryside and you soon get decent views out over the city rooftops. You will pass the Stone Elephant, a huge boulder that loosely resembles an elephant and its trunk. From below, it’s really hard to get a good impression of the size of the ruins as you only see the occasional tower. It’s once you’re at the top and walking into the site that you realise the extent of the fortress and the size of its towers.
What really blew me away about visiting the ruins was that I was the only person there. I don’t just mean visitors, there were no staff, no information point, nothing. After being excavated and reconstructed, this historic site has been left open to the public and to nature. I can’t recall the last time I’ve explored historic ruins and been left totally to my own devices. It gave the ruins a slightly eerie vibe but also an incredibly freeing one, particularly when looking out over the ruins to the sweeping untouched landscapes of the region.
Yes, the scenery of the countryside is probably the most amazing part of a visit to Prilep. Just looking out across the arid plain to the rocky mountain ranges shows you a terrain that you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the Balkans. As I viewed the panoramic views from the lookout point above the fortress, I thought how perfect the entire region would be a filming location for a fantasy movie or historic epic.
Hiking in the Hills
Also in the hills with Marko’s Towers is the Monastery of Holy Archangels. The monastery dates from the 10th century, with most of the current buildings built in the 19th century. Inside the monastery’s small chapel you can see partial frescos from all the way back in the 13th century, which is pretty remarkable. The monastery is still active, with nuns in habits greeting visitors. It is definitely a very solemn place and I believe you are unable to take photos inside the chapel.
True to nature, I attempted to hike between the fortress ruins and the monastery only to encounter some trouble. I was under the impression that the monastery was at roughly the same latitude as the fortress, only on the other side of the hills. This was not the case. In fact, the monastery sat at the bottom of the hill just outside the village of Varosh.
I had read that there was minor trail between the two, but never found it. Instead, I wandered through the long grass and slowly began to descend, heading in the direction my phone was indicating. I increasingly found myself coming upon sheer ledges and having to double back. In the end, I did manage to find my way down the steep hillside above the monastery but was covered in cuts and bruises for my efforts.
Coming to and from Marko’s Towers and the Monastery of Holy Archangels, you are certain to pass through the village of Varosh. While it feels part of Prilep Varosh is actually where the city once stood, but is now a separate village and certainly has the feel of one. This means you have the opportunity to enjoy the bucolic village atmosphere of the countryside while being a manageable walk/bus ride from the city centre. In Varosh, you will also come across several old churches in the Byzantine style, unlike in the centre of Prilep.
Getting There and Where to Stay
Because of its central location within Macedonia, Prilep is reasonably well connected with the country’s bus network. The city actually has a newly built bus station out near the train station, with connections to cities like Skopje and Bitola. Make sure to search for “New Bus Station Prilep” on Google maps, or it will show you the small drop off point in the car park of a supermarket near the centre of town. I never took the train in Macedonia and don’t even know if they are running – information was hard to find.
For my stay in Prilep, I opted for the Guest House Breza and was happy with my choice. The lovely staff there were exceptionally friendly and happy to help where they could. It sits on a major road running through Prilep, but didn’t suffer from road noise. The rooms weren’t overly spacious and the decor was a little dated but it was ultimately comfortable. Best of all, the accommodation was very reasonably priced, in line with typical Macedonian prices.
A visit to the city of Prilep grants travellers an insight into the Macedonian lifestyle and culture away from the big cities and tourist hotspots. With its tobacco industry and unusual landscape, visitors are in for a fascinating and different experience then they could find elsewhere in the country.
Have you visited Prilep before? If not, what most intrigues you about the city and would you consider visiting there? Please share in the comments below.
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