Elsewhere: Prilep, Republic of Macedonia

Marko's Fortress Prilep, Visiting Macedonia

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 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.

Prilep Town Square

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.

Prilep Old Bazaar

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.

Prilep Carshi Mosque

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.

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.

Prilep Landscape

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 Tobacco Leaves

Tobacco Leaves Prilep

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.

Marko's Towers Prilep

Prilep Fortress Grounds

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.

Prilep Fortress Ruins

Marko's Fortress View Prilep

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.

Holy Archangels Monastery Prilep

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.

Varosh Prilep

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.

Prilep View

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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Elsewhere: Prilep, Macedonia - Rugged Landscapes, Tobacco and Ruins via @travelsewhere

 

This post is part of Weekend Wanderlust at A Brit and A Southerner and The Weekly Postcard over at Two Traveling Texans. Please head on over for more great posts.
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33 Comment

  1. Love this post. I was there back in 2011. Brings me back!

    1. David says:

      Really? Cool! Glad I could bring back some memories Clair 🙂

  2. Beautiful pictures! Love reading all these places about of the beaten path. It might be such a great feeling to have all these ruins for yourself!

    1. David says:

      Thanks so much! I really did love having the ruined fortress to myself 🙂

  3. We love any destination where we can be the only people around (we experienced this in multiple places in Iceland). It is such a peaceful experience. Having born and brought up in a busy city, we cherish such experiences. Macedonia looks lovely 🙂 Loved all the pictures, especially the last one with the overview of the city.

  4. What an interesting look in the life of the Macedonians. Love your Photos and your hiking experience in trying to hike between the fortress ruins and the monastery. Must say I am surprised at the lack of people and tourist but happy you shared this interesting place that I have never heard of. Keep going to these off the beaten path destinations so I can learn more about the countryside and it’s people. Thanks for Sharing 🙂

  5. Well I like the legend that is Marko, wouldn’t we all like to have superhuman strength?! Interesting about the tobacco here, didn’t know that! I love that you had the ruins to yourself as well and I can only imagine how eerie that must have been and how fascinating watching nature re-claim the land. Thank goodness you found your way back from your hike as well, steady on there David, we don’t to lose you! Great views though, so much landscape to appreciate and I had never head of Prilep before now so thanks for bringing it to my attention. #feetdotravel

  6. What an interesting destination! First from the tobacco just hanging out and not a care in the world that someone might steal something to the fact that you were completely alone in an undiscovered gem before hordes of tourists have had the time to destroy something so beautiful! Good find David! #WeekendWanderlust

  7. That trip to the monastery definitely sounds a little hairy. Glad you made it in the end. The landscape is absolutely stunning though. It reminds me of Malta (except far less densely populated). I’d never seen actual tobacco leaves either before!

  8. Oana says:

    Thanks for sharing this amazing place with us. I never heard of it before but it seems to be a beautiful place to visit. I am surprised there are leaving the tobacco like this, on the field – this proves people trust each other. The landscape is stunning!

  9. Anisa says:

    Another place I did not know about! Doesn’t surprise me you didn’t run into many other tourists. You are the best at finding the hidden gems. So sad the mosque was destroyed during a protest. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  10. Actually David, the village Varosh used to be the town during King Marko’s rule. As time passed by after the death of King Marko, the size and influence of Varosh declined. People started to settle in the lower grounds and it eventually Prilep emerged as a town and Varosh continued to decline and got reduced to a village. That is why you found more than 1 church… it used to be bigger so there was a need for more churches ti accommodate the population.

    1. David says:

      Thank you very much Biljana for the information, I’ve made a few corrections to reflect what you said. I try my best to make sure what I write is accurate but am always happy when people are able to help me fix things.

  11. Never really thought of visiting Macedonia but looks beautiful #theweeklypostcard

    1. David says:

      It definitely is a beautiful place and I hope that my posts can convince you to consider visiting. Thanks for reading!

  12. Prelip look amazing. I love the fact you were able to explore the ruins completely alone. What an amazing experience…. to be just you and history and not a gaggle of tourist in sight! Your hike sounds interesting! Hubby takes me on those sort of adventures whenever he want to take the path less trod on! LOL

  13. Chris says:

    If you are having troubles to find some places or information, always ask the locals. Most of the people speak English and you will be pointed to the right direction. Although Prilep is small city, but there are lot of places to visit to. And don’t forget to taste the traditional Macedonian food.

    1. David says:

      Very true Chris, everyone I talked to was very friendly and willing to help me. I accidentally walked into a man’s yard and he was happy to chat with me – not something you would find in other countries. Thanks for commenting Chris.

  14. Thanks for sharing facts and beautiful pictures about Prilep. It’s always great to discover less know places so thanks for that! It was interesting to hear about the tobacco and this shows the trust that is installed in the community! That’s great 😉 it must have been cool to visit the ruins on your own with no other people around! Keep up the good work 🙂
    Patrick and Cécile from http://www.travel4lifeblog.com

    1. David says:

      I love finding new places to explore and learn about, so I’m glad you enjoyed reading about Prilep Patrick. It really was cool having the ruins to myself 🙂

  15. So very interesting. Thank you for sharing a corner of the world that I know little about. I think that landscape is gorgeous actually and the way they dry their tobacco beautiful. Cheers from Copenhagen! – Erin #WeekendWanderlust

  16. It’s so interesting that tobacco is a major crop in the area! I agree that there must be a certain amount of trust there. Hiking around the ruins would be so cool, and such a great area for photos. I love the view of the town from above with the mountains in the background. Such a beautiful area!

  17. Ruth says:

    It is good to learn a little bit more about Macedonia (other than Ohrid and the capital). The city and the surrounding areas look nice. Interesting that the tobacco leaves is left alone with anybody around. Don’t you want to live in a place like that? The other day I was seeing a show about parts in Denmark where you are not given a lock when you rent a bike and things are sold on the honor system. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  18. Allison says:

    What an interesting place. I knew next to nothing about Macedonia and I’ve never heard of Prilep so it was nice to learn something new. It’s a beautiful place with a fascinating history. #weekendwanderlust

  19. Lisa (Simple Sojourner) says:

    Looks like great hiking to me! The ruins would be so interesting to leisurely go through. Doesn’t look touristy so I like that and that these areas are off the beaten path. Just looks like a nice place to visit.

  20. The Nomad Guru says:

    Very interesting and well documented post, definitely gonna put Macedonia on the bucket list for when we return back to europe! Happy travels!

  21. SamH Travels says:

    Fascinating post with some gorgeous photos. Thank you for sharing 😀

  22. Kreete says:

    What a great guide about a place not many people happen to visit! I like that you talk a bit about the history in the beginning aswell and that is awesome that you got to see some of the processes of what they do with tobacco leaves. I find myself following my phone in the outback too and some of the times I have to backtrack aswell. The joy of wandering around! That was a very interesting read, you never let me down David!

  23. Barry says:

    I haven’t visited the Republic of Macedonia yet but it looks like and interesting country. Even though smoking gets a lot of negative press, surprising I had no idea how the tobacco is farmed. To be honest I didn’t even know what the leaves looked like before seeing your pictures. I learnt something today.

  24. Wow the photos of the landscape are spectacular. I’ve been to a few places in the Balkan’s and the Republic of Macedonia is now on my list…

    1. David says:

      Thank you very much, it really is a stunning landscape. Glad Macedonia’s on your list!

      1. Kitan says:

        Hi David,
        You recovered my childhood and work of tobacco. I was born and grew up in Prilep. Also you should mention that around Prilep in a radius of 10-15 miles there are seven more monasteries also dating from 10-17th century. In my childhood tobacco from the field was carried on a Donkey back in two big wooden baskets or rarely bags.

  25. That’s really interesting about the ruins. Can you imagine having the Roman Forum all to yourself like that? Amazing, and awesome that it seems to be in pretty good condition. I have some good friends from Macedonia – I’m sure they’ll be surprised when I ask them about Prilep now! 🙂 Great post!

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