Michael Palin is a hard act to follow
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
IT begins with a light in the sky, a white cross glowing above the town of Prilep on a moonless Macedonian night. Surely an omen, I think.
Next morning I trace the phenomenon to a huge metal cross, encrusted with light globes, crowning a hilltop scattered with medieval fortifications. The place is known as Marko’s Towers, after King Marko, a semi-mythical figure who ruled over a late-14th-century domain that was fast succumbing to the rampaging Ottomans.
Modern Macedonians revere him as a hero, and rightly so — his Serbian birth, stormy career and untimely death fighting for his Turkish enemies make him an exemplar of the ethnically complex region that gave the French their name for mixed salad, la macedoine.
Hero or not, I can’t help thinking Marko could have put more work into his towers, which aren’t a patch on the view over the rooftops of Prilep to the Pelagonian plain. Inspired by this, but also because there’s little to do in Prilep once you’ve explored its Ottoman heart, I decide to walk to Treskavec monastery, 8km away over rolling hills dotted with lilac crocus and punctuated by weathered granite outcrops.
My footsteps quicken in the know- ledge that they are about to coincide with those of another great seeker. As Sir Galahad the Pure in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Michael Palin followed a similar line of work to King Marko. Unlike the monarch, however, the British comedian eventually dumped his chain mail and began producing books and films about his travels. In this capacity, he visited Treskavec.
The monastery crowns a mountain burrowed with the caves of hermits. The frescoed gate opens on to a flagged courtyard where timber-framed galleries surround a domed basilica. I can see why Palin liked it: add some mud, peasants, spavined horses and a leper or two and it would make an ideal setting for a grail quest.
Palin visited on the Feast of the Virgin, one of the few occasions Treskavec comes alive. In his 2007 book, New Europe, he writes of foot- slogging pilgrims, a service conducted by a robed and bearded prelate and a lavish feast. My visit unfolds very differently. Indeed the courtyard is deserted, apart from a huge St Bernard, which takes an instant dislike to me, and an even larger workman, who greets me with a bonecrunching handshake and the offer of coffee. When I say there’s no hurry, the mantakes meat myword. Heleaps into a 4WD and thunders off.
Abandoned, I examine the refectory, a gloomy chamber full of peeling frescoes, then enter the basilica where I encounter a pair of young acolytes. Neither, I soon realise, is the monk who accommodated Palin and things begin badly when I remark that the monastery must be a lonely abode. ‘‘Not if you love God,’’ replies one, sitting stonyfaced at a desk.
It’s a fair call, but hardly a conversation starter, so I’m relieved when his companion asks where I’ve just come from. Unfortunately my reply of ‘‘Greece’’ is also a downer. ‘‘We don’t like the Greeks,’’ this fellow says. ‘‘They want to steal our history.’’
I almost say the Greeks think the same thing about former Yugoslav Macedonians, but mention Palin’s visit instead. It’s been some years, but I figure if people remember King Marko, anything’s possible.
Sure enough, both recall it, but that memory is overshadowed by that of another, more recent visitor, someone called Hodge. ‘‘Hodge?’’ I ask, baffled.
‘‘He was Australian, like you,’’ says the second youth, ‘‘only he was funny.’’
‘‘Yes,’’ adds his desk-bound companion, miraculously smiling. ‘‘Hodge from Australia was really funny.’’