Michael Palin is a hard act to fol­low

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - I AN ROBERT SMITH

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.’’

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