Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The Macedonian town of Kratovo is by-passed by most travellers exploring the southern Balkans. But guest contributor Chris Deliso took time to discover the town which was once an important mining centre. Join us as we walk over the bridges of Kratovo and find a community which is trying to reinvent itself.

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We went to Kratovo on the second day after Easter, in the second week after the false spring, and I felt lucky because the sun had finally peeked out. There were still plenty of painted eggs around — always an asset for those who enjoy the seasonal sport of egg tapping.

“Ajde, cukaj!” I said, and cracked eggs with Stevce, who was and is the lone tourism promoter in this once-great centre of commerce and mining. The town, and the mines which were for so long the mainstay of Kratovo’s economy, stretch out over the hills within the eroded crater of a dead volcano, in Macedonia’s forlorn east.

Stevce had already lost twice to his wife Valentina in the traditional Easter-time contest with the eggs. But his wife was a good sport and did not boast about her prowess. It also being the fortieth day after the death of her elderly mother, Valentina had just returned from the cemetery. That’s another regular ritual for Macedonia’s Orthodox faithful.

With a population of just under 7000, Kratovo is a sleepy place but it is also one of Macedonia’s most visually distinctive towns. The twin icons of the townscape are the arched stone bridges and defensive towers. It has the peculiar feel of a place that has faded. During the first half of the nineteenth century, its population topped sixty thousand but, with the waning power of the Ottoman Empire, Kratovo found itself sidelined. During the last century, with the decline of mining and trade — exacerbated even further by the challenges of transition from a planned socialist economy as Yugoslavia fell apart — local fortunes dwindled. However, while the economy is still sluggish, recent initiatives to improve economic and social affairs are putting Kratovo on the map again.

Those who make the 80 kilometre journey from the capital in Skopje to Kratovo will immediately be struck on arrival by the terrain: Kratovo favours the vertical. Its narrow cobblestone lanes and steep streets access clusters of traditional and newer houses that spread out in three directions: hither, thither and upwards. The town is surrounded by lush mountain pastures that are kept green by the three small rivers that water them. These rivers cascade down through Kratovo in deep trenches, dividing the town into segments and thus the need for the bridges which connect different parts of Kratovo.

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Chris Deliso is a writer and journalist who lives in Skopje in Macedonia where he manages the Balkan interest web site Balkanalysis. He is author of a travel narrative entitled Hidden Macedonia: The Mystic Lakes of Ohrid and Prespa, published in London in 2007 by Haus Publishing.

This article was published in hidden europe 43.