Makedonski Brod: A Mountainside Hamlet Optimistic for the Future

By Chris Deliso

Officially Macedonia’s smallest town, Makedonski Brod (pop. 3,500) is, most would agree, not the liveliest of places. However, it is a clean town being spiffed up with some recent civic renovations, the locals are friendly, and just north are some of the country’s best wild places (the Porece region and Jasen Nature Reserve, see www.jasen.com.mk). These mountains host numerous flora and fauna species as well as endangered European brown bats and the (very) rare lynx, as well as great opportunities for hiking and caving, and some delectable local products (such as arguably the best honey in Macedonia).

Plus, a soon-to-be-paved new road that runs north-south along the artificial Lake Kozjak will make getting to Skopje – as the crow flies, just 58km – much quicker and easier than the present three-and-a-half-hour Skopje-Kicevo-Brod route.

Brod lacks accommodation, though services like ATM, shops and restaurants exist. The municipality (+389 (0)45-274 810; www.mbrod.gov.mk) near the police station can provide useful information and have recently come out with some handy brochures.

One American who is making a difference in the town, and helping to get its tourism potential known more widely, is Peace Corps volunteer Happie Datt. During her past year in the town, Happie has found the local people to be “progressive thinkers, concerned about their community and impatient that things are not moving fast- yet they are.”

While assisting in the municipality with Mayor Milosim Vojneski and his team, Happie has observed the local people while they have discussed and debated the best steps forward for the town, in a series of community forums. In these, she recounts, the citizens “had to decide which of eight competing projects [they would spend] the grant money on, and they chose to construct a new city center. This will be inaugurated on November 3rd… even before its completion the town has seen the opening of a pizza place and an internet café, as well as the remodeling of a couple of coffee shops.”

Outside of town, Brod offers a number of relaxing local excursions. Just 7km to the east lies the enormous cave entrance of Pesna; this gaping hole, set above a narrow river, is reputedly Europe’s biggest. From the main road, it’s just a five-minute walk down a somewhat prickly wooded path, making it easily accessible. After marveling at the cave visitors can enjoy a relaxing lunch at the inexpensive Meana Dedo Ilija, set on sculpted lawns amidst flowers, and with that splendid Macedonian pagoda seating outdoors. Word is that they’re planning bungalows for the coming summer. From Brod, it’s a 10-minute drive, or else taxis cost 350MKD.

If you’re in the mood for traditional village ambience, 17km east of Brod lies Monastirec, a whimsical place with a beautiful monastery (it’s a one-hour hike uphill, or a 20-minute drive on an asphalt road). Sustained by agriculture, the village is set in a bowl surrounded by verdure. The River Treska runs past it, just near the village entrance, and in summer there are nice hikes on the riverside trail. A great place to eat, and even to sleep if you don’t mind the simple accommodations, is the Riben Restoran-Motel Izvor, right by the river and its cool, rejuvenating air. The giant fanged bear in the back, and live trout swimming in the pools, provide great excitement for small children. Unlike the bear, the dark and spotted trout are not just for decoration- choose your victim and they’ll cook it for you.

Caving is also a major draw in the Brod area, and further north on the road that ends in Macedonia’s central mountains is Belica village, a base camp for cavers. Its local river (Belica Reka), is fast-flowing and frigid, and very clean (the trout here is a protected endemic species). Belica is a beautiful place, with lovely old houses, though sadly most are neglected because there are only a few elderly – though certainly hale – residents left. Although there are no services, those who might be thinking of investing in a country house with idyllic surroundings could do worse than to buy here.

Other northern villages with a unique appeal, according to Peace Corps volunteer Happie, include Rastes, Zvecan, Bitovo and, closer to Belica, Zrkle, Slatina and Krapa. “In many Porechian village homes, one sees wooden balconies with rosettes in the pre-communist era designs,” she notes.

Those who are serious about their speleology will already know not to just show up, however. Central Macedonia’s caves are still largely unexplored, and are thus arousing excitement for the caving internationale, legions of whom descend in organized fashion each summer. Belica’s mountaineer’s hut (planinarski dom) offers accommodation, but this must be arranged in advance with the Macedonian Speleological Federation (in Skopje, +389 (0)2 3165-540, or learn more online at www.speleomacedonia.org.mk).

Since they are dangerous and deep, probably the kind of terrain most would leave to be explored on TV’s Ultimate Survival series, the caves are locked except for during expeditions. The latest news here, according to Happie, is that two of the school houses built in the 1950′s, in Belica and Slatina, “have been purchased and renovated by the Speleoloski Society Peoni for scientists who are studying ecological life in the nearby caves.”

…………………

This article was originally published in the American-Macedonian Chamber of Commerce magazine, Emerging Macedonia, in November 2010.