The Matka Gorge and the Monastery Dormition of the Theotokos

Book-signing at the Ikona bookstores was the official business of the final day of “Days of Canadian Literature in Macedonia”, but our hosts made sure we got to see some of the countryside as well, with a trip out to the Matka Gorge. This is the deep ravine of the Treska River, which has a hydro dam on it from 1937, forming a lake further up the ravine. Beyond this, there are caves, at least one of which is among the deepest in Europe, though we didn’t go that far, as it entails a longish boat trip. (For photos, see the gallery at the end of this post.)

The steep-sided valley between the folded limestone mountains was home to a number of churches and monasteries in the Middle Ages. Some are still in use. The most accessible of these religious sites, more or less where the river leaves its gorge for wider terrain and heads towards its merging with the Vardar, is the monastery often just called the Matka Monastery, but dedicated to “the Dormition of the Theotokos”, the Eastern Orthodox feast commemorating the death and bodily resurrection of Mary. The church there dates to the fourteenth century, as do some of its frescoes, but some stones from much earlier Christian buildings were reused in it. The present monastic establishment, which was founded in 1998, is home to half a dozen nuns and an elderly woman who has retired to the monastery. “We are seven,” the sister who was our host there said, which sounds like the start of a Wordsworth quote. We became guests for of the monastery for a little while that afternoon because one of the sisters is a friend of one of the festival organizers; we were invited around back of the monastery for Turkish coffee and cakes, with a view of a small grassy meadow rising into a hillside of steep woodland and stone, while hens foraged among the daisies under the watchful eye of the monastery dog. Birds, the only one of which I could identify by sound was a European blackbird, sang, and the noise of the crowds which had fled Skopje on a day of 34 degree heat and brilliant sun was shut away down on the thronged road along the river. Though I was enjoying very much the many and varied events of the past day and a half, it was a very restorative oasis of calm and stillness in the rush and anxiety of so much of that week of travel.

Guests often stay at the monastery. It would be a place very conducive to the concentration required for writing, I think, and is the sort of environment I try to create for myself at home when I’m working, though the lawn-mowing arms race in the neighbourhood doesn’t do much for peace and quiet. In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, when the monastery was a foundation for men, it is known to have had a very good library.

The nineteenth-century monastery building reminded me of illustrations of an Elizabethan inn, with a gallery running along the upper floor and a veranda beneath, a similarity added to by the white plaster and dark beams we think of as Tudor. The masonry of the small, domed, cruciform church is brick and stone with very thick mortar making an attractive pattern. The ancient stone incorporated into it includes portions of columns, pillars, and part of an altar as well. The paraclisis for votive candles is modern, dating only to 2002, but was built to echo the style of the church. The small guide one of the sisters gave me says that it also incorporates part of an ancient Christian altar. There is also a freestanding bell-tower, though I don’t know how old that is.

Down below the monastery is the road along the river, which turns into a path with a low guardrail, heading upriver. Photography is forbidden around the hydro dam, but there are quite enough spectacular views without that. The low mountains, folded and warped layers of grey limestone, are scattered with green and flashes of mauve where the lilacs are in bloom. The river was still in spate with the spring freshet off the higher mountains where snow still lingered. There were a lot of trees I didn’t recognize: some species of juniper or cypress with quite large cones, something that looked like a fig … Dejan said it wasn’t good to eat but that you made jam out of it; he only knew the Macedonian name, which I wrote down to look up later, discovering that it looked like a fig because it was a fig. Hunting around online turned up the suggestion that the figs that have gone wild in the southern parts of the Balkans originated with trees planted around monasteries and mosques. Figs and lilacs, an unlikely combination. The lilacs were mostly on the far shore of the lake above the hydro dam, though, so I don’t have any good pictures of them.

We saw another ancient church, that of the monastery of Saint Andrew. It also dates from the fourteenth century and contains medieval frescoes.

Three of us left the other two having coffee at the outdoor café down below Saint Andrew’s and walked a fair ways along the increasingly-narrow path above the lake, which twists around jutting shoulders of stone and sometimes passes beneath low overhangs where tall people need to duck. When we turned around to the head back, the light was getting lower, showing up the layers and folds in the stone even more sharply than before.

It was one of the most memorable parts of a memorable trip.

* * *

Quite a number of people helped make my attendance at the launch of the Macedonian translation of Torrie and the Pirate-Queen possible. The Canada Council for the Arts assisted with a travel grant; the trip could not have happened at all without that. The translator of the Macedonian Torrie books, Marija Todorova, and my Macedonian publisher Vermilion did splendid work in bringing another Torrie out and in organizing, and then re-organizing, a book launch. Dejan and Nikola from Ikona were unfailingly considerate and helpful hosts and made the trip a huge success for me. The new friends I made, David Chariandy, Aleksandar Prokopiev, Elizabeta Seleva, and all the folks from the NGO Sumnal, are also a part of the trip that will stay with me. Furthermore, various friends and relatives at home helped out in various ways — you know who you are. Благодарам.

* * *

No thanks at all to the corporate entity Air Canada. One does not just pop over to the Balkans for the weekend.

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About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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