Bouldering in Prilep, Macedonia

We travelled to Macedonia exactly a year ago and I regret not noting the details of our trip as many have fled my memory since. It was definitely a fun microadventure and one I wholeheartedly recommend if you find yourself roaming around the Balkans. Expect being ridiculously hot and most of the time lost.

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On the border between Bulgaria and Macedonia the queue of trucks stretched for a good kilometre or two. There were only a few passenger cars crossing and we quickly made it to the documents’ control. I gave the guard my Polish passport, Andy’s British one, the dog’s Bulgarian one and my Polish car documents, waiting for the usual look of slight confusion. Instead, the guard muttered in heavy accent: “green card”. What card? It was our turn to be confused.

Apparently, standard European car insurance covers the EU and Serbia but not Macedonia, and a bolt-on called “green card” is required to enter the country. It can be obtained for free or at a nominal cost from your insurer, or you can pay through the nose at the Macedonian border. That is, if you’ve got any Macedonian currency on you. Nope, cards are not accepted.

A helpful officer called a cab for me. Half and hour later I got into the car with a sweaty, smiley driver, leaving Andy and the dog stuck in another country. Some forty minutes and a good chat about Balkan politics later (a mix of Polish and Russian goes quite far in Macedonia) we arrived in a small town with an ATM which didn’t work. I had more luck with the currency exchange office where I got some Macedonian denari. The cab drove me back, I purchased the pesky green card and happily crossed, this time together with Andy and the pooch, to the Macedonian side.

The country is beautiful and the road meandered through endless hills covered with intensely green foliage. It was May and with no cloud in sight, the sun was already incredibly hot, cooking us slowly in our non air-conditioned car. Before we arrived in Prilep, it had long disappeared behind the horizon.

The internet mentions Motel Markovi Kuli as the cheapest place to stay. In reality, the place is called Hotel Dion (and yes, it is the same place) and it’s quite hard to find. A large group of Slovenian climbers was already there when we found it, and got to know two things from them. Firstly, bargain for your accommodation or you’ll end up paying twice the price (should be around 10EUR for a twin room if you’re staying for a few days). Secondly, there’s a free camping located by The Treskavec Monastery, which in turn is conveniently located right next to one of the bouldering sectors.

Equipped with that knowledge we decided to stay one more day at Dion, go to town to buy a guidebook, and explore the nearest crags. The first task was easy – you can get a beautiful, Petzl sponsored guidebook from the the Tourist Information office. The second task turned out to be somewhat more of a challenge and it involved reviewing my definition of the word: “road”.

One thing we quickly learned about bouldering in Prilep is to never, ever try going anywhere without the guidebook. And then, when the guidebook or the internet say “follow such and such road”, it might well mean an off-road adventure that will take you through off grid villages and Gypsy shanty towns. Searching for one of the sectors (perhaps Dabnitsa) we found ourselves in a Gypsy settlement, surrounded by twenty barefoot kids curiously looking inside our car. An older bloke pointed us in the right direction in rather good German. I’ve never felt more foreign in my whole life.

Exploring the vast Baba area, as well as Dabnitsa and Treskavec is a must. Staying at the monastery camping is an experience in its own right. You will meet pilgrims, paragliders who take off from a nearby cliff and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a monk. Apart from running water, there are no facilities there, so make sure to bag all your rubbish and leave no trace.

For a short stay, sleeping at Treskavec is a great choice with good boulders right next to the Monastery (10 minutes from camping), and some more excellent lines in the Paragliding sector, less than half an hour’s walk from the camping.

Pack your sunscreen, loads of finger tape and a wire brush. Expect getting lost a lot, excellent quality rock right next to useless choss, getting chased by cows and bleeding fingertips. There’s no point in trying to get any more prepared for visiting Prilep. Just go there, have an adventure, and you’re likely to fall in love with the area’s uninhibited wildness. Maybe, just maybe, next time you’ll be a little less lost.

Some of the best lines we managed to find:

Baba: “Legoland” 6B+
Monastery: “Illusion” 7A+
Dabnica: “Pornic” 7A+
Paragliding: “Splitske Catacombe” 6C (it’s a game – excellent moves but the crux is not dabbing at one point)

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