Nestled in the pit of a volcanic crater an hour northeast of Skopje, Kratovo is famous for its Ottoman-era towers and high stone bridges. We spent a day exploring its back streets, enjoying the lively atmosphere and walking along the steep ravine which divides the town in two.
Until its gold and silver dried up in the 19th century, Kratovo had been a prosperous mining town. Ancient tunnels still snake through the rock, and evidence of the town’s former wealth can be seen in the fabulous old buildings which line the hills. Many of these historic houses and shops have survived intact, and Kratovo seems to have arrived in the modern day unblemished by the hands of time.
We happened to arrive during the weekly market. The streets were swarming with people, all of whom seemed to know each other, and the cafes in the town square were packed. Although Kratovo is a small, out-of-the-way town, it’s very much alive. With so many pedestrians ambling along the roads, driving was nearly impossible, so we parked as soon as we could and continued our explorations on foot.
Kratovo is cleanly divided by a precipitous ravine, as though the town had long ago angered a petulant, cleaver-wielding god. Ancient stone bridges, nearly as tall as they are wide, connect the two halves of town. There were once up to twenty, though only four remain today.
One of them, the Radin Bridge, is the subject of a local legend. Its construction was fraught with difficulty, so the nine brothers in charge of the project decided to consult a prophet. Before the bridge could be completed, the prophet intoned, one of the brothers would have to sacrifice his wife. The brothers looked at each other, shrugged (“well, that makes sense”), and came to the agreement that the first of their wives who appeared at the work site the next morning would be the chosen one. That night, only the youngest brother failed to warn his wife… and when innocent Rada appeared the next morning with food and water for her husband and step-brothers, they leaped upon her, entrapping and burying her alive within the bridge’s foundation.
In addition to its distinctive bridges, Kratovo is also known for its towers, of which there were once a dozen. Today, six remain in various states of repair. The Clock Tower, most conspicuous for its total lack of a clock, has been restored and contains a small museum about Kratovo. You can go to the top, and step out onto a small balcony for a view of town.
The river’s ravine is so clearly the center of town, that it’s tempting to remain all day, but the back alleys of Kratovo should not be overlooked. The town is surprisingly big, and the cobblestone streets farther up the hill conceal a wealth of gorgeous old houses, churches and restaurants.
Pastrimalija is a canoe-shaped pizza-like bread topped with oil and pieces of pork, and Kratovo claims to have the best in Macedonia. We ordered it at Restaurant Alexandria, which also conceals an interesting secret. After eating, we asked the waitress to show us through the kitchen, to the entrance of an old tunnel. It’s been closed-off now, but this was once part of an underground network that connected all of Kratovo’s towers.