Deep in the Balkans, a grandiosely named nature reserve might just be the best-kept secret in Europe’s national park scene.
The “Public Enterprise
for Managing and Protection of the Multipurpose Area Jasen” (better known
as just Jasen) sprawls across rugged, mountainous terrain in still
little-visited Macedonia. It became a protected nature reserve in 2010 and has
not yet made it onto many tour operators' itineraries -- despite being only
15km from Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
Home to the rare Balkan chamois (wild goat) and
endangered Eurasian lynx, Jasen introduces visitors to one of the region's most
ecologically significant areas. And although there are no deluxe hotels or ski
resorts, outdoors activities range from hiking, mountain biking and kayaking to
spelunking, hunting and helicopter skiing.
An unusual history
Comprising some 24,000 hectares of forested mountains,
deep caves, lakes and underground rivers, this protected area takes up a large
chunk of Macedonia’s central mountain massif. The reserve reaches a height of
almost 2,500m at Mount Karadzica, while the canyon lake at Matka (meaning
“womb” in Macedonian) is so deep it is still uncharted, resulting in a
nomination to become one of the new Natural
Wonders of the World.
Matka, at the park’s northern tip, is popular with
weekenders due to its proximity to the capital, its natural beauty and its hiking
opportunities. The Matka area is known for its frescoed Byzantine woodland churches,
with some 15 Orthodox Christian churches or monasteries contained within the
parks’ grounds, dating between the 13th and 15th Centuries.
The park also contains more than 30 important historical
or archaeological sites, ranging from Stone Age cave art to Hellenistic and
late Roman settlements where valuable decorative pieces such as coins, ceramics
and statues have been discovered. Of particular note is the 6,000-year-old “Adam
of Govrlevo” statue, an anatomically-precise Neolithic sculpture considered to
be one of the oldest and most important discoveries in the world.
Still more eclectic is Jasen’s recent past, which
remains cloaked in Cold War ambiguity. In Macedonian popular imagination, this
mysterious area – once partly off-limits during Communist Yugoslavia – has long
been associated with rumours of secret underground military bunkers and tunnels
allegedly built by former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.
A presidential playground
Past rumours aside, today Jasen doubles as a sort of
Macedonian Camp David, where the country’s president keeps a private retreat
for hosting important guests. Reportedly, some of the park’s prominent visitors,
like Silvio Berlusconi and Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, have come more for the
hunting than the politics.
Hunting is highly controlled and limited to specially-arranged
groups who pay a premium for the chance to bag a deer, wild boar, the rare
Balkan chamois or mouflon (wild sheep).
A haven for wildlife
Wildlife lovers will be well rewarded in Jasen’s oak,
beech and black pine forests, filled with a wide variety of flora and fauna. The
mountain rivers are home to freshwater crabs and river trout, while more than 160
bird species, including golden eagles and peregrine falcons, have been spotted overhead.
Jasen’s 47 mammal species -- almost one-third the total number found in Europe
-- include wild boar, deer, brown bears, hares, wolves and a unique subspecies
of the European Souslik (ground squirrel). Cameras set up around the reserve caught
glimpses of 11 Eurasian lynx (up from six in 2009), indicating that the park’s
conservation efforts are also working.
Along with recreational fishing, paragliding and
kayaking on Lake Kozjak, caving is available through the Macedonian Speleological
Federation. While some caverns can be tackled by neophytes, the majority are
for serious spelunkers only. The caves can reach depths of 500m, stretch for
1,500m and often get flooded by underground rivers.
Jasen’s winding mountain trails and access roads are also
perfect for mountain biking, which allows you to explore much more of the
park’s terrain than simply hiking; park managers can advise on the best routes.
Finally, if you are up for some unforgettable skiing
on unroped, virgin terrain, a helicopter fitting eight skiers can be rented for
4,000 euros per day. The helicopter drops you at the peak of Mount Karadzica
(2,470m), where you ski (accompanied by a local guide) down to Kula, the park entrance
at 500m. Depending on speed and skill (this course is for experts only), it is possible
to make four to six runs a day on innumerable routes.
To visit the park, email
or phone the English-speaking park management at least one week in advance (389-2311-5016).
There is no entrance fee to the park, but a guided day hike costs 20 euro per
person (groups of 8 to 15 people are preferred). This includes a home-cooked
lunch made from the park’s organic produce and local game, as well as transport
to and from Skopje. The park management can also help you arrange any
activities you wish to undertake.
There is no camping, but accommodation is available in
a rustic hunting lodge at Kula for 50 euro per person, including breakfast. Bookings
should be made through the park management.
The article 'Macedonia’s unusual nature getaway' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.