Wooden construction and stairs leading from the trail to the canyon directly to the waters of Lake Matka. Boards with an inscription in English: “Boat ride – Kenan” offer a sight-seeing ride through the artificial lake that costs 200 denars. Price lower than the competition. A platform with planks that looks like a podium for a future coffee shop or restaurant. Scattered tools everywhere.
Signs in the background that it is a protected area look cynical when you see the described object in an attempt, just behind the dam of the Matka hydroelectric power plant. It emerged overnight, and it has been built up for months without the competent inspections coming out to the site and deal with the illegal construction. City services appeal to the municipal authorities in Saraj to do their job, and the authorities grotesquely reply that they have no inspectors available to send to the construction site.
One is on sick leave, the other is retired
“How do you know that it is illegal construction?”, asks Adam Saraqini, head of the Sector for urban planning in the Municipality of Saraj.
He says that they did not even receive a letter from Mayor Petre Silegov, or from other competent institutions in which they reported that they should take measures and take down the illegal construction in Matka.
The City of Skopje claims that on their own initiative its inspectors went to the site through the city inspectorate and found it was an illegal construction, and they informed the Inspection Council about this, which should take additional measures due to the inaction of the construction inspection of the Municipality of Saraj.
“In addition, in coordination with the Minister of Transport and Communications, we informed the State Inspectorate, who should come to the site to determine the situation and, accordingly, to make appropriate decisions on whether to take away the credentials in the urban planning of the Municipality of Saraj”, emphasizes Skopje’s Mayor Peter Silegov.
He appealed to the Municipality of Saraj and to Mayor Blerim Bexheti to start performing the tasks for which they were elected and paid for by the citizens.
“We must not allow rampage in the construction sector, especially in natural treasures and rarities such as Matka,” said Mayor Silegov.
Saraqini, meanwhile, explains that the municipality in which he works faces real problems in capacity and therefore cannot reach all sites in question.
“We have two inspectors. One is a communal inspector and works in the Matka area, he is on sick leave at the moment. The other is a construction inspector and retired. We published a job ad for his replacement, but no one has applied yet.
Therefore, we are trying to cover the municipalities with which we have good cooperation, but we cannot be everywhere. I personally have not been to Matka and I have not seen this place of which you ask, so I cannot claim whether it is an illegal construction or not. I am surprised by what Silegov claims, so he is regularly in touch with Bexheti, and our municipality has excellent cooperation with the City of Skopje. I do not know what you saw during your visit, but you need to keep in mind that summer and the tourist season are approaching, we are changing broken boards throughout Matka, the boards are being painted, being repaired, which does not mean that someone is building or preparing new facilities,” Saraqini says for Nezavisen Vesnik/Independent daily newspaper.
Yesterday there was no one from the owners or boaters on or around the disputed illegal construction. According to our information, the construction was built by six brothers from the neighboring village of Glumovo, who have major influence in the village and on the municipal authorities.
“They’ve been working since last year. No one was bothered by it then. And they are still not hiding, they even started spreading their business bit by bit, but no one can do anything to them,” say residents of Glumovo.
The Matka Canyon is declared a natural monument and is a protected area of a third category, which means that activities that would endanger its authenticity are not strictly prohibited. In a UNDP study of 2010, it is stated that 39 institutions are responsible for the protection of the Matka Canyon. But on site – there’s not one that cares!
For Skopje citizens, and even more so for foreign tourists, fed up by the center of the city, full of kitsch monuments, the canyon and the lake Matka are an attractive destination. Matka offers hiking, swimming, walking, canoeing, cave tourism, mountaineering, historical landmarks, as well as the opportunity to see interesting birds and butterflies. The canyon contains medieval monasteries with excellent frescoes and many caves – part of them accessible by boat through the lake Matka. The renowned British newspaper Guardian in 2015 listed Matka among the ten most beautiful canyons in Europe that are easily accessible to adventurers and offer great views and good walking trails.
This is the oldest artificial lake in Macedonia, whose accumulation was built in 1938 by partitioning the river Treska with a dam. In recent years visitors treat Matka as a picnic area, not as a monument of nature. The crowds during weekends and unregulated traffic chaos, do not allow the city bus that drives to Matka space to turn to the last stop in order to return to the city. Stacks of garbage left by reckless citizens are a common sight after the end of the excursion. The place that once attracted with its mystical beauty now has a turbo-folk dimension, more precisely, it is more commercialized and the restaurant content is spreading. And, with that garbage there is more and more about the lake and inside and loses its beauty and attraction for the tourists.
“We have been cleaning Matka regularly since 2012. In the past, the problem was that the public enterprise from the Municipality of Saraj was responsible for hygiene, which did not have the capacity to handle the garbage that thousands of visitors left behind. Now, that part of the work it taken over by Communal Hygiene and we hope it will get better. There is insufficient inspection that will punish the negligent citizens, it is obvious that education is not enough,” says Blaze Josifovski, from the NGO Ajde Makedonija.
There is no trash during the working week, but then again there are not as many visitors either, especially during winter or when the weather is colder.
“We work seasonal, in full force during summer, and a bit slower during winter. Each year, the turnover is getting weaker, and I cannot understand why. What Matka has cannot be found elsewhere. Eighty percent of the guests who stay longer than a day are foreigners, but there are also Macedonians coming from other cities,” says the manager of one of the restaurants on site.
The Sector for Economic Development of the City of Skopje representatives say that they are doing everything in their power to bring Matka back to life as it was in its best days.
“We think that we are on the right track, the proof of this is hustle and bustle during weekends and in the summer. Last year we completed 17 activities related to the canyon and the Treska River, from the installation of protective fences, reconstruction of pedestrian paths, fish stocking of the lake, monitoring of bats, etc. This year we will make the Vrelo cave accessible to tourists, it will have nice access to it with stairs and paths, as well as plateaus on both sides. We will re-stock the lake with fish, and in cooperation with the Fishing Federation, we will carry out a larger record of fishermen. We have regular visits to fishermen from abroad, so our idea is to expand the content and tourists to stay for more than one day, but to stay in Skopje, or in the surrounding hotels. As far as the traffic chaos is concerned, we plan to solve it by building another parking lot near the military facility, and transfer tourists with a van,” emphasized the City of Skopje.
Matka is really beautiful. Anyone that has visited it at least once, agrees. But those who visited at least once know that Matka is left on its own. Matka doesn’t have its own rescue team, and abounds with dangerous rocks that are challenging for the experienced and less experienced climbers, as well as for ordinary mountaineers – lovers of nature. There are no restrictions on movement, everyone is left on their own, but God forbid, one should wait for the rescue team from Vodno for help. Over the past years and decades, Matka regularly charged tax in blood. No matter how much we terrorize it, Matka remains mystical and closed in its own world.
The mystery of secret springs
The canyon of the Treska River covers an area of about 5,000 hectares. It is famous for the ten caves with a length of 20 to 176 meters and the two chasms with a depth of 35 meters. Matka is one of the largest refugial centers during the glacial period, which contributed to the presence of many relict and endemic plants and animals today. Of the total number of thousands of plant species, twenty percent are relics. Significant are the Viola kosanini and Ramonda nathaliae. Two new species of true spiders and five false scorpions were discovered at the site Matka. In the canyon 119 species of daily and 140 species of butterflies are registered. Within the canyon there is the speleological park Jovica Grozdanovski, named after the climber that tragically lost his life. The park is composed of three caves (Vrelo, Ubava and Krstana), as well as an underwater cave (Podvrelo).
Due to the characteristics of the terrain and its difficult accessibility, a large number of churches and monasteries and other sacred objects were built in the past in the Matka Canyon. Therefore, Matka also goes by the name Sveta Gora. Today there are many churches from the medieval period, the majority are preserved in their entirety, and some are demolished or there are only their foundations. Besides the religious buildings, high in the Matka Canyon, there are also remains of the former medieval fortress Markov Grad. It was built as an escape for the local population and the monastery churches, at the time of the arrival of the Ottomans.
The water from the lake is used for producing electricity, but also for watering the surrounding villages. The lake is stocked with fish and is often used for recreational fishing. Underwater cave Vrelo is one of the deepest underwater caves in Europe, which has a depth of more than 203 meters. The mystery of Matka is made by secret springs of water behind which numerous caves can be found. The Matka canyon is one of the most magnificent regions in Macedonia. The sides of the canyon are vertical rocks that houses ancient temples, medieval churches and monasteries.
Instead of demolishing, illegal buildings will be legalized
According to the Law on Construction, the work of the municipality is controlled by the inspections, and the credentials can be seized upon the proposal of the State Construction Inspectorate. From the Association of Local Self-Government Units (ZELS), it has been announced that the legalization of illegally constructed buildings will continue, and those who will legalize them will not only pay for utilities, but also all additional penalties.
We, as an institution and state, must not stimulate illegal construction in any way. We need to find a balance in the solution,” explained the Mayor of Skopje and head of ZELS, Petre Silegov.
One Euro per square meter will not be paid, but at least 50 percent higher utilities for illegal construction. There are about 70 thousand illegal constructions in the country, starting from balconies, to toilets, to skyscrapers. According to ZELS, MKD 438,000 has been paid for the legalization of a house of 120 squares with basements, balconies and garages, and according to the new rule, the owner would have to pay 700,000 MKD plus administrative expenses. Citizens have already reacted that with such a measure nothing would be solved, except that the cash registers of the municipalities would be filled, and illegal constructions would multiply.