This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours

 

We thought we had lots of time in Prizren but there always seems to be one more site to see. We got up early to tick one more off before breakfast. One of our travel companions had discovered a tiny church hidden away near the central square so we went to have a look. From the street there isn’t much to see but there are some steps down to the main entrance. Just as we went in a policeman – who should have been guarding it but was actually having a coffee across the street – arrived to tell us very politely we could take photos but please no Facebook. We could only just fit four of us in at the same time.

After breakfast, we left Prizren for the capital Prishtina just over an hour away. Not much to see on the journey. The roads were quiet, fortunately, as the driver spent a lot of the trip texting.

We checked into our hotel and popped into the convenience store opposite. It’s another hot day so an ice cream seemed like a good idea – I had a ‘chocolate bumm’!

Our excursion for the day started with a visit to the Field of Blackbirds, the site of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. The Serbian armies were defeated (probably) by the superior forces of the Ottoman army. Although not strategically significant the battle has become very important to the history and identity of Serbia. A number of significant later events took place on the same date, including the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in 1914 that precipitated World War One. There’s very little to see at the site other than a memorial erected in the Yugoslav era. We climbed to the top for an overview of the battlefield and the surrounding area.

Next stop was the grave of Sultan Murad or at least parts of him – his organs rest here, the rest of him is in Turkey. He was the Ottoman leader who was killed in the battle. We had a guided tour of the museum. It’s fair to say the guide’s version of the battle and subsequent events didn’t entirely match any other we’d heard.

After the grave, we headed for another old Serbian monastery. This one is in the town of Gračanica, a few miles away from Prishtina. The town is a small Serbian enclave. We passed a sign telling us we were now under video surveillance. Gračanica has the second largest Serbian population in the country behind Mitrovice. Shops take Serbian dinar, salaries are paid by the Serbian government and street names include Yuri Gagarin and Gavrilo Pricip.

The monastery walls are topped with razor wire. The church itself is again very beautiful inside. It’s very tall and has a unique double cross layout. The walls are covered with frescoes as usual. One wall depicts hell with people being eaten by beasts. Along the bottom of that wall are images warning people against specific sins: a miller who used false weights has a millstone around his neck for eternity; a woman who wouldn’t marry is devoured by a serpent and a blacksmith who worked on a Sunday is tortured by a red hot poker.

On the way to lunch we stopped at the best-known site in the city of Prishtina itself – a three-metre statue of Bill Clinton, at a major intersection on Bill Clinton Avenue. Next to it is a dress shop called Hillary, no mention of Monica nearby.

Lunch is on the edge of the city in Germia Country Park, a large park on the edge of the city. On the way we passed a huge swimming pool packed with locals cooling themselves. Lunch was okay but not very interesting food, more generic Italian than Balkan but this is where all city folks not at the swimming pool were today.

We took taxis back into town and had a quick walk around with our guide. Prishtina is a city of few sites – we saw a statue of Ibrahim Rugova (the first president of Kosovo), a Skanderberg statue and the ‘New Born’ letters.

After the group dispersed, we walked to the National Library. Built in 1986, this Brutalist edifice is an usually decorated building, the outside is covered in a decorative metal frame. On the way back to the hotel we tried to visit the Ethnographic museum but it was closed by then and looked like it hadn’t been open for a while. We walked back to the hotel through a local market that was closing up for the day, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.

We had a few hours off, time to read and have a shower then joined some of the group for a glass of wine before dinner. We walked through an exhibit based around ideas of unity of all men with particular emphasis on the Balkans.

Dinner was in a cool place with good food, music and books. Soma Book Station is a vegetarian restaurant. It’s an all rounder: it starts the day with breakfast and coffee, moving through lunch and dinner until it becomes a late night club and bar.

The ‘excited state of the Mohammedans’

9:30am start today to accommodate last night’s festival goers. This trip is sooooo easy!

We followed the river out of town. It was a gentle 45 mins walk up to the fortress. We were in no hurry, and the path was in the shade the majority of the time.

From the top, we had an incredible view of Prizren and the Shar mountain range. We saw how integrated the town used to be – with the main mosque, the orthodox cathedral and the catholic cathedral all within a short distance of each other. We counted up to 27 mosques; we were challenged by the information board to find 45. We could also see the terracotta tiles of the former hamman. All the roofs in town used to be like this. It would have looked spectacular.

We took a more direct route down – steep. En-route, we stopped to visit the ruins of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Saviour. There used to be 12,000 Serbs living in this corner of Prizren, now there are 12. They came back a few years ago when their houses were rebuilt by the British Embassy and they are financially supported by Serbia. The church was built around 1330, and sadly it was damaged and set on fire during the Kosovo war. The man currently looking after the church had to leave Kosovo along with his family during the peak of the conflict. Serbian homes were often set on fire. He came back a few years ago and told us there were no words to describe that feeling of coming home.

Back in town, we stopped for ice tea at a terrace bar, sitting facing the street – the way we’ve seen locals do it – and people watched.

We timed it so that we would be able to visit the Sinan Pasha Mosque between prayers. It was built in 1615 and it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful mosques in Kosovo. It underwent restoration a few years back funded largely by Turkey. I personally preferred the local one we visited yesterday – smaller, intimate and beautifully decorated. But this one also had beautiful calligraphy and details – such as the windows’ intricate pattern wood surround.

For lunch, we opted to go back to Besimi. We ordered a large bottle of water, a small salad to share (potatoes; olives; sweet corn and those red peppers we had yesterday) and some freshly backed round bread. I also ordered fli –also known as flia. This was a typical Kosovo specialty I was keen to try. It consists of multiple crepe-like layers brushed with cream, and traditionally it takes hours to make, as the batter repeatedly needs to be layered and baked. It was tasty.

We treated ourselves to ice cream; it’s at least 36c out there today and boarded the tourist train. We had our doubts but were persuaded to give it a go as other people in the group recommended it. The ride takes no longer than 15 minutes and we got to go down streets we hadn’t yet explored – shops full of those amazing dresses we’d seen in Peja, traditional clothing shops (these are primarily for locals rather then tourists) and shoes. We got to see a totally different side to the town, all for €1.50 each.

After a short comfort break back at the hotel, we met up with the group again as Ivan had made an appointment for us to go inside the church of the Virgin of Ljeviš. But as yesterday, we had to contend ourselves with looking at it from the outside. We completed the necessary paperwork with the police officer in charge of the site but both he and Ivan were unable to get hold of the priest. There was a strong siesta rumour going round 🙂

So three of us retired to a bar and people watched some more. We checked a couple of jewellery shops where we admired filigree (‘ornamental work of fine (typically gold or silver) wire formed into delicate tracery’ – source) and antique bracelets.

And then things got serious.

€1 got us into the League of Prizren museum. This is an extremely important place historically. Ivan started our Balkan history lesson the day we crossed into Kosovo. He carried on last night; he had us all sitting down on benches in a public square. We were absorbing his every words (we may be quizzed on this at the end of the trip). And it basically went something like this: to understand the Balkans today, you have to understand what happened during the Kosovo war. To understand what happened during the Kosovo war, you have to understand what happened during the break up of Yugoslavia. To understand what happened during the break up of Yugoslavia, you have to understand what happened during the Second World War. To understand what happened during the Second World War, you have to understand what happened during the First World War. To understand what happened during the First World War, you have to understand what happened at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The Congress of Berlin is what got us to this museum today. The Treaty of Prizren in June 1878 basically identified Albania groups of different religions as one nationality.

The museum was a little dry and there were copies of letters from diplomats reacting to the Treaty (hence today’s title) but we did feel a sense of history.

The other building contained some old clothing from the various regions, and an art gallery.

Wandering the back streets, we came across local mosques, and older houses with intricate details. A man approached me and in French, started telling me about the state of some of the houses. In the past, seven brothers used to live in one of the houses, now one of them comes back once a year for two to three weeks but he isn’t spending any money of the house, and soon the roof will cave in.

The best t-shirt of the day was this kid wearing a ‘I’m Albanian and I cannot keep calm’ t-shirt. Funny.

At 7pm, we left the hotel. Andy for the fortress to go and have a look at sunset and me for dinner with the group. Let’s be clear on this: I was on social duties. Marashi is local restaurant by the river. We had some great local food – fried cheese; a village salad; rough country bread (crisp outside but moist inside); a yogurt dip and white Albanian wine. It was a very relaxed affair. Good food; great company.

On our walk back to the hotel, we were again surprised by the number of people in the street. All ages are out and about every night – watching and being watched. The obligatory evening constitutional.

One Cloud in the Sky

The day’s sightseeing got off to a bad start; we’d given ourselves time to visit the old railway station – so good the gift shops have fridge magnets of it – and the Ethnographic museum before breakfast. Unfortunately we couldn’t get out of the hotel as the front door was locked and there’s no alternative exit – safe? The breakfast waiter finally arrived and we were released but had to abandon the railway station plan. The museum wasn’t yet open (it’s very secretive about its opening hours). We’d seen mention of 7:00 somewhere; there’s nothing at the museum or on its website; the garage next door thought 8:00 – maybe. It was just after 7:30 so the four of us adjourned to a café next door, very nice coffee. 8:00 came and went with no signs of activity so we returned to the hotel for breakfast and packing.

At 9:30, we left for Prizren, our home for the next two nights.

Our guide added in an unscheduled stop at Gjakova on the way. This town, like many others was badly bombed during the war. Since then however they have been luckier than most – they have a Harvard educated female mayor who has done a huge amount to regenerate the town and restore the tolerance it was historically known for. She regularly wins ‘Mayor of the Year’ awards – based on measures such as transparency and good governance. The town was famous for its Grand Bazaar, some of this has been rebuilt with a lot of wooden single storey shops. The main street is lined with cafes and bars; it’s very pleasant. The town is known for its craftsmen, one street is dedicated to making wooden cradles, another one saddles. The highlight is the Hadumi mosque, built in 1594. We’re allowed in for five minutes only as it’s Friday. Inside is quite plain but with some attractive paintings on the inside of the domed roof. When are five minutes are up, we move on to a café across the street, more very good coffee for me, and some laid back music to go with it – it would be nice to stay here much longer.

It’s another 45 minutes to Prizren. On the way we cross a new bridge adjacent to very old stone construction. The original Terzijski bridge was built at the end of the 15th Century. Unusually the top of the bridge follows the rise and fall of each of the 11 arches.

Prizren is said to be Kosovo’s most attractive town. The compact centre spreads along the banks of the Prizren Bistrica river and has some Ottoman and Byzantine architecture. The town is noticeably more eastern than others we have visited. There are 35 mosques, although not many more women wear headdresses and shawls and there is a stronger Turkish influence.

After checking into out hotel, we walked to the central square to Besimi restaurant, known for traditional dishes. We had a mix of salads, grilled peppers, an immense piece of fresh flat bread and some haloumi like djathë I Sharrit cheese – all very tasty, Florence followed this with a Tullumba – a desert soaked in honey. After lunch, we wandered aimlessly around the square, through some back streets and across the river to see what caught our eye then back to the hotel for a rest – it feels like one of the hottest days of the trip so far.

We left for a guided walk around the town at 6:00. We saw the thank you messages on the town hall to a variety of countries who supported the independence of Kosovo. A few blocks back, we saw the outside of the beautiful 14th Century church of the Virgin of Ljeviš that hasn’t been fully renovated since the war, it’s Serbian orthodox and protected rather incongruously by razor wire. Our guide gave us a brief overview of the significance of Prizren to Albanian history – more tomorrow – beginning with the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Dinner was a bit disappointing after our lovely lunch – the only options for us were pasta and pizza. The group spilt after dinner, half went to a music festival in the fort above the town, the techno and Balkan didn’t appeal to everybody so the rest of us had a few more drinks before bedtime, sitting on a terrace watching Prizren go by.

A Walk in the Accursed Mountains

We had another leisurely start today. 8:00 breakfast and 9:00 departure, probably a good thing as a fair amount of wine and raki was consumed at dinner last night – not by us you understand.

We started with the Patriachate of Pec convent, best to go early so we were the only visitors there. The convent was originally built in 1233. There are ruins of a couple of old churches on the site but the main building is still well preserved.

From the 13th Century until about one hundred years ago this was the seat of the heads of the Serbian Orthodox church so it has a great historical and political significance. There is still a local police presence here as well. It’s an unusual arrangement of three churches side by side with a long covered entrance along the front of all three.

We were given audio guides to tell us about the history and some details of the frescoes but these were in very dry, quite technical ‘Google Translate’ English and not always easy to follow. The tour first takes you around the outside of the main church – at the back is a graveyard for the nuns, the top of the building has a number of domes. The inside is overwhelming: every section of wall and ceiling is covered in frescoes showing the history of the church, significant figures from the churches’ history, biblical scenes and a large representation of Christ’s family tree. Each of the three churches has its own character having been painted and restored at different times throughout their history, they are all stunning and as always we don’t have nearly enough time to do them justice. After the church there’s time for a brief visit to the gift shop to pick up some souvenirs – walnut liqueur made by the nuns. They also offered a small glass of raki.

After the convent, we headed into the hills for our second activity of the day – a hike in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains. The road follows the Rugovska Klisura gorge, a blue river tumbles down the rocky valley. It’s very narrow, the road has been cut into the side of the sheer cliffs, tunnelling through the rocks in places. At the top of the gorge, we turn off onto a small road to Shqiponja guesthouse which is the starting point of our walk and later our place for lunch.

The walk starts off with a steep climb out of the village, past a small local mosque. All the buildings here look new, most of the old ones were destroyed with napalm grenades by Serbian solders during the fighting for Kosovan independence. The scenery is again very alpine – steep green meadows with low wooden buildings and cows with tinkling cowbells.

There are many explanations of where the mountains got their name from; curses from mothers who lost their sons, malicious fairies or linguistic confusions – who knows? We stopped regularly for shade and drinks, the air temperature was around 30 but the sun was strong making it feel much warmer.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at a farmer’s house for tea and coffee, the view from the garden was huge – a deep green valley to our left, men working on a farm across the valley and above us on the right the 2,800m high ridges that mark the border with Montenegro.

Refreshed we continued, crossing meadows of wild flowers, there were butterflies everywhere. Our guide countered this sylvan mood by telling us stories about when he worked for the UN mine-removal teams. In one village, they were tasked with removing cluster bombs that were known to have been dropped there. They talked to some villagers about them and showed them photos of what they were looking for, one man told them the bombs were located on a particular hillside above the village and he also had about twenty at home. This turned out to be true, it was decided the best solution was to explode them where they were and the UN would build him a new house.

We started to head downhill towards our starting point, the ground is very dry and crumbly and probably harder to walk this way than up. We passed a concrete shell of a hotel; the owner had been obtaining money from a UN development fund – this source had dried up and building had stopped leaving a 4 storey white elephant abandoned in the hills. The location was fantastic; hopefully it will be completed one day.

Back at the guesthouse, we were reunited with Florence who had a relaxing time reading about Kosovo and taking in the beautiful surroundings.

Lunch was served, another wonderful meal of local produce, salads, bread, spinach cakes, soups and for us a very slow-cooked vegetable stew with sticky rice. This late lunch was another slow leisurely affair, nothing to rush for, we eventually left about 5pm and made our way back down the gorge to the hotel.

After a rest and clean up, we went out for a walk as the town was coming alive for the evening. We walked along ‘Tony Blair Street’ then found a Kula – an old house that Florence had read about. It had survived the war but had its ceiling removed by ‘irresponsible persons’.

We went back to the same restaurant as last night, not local food but the pizza was very good and the Stone Castle wine from a nearby vineyard was surprisingly good. We walked back through the town centre, which was now packed. Our guide told us that summer everywhere in the Balkans is like this, people work overseas and bring their money back here for a long summer holiday and they are as rich as kings for a month. Everyone is friendly and having a good time, nobody’s really drunk and no hassle anywhere.

The newest country in Europe

 

Quite a leisurely start to the day with breakfast at 8am and departure at 9:30am. I’m really getting a taste for cheese and honey!

The drive to the border was short. 45 minutes or so. On the way, we followed the Dragobi river. Ivan told stories of the law of the mountains which still operate in the region. Historically, there was no police force around, so this was how law and order was maintained. But it is very much about blood feud – a perpetual cycle of violence based on revenge.

Crossing into western Kosovo was sleek. The border officer came on board, took our passports and came back within a few minutes.

We are in Kosovo; the newest country in Europe and the second newest in the World – after South Sudan. Newest and youngest, with youth representing a third of the population.

The first thing to hit you is the number of graves everywhere. Most of them from 2008/2009. We all know about the atrocities and the fighting that came with the independence of Kosovo. To date, the country is not recognised by all UN countries.

We stopped at the Dečani monastery. This UNESCO World Heritage site is guarded by KFOR, as are many Serbian monasteries in Kosovo. The seriousness of the NATO troops dealing with us (we had to leave our passports with them) give an indication of how raw things still are here.

Despite attacks from ethnic Albanians who’d like to see the Serbs leave, the 25 monks living here, in total isolation from the local community, have stayed and in 2016 even won a legal case reaffirming their right to ownership of the land.” (source: Lonely Planet)

We were promised a treat, and we were not disappointed.

The monastery was founded in the first half of the fourteenth century.

The 700 year-old frescoes are original; they were preserved by the smoke of the candles. They are carefully cleaned once a year. One of them is unique in that it is of Jesus with a sword – and if not unique, then one of the rarest depictions of Jesus. The sword holds a spiritual meaning and does not have any connotation of war. There are over one thousand compositions and a few thousand portraits. Once you enter the church, a sense of tranquility descends upon you. They only allow one group at a time, and we’re a small group.

The vibrancy of the colours; the smell of incense; the diversity of subject matters and a true sense of history make for an incredible site.

Majestical even.

Ivan had told us to stop at the shop to buy a bottle of 2009 red wine. This wine – made by the monks who still live on site – is allegedly one of the best in the Balkans.

We got to Peja after a short drive; checked into our room (I need to mention the art in our room. We have three frames. They are all empty) and made for lunch as the call to prayer started. We kept it light for lunch – but did try a draft Peja pilsner – and set off for a tour of the town.

Having asked Ivan about safety in town, we opted not to take our camera bags with us and went off with just our cameras. He’d also told us there wasn’t much to see in town and his orientation tour took about twenty minutes. We saw the Bajrakli Mosque; the Ottoman-era bazaar – which was rebuilt after the Kosovo War, and the diaspora monument.

Kosovo was one of the countries on my list. From the moment it became a country. And it is a difficult reality to be here and see that there is still much work to be done before people can be comfortable here. Politicians are corrupt; youth unemployment is between 50%-60%; it is one of the poorest countries in Europe with the average salary being €300… and allegedly, this is one of so called ISIS most successful recruitment grounds.

Interestingly enough, on our walk yesterday, Adenis told us that the UK was no longer a popular country to move to – as it now costs £12,000 to enter illegally. The stories we’re hearing here – and in the Valbona valley yesterday – are that the people who do move abroad – and now it is likely to be Germany or Switzerland – pour money back into the local economies. And these are the people who are responsible for moving their country forward and giving their families a decent lifestyle. A consequence of this is that the younger generation doesn’t now need to move abroad, and Adenis is making his own luck in Albania, guiding local and international tourists, aged 19.

We left the centre of town and walked through the suburbs to walk along the riverside. It was only 3pm and we were not ready to go back to our hotel. So we explored. The walk wasn’t scenic, but it was good to stretch our legs. We noticed some abandoned houses. Ivan told us Serbian families lived there, and the houses were set on fire. The street signs are in Albanian and Serbian; I noticed one where the Serbian name was crossed out.

We got into a semi-wooded area, and a bit further along a clearing with a few cafés. The place was incredibly busy; mostly older men sitting, chatting, playing cards. All topless.

We crossed the river – the banks full of rubbish – and walked back to town. We had a cool drink in one of the terraced bars and refreshed continued to explore the centre of town. It was only 4:30pm but the only museum in town was now closed so we wandered around. There are many shops selling incredibly detailed wedding dresses – colourful, fashionable or traditional. A young woman was trying a dress on and we found out it costs €380. And alongside, sport shops selling football shirts – Mustafi and Xhaka in particular.

The excitement of realising that dinner was at a restaurant our Dutch friends in Tirana recommended to us died down quickly as I read the menu and saw that it was Italian. This is the best restaurant in town; I would have liked to try Kosovan food. The walk back to the hotel took us down a pedestrian street – with restaurants and bars packed.

We got back to our room and immediately, it became apparent that we wouldn’t sleep much tonight. There is a wedding party in the hotel restaurant and the band has just got going. Wish us luck!