It is but a short drive from Skopje into the ‘new’ country of Kosovo, now recognised by most countries. Their recent history is off putting. Indeed it was only 10 years ago that ‘people from outside’ attacked Prizren, long a multi-faith and multi-lingual town with Turkish, Serbian and Albanian in common discourse. The locals were critical of the German KFOR troops for not managing to stop the burning of Serbian houses and churches. Previous to that, the Serbs had been the aggressors. Now the new flag of Kosovo is everywhere along with the striking red and black Albanian flag. The country uses the Euro.
However the Serbians feel under siege. It is their heartland in myth and legend. The battle of Kosovo ‘of the Black birds’ is presented as a triumph when it was, in fact, a defeat by the Ottomans. The leaders of both sides were killed. Lazar, the leader of the Christian forces, was made into a Serbian Orthodox saint. Slobodan Milosevic was only too happy to take on the mantle when he spoke on the battlefield in 1989. There was another battle in the 1440s, which ensured (as Mohacs in western Hungary, where the young King of Hungary and Bohemia died) Ottoman possession of the whole landmass until the early 20th century.
Go to Pristina. Little to see of the Ottoman past but good book stalls line the wide, rather Soviet, streets. The food is delicious. I recommend the local beer and the strangely named, Stone Castle, wines. Avoid the museum with the history of the troubles which will only serve to perpetuate them. Instead, see the Emin Gjiku Complex. home of the Gjiolli family, rich Albanian traders. The Communists took the house in the 50s.
Grancanica Monastery, now with nuns, is considered one of the most important architectural monuments in the Balkans. The exterior does not prepare for the soaring architecture and complexity of the interior. On the first visit, four years ago, I noted “wonderful with an aged nun speaking hesitating educated English”. This time a combination of ‘no photos’ and a lady with hoover plus mop pursuing us, the only visitors, almost spoilt the morning. The churches are tiny, even if by royal command as was the case in many through Macedonia and Serbia, but need concentration and no hoovers. Stand in the middle and wait until the frescoed surfaces and the architecture become clear. Usually the story and the positioning is the same, which is helpful. How different to great Cathedrals in the West. Salisbury can be taken in at a glance so too really Westminster Abbey, even Durham Cathedral. A different mystery.
So under siege the community felt, I was not allowed to know how many nuns were there.
Prizren has changed in four years since I last visited. The potholes are filled and hotels are plentiful and there are new roads planned to the city. It is charming in spite of the destruction of houses and churches a mere 10 years ago. At the time the German KFOR troops were much criticised for not doing more to stop the destruction.
Just under an hour’s drive from Prizren lies Pec in the beautiful Rugova Gorge. This, built by priests, was the seat of the Patriarchate, the centre of the Serbian Orthodox faith. It consists of 4 small churches adjoined. Each church a donation from an archbishop. Small and difficult to read at first, but a must visit. We were made welcome by a novice from Montenegro. There are remnants of the early foundations, now surrounded by rosebeds.
It is about 20 minutes to the Decani monastery. Unlike Pec, this was a kingly foundation. It has the relics of King Stefan Uros 111 d. 1331 His relics lie in the naos. The shrine is opened every Thursday evening at 19.00 for the service. His body, remarkably preserved, is now covered with glass. However, last Thursday, the glass came off for a visiting monk form Mount Athos. A sweet perfume came from thence Father Peter remarked.
We visited the monastery in the afternoon through the Italian army checkpoints and razor wire. There were Albanians mending the entry arch. The monastery lies in a rich valley farmed by the monks. The exterior, newly cleaned, is of striated marbles. Wonderful. The sculptural decoration could be from Brindisi and is stylistically archaic for the early 14th century. It seems solid and quietly rich. The interior is ethereal. The frescoes were painted by masters, the floor once, in part, inlaid with gold. The stark, white marble columns were painted too. But the richness of colour and the iconography take over. We were guided around by Father Peter again from Montenegro. With his encouragement we returned that evening for the service, which started sharp at 7 p.m. Women to the left. The monks in the naos were singing from a 19th century printed book given by the Czar of Russia. This ritual to venerate the saint had gone on for 700 years in spite of the Turks and an attack from the KLA in 2004. Edith Durham, in 1904, described the monastry as lying ‘precariously on the bloody edge of things’. The monks’ polyphony sounded at times like a sea shanty and then changed to a slower tempo before re charging again. Much crossing. But as the light faded all I could see were the figures painted in the top of the dome. Incense followed. At the end of this remarkable evening we lined up to kiss the relic of the King. I decided to follow suit – I am a Scottie Prottie but the belief was so genuine and with the beauty of the architecture, frescoes and singing it would have been churlish not to venerate this saint. Father Peter marking a cross on my forehead with holy oil spoke of body and soul. The priest joined us later and spoke of his work there in Decani and that he was not frightened of dying. I believe him. I felt that the situation was not so threatening than even four years ago. But you can never tell. Our service, so regular, so remarkable, so beautiful, in the aetheistic 21st century is extraordinary. We thumbed through the visitors’ book for the late 20s to 30s hoping to see Paddy Leigh Fermor’s signature. Russian Czar supported the monastery and is considered a martyr. The also had a relic of the True Cross on the altar. The only icon we saw outside the church had been made recently and the gilding done by our guide ‘as his hobby’.
I wish there was a book, in English, with good photographs on the patronage of King Milutan who built and decorated over 40 monasteries throughout old Serbia, encouraging some of the greatest fresco painters in these fine buildings. Innovative iconography set alive with elegant elongated figures echoing western painting in the early 14th century. It was all paid for out of the silver mines in his Serbian Kingdom. A few years later Charles IV of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor was commissioning the most remarkable art of the 14th century in the West and again with wealth from silver mines. For both kings it was the ‘Saxon’ miners who came and did the dirty work.
- Hotel Prishtina, Str. “Pashko Vasa” no.20-Qyteza Pejton 10000 Prishtina +381 38 22 32 84
- Hotel Centrum, C-4, Rr. Bujtinat, tel. +377 44 15 33 45
- Vila Gërmia Gërmia Park, tel. +381 38 51 77 41 http://www.vilagermia.com.
Just outside Pristina with views over fields and forests and a wonderful atmosphere. The house specials include steak and mixed grill, but there’s also fish, pizza and local fare.
- Besimi Beska, Rr Shadervanit 56, Prizren + 381 29 233 668
Delicious food in a centrally located restaurant where you can watch the ducks swimming in the inner garden while you eat.
- Simonium Travel www.simoniumtravel.com.mk