12 years ago I had planned to visit Kosovo on my journey through the Balkans, but due to illness, an unforeseen strike and less time than planned I ended up skipping it. Yes, excuses there are enough of and I’ve had a plan to go ever since that summer in 2005. This year I got the chance.
With limited time I had decided for us to skip the capital Pristina and focus on Pejë and Prizren.
Days in Kosovo
We arrived in Kosovo from a disastrous night in Podgorica followed by the worst bus ride of the year where we were confined to the back seats alongside several broad shouldered young men. I think everyone on that row sat with their upper bodies twitched so that all shoulders were able to be there. For three hours!
At the border between Montenegro and Kosovo the number of people on the bus finally thinned out and we were able to catch some slightly more comfortable seats and enjoy as the road slowly made several hairpin turns on its descend into the valley where Pejë was awaiting us.
I have chosen the Albanian name for the city rather than the Serbian Peć or English Peja simply because it is the name that offers least confusion when browsing the internet. The Serbian name always brings up information on the Hungarian Pécs.
Pejë is a central city in the ongoing conflict regarding Kosovo’s independence. Only 0.4% are Serbs, a number which has decreased since the 1991 census of 6.11% Serbs. But a short 15 minutes walk from the centre of town lies The Patriarchal Monastery of Peć, which in medieval times was the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church and a main reason why it is so difficult for Serbs to let go of Kosovo. Historically and religiously this is their true homeland.
We off course wanted to see the monastery which in 2006 was added to on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger. But after resting from our uncomfortable bus ride and then enjoying a very late lunch we ended up being 20 minutes late.
We spent the rest of our short day in Pejë walking around and I must admit that I was far from impressed with the city. I know that Pejë is famous for the surrounding Rugova Mountains, but I had prioritised Durmitor and thus we did not have time to explore the excellent nature around Pejë.
And then we saw Peje…
Early in the morning the next day we walked through the Old Bazaar as the shops slowly began to open for the day. This is a lovely part of Pejë. However, being there on a Saturday had the added bonus of the local cheese market.
And if you imagine something charmingly Southern French with lots of different cheeses and other delicacies and old men in berets then well only the old men fits with the exotic and organised chaos that is Pejë Cheese Market.
Here the cheese comes in great buckets of wood or plastic and is cut in circular pieces from the top of the buckets. It has the colour of milk which has been left too long in the fridge – and the consistency too. It is in general a very boring cheese, which in my opinion is best when melted since it lacks in taste. But it is home made and available in the bucket loads at the market where particularly the elder generation haggles over slices.
It was not yet nine in the morning as we continued our way through Pejë running across several smaller markets offering food and wood ware. Several horse-drawn carriages were loaded with wood or hay and the entire town was filled with a charming and welcoming feeling, which we had not caught the day before due to our exhaustion.
I was thrilled that I got the chance to experience why Pejë is unique and well worth the visit.
Patriarchate of Peć Monastery
We had a plan to catch the 10.30 bus to Prizren, but also a great wish to see the Serbian Orthodox Monastery. The hostel arranged for a taxi driver to take us to the monastery and wait around before getting us to the bus station.
It was perfect apart from the fact that the taxi driver circled the hostel for 20 minutes before settling for the idea that the couple with backpacks waiting in front of the gate probably were the ones he needed to get to the bus station.
At this point I was stressed that we might not make the bus with the next leaving at 15.30. I was ready to pay for a taxi to Prizren. But in the end we made it with a 15 minutes stop at the monastery, where the police control allowed our driver to drive all the way in.
Since the war there has been a checkpoint at four Serbian cultural and religious institutions in Kosovo. At first the UN KFOR forces kept watch protecting Serbian cultural heritage from destruction. Today it is the Kosovo police force which checks peoples identification at the entrance to the Patriarchate of Peć Monastery. It was an odd feeling having our passports checked at the drive in to the monastery, but if it keeps the place protected and the peace stable then I’ll gladly show my passport.
In 1219, the later Serbian Orthodox Church became an autocephalous Archbishopric under the Eastern Byzantine Churches, meaning that the church continued in full communion with the later Eastern Orthodox churches while gaining self-rule under a self-appointed archbishop.
It was Arsenije I, the second Archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian Church who decided to move the seat of the church to Pejë due to fear of foreign invasions. In Pejë, he began the building of the Monastery of Peć.
With the rise in power of Serbia throughout the following century, the self-proclaimed emperor Stefan Dušan decided to elevate the the autocephalous Serbian Church to the status of patriarchate in 1346 thus establishing the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć. In 1375 the change in status was recognised by Constantinople and today the Serbian Orthodox Church is the seat of one of the nine ecclesiastical patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The monastery is in fact a complex of four churches, three of which are connected. All four churches were built and expanded on in the 13th and 14th century and it is the burial ground for Serbian Patriarchs and Archbishops.
After a short tour and a few minutes gawping at the frescos inside the three connected churches of Holy Apostles, St. Demetrius and Hodegetria, we found our way back to the taxi which took us to the bus station.
We made the bus with fifteen minutes to spare and ended up in the front and far from those tiny seats in the back.
While Pejë is best known for its nature, Prizren is a beautiful and historic town known for its beauty and documentary film festival.
We reached Prizren at the very height of DocuFest 2017. The city was smack full of espresso drinking hipsters discussing the art of documentaries.
It was hot as hell and in the middle of an extraordinarily longdrawn heatwave. But Prizren is an absolutely stunning city and no heat nor documentary screening was to get in my way of exploring it.
Since we made the early bus we arrived by midday and after a bit of chaos since the hotel had written down our reservation for the wrong day, we spent the rest of the day we getting ourselves familiarised with the city centre.
In the evening we followed the river making our way through the charming Marash neighbourhood to Restaurant Marashi. Here we were served a wonderful steak on a slate of stone which invigorated us after a long day which started at 7 o’clock at Pejë cheese market.
On the next day after a charming breakfast at the hotel and with a view of Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, we made the strenuous walk up to Prizren Fortress. Our hope was to avoid the worst of the heat while up there. On our way we came by the Orthodox church Our Holy Saviour, which was built around 1330. In 1990, it was declared by Serba as a Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance. But during the 2004 unrest in Kosovo a Kosovo Albanian mob damaged the church leaving it behind as somewhat of a ruin to this day.
As in Pëje this church was under observation, but it seemed more like a group of locals had found a good way to make money by demanding an entrance fee. We were welcomed inside where a sign stated that the visit cost money. But I demanded not to pay the fee since the sign was not outside and I therefore had no knowledge of the fee before entering. They agreed to my argument rather fast either because they didn’t want to create a scene demanding the money or because they understood the argument and simply hadn’t moved the sign outside yet.
When we finally made it to the top, the temperature was already way too high and I was happy that we had brought an umbrella to stay out of the sun. The fortress an be traced back too the Byzantine Empire, but was extended during the 14th century. It is a massive area, which would haveloved too see more of, if had not been for the heat.
Finally down again we spent yet another day walking the beautiful old streets of Prizren.
I got a peak inside the beautiful Sinan Pasha Mosque and with a wish to explore the backside of the mosque, we found a stunningly beautiful court with a small café where we had a refreshing lemonade and Turkish coffee. We ended up spending at least two hours in this quiet and peaceful courtyard gazing up at the impressive Sinan Pasha Mosque. Sitting there in the shade enjoying a fresh lemonade will be my favourite memory of this stunning city in the heart of Kosovo.