Balkans                                          2016

Balkans 2016 Albania Kosovo Macedonia

Balkans - Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia - 2016


The background music in the hotel’s restaurant during breakfast this morning seemed to have regressed a decade in just 24 hours.  Having enjoyed Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ yesterday, this morning we were “treated” to a loop of Frank Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way’.  I enjoyed my breakfast notwithstanding.

I knew that today’s drive would entail an international border crossing from Albania into Kosovo.  Having little idea how long that might take, we were keen to make an early start.  We almost managed to achieve that, leaving our hotel in Shkodër at 8:45am.

There are several fairly direct, though winding, routes between Shkodër and Prizren (our destination for the day), each of which takes between four and a half and seven hours.  Alternatively, there is the long route using the highways that takes just two and a half hours.  We chose the quick, longer route.

This meant we had to drive 50 kilometres south — almost half way back to Tirana — before taking the road eastwards that leads into Kosovo.  As soon as we started on the road to the east, the quality of the road improved, and it soon transformed itself into one of the best expressways I have seen anywhere in the world — an extraordinary contrast with every other road I had seen in Albania.  The road followed a river valley for some time before climbing into the mountains of eastern Albania (I know we were climbing because I had to keep changing down to lower gears in our quite underpowered Dacia Stepway).  The engineering (of the road, not our car) was fabulous, with beautifully sculpted cuttings and embankments, and at one stage, a six kilometre tunnel through an inconveniently located mountain.

It took us less than two hours to reach the Albania-Kosovo border, and I instantly began to guesstimate how long the crossing was going to steal from our day.  We didn’t even have to stop on the Albanian side; we were just waved through without passports even being examined.  We proceeded to the Kosovo gate, about 50 metres further on, and stopped to have our papers examined.  Passports were glanced at, our car’s papers were briefly looked at, and in less than 60 seconds we were on our way, without even the need for a passport stamp.  Border formalities have certainly been streamlined since I drove internationally through Eastern Europe in 1987.

It was just a short drive from the border into Prizren.  A little before midday we arrived at our hotel, the Hotel Centrum, located in a narrow cobblestone lane in the heart of the old town.

Prizren is described in my guidebook as ‘the jewel in the crown of Kosovo, and a must-see for any visitor’.  This description may have been a little short of yesterday’s “most beautiful place on earth that God has created”, but it set high expectations nonetheless.

And it has not disappointed!  The city has a population of about 50,000 people, and comprises a diverse mix of Turks, Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians and Roma.  Although Prizren escaped most of the damage inflicted elsewhere during Kosovo’s fight (or, more accurately, war) for independence from Serbia in 1998-99, there were massive inter-ethnic riots in March 2004 which resulted in many houses and public buildings being destroyed, mainly by arson.  There are still some fire-damaged buildings awaiting repair today, 12 years after the riots.

For the most part, though, Prizren is a picture-postcard pretty town with a lively atmosphere that we missed in Albania.  There is a vibrant streetside café and coffee culture, people seem happy and relaxed, and colourful houses with overhanging balconies rise up the steep sides of mountains that provide the backdrop to the town centre.  The River Bistrica flows through the middle of the city, separating the two sides of the old town, which are joined by a multitude of small pedestrian bridges.

To the east of the old town, perched atop a high (and steep) hill, is the historic castle, sometimes referred to as the fortress.  This was our first destination for our afternoon walking tour of Prizren.  The only way to get to the castle is to follow a steep, winding path on foot.  The reward is free entry to the castle and superb views over the city of Prizren.  It is thought that a castle has been on the hill since the 6th century, and the present castle (or what is left of it) was still being used for military purposes until 1912.  A restoration program is underway with a scheduled date of completion in July 2017, but I think it fair to say that everyone there today (all of whom were locals except us) were there either for the views or, in the case of several courting teenagers, the privacy.

Having enjoyed the views and the fresh air, we descended the hill, passing the ruins of the Church of St Saviour that was destroyed in the 2004 riots, arriving at Prizren’s main mosque, the Sinan Pasha Mosque.  Built in 1615, the mosque was known for its murals and, unlike many mosques elsewhere, was very welcoming to non-Muslim visitors.  Di was provided with a headscarf, and we even invited to take photos freely inside.  Amazingly, Di was even invited to sit in the Imam’s chair, and separately, to sit with an open copy of the Qu’ran.  I can’t recall being made to feel so welcome in a mosque (and unlike Di, I have visited quite a few around the world).

We made our way across the river to see some of the other recommended sights of Prizren — the minaret of the Arasta Mosque (which is all that’s left of the mosque), the exterior of the Xhamia e Saraçhanes Mosque (built in 1531), the courtyard of the 350 year old Halveti Tekke (used by the tarikat, a dervish order of mystical Islam), and the exterior of the Gazi Mehmet Pasha Hamman (an unusual complex of Turkish baths attached to a mosque).

Although interesting, none of these sights was especially breathtaking, so we re-crossed the river to explore St George’s Cathedral, the Serbian Orthodox cathedral that was badly damaged in the 2004 riots but has now been restored, and the exterior of St Saviour’s Catholic Cathedral, also damaged in the 2004 riots but now restored — and unfortunately firmly locked.

With all the walking, it was time for a much-needed coffee in a small riverside open-air café.  It proved to be a lovely aperitif for our dinner of traditional food at the Besimi-Beska, a place known for its quirky ornaments and live ducks wandering around, as well as (fortunately) its excellent, cheap food.  We found its reputation to be well founded on every one of these criteria.

Day 4 - Shkodër to Prizren, Kosovo

Thursday 2 June 2016