A Short Trip to Kosovo and Macedonia 2017

Here in Istanbul, after an unseasonable cool, wet spring, we have been immediately plunged into summer.

Other news chez Farber is that I’ve been suffering with pain in my lower back from the sciatic nerve in my left leg. Years ago I had these problems but thought I had overcome them. Naturally, when they recurred recently, I ascribed them to a ruptured disc, as had been the case in the past. Now, I’m not so sure. I had an MRI two days ago and will discuss the results with a doctor soon.

Here in Turkey, doctors’ offices are often located within hospitals. Our former hospital, within walking distance, has closed and our doctors relocated to a new, larger one not too far but beyond an easy walk. This hospital is named for Florence Nightingale, so each time I see it, I’m reminded that it was here in Istanbul during the Crimean War that Nightingale, one of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, raised the level of nursing care, taking the first steps that led to a nursing profession. Nightingale and her assistants performed their work in the Selimye Barracks, not far from where Kay and I live. The barracks contain a small museum dedicated to Nightingale and her work.

Selimye Barracks

Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is an old, old city. For more than 1,000 years it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which after the Great Schism of 1054, became the home of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It might be surprising then to note how few are the examples of Byzantine culture remaining in this great city. I write “might be” until I remember that, first, from 1204 until 1261, Constantinople was occupied by the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade that looted and laid waste to the city with the approval of the city state of Venice, and, second, that after the last Byzantine emperor was defeated and lost the city to the Ottomans in 1453, they made the city their capital for more than 500 years more, converting into mosques the great churches that they didn’t destroy.

Happily, there remain other traces of Byzantine civilization in parts of what had been its far-flung empire and are now theoretically sovereign countries that exist since the end of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. I had a recent opportunity to visit a few  Orthodox monasteries and churches in Macedonia and Kosovo as part of a tour led by Ivana ­­­­­­­­­­­Jevtic, whose knowledge and love for their art and architecture is deep.

In the four days that our group of twenty-two spent with Ivana and a second, local guide named Emma we visited three monasteries, several other non-monastic churches, a museum and a battle-field memorial. We traveled by bus, ate interesting local cuisine, and slept in comfortable lodgings.

I extended the tour at both ends by a day each because I wanted to spend more time in the cities of Prishtina and Skopje than the group’s itinerary included.

Kosovo came into existence as a separate country in 2008, as a result of the settlements that ended the wars of the late 1990s. It had been part of Orthodox Serbia before the war, yet its population is 90 percent Muslim, hence the reason for its separation. I don’t believe that Serbia has recognized its sovereignty, nor have certain other countries.

I had especially wanted to see its capital Prishtina after having read Robert D. Kaplan’s descriptions in his book Balkan Ghosts. An example:

 “The first warning of Prishtina was a jumble of wooden stalls illuminated by sodium lamps, clapped together against prefabricated apartment apartment blocks that appeared to reel like drunks on cratered hillsides. Coal dust filled my nostrils, along with the odors of garbage and mixed cement .  .  . As the bus swept around an uphill curve .  .  . another housing project came into view: a messy jigsaw of brown brick, plate glass, and bathroom tiles employed as outdoor facades.”

Here, Kaplan is writing about the Prishtina of thirty years ago. My first impressions were somewhat different. The taxi that carried me from the airport drove on a newly- built stretch of divided highway; the lobby of the Hotel Nartel, where I would spend my first night, was strikingly beautiful.

Mother Teresa Avenue

Prishtina’s city center is not huge. It is dominated by a wide pedestrian avenue named after the late Mother Theresa, a local celebrity. Near one end is the Kosovo Museum located in a Hapsburg-era building above what looked like an art school.

Kosovo Museum

It consists of a single long room lit by fluorescents and containing a number of glass cases around its walls holding tiny coins and a few archeological artifacts. Enlarged photos of the coins on the walls behind the cases portrayed ancient images and symbols.

Kosovo Museum

On a floor above, there were large photographs of the work of an artist who creates mosaics using staples, coffee beans, and nails.

Walking along Mother Theresa Avenue, I checked out the local architecture, passing a theater that presented musical works. The posters announcing upcoming productions were in the Albanian language and undecipherable by me.

Since I hadn’t eaten anything other than a sandwich on the plane, I went for an early lunch at a place called Mery’s Food and Coffee. My beef shish kabobs with onions, sweet peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes were good enough, and I did justice to them.

As I looked out of the restaurant at the passers by, I realized that although I was in a predominantly Muslim country, almost none of the women were covered and that I had not heard a single call to prayer. I tried to share that thought with the waiters but, like most of the population I encountered today, they spoke little English. Later in the tour, someone made the same observation and said that the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are mostly non-practicing Muslims.

Continuing my walk, I came to the Grand Hotel Prishtina and was reminded again of what Kaplan had written about it years before:

“The grand Hotel Prishtina, the city’s tallest skyscraper, had five huge stars atop its roof. The elevator reminded me of a graffiti-scarred toilet stall. The lock on my room was broken. Inside, the room smelled of the previous occupant—unfiltered cigarettes and hair tonic. The bile-green carpet had innumerable stains  .   .  . The Yugoslav Communist government had equipped the hotel with three dining halls. Each had an orchestra, a seating capacity of several hundred people, and a similar menu. All three were usually empty. The waiters and the members of the three orchestras sat on lounge chairs, smoking, and became annoyed whenever a customer entered. The hotel’s few guests knew enough to eat their lunches and dinners elsewhere.”

The Grand Hotel Prishtina still is one of tallest buildings in town. High up on the roof, large English letters identify it. Of course, I had to enter to see what had changed since Kaplan’s time. I didn’t expect it to be as bad as he described, yet seemingly it hadn’t improved much. The huge dimly-lit lobby is furnished with worn out sofas and armchairs. Off the lobby, one large restaurant was serving lunch to a few customers. By way of entertainment, a large video screen showed female dancers performing what I can only describe as soft-core porn moves.

National Library

From the end of the pedestrian avenue I continued along a wide, traffic-filled boulevard to reach the National Library, a large, Communist-era building the likes of which I had never seen. Its entire façade of stone and glass is covered (one might say protected) by a metallic, fence-like layer. It’s as though the library wears a sheath of chain mail.

The library’s principal interior feature is an atrium with a circular, particolored, stepped floor decorated on the day of my visit to honor an Albanian writer, the late Anton Pashkut.

All in all, my one day in Prishtina was pleasant. Although the country is obviously poor, its people do not seem downtrodden. City life appeared alive with young people, many of whom are students. I entered several stores where I was greeted and served well. The city’s architecture, though not distinctive, seemed clean and functional. I saw nothing like what Kaplan described as his first impressions.

Kossovo Polje, the “field of the blackbirds,” is close to Prishtina and was our tour’s first stop. It is the site of a great battle on June 15, 1389 in which the Ottoman Turks led by Beyezit I defeated a combined army of Serbs and fighters from neighboring regions. The Ottoman victory would dominate the history of the Balkans for the next 500 years. I had made up my mind that this was a site to see ever since reading about it years ago in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I’m not sure what I expected, but the reality was a bit disappointing.

Kossovo Polje

What we saw on arrival was a monument in the form of a medieval tower built on a knoll over a plain. Around the tower were stone benches set on a kind of patio. Everything had a feeling of neglect. Weeds grew between the stones of the patio and the plaques on cylindrical structures that ornamented the patio had been removed, leaving the holes where they had been attached. The monument had been constructed in 1953 at the height of Tito’s reign.

Grachanica Monastery

More interesting and equally important to Serbia’s history and culture is Grachanica Monastery, built between 1317 and 1321. Its church stands in the middle of a great lawn whose grass was being cut during our visit. The Orthodox church, composed of stone interspersed with courses of brick, is in very good condition. Grachanica is a working monastery for nuns, or what we would call a convent in the U.S.

It’s a shame that photography was forbidden within the church because some of the frescos that completely cover its walls, like an unusual depiction of the Last Judgement, seem to be unique. Ivana knows her Byzantine iconography very well and gave us some in-depth explanations of some of what we saw. She pointed out that the images formed a narrative and were arranged in horizontal bands. The central dome, fifty feet high, contains the image of Jesus Pantocrator, a word of Greek origin that means “ruler of all.” There is much symbolism involved. The church is called a “gift to God.” Ivana believes that churches and temples are “places of encounter between God and man.”

We drove a couple of boring hours on a slow road to the small Kovoso city of Peç, passing by several junk yards and building supply companies. As we drove through Peç, my impressions were of an ugly provincial city. It was after 2 p.m. when we arrived at the Univers Restaurant close to a mountain range known as the Albanian Alps. I saw snow on a couple of peaks.

Lunch, which proceeded slowly, began with a tasty salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, red & white cabbage, potatoes, and green olives. Following, we had a choice of meat or fish, and I chose the latter. It was a whole fish whose white flesh was very tasty. I drank a bottle of Peje beer. Chatting at a table with friends old and new was a pleasure and a relief after the dreary bus ride.

Patriarchate of Peç

Our last visit of the day was to the Patriarchate of Peç (Pecka Patrijarsifa). It is situated in the green and lovely Rugova Canyon. Begun in the 13th century, it has endured and is still an active monastery.

We were fortunate in being allowed to stay long after the normal closing hour of 5 p.m. Ivana used the time to explain and analyze some of the many paintings. What I got most of all was how greatly they affect her. She is passionate about these things.

Earlier, outside the church building, she explained how, when the pagan Slavs were converted to Christianity, the question arose of whether their confession would be Roman Catholic or Orthodox. It was settled when Orthodox monks Cyril and Methodious created the Cyrillic alphabet and gave the Slavic people the ability to read Orthodox texts in their own language.

Church at Visoki Decani

Whereas at the first two monasteries our visit was merely tolerated, at Kosovo’s Visoki Decani we were warmly welcomed. We spent many minutes studying and admiring its pretty church, an unusual combination of western and Byzantine architecture that looks to have the shape of a basilica. Its western wall and entrance are decorated with carved animals and floral symbols. Under the eves of the roofs there are rows of small blind arches, each one containing a small human head. The only exterior Byzantine feature is a large dome.

In the Church at Visoki Decani

Inside, the western influence ends. The walls, ceiling, and dome of its striking interior are covered with painted scenes, many of them recently cleaned. On one wall a huge image of Christ watches over the human activities. Other images of Christ show him next to the virgin. Over the doorway, so as to be seen by those exiting, is a scene of Mary’s dormition with Christ above her holding her soul in the form of a tiny baby.

As is her custom, Ivana pointed out the different features and gave us the history of the monastery. Stefan Dusan, King of the Serbs in the 14th century, had the church and monastery built to honor himself and serve as his burial place. In the Serbian Orthodox Church, he is a saint. His sarcophagus is raised two feet above the floor, leaving space for people to crawl under it. Tradition has it that, by doing so, one can be healed.

Along with others of our group, I took my turn to crawl under, but my back problem was no better than it had been. Contrary to our experience at the first two monasteries, the senior monk at Visoki Decani invited us to take as many photographs as we liked of the church interior.

Terzi Most: Old Ottoman Bridge

The small city of Prizren is said to be the prettiest in Kosovo. On our way there, we stopped to admire the length of the a 16th century Ottoman bridge over the Drim River.

We ate a fine lunch of meat and salad at the Ambient Restaurant overlooking the Bisirica River that flows fast through the town. After lunch, we were given a couple of hours of free time to explore the town where some kind of youth holiday was in progress. The main streets were clogged with hundreds of teens, some of whom must have traveled quite a way to be there. They were in high spirits and made us feel good.

After Prizren, it was a long drive across the Kosovo border to the Macedonian capital of Skopje. When we finally arrived at the Alexandar Square Hotel in the center of the city it was almost 10 p.m., too late for dinner but not too late for a drink in the bar that I partook of along with Belma, my friend and Istanbul neighbor.

Skopje: Vardar River

I was not a total stranger to this ancient city on the Vardar River. Kay and I spent a few hours there on a road trip ten years ago. On this occasion, I found the city transformed.

Skopje: Macedonian Square

The big difference is the plethora of statues in the central city that New York Times travel writer Alex Crevar calls “Europe’s new capital of kitsch.” The statue building came about as part of an urban renewal project undertaken to attract tourism, and one might say that those in charge over did it.


Alexander the Great

The most prominent example is an enormous sword-thrusting, equestrian depiction of Alexander the Great set atop an oversize column arising from an elaborate fountain at its base. This ensemble stands at the entrance to Skopje’s Macedonian Square that is decorated with at least half a dozen other statues.

Macedonian Square

Statues aside, the giant square beside the river and connected to the far side by a historic stone bridge is a beautiful urban space that I enjoyed walking across and photographing.

Carsija Main Street

Crossing the bridge on foot led me to another, smaller square with, yes, more statuary, but also to the city’s oldest quarter known as the Carsija, or market. I continued along its main street, noting store after store selling jewelry. Stopping in one, I bought Kay a pretty filigree butterfly pin, silver filigree being a national specialty, and the butterfly a popular motif.

My walk led to an enormous section where a hodgepodge of small shops sell a wide range of products both practical and fanciful. A covered bazaar houses the Carsija’s food stalls with eye-popping displays of fresh produce better than I can find in Istanbul. In my travels, I try not to miss markets like this, Skopje’s is wonderful and is said to be one of the largest in Europe.

Bitola Museum

From Skopje, our tour headed south, stopping in the provincial city of Bitola where we took in a museum that had once been the military school attended by the young Mustafa Kemal, who, later as a general, created the Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and would be forever after known as Atatürk.

Half of the museum is a memorial to its most famous student. There is even a statue of him, dressed as a cadet and carrying a schoolbook in his hand.

We spent the last night of the tour and the following morning in the pretty lakeside city of Ohrid. Ivana told us that the word “ohrid” has Slavic roots, meaning “on the rock.” We know that in ancient times there was a fortified Hellenistic town on top of the town’s high hill. Later, the Romans added to it, and in early Christian times, it was incorporated into the Eastern Roman Empire. St Paul may have visited.

During the Middle Ages, except for a time when it was conquered and ruled by the Bulgarians, Ohrid was an important cultural center of the Byzantine Empire. It was connected to Constantinople by the Via Egnatia, and it was an episcopal city and most likely the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet.

St John Kaneo

Today, its most important monuments are the medieval churches of Hagia Sophia, the Mother of God Peribleptos, and that of St John Kaneo, an architectural gem on a promontory on the shore of Lake Ohrid. We looked at all three churches before returning by boat along the shore to a lakeside restaurant to enjoy a final meal together.

This is a long post for a short trip. Although I’m no scholar of religious subjects, I am interested in the architecture and iconography of churches. They are often the most varied and conspicuous testaments of a country’s history. Without them the world’s cities would be far less beautiful and interesting.