Sunday, July 02, 2017

Walking into Kosovo

Driving to Skopje, Friday evening...

The sun was going down as we got into Skopje. I was texting with our Airbnb contact and we made it to the right place. Except we couldn't find exactly where the apartment was located for awhile, but finally we found Goce and he showed us around. Probably the nicest place we stayed and for pretty cheap. We were starving and hit up the mall across the street for a late night bite. Good ole American style burgers.

Then groceries. Anthony stocked up on weird fruit juices.

I got wafers, per my usual Euro cravings.

Our nice apartment.

And the flashy mall across the street.

We got a good night's sleep and decided on our game plan for the weekend. We'd heard that Skopje could mostly be done in a couple hours, so we'd planned to use the time to visit Kosovo. We weren't allowed to take our rental car into Kosovo (they're pretty strict at these borders on checking insurance cards and titles), so we'd have to take the bus. We wanted to go to Prizren in Kosovo and not the capital, but there weren't too many bus options.

We tried out the bus station on Saturday morning, expecting a 9am bus that day, but it wasn't running, probably due to Easter weekend holiday. We debated what to do - try again tomorrow, find a tour company to take us, but a guy asked if we needed a taxi and he said he'd take us to Prizren, about two hours away.

That wasn't exactly true, since once we started driving he said that he didn't have the right paperwork to enter Kosovo either, but he called his friend to meet us at the border and drive us the rest of the way. Taxi man dropped us at the border, we got in line with the cars and walked to the booth to exit Macedonia, walked a quarter of a mile between the countries, and then entered Kosovo and walked into it feeling like champions.

Now to find the man our first taxi had called. Except he was nowhere to be found in the small cluster of drivers waiting, so we just got in a Mercedes with someone else and he drove us.

Our driver pulled over at the ski resort of Prevalla so we could get a look and he could get a cup of coffee. We chatted for a bit, mostly using my Google translate app cause I wasn't about to try and remember any Albanian that I had learned last time I was in the area. I figured out our driver was married and has three kids - two girls and a boy, and he's from the border town where he'd picked us up.

Ninety minutes later or so we arrived in Prizren. And we fell in love at first sight. I'd looked up a hostel online the night before, so we set out to find it. Driza's House is great - we got a private room with bunkbeds and they pointed us to some great food.

Prizren is a lovely city with many preserved Ottoman buildings and a lot of Turkish influence in food and language.

Lunch at Te Syla - good and cheap. Gotta order the cheese filled stuff.

We spent the rest of the day walking around the city.

One of the few churches.

Sinan Pasha Mosque, it's the main mosque in the city (though there are many) and it was built in 1615.

There was a bit of a rainstorm that afternoon, so we used the time to take a nap, then headed out on an early evening hike up to the fortress to watch the sunset. And I forgot my hair was a little purple on the bottom.

Anthony saw some caves above us across the way, so he scampered up the mountainside.

I hung out by the river while he did that.

We couldn't really find the right trail to the fortress, so we just walked through the trees until a path emerged.

This castle may have been here as early as the 6th century. It was used up until 1912.

The sunset was just beautiful. And up here at the top we met two guys from Prizren, who didn't know each other, plus an Indian guy who's currently living in Sofia and was here on holiday. The five of us talked for a good hour, really cool. One of the local guys had spent a few weeks hanging out with the Mormon missionaries when they were in town (they've since been pulled out of the area). We had some good chats about religion.

We all walked down the hill together and then parted ways so we could grab food. We tried a new kebap place and ordered way too much food. We shared with the cats.

Then some tea at a cafe before bed.  It was nice to just sit and watch people.
We filled our water bottles - there are fresh springs everywhere. And some poor homeless kids managed by the mafia were performing on that pile of rocks for money.
Sunday morning - trying to get to church on Easter Sunday in Gjakova. The first bus around 830am didn't run, so we had to wait for a 9am one. We waited impatiently at the bus station to get up and go.  It got us into town right at the nick of time, and the bus driver was a little confused when we had him drop us off at the start of the town (close to church) rather than take us to the bus station in Gjakova. We definitely looked out of place. 

Once we hopped off the bus in Gjakova, we still had several blocks to walk. It was right before 10am, and I was hoping the the map on the church app was correct, and that our blue location dot was actually moving us to the right spot. As we approached where it should've been, sure enough - I saw the familiar font and name styling and knew we'd found it.

Church was really nice. A small crowd, but they had a nice Easter service. They showed a new church video on Jesus, in Albanian, and the missionaries did a few musical numbers and talks, along with a couple local members. Really nice sacrament meeting. The branch president and his wife invited us for lunch after, but we had to keep going to make the Decani Monastery. However, they did take us to the bus station.

No bus was running up to Decan, but a cab driver took us on the 20 minute drive for about 10 bucks. The monastery was founded in the early 14th century by a Serbian king, and is under the legal protection of Serbia. Serbia doesn't recognize Kosovo as a country, so there's definitely some tension. The monastery is protected by NATO troops - currently a bunch of Italians. We had to pass a couple military checkpoints on the road to the monastery, and the troops kind of indicated that our cab driver should wait for us and drive us back down. That didn't happen, which is fine, since we didn't want to pay for that. Blame it on the plethora of languages trying to figure that out.

The Italians took our passports, searched our bags and made us check them, then one of them ushered us into the grounds and called Father Peter over to show us around. The monastery held several refugees during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s and has seen fighting and attacks, just outside its doors. It amazing it's still standing, and it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The frescoes are just beautiful.
There weren't many people around the grounds that day (not too many Christians in Kosovo), so we kinda had the place to ourselves. We'd missed the morning service, but the monks said they'd do an evening service with chanting and incense, which would've been so cool to see. Wish we'd been able to stay longer.

Since it was Easter, some of the living quarters area were open to the public. We were invited to sit up on the outdoor balcony and have some tea and cookies.

Then it was time to go. Since our cab driver had left us, we had to walk a few miles back into the town. These fields have seen war, right here.

Fresh spring water kept us hydrated on the walk.

We were pretty hungry by this point. Found an open little bakery and got Anthony's favorite - a large roll with a hot dog inside. At this point we were looking for the bus station, but with a non functioning phone, we walked the wrong way a couple times.

War memorials.

We never found the bus station, but alas some police officers told us to wait near them and they'd flag down a bus. We didn't quite know where we were headed either. We had to check out of our Skopje apartment the next morning, but we didn't really have a way to connect via bus back there, since there's only a couple that leave in the morning from Prizren. It was late in the day, and on a long weekend. We could try and get to the capital, which has a bus every hour to Skopje, but we'd likely cut it very close to getting the last one of the day.

We waited and waited for a bus, but none came. We started chatting with another guy, Taulant, whose family owned the restaurant that we were standing in front of. He called a friend who drives a taxi, and he took us back to Gjakova. From there we got lucky at the bus station and caught the last bus for the night back to Prizren. We headed back to our hostel and got another room for the night, then planned to take the 530am bus on Monday morning, back to Skopje.

Glad to be back in Prizren Sunday evening, we took our final stroll through the town and got some dinner.

This is the new hip restaurant in Prizren.

I needed dessert and we needed to use up the last of our Euros.

5am comes early. 

Back to Macedonia. Kosovo, we loved you! Hope to be back soon.

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