This is the jewel in the crown of Kosovo and a 'must-see' for any visitor. Of all the towns in Kosovo, Prizren has best preserved its Ottoman flair. It is famous for its high number of preserved Ottoman buildings with their upper storeys jutting out into the narrow cobbled streets. It has not just retained the architecture from the Ottoman era but also many other flavours of its once rich past. Turkish, alongside Albanian and Serbian, is the third official language, and to this day Turkish is widely spoken in Prizren homes. It is also here that you can get the best Turkish food and baklava (a honey-sweetened nut pastry) in all of Kosovo.
As a trading town on a crossroads, Prizren had always been home to Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox communities. For centuries, Prizren was Kosovo's most important Ottoman administrative and commercial center. In the 16th century Prizren boasted eight mosques, a madrasa, several elementary schools, a hammam and a beautifully carved stone bridge. There was a strong tradition of crafts, in particular tanners, armourers (with guns exported as far afield as Egypt) metalworkers and filigree. In 1865, it was the center of an Ottoman Vilayet stretching from Elbasan in modern-day Albania to Gostivar in Macedonia and Nis in the south of Serbia. In 1875, a first dual-language Serbian-Turkish newspaper known as Prizren was printed here. Formed around a group of leading intellectuals and wealthy landowners, Prizren became the home of the very first national Albanian movement in centuries – the League of Prizren. The League of Prizren museum is certainly one Prizren's many highlights. Other highlights include the elegant Sinan Pasha mosque, Prizren's symbol, the stone-arched bridge dating back to the 16th century, and the restored Gazi Mehmet Pasha Turkish bath. For a fabulous view of Prizren, the Pasthrik Mountains and the Zhupa valley, follow the path that winds its way up to the Castle atop the hill.
A good starting point to explore Prizren on foot is the Gazi Mehmet Pasha Hammam. These Turkish baths were built in1573 by Gazi Mehmet Pasha at the same time as the mosque nearby (which also included a madrasa). The baths consisted of separate male and female areas. Each part had a rest room, bath steam rooms and water heating room. The hammam operated fully until 1926 when the female area was closed. It was then closed completely in 1944 from when it served as a storage and sales area for the agricultural cooperative. Conservation works were carried out when Prizren had a cultural revival in 1968; however, it fell into disrepair again and was used partly as a market. It was renovated once more after the war and is now used as an art gallery or venue for artistic functions. It is worth trying to get inside as the rooms, while not quite as well preserved as the Skopje Old Town hammams, still give you a feel for how the baths once were.
Gazi Mehmet Pasha or Bajrakli mosque forms part of the Complex of the League of Prizren. Bajrakli mosque dates from 1566 and is possibly the most beautiful mosque in Prizren (on a par with Gjakova's Hadum Mosque) with ornate wood work and detailed blue-and-white paintings.
The League of Prizren Museum is a complex of buildings on the riverbank reconstructed in late 1999 after being burnt down in March 1999 by Serbian forces. Unlike many reconstructions, however, it has been done well and is well worth a visit. Look out for special events in 2008 which will be the 130th anniversary of the League. There are two buildings either side of the courtyard – the main entrance building and then the smaller two-storey one facing the road. The smaller one contains a map of greater Albania but perhaps most interestingly for the English-speaking visitors upstairs in a glass cabinet are copies of letters during the era in English, including some from the foreign office adviser Earl Fritzmaurice to the Earl of Granville commenting on the League, the inhabitants of the area and their religion. In the larger, main building downstairs are traditional Albanian costumes and upstairs are photos of places associated with the League and the Albanian lands at the time, including photos of Tivar (present-day Bar in Montenegro), Shkodra in Albania, Plav in present-day Montenegro as well as photos of embassies in Turkey which were closely associated with émigrés from Nis and the lobbying which was carried out for the Albanian cause. At the far end upstairs amongst ceramic plates of Albanian heroes is a rug which has sewn into it the different types of wool hats of the Albanians – the conical shape for the north and Kosovo and the more rounded one of southern Albania.
From the League Museum you can cross the river and walk upstreams to Maksut Pasha Mosque, dating from 1833, or continue back downstream along the river towards the stone bridge and cobbled Shadervan (fountain) square. The 16th century stone-arched bridge is a well-known symbol of Prizen. In 1979, the swirling storm waters destroyed the bridge and it was painstakingly renovated stone by stone in 1982.
Sinan Pasha Mosque, just across the bridge, is regarded as Prizren's main mosque. It takes its name from its founder Sinan Pasha, who built this impressive mosque in 1615. The ruler had the prefix 'Sofi' added to his name in recognition of his wisdom. He had traveled widely, defeating Yemen and being awarded a position in Budapest. The prevailing view is that the mosque was more likely a unique design than a copy of others. The Serbian story is that the mosque was built using stones from the Monastery of Archangels further up the river. Other historians dispute this view based on an analysis done by Italian archeologists in 1941. More controversy arises from the destruction of the mosque by Ivan Vangelov in 1919 when allegedly stones were thrown in the river. This act of destruction inspired the well-known Albanian poet Ymer Pacari to write the poem 'Xhaliet' or 'Vandals'. Apparently Ivan Vangelov was killed in revenge. The murals date from about 1628; the porch is a later replacement. Make sure you take time to go inside and then note the stonework on the base and top of the pillars.
Shadervan square is still the centre of life in Prizren and fortunately the 1960s' eyesore block in front of the river will be destroyed soon to make way for a park, opening up the view to the river. There are still a few old houses from the late 19th century surrounding the square. There is a proverb 'he who drinks water from the fountain will find it hard to leave Prizren'. If you don't fancy sampling the water you can try boza, a traditional semi-alcoholic Turkish corn drink.
Continue up the hill towards St. George Cathedral. Construction of this Serb Orthodox cathedral began in 1856 and was completed in 1887, funded by Serbian merchants in Prizren. The interior of the church was richly decorated and designed with ashlar in different colours, polished onyx, marble panes and fresco paintings by a painter from Debar. A wooden bell tower was erected in 1903. There were old books and many icons gathered from other churches ruined in 1999. Sadly, these were all lost when in the March riots in 2004, the church was first looted and burnt and then aggressive graffiti was put on the walls. The church is now being restored by the Kosovo Government Restoration Programme.
If you are feeling energetic turn back and follow the path up the hill to the Prizren castle. From the Castle/Kalaja you get a fabulous view of both Prizren and out to the Pashtrik Mountains and Albania on one side and if you make your way to the back of the castle the view opens up towards Prevalac Mountain and the Lumbardhi River and Zhupa Valley, with the old, Dusangrad upper castle along the riverside. In the past the castle also housed a prison. Its most famous prisoner was Abdyl Frasheri, a leading politician and member of the League of Prizren.
For more historic details on Prizren's many highlights, including the 350 years old Halveti Tekke, the Ottoman-era homes of Sheh Hasan's and Ymer Prizreni, the 'saddlers' mosque' (Xhamia e Sarachanes) or the 19th century Emin Pasha and Maksut Pasha mosques, the Catholic Cathedral and Serb Orthodox churches like Hrista Spasitelja (St. Saviour) and Levisja (St. Petka), see the Bradt Travel guide on 'Kosovo'.
Isniq has always been one of the largest villages in Kosovo with some 6,000 inhabitants. It has a picturesque setting on the fertile Dukagjini Plain at the foot of the Accursed Mountains on the left of the Decani White Drin River. The area is famous for its chestnut trees and the medical plants that grow in the alpine mountains with peaks as high as 2,656m. Isniq is also home to two of the most interesting examples of traditional Albanian kullas (fortified stone houses) that can be visited today. One of them is the Osdautaj kulla, inhabitated for almost 220 years. A steep flight of stairs takes you to the top floor, where you can visit the traditional oda e burrave, the men's guest room. According to tradition, this floor was the exclusive preserve of male members of the family and their male guests. The oda e burrave is where key decisions affecting the family of the village wer taken in elaborate rituals over several cups of Turkish coffee. The oda e burrave in the Osdautaj kulla is really a beautiful example of its kind. T its centerpiece is the open chimney. It provided for warmth and the fire was used to make coffee and light cigarettes. The seat immediately to the left of the chimney was reserved for the male elders of the household. The closer you sat by the warm fire the higher your social rank. The cushion placed in front of the fire, known as seqate, and the woolen carpets stretched on the floors, were gifts from the new brides who married into the family. The Ethnological museum on the ground floor displays decorated bridal chests, wedding dresses and traditiona instruments used to make the typical Albanian hats (plis) and flija, Kosovo's national dish.
Decan is most famous for the Visoki Decani Monastery set in the forests of the Decan Canyon. Its really a masterpiece of Orthodox monastic art, a fusion of styles and maybe the most peaceful and impressive monument in Kosovo today. Like no other monument, it captures the richness and beauty of Kosovo's cultural heritage. Venerated and protected by all communities, Muslim and Christian alike, it survived centuries of wars and conflicts. Construction of the Decani church started in Stefan Uros' reign in 1327 under the guidance of the architectural mastermind Fra Vita, a Franciscan monk from Kotor, in present-day Montenegro. In 1335, King Dusan entrusted the exceptionally gifted Archbishop Danilo II with the supervision of the works. The completion of the fresco paintings lasted until 1350. They are attributed to a Greek school of painters assembled at King Dusan's court, who painted in Orthodox and Catholic churches along the coast. Throughout the major part of the Ottoman era, the monastery enjoyed the sultan's persona protection, as confirmed by several charters issued by successive sultans extending special privileges to the monastic community and their estates. Thanks to this privileged position, the monastery continued to prosper in the Ottoman period.
Kosovo. Gail Warrander & Verena Knaus. 2007.
[ / Bradt Guides]
Gail Warrander & Verena Knaus