My ‘fast & furious’ Western Balkans Trip – 3 Countries in 6 Days (Part 6)
Day Six: Macedonia – Kosovo – Albania – Montenegro (Ohrid – Skopje – Prizren – Tivat)
In retrospect, this turned out to be a tough day – with long drives and three border crossings, but this is what I had requested – to see as much of the area as possible before continuing with my trip north through Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia.
Leaving Ohrid bright and early, we drove north and to Skopje – Macedonia’s capital city. As part of a massive project called ‘Skopje 2014’, the government of this small country wedged between Greece and Bulgaria has heavily invested in the construction of monuments and new administrative buildings in an effort to give the city a more imposing and historic look.
We first stopped at the Kale fortress overlooking the city center and the Vardar River. Believed to be built by the Byzantines in the 6th century over the remains of an even older fortification, the Kale was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1963 which also destroyed most of the surrounding neighborhoods. The ‘medieval’ walls and towers seemed to have been erected only recently, which was evident from the new cement walkways and the pile of freshly cut stone blocks in one of the corners.
We then walked downhill from the fortress and through the Carsija (Old Bazaar) neighborhood with its narrow cobblestone streets and small shops and cafes. This was the commercial center of the city during the Ottoman period and there are still a few examples of architecture from the period – mosques, caravanserais, and Turkish bathhouses in this area.
Crossing the pedestrian Stone Bridge over the Vardar River, we stepped into Macedonia Square and this is when I began to fully grasp the scale of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project.
We were greeted by an array of monuments depicting historical figures – from Philip of Macedon, to Cyril and Methodius, to the Bulgarian Tsar Samuil who ruled over these areas in the early 11th century. The most grandiose of all was the statue of a horseman on a tall ornate pedestal in the center of a fountain depicting Alexander the Great which, I was told, gets illuminated at night.
Looking back across the Vardar River and toward the new Archaeological Museum, dozens of bronze statues of Macedonian cultural figures lined the (also) newly-constructed Art Bridge.
Even when considering the government’s desire to reclaim Macedonia’s national pride and identity after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, Skopje’s newly-built center felt somewhat kitschy and cheap despite the hundreds of millions of Euro supposedly invested in this massive undertaking. Also, as far as I am concerned, the capitals of the ancient Hellenistic kingdom of Macedon were in Vergina and Pella which are in present-day Greece and have little if any connection to Skopje.
After a short stroll along Macedonia Street and past the memorial house of Mother Theresa (who was born in Skopje in an Albanian family), we stopped at a pleasant street café under the shady trees for a quick break before continuing north and into Kosovo. The drive through the rural countryside and the Sar Mountain was pleasant and the border crossing trouble-free.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but is still not fully recognized. In 1389, the historic battle of Kosovo Pole between the invading Ottoman army of Sultan Murat and the joint armies of several local rulers led by the Serbian Prince Lazar took place not far away from the capital city of Pristina. The battle was fierce and both Murad and Lazar lost their lives, but the Ottomans prevailed and continued their expansion into the Balkans. The heroic Battle of Kosovo Pole is a key element in Serbian history and national identity and this is probably one of the reasons they are reluctant to recognize Kosovo’s full independence.
Some 3 hours later, we arrived in Prizren – Kosovo’s second-largest city. Throughout its long history, it was ruled by Byzantines, Bulgarians, Serbians, and Ottomans, and nowadays most of his population is ethnic Albanian.
We took a walk around the Old Town which was pretty with its hilltop fortress, the river trickling through, and the stone bridge connecting both banks. The place was abuzz with locals – young families pushing strollers, groups of teenagers taking selfies and filling sidewalk cafes, and elderly men sitting in the sun or playing backgammon.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in one of the main squares and it too was full with hardly any tables available. Everyone around looked so jolly and happy that we asked our waiter whether the day was some sort of national holiday, but he just shrugged it off saying that it was simply Sunday. Lunch was great – fresh salad, grilled meats, and roasted peppers with a bottle of local Cabernet.
What followed was a long 5+ hours’ drive to Tivat in Montenegro. We first crossed the border back into Albania and continued west to the Lake Shkoder where, already after dark, made a quick stop for coffee at a roadside restaurant right on the shore before continuing north into Montenegro and my hotel for the night – the Regent Porto Montenegro.