Advantages More representative of Kosovo than Prishtina; a lovely Ottoman town; excellent Albanian food
Disadvantages Few people likely to get there; poor choice of accommodation in centre
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
Once again, apologies for the inaccuracy of Ciao's description of Prizren. It really is in Kosovo, and not Serbia.Until I came to do some research for my trip to Kosovo in September 2010, Prizren was just a name to me. I vaguely recalled it being in the news when the country was engaged in its difficult struggle for independence from Serbia, but other than that I knew nothing.
Any tourist literature, or any person who has ever been to Kosovo, will tell recommend a visit to Prizren. It's in the south of the country about an hour and a half to two hours bus trip from Prishtina, the capital, depending on the level of traffic which can be very heavy at times, and hardly helped by the poor roads. Alternatively, if you happen to be in northern Macedonia, Prizren would make an interesting and easy day trip, and, if truth be told, is a more appealing prospect as an introduction to Kosovo than Prishtina.There are a couple of reasons that visitors head for Prizren in particular. One is that it has more to offer tourists in terms of a recognisable Old Town; much of Pristhina's Ottoman past has been obliterated, partly under Tito's socialist regime when it was wanted to present the city as modern metropolis, not one with ties to an Ottoman past, and partly due to damage incurred as Kosovo won her independence from Serbia. That's not to say that Prizren is some stunning little jewel in Kosovo's crown; indeed, many important buildings in the city are in poor condition and while a lot of EU money is being used to restore them, there is still much to be done. In the meantime, though, there's enough there to comfortably occupy day trippers. Another reason that Prizren attracts visitors is that it is unofficially Kosovo's cultural capital, playing host every summer to a handful of festivals. As most tourists come to Kosovo in summer, there's a fair chance you'll catch one of them.
There are regular buses from Prishtina's main bus station to Prizren with the last buses returning to Prizren around 7.00pm. The first half of the route is a decent dual carriageway lined with newly built car showrooms, motels, furniture stores, fast food joints, petrol stations and building supplies centres. There might be a lot of vehicles on the road but you have to wonder whether there's a need for so many motel rooms. The roads then become less good and climbs and climbs until the whole of southern Kosovo is stretched out before you.Arriving in Prizren is confirmation that you are heading south. In many respects I found it very like a Turkish town (in fact Turkish is a third official language after Albanian and Serbian), although there are the distinctive domes of the shells of Orthodox churches standing alongside the minarets of the mosques. Except for a clutch of international stores selling designer sunglasses and leisurewear few can probably afford, most retail business is carried out in the street, with shopkeepers displaying most of their wares on the pavement in front of their shop rather than inside. In this part of the world people are much more likely to meet outside the home rather than have friends round for a beer or a coffee so there are lots of cafes, most of them with outdoor seating. Prizren is the main centre for a fair sized region so there are lots of school children, students, workers and shoppers around all day long. There aren't enough schools to meet demand so the day is divided into three shifts, which explains why there are usually children of school age around in town when you would expect them to be in class. Few people have internet access so there are always business people meeting to look at documents, or workers taking documents to be copied or just delivered to offices around the city.
Life is centred around the Shadervan district where there are several cafes and restaurants clustered around the square. Lots of people were drinking from an old water fountain in the centre of the square and it's said that if you drink from the fountain you'll come back to Prizren: as I liked Prizren a whole lot more than Prishtina, I had a sip too. You can take a horse and cart ride around the town starting here; all day long Kadri Palla and his horse Rubin wait in the hope of finding some passengers to take on a tour of Prizren in their antique carriage. At Euro5 for thirty minutes it won't break the bank but you'll miss a lot of the little nooks and crannies of Prizren that can only be found by exploring on foot.If you've come by bus then the Shadervan district is on the right hand side of the modest Prizren Bistrica river which divides the town. Several foot and road bridges link the two sides, most notably "the Old Stone Bridge" which dates from the seventeenth century. If you keep following the river you'll arrive in Shadervan in no time at all but you should really veer off into the side streets as they do contain a number of old Ottoman houses - some restored, some being restored and some in a severe state of dilapidation - which are worth seeing.
Don't worry if you have a feeling you may be lost; the Sinan Pasha mosque dominates the Prizren skyline and is always a useful landmark to aim for to get your bearings again. There are in fact twenty-six mosques in Prizren and a good number date from the Ottoman period; many of them are currently under restoration and the Turkish government have contributed a great deal of money towards the cost of these projects. You can go into any of the mosques but they tend to be locked up after prayers so you need to go just as prayers are ending and you should find that you can go in. The Gazi Mehmet Pasha's Mosque is especially handsome and sits in wonderful gardens which are a good place to have a rest from pounding Prizren's pavements.This mosque is a stone's throw from the "League of Prizren Museum" which is a must-see when visiting the city as it is a vital part of Kosovo's history. The original buildings were moved twice before the complex as you see it today became settled; in the 1960s, like so many important old buildings in Kosovo, the buildings were moved to make the space for a new road, and in the 1990s Serbian forces all but demolished the monuments.
In the late nineteenth century a group of intellectuals from Kosovo and Macedonia started to meet to plan the struggle against the Ottoman empire; their resistance was intended to be not only political and military but also cultural and their aim was to appeal to the Berlin Congress to attain autonomy for an Albanian state. Almost none of the captions in the museum were in English but we were still able to appreciate a collection of paintings of patriots in national dress as well as a comprehensive exhibition of old photographs of Prizren and other towns in Kosovo.We walked round to the "Kaderi the Kurila Tekke" (a 'tekke' being the Albanian word for the place where members of the Sufi order meet) but really wished we'd visited on a Friday afternoon as this is the only day where there is a public 'ziker' - better known to most people as the ceremony of the 'whirling dervishes', the name given to the devotional dance performed by Sufis (visitors to Istanbul may have attended a ziker). There are three tekkes in Prizren and like the others, this one has a small exhibition in which the traditional robes and ceremonial weapons are displayed.
Passing through an old residential district, we started to make our way to the "kale" or fortress, just a ruin these days but worth the hike (the path climbs a steep 500metres) as you will be rewarded with tremendous views over the town in one direction and over the Pashtrik mountain, and beyond it Albania, in the other. Sadly on the way up to the ruins you have to pass a number of ruined houses that formerly belonged to Serbs who were driven out of the city in 1999 when Albanians returned after the 1998/9 war; also on the way up, a handsome Orthodox church which looked to be in the process of restoration, inaccessible due to some serious metal fencing and many hefty padlocks.On a hot September day we plodded up the stone steps, pausing now and then to watch tiny lizards basking in the sun, and to take in the constantly changing view. At the top we were grateful for a tap which had been installed for the workmen who were busying bolstering the crumbling fortifications. Without the advantage of a local historian a hike to the summit is really just about the views. There are plenty of hidden corners to explore but I would advise caution as many of them have been utilised as public conveniences, perhaps by walkers, perhaps by courting couples. It's though that there has been a fortress of in some form on this location since the 6th century. The heyday of the fortress was the Ottoman period when a whole town existed within its walls and military used the site as recently as 1912; sadly, today there is only rubble and a few minor stone walls.
It's perfectly possible to get a flavour of Prizren in a day, or even a half day if you don't stop at any museums, but there are a number of interesting sites outside of the city that I would aim to see if I visited again (fairly likely when I go to Macedonia as the Macedonian capital, Skopje is just an hour away). Cafe culture is an important part of Prizren life so you should leave enough time to sample the delights of at least a couple. While its possible to enjoy a beer, and many of the cafes that line the riverbank become very lively after dark, you may feel self conscious if you do because almost everyone else is drinking coffee; the staff won't bat an eye if you order a Peja (the main beer of Kosovo) but you'll likely notice you're the only one drinking beer (contrast that with neighbouring Serbia where a beer is de rigueur at any time of the day or night).If you do decide to spend longer in Prizren (and after any time in soulless Prishtina I would expect that many backpackers at least would find Prizren a lazy, laidback delight) there is a limited range of accommodation available in the centre but more options if you are prepared to stay slightly out of town where there are many brand new hotels where interior designers have excelled themselves in putting together the most lavish displays of kitsch. There are plenty of places in Prizren to eat out but the majority serve local cuisine, unlike those in Prishtina which offer a wider range of international cuisines. Vegetarians will not starve but will find their options more limited as this is meat country and the Albanian 'qebaptore' (literally a place serving kebabs) are ubiquitous. In summer fish eaters should head to "Mullini i Pintollit", a reconstructed watermill in the quaint Marash district where they serve excellent trout. If you're only staying a short time in Prizren you should make a point of sampling one of the local sweet delicacies. You may well be familiar with baklava which is also found in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, but there are other local sweets such as 'ekler' (I'm guessing the name is derived from 'eclair') which are stuffed with rich vanilla cream, and 'revani' which is a delicious moist cake made using sugar water. The "Royal Arabian" which overlooks the river is my pick of the pastry shops.
If you like Ottoman towns (and I love them!) and happen to be in Kosovo, then you must make time to see Prizren. It would be a terrible shame to visit Kosovo and only see Prishtina, as is the case for many business people (and for those people I would advise extending your stay in order to see somewhere considerably more "Kosovan" and scenic). There may not be a heck of a lot in terms of "attractions" but the pace of life and the charming buildings make Prizren a welcome change from Prishtina. One of my biggest thrills was to see elderly men wearing the "plis", a traditional hat - it's made only of white felt and is a slightly conical (bit with a rounded peak) brimless hat - that you'll only see being worn in Albania and Kosovo. If you ask someone who speaks English they'll direct you to one of a couple of small workshops where these hats are still handmade today. The plis used to be known as the "liberty hat" because those Albanians who wore it refused to be subjugated in slavery and seeing people wearing them still today is a reminder of the struggle for Kosovan independence. Prishtina may be the gleaming international face of Kosovo but to see what the country is really like you do need to see somewhere like Prizren.Granted it's not the easiest place to get to but a trip to Prizren is essential for anyone spending time in this part of the Balkans.
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