Chasing monasteries and missing buses

Trip Start Apr 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Flag of Serbia and Montenegro  ,
Saturday, July 7, 2007

It's day two in Kosovo for me, thus I chose to spend it on a daytrip out of Prishtina. Contrary to expectations, it's been a rather tiring day, although in reality that's largely of my own doing. Peja itself isn't a tremendous distance away - the morning bus just took an hour and a half - but it was the little things in between that added up. I got up and out a little late - blame the quiet, comfy room (and poor previous night's sleep in Skopje) - so that didn't help things either. But it was the grand finale that left me feeling waxed . . . I'll get to that in a bit.

Peja sits towards the far western corner of Kosovo, not too far from the Montenegrin frontier. You can actually see it approaching in the distance as you drive in - the town is literally crammed up against a wall of mountains that appear to suddenly leap out of the rolling plains. The town got pummeled by the Serbs in 1999 and still hasn't completely recovered, but it's still a significant improvement on Prishtina visually. Most of the townscape is fairly modern, but there's a buzzing bazaar right smack in the center and a number of picturesque mosques are dotted throughout. Overall, it's a great place to spend a day away from Prishtina's ugliness.

The people are certainly friendly - I had two or three people come up and start talking to me, asking where I was from, what I was doing, etc. within a half-hour of arriving. After seeing some of the bazaar, I sat down for an early lunch at a nearby cafe, going for the usual standard of salad and qebapi. From there I thought I'd do a little exploring. When you're in a city surrounded by gorgeous hills, you just know there has to be a great view over town someplace. Since I hadn't seen a tourist office anywhere around, I decided to strike out into the residential suburbs towards a likely-looking hillside. I had a few curious kids and bewildered locals look me up and down, but overall it made for a nice, quiet insight into local life. Even better, I found a prime stretch of steep hill that allowed me a great vantage point from which to take in the town. Not bad for a lark!

While I was up there I noticed a large church dominating one outer district across the way. One of the principal sights in the area was the Patrijarsija Monastery - seat of the Serbian Orthodox patriarchy - so I had that marked as a necessary visit. I didn't really have a clue where it was exactly; this church certainly seemed too modern and, well, undisturbed to be the one. Anyways, I thought I'd walk back down and find my way to it. That turned out to be less simple than I expected, as I spent a good half-hour walking through small streets and backtracking in a frustrating attempt to get there. I finally had to go halfway back to the center of town, cross the river and then double back to get there. Sure enough, it wasn't the church I was looking for, but instead a relatively recent Catholic church probably built for a local, Christian Albanian community.

The nice thing was, only a few minutes later, I stumbled upon the tourist office. Quite why they were located on a random suburb along one of the main routes out of town (rather than the center), I don't exactly know. The good thing was that they had a free map available for me and were able to give me directions to the monastery I was looking for. It turned out that I wasn't all that far from it; all I needed to do was go back to the Catholic church and follow the street out about another kilometer to a KFOR checkpoint. So, off I went. This time the procedure was a little more strictly regulated. I had to hand over my passport and wait for them to call down to the post by the monastery entrance, then take a temporary pass to walk down there with. The Italian guys running it were friendly enough (despite knowing next to no English), but obviously there was more potential for problems locally, hence the heightened security protocol.

Patrijarsija Monastery, despite the tensions between local ethnic groups, was a sea of tranquility. Resting at the foot of a gorge at the far end of town, it was a world away from the oriental atmosphere of Peja's bustling market. I didn't get the warmest of receptions from the Serbian man who asked me where I was from - evidently there's still a lot of bitterness against Americans locally - but the magnificent frescoes inside the church were a wonder to behold. The grounds themselves are dominated by charmingly kept gardens and the whole site maintains a calm, peaceful air, no matter how threatened the community may feel in the state of modern Kosovo.

After I'd finished having a good look around and enjoying the peace and quiet, I returned to the checkpoint, got my passport back and walked into town once more. Next stop was the more distant Decani Monastery, a visit that required a little public transportation. I tried to find a few more vestiges of the old Peja en route to the bus station, but apart from a few mosques, there really wasn't much around. Picking up a bottle of water en route, I then hopped the next clanky old bus out. My wanderings had zapped a lot of time though, so by the time the bus actually rolled into the small town of Decani nearby, it was already after 5pm. Somewhat concerned about the return bus situation, I made sure to hustle on out to the monastery site itself.

This one was even more of a hike though, taking a good 25-30 minutes to get to from the bus stop. The KFOR checkpoint beforehand outdid even the one before Patrijarsija Monastery, so I lost a good five minutes or more just waiting for them to approve my entry. It wasn't until perhaps 5:45 that I finally arrived at the gates of the monastery, after a beautiful rural walk along farmland and forested mountains. Again, a marvelous site for a monastic complex. The monks were just commencing preparations for a service when I walked in, and I got an invitation to join the services starting from six once I went in and started to admire the church's interior. A fine idea and one I would quite gladly take up otherwise, but time wasn't really on my side here. I decided to hang around for a few more minutes and catch the start of it, but by about 6:10 I was on my way once more. In typical Balkan fashion, the service hadn't actually begun by the time I was back on the return road. Unfortunate, but what can you do?

I managed to catch a return bus to Peja just minutes after returning to the stop on the main road. This had me arriving back in town at perhaps five after seven, but what awaited me when I got there wasn't very encouraging. The bus station was almost completely empty, save for our bus and another departing one. As I descended, I asked the guy at the door where the bus to Prishtina was. "Prishtina? Is finish!" Um . . . excuse me? Panic sets in. I quickly ask where I can get a bus from . . . is he sure that there aren't anymore around? Oh, I could try and go back to Decani, and maybe there I could find a bus to Prishtina, but he wasn't really sure. Not the answer I was hoping for. So I run to the departing bus back to Decani. The guy there doesn't think that there will be any Prishtina-bound buses once they arrive. However, he's planning on driving to Prishtina later, perhaps in two or three hours. If I paid him €20, I could come along with him . . . but I'd have to go back to Decani first and then wait.

Well, I ended up having to make a deal with a taxi driver . . . a dodgy game at the best of times. He started at €40 and I started at €20. He offered €35, saying it was the best he could do. I begrudgingly asked for €30, then stuck to my guns. After first saying that €30 would only get me to the airport (some 20km outside of Prishtina), he finally relented and gave me an onwards ride. Suddenly my cheap day out of Kosovo's capital had become a lot more expensive. That'll teach me to check the blasted bus schedule before I go running about all over the place. Strangely enough, the trip took almost the exact amount of time as the bus, and he picked up two more passengers about halfway there (yet still charged me the same fare . . . the bastard!). But at least I was able to get back, even if it cost me far more than it should have. Exhausted, but dead set on not blowing more cash, I walked the long 45 minutes back to the guesthouse from the bus station, picking up a quick dinner en route.

Tomorrow I'll go out to Prizren for the day, but this time I will be sure to have a look at the return buses! A repeat incident hopefully isn't on the cards.
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