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Visiting All Four UNESCO Medieval Monuments in Kosovo


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Planning a first trip to Kosovo can be quite an eye-opening experience. Not widely known for its tourism yet, this part of the Balkans has more to see than you might expect. I must admit I didn’t know many places to visit beyond Pristina and Prizren at first. Which is why I was so intrigued when I learnt, piece by piece, about the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo. What started as a happy accident visiting one monument, then another, wound up with visiting all four of these fascinating UNESCO landmarks. If you want to delve into the complex history and culture of Kosovo, make sure to put these sites on your itinerary.

 

UNESCO Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

So, what are the “Medieval Monuments in Kosovo” then? They are four historical and cultural landmarks with importance to the Serbian Orthodox faith that have been grouped together by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The four churches and monasteries are scattered across half of Kosovo, but are all generally date from the same era. Together they highlight the local Byzantine architecture and vivid frescoes of the period that would go on to inspire other Balkan art.

Kosovo is known for its complex geopolitics and these religious landmarks are powerful examples of the difficulties the region faces. As Serbian Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries, they’re of obvious importance to Serbia. But they’re also in a territory striving for independence from Serbia, so friction surrounding them is inevitable.

This group of landmarks and their World Heritage status is actually intimately tied up in Kosovo’s past conflicts. It’s no coincidence that UNESCO made the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo a World Heritage site in 2004. This was the same year that Kosovo saw its worst unrest since the Kosovo War in 1998-1999. The ongoing simmering tension meant that UNESCO put these historical landmarks on their “in danger” list back in 2006 and the sites are still on their today. 

 

Dečani Monastery

Let’s start with the Decani Monastery, a major landmark in Western Kosovo. Sitting just outside the town of Deçan, the Visoki Dečani Monastery is a major religious institution that still operates to this day. Serbian king Stefan Dečanski constructed the monastery in 1335 as a site for his mausoleum.

It’s fair to say that the Decani Monastery is probably the best restored of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo. While the exterior looks relatively fresh, step inside the main church and you’ll find a wealth of original medieval art across its walls. It’s really impressive how well this historical landmark has survived given all the conflict over the years.

Due to many of these factors, the Decani Monastery is the most heavily protected of the sites. You have to pass through two security posts outside the monastery guarded by UN peacekeepers before entering. This is because there have been incidents at the monastery in the past.

One of the real benefits of visiting Decani Monastery is that you may get to meet and talk with members of the order that still run it. Monks of the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy of Raška and Prizren run the monastery and produce products like wine to support it. I distinctly remember just how jovial the monk in the small gift shop was as we sampled some of their wine with him.

 

Getting There: To reach the Decani Monastery, first you need to get a bus between Peja and either Prizren or Gjakova. Get off at the Decan stop and then make the 2km walk up to the monastery.

 

Patriarchate of Peć Monastery

Patriarchate of Peć, Kosovo

Of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, the one that left the strongest impression on me was the Patriarchate of Peć Monastery. This stunning monastery is one of the main things to see in Peja, a city in western Kosovo by the Montenegro border. I only wish we hadn’t visited during a stubborn rain shower, as I don’t feel my photo does it justice.

Passing the security outpost by the road, it’s a bit of a walk round the walled monastery to actually enter. But it’s worth it once you step into its lush garden. Surrounded by greenery and away from city noise, it offers exactly the kind of solitude you expect from a monastery. Within the gardens there are four churches, three of which are basically linked, which itself is noteworthy.

What really makes the 13th century Patriarchate of Peć Monastery special though is the connected church interior. Religious frescoes, including countless saints, adorn every square inch of the interior to overwhelming effect. I’ve visited many monasteries throughout the Balkans and this definitely ranks among the top.

 

Getting There: Take one of the many buses from Pristina or Prizren to Peja, then walk or get a taxi to the monastery to the city’s west. The monastery is roughly 2km from the city centre.

 

Gračanica Monastery

Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

Funnily enough, the first of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo I visited was completely by accident. While visiting Pristina, we decided to do a day trip to the Bear Sanctuary Pristina, which just so happened to take us past the town of Gračanica. Spotting Gračanica Monastery from the bus, we decided to take a look on the way back. We had no clue it was a UNESCO World Heritage site at this stage.

It doesn’t help that Gračanica Monastery seems quite unassuming, especially compared to the rest of the sites. There’s no security checkpoint, just some high old walls shielding it from the street. Upon arriving at the monastery we simply wandered in through the open gate, with barely another soul in sight. With that kind of low-key vibe, you’d never know it was founded in 1321, under the rule of King Stefan Milutin upon even older ruins.

With your visit, be sure to head inside the church to see its comprehensive frescoes. At the back of the monastery grounds there are also some nice old Ottoman-style buildings as well. I’m sure you’ll agree that this monastery feels the most like a “regular” tourist attraction, just without many other tourists.

 

Getting There: This monastery is easy to reach from Pristina. Simply take the bus to Gjilan and ask to get off at the Gracanica stop, which is barely beyond the city limits of Pristina.

 

Our Lady of Ljeviš

Our Lady of Ljeviš

Finally, we have one of the most important Prizren attractions, the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš. The church dates from the early 14th century and was built under the rule of King Stefan Milutin. Unfortunately, the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš is closed to the public, with barbed wire surrounding it to keep people out.

That kind of welcome is rarely a good sign for a tourist attraction, but it’s certainly understandable given the context. This is because the conflict in Kosovo during 2004 left the church badly damaged. Then there’s the difficulty of its location. Unlike the other three landmarks, the church is deep in the heart of the city of Prizren. This inner city location makes it more vulnerable to the unrest that has occurred in the past.

It seems since I visited more restoration work happened in 2020, so maybe one day it will reopen to the public. I’m definitely curious to see what it’s like on the inside in person. For the meantime, you and I will both have to be content with photos online.

 

Getting There: As the monastery is within the city of Prizren, simply take a bus to Prizren. From the station it’s closer to walk to the church than it is the city’s historical centre.

 

Patriarchate of Peja Highlights

  • Make sure to bring your passport with you, especially for the Decani Monastery and Patriarchate of Peć Monastery. You won’t be let in otherwise.
  • For the monuments you can enter, don’t take photos inside unless you’re expressly given permission.
  • While you’ll hear Albanian spoken across much of Kosovo, Serbian is spoken at these sites. We even noticed it was spoken in places nearby as well, like here and there in Gracanica.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see Serbian visitors given preferential treatment at these sites. When visiting the Visoki Dečani Monastery, Serbian visitors were let in first and given a private guided tour, while we waited outside.

 


Had you heard of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo before? Do you enjoy trying to see as many UNESCO sites as possible on your travels? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Visiting all four Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, a historic UNESCO World Heritage Site, via @travelsewhere

Visiting all four Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, a historic UNESCO World Heritage Site, via @travelsewhereVisiting all four Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, a historic UNESCO World Heritage Site, via @travelsewhere


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