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 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.