-By Kyra Jasper, YES Abroad 2016-17, Macedonia (Skopje)
On October 22nd, the YES Abroad group had its second cultural excursion and first beyond the city limits of Skopje to the beautiful town of Tetovo. At 9:30am, Vesna and our group boarded the bus for a 45 minute ride to Macedonia’s third largest city, which is also the closest city to Skopje. As the bus drove down the long stretches of highway, I was amazed by the kaleidoscope of different colored leaves that blanketed the mountains that we passed. The beauty of this country is honestly augmented with each city we explore.
After getting off at our stop, we were greeted by Simona, a YES alumni from 2011, who is from Tetovo. She gave us a small tour of the main city streets and ethnic-Macedonian and Albanian sides of town before we ate at one of the best Burek shops in the country. Burek is a traditional dish made from phyllo dough and either ground beef and cheese. It’s typically really greasy, but the options at this particular restaurant—which also served Burek with potatoes and spinach—had very little oil. Eaten hot and with yogurt, it was definitely some of the best that I have had!
Our day continued at a bath house-turned-art museum. It was located alongside the Pena River, which runs through the center of Tetovo, and next to the Old Stone Bridge. While we learned about how Tetovo’s resources are struggling to keep up with its population boom, we met Prina, who just returned from the US on the YES program and is in her third year of high school. Simona and Prina then took us across the masterfully crafted Old Stone Bridge to one of the highlights of the day for me: the Colorful Mosque.
As we walked through a canopy of tree branches and leaves, we approached one of the most gorgeous buildings I have seen so far in Macedonia. Elaborately painted designs in gold, green, tan, and white on the outside of the Mosque did little justice to the rainbow of colors and patterns that illuminated the inside. Upon stepping barefoot through the wooden doors, we were overwhelmed with the soft hum of prayer, Arabic inscriptions, bejeweled chandeliers, and stories dancing on the walls through the layers of patterns. Even more mesmerizing was the knowledge that the paints were actually created using over 30,000 eggs. In contrast with traditional Mosques and Ottoman-styled architecture, the Colorful Mosque (or Sharena Jamiya in Macedonian) does not have a noticeable exterior dome and has clear illustrations of Mecca—the only Mosque that does in Southeastern Europe.
The two sisters who led the construction of the Mosque are buried just outside, and a little farther down the burial site is an area for men and women to wash themselves before entering the Mosque. It was a beautiful experience, and we are all grateful that the worshipers were gracious enough to let us have a glimpse of their sanctuary.
Our next stop was a Monastery on top of a huge hill. However, before ascending the hill, we passed the music school where Prina used to take piano lessons. We all wanted to look inside, so she led us in and showed us the practice rooms, theory classrooms, and the small auditorium for recitals. There was a piano on the stage, and we convinced both Prina and Jeremy to play for us. Both performed beautiful pieces, and we were especially fortunate to hear Jeremy singing while playing. The owners of the music school (or faculty) watched Jeremy and Prina’s performances as well and were very gracious, supportive, and welcoming of us. Throughout my time so far in Macedonia, I have noticed this uniform nod of hospitality: people are genuinely excited to show you their work and for you to join in. Tetovo was no exception.
Vesna called two taxis and our group made its way to the Monastery of Lesok 8 kilometers outside of Tetovo. Situated on the side of a mountain, the Monastery was actually destroyed in a bombing in 2001 during the ethnic-Macedonian and Albanian conflict before being reconstructed a few years later. The history of the building that we learned in a museum that stood adjacent to the church only deepened our fascination and admiration of the gorgeous architectural and painted designs that much more meaningful.
Our last stop before lunch (and light shopping) was the American Corner in Tetovo. With the sponsorship of the US Embassy in Macedonia, several American Corners were established in cities across the country–including Skopje and Tetovo. After a short tour of the building, we unanimously decided that, after such a long day, we should celebrate a wonderful day trip with a round of Apples to Apples. It was Tristain and the intern at the American Corner’s first time playing, but they both caught on quickly (with Tristain actually winning!)–and we all shared many laughs. It was a perfect way to wind down the day, which officially concluded with a delicious meal for lunch.
Wanting to take advantage of all of the famous dishes that Tetovo had to offer, we ordered two different large plates and individual Shopska salads so we could all have a taste. We were all stuffed with sirenye, meats, vegetables, French fries, fried zucchini, and, of course, bread. Though none of us could eat another bite by the time we boarded the bus back to Skopje, we were all very thankful for the incredible and enlightening experiences we shared.