In Ohrid, the end of my time in Macedonia was drawing near with my last stop being the nation’s capital of Skopje. Still wanting to see more of the country, I decided to squeeze an extra destination in before reaching my final stop. I had originally considered visiting Mavrovo National Park but had learned that there were difficulties getting about and finding accommodation, so I opted instead for the city of Tetovo. Roughly two-thirds of the way to Skopje, the city seemed like a natural stopping point and a chance to see a little more of Macedonia. Little did I know, visiting Tetovo would come with its fair share of surprises.
My first surprise visiting Tetovo came up almost immediately with my bus from Ohrid. I had looked up bus schedules online before leaving but was met with confusion at the bus station. At the ticket counter, the lady told me that the bus didn’t stop in Tetovo but when I asked for the bus times she included that same exact time. It wasn’t until I was boarding the bus that the driver explained that the bus did go to Tetovo, just not to the bus station. Unfortunately what he meant was that it stopped on the highway that bypassed the city, leaving me with a 4 kilometre walk into the city.
The walk into Tetovo was where I was hit with something I never expected to feel there – culture shock. After spending nearly 2 weeks in Macedonia, who would have thought it was even possible to suddenly be struck by culture shock. Once I entered the town proper, it became immediately apparent how different Tetovo was to the other places I had visited in Macedonia. This is because Tetovo is part of the region of Macedonia where the majority of the population is ethnic Albanian.
The difference in the population was reflected very quickly in my surroundings in several ways. The first thing I noticed was that the buildings were more basic, but also considerably higher. It reminded me more of countries with muslim populations like Turkey and Morocco. I soon also realised that most of the shop signs were no longer in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Macedonia, but were Albanian words in the Latin alphabet.
But ultimately the main difference was the people. From the way they dressed to the way people were going about their day, I could sense a cultural shift here. However, the biggest difference I felt personally was the reaction I seemed to receive. I can’t recall another time in Europe where I was stared at like I was as I arrived in Tetovo. I’ve become quite accustomed to feeling out-of-place throughout my travels but this was wholly unexpected here. Funnily enough, Tetovo is the one place where I had taxi drivers actually avert their gaze as I neared rather than try to get a fare. The feeling of unease and of almost being unwelcome was a rough first impression.
Luckily, once I did go out sightseeing in the city I did start to feel more at ease and began to appreciate the appeal of the city. As I headed towards the nearby main square, I noticed that there were quite a few Albanian flags hanging on buildings and even occasionally fluttering out car windows. Walking into the quieter back streets, I passed men piling watermelons out of trucks, stacks of firewood being unloaded. At one point I even saw a wedding convoy make its way through a narrow street, horns honking and people cheering. One of the charms of visiting Macedonia is seeing these more down-to-earth moments play out.
After wandering the back streets for a while, I arrived at the Pena River which flows through the heart of Tetovo. Along parts of the river are some pleasant boulevards that run into the centre of town and towards some of the city’s landmarks. One of these landmarks is the historic Hamam of Tetovo which sits on the right bank of the river. Dating from the 16th century, the building shows an Albanian influence on the typical Islamic style. It now hosts The Gallery of Visual Arts.
Just nearby is Tetovo’s biggest tourist attraction in the aptly named Painted Mosque, or Šarena Džamija in Macedonian. As soon as you see the mosque you realise how special it is. I can’t think of any other mosque I’ve seen like it. Originally built in the 15th century, the story goes that the construction was funded by two sisters who are buried in the Turbe (the stone monument) just nearby. The incredibly detailed paintwork owes its life to renovation and reconstruction performed in 1833 by Abdurahman Pasha.
Visitors are welcome to enter the grounds of the Painted Mosque and come inside to see its equally beautiful interior. The inside of the prayer room is also meticulously decorated with vibrant artwork and chandelier lights. Whereas churches can often blur together, I really enjoy visiting mosques as you often actually aren’t allowed in if you aren’t muslim or because of prayer times. Having the opportunity to enter the mosque, witness its beauty and have it to myself was quite a memorable moment. The phrase “hidden gem” has never felt more appropriate.
The other main historic landmark of Tetovo is the Arabati Baba Tekke Monastery. The dervish monastery began construction in 1538 under Sersem Ali Baba who taught there until his death that year. Afterwards, it was completed in 1548 by his last remaining pupil Arabati Baba, with Sersem’s Turbe at its core. It’s last renovation was performed by Redzep Pasha in the 18th century. The monastery was not only a religious institution, but also a cultural and educational one.
Within the walls of the Tekke, are a number of buildings in various levels of condition. These include a prayer room, kitchen, library, stables, houses and an inn. The grounds are also quite lively with lots of trees and plants, making for a peaceful retreat from the world. When I visited, I almost had the place to myself except for a group of kids playing on the grass. Once they noticed I was taking photos, they ran over and were really excited when I said I spoke English. They all proceeded to show off their English, with some kids really surprising me. They were also really thrilled to show me one of their’s pet turtle. Definitely the funniest interaction I had visiting Tetovo.
My time in Tetovo had its ups and downs, plus plenty of unexpected moments. I didn’t come to Tetovo with any specific preconceived notions, but I certainly hadn’t anticipated that it would feel as different to the other parts of Macedonia I had visited. Besides the kids at the monastery, I personally didn’t feel the warm, hospitable reception I had received elsewhere. That may stem from cultural differences or a lack of tourism, I don’t know. In the end, I am glad I visited Tetovo for the experience and the lesson that country’s are often more diverse than we realise.
Have you had the chance to visit Tetovo? Or maybe have you been surprised by encountering culture shock somewhere? Please share in the comments below.
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