The Many Surprises of Tetovo, Macedonia

Painted Mosque Exterior in Tetovo

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.

Tractor in Tetovo

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.

Main Square of Tetovo

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.

Tetovo Street

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.
Pena River in Tetovo

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.

Painted Mosque Tetovo

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.

Painted Detail in Tetovo

Mosque Interior Tetovo

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.

Dervish Monastery, Tetovo

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.

Traditional Building in Tetovo

Arabati Baba Teke, 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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19 Comment

  1. paulandcarolelovetotravel says:

    Interesting post. It is surprising the different responses to tourists within areas of close proximity, that can make you feel uneasy. We can totally relate to this as we had a similar experience when we cruised to Durres in Albania. The negative body language made us feel quite vulnerable so we didn’t explore as much as we wanted too. Honest post thanks for sharing!

  2. Garth says:

    Thanks for your honesty David, don’t often read accounts of feeling uneasy in places in Europe, glad to read you got a good reception with the kids later on. As for the mosque it looks totally unique as you say, almost like a house of playing cards, love visually decorated buildings like this. Thanks for sharing your account.

  3. Great post David that showed the beauty of Tetovo’s Painted Mosque to the quietness of the rabati Baba Tekke Monastery. Interesting how you didn’t feel warm and liked in town except for the excitement of the children in the end. Like you mentioned it could be from lack of tourism or cultural differences. This is surprising since you seem to visit some out of the way destinations. Glad you shared your experience, history and some of the beauty the town offered 🙂

  4. A beautiful little town regardless. Nice post!

  5. What another beautiful location you’ve shared! Im especially in love with the Mosque’s chandeliers and the beautiful patterns! #WeekendWanderlust #Wkendtravelinspiration

  6. Wonderful insights. So glad you took the plunge and explored Tetovo. The monastery is truly gorgeous and I loved that the kids embraced English. Tourism isn’t the Albanian thing, I guess. At least not there.

  7. Wow! There is nothing worse than walking into a room and everyone goes quiet and just stares at you!…. Oh yes there is… it is walking in to a strange town and everyone just stares at you! I know exactly how you felt. Thank you for your candid narration of your travels in Tetovo. I love the old buildings, it does look like a very interesting place.

  8. It’s really interesting that you experienced some culture shock while visiting here! I wonder what it was that made everyone react that way to your presence? Glad you at least got to see some amazing buildings and a turtle!

  9. It is very unusual to read a post where someone felt uneasy in Europe so thank you for being so open about this, however I love further on in your story how the children were exciting to practice their English on you, that was nice 🙂 I know you pride yourself on getting off the beaten track and you certainly did this in Tetovo and I guess when you do that, and when you walk away from “traditional” tourist places there may be uncomfortable times but I guess this is what makes travelling so interesting … you just don’t know what you’re going to encounter or what to expect!

  10. I know exactly how you feel; I have had similar experiences (many years ago) in Slovakia and Romania (to name the two that spring to mind immediately) but I put it down to cultural differences and unfamiliarity with tourists rather than any inhospitable intentions. Still, that feeling of standing out can be uncomfortable, particularly when you wish to take some photos.

    Well-written, well-researched, thought-provoking and genuinely interesting – I really enjoy your posts. Thanks again and greetings from Luxembourg (where the locals can also be a bit “cold” at first, but they’re lovely really 🙂 ). #theweeklypostcard

  11. Anisa says:

    It really is interesting how different places when you least expect it. Taxi drivers though never surprise me, I have had issues across the globe! Tetovo looks beautiful though – especially the mosque and monastery. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  12. Vlad says:

    Macedonia is a country I’ve always wanted to visit, even though I don’t know much about it so I enjoy reading about it on your blog. That mosque is gorgeous! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    PS: liked your page on Facebook to keep up with your posts 🙂

  13. Lisa (Simple Sojourner) says:

    Loved your honesty. I guess your experience is not different than a lot of non touristy areas. None the less, you still had an interesting experience. I find that kids are kids wherever you go…

  14. Interesting to learn about Tetovo and surprising that you had a different experience to the rest of the country. Sometimes it’s possible to witness the negative effects of when different cultures clash but nevertheless surprising that this happened in Europe. Looks like a fascinating place, though. Great post

  15. Lauren says:

    Very interesting and honest read. Sometimes people don’t like change although in Europe it is very rare to find. Great blog overall

  16. What a interesting little town/city. I’ve never seen a church quite like that before. The inside looks nice like many beautiful churches I’ve seen in the Balkins.

  17. Great post, David. It would be interesting to know what prompted the cold reception. I do suppose that, while the situation was new to you, it may have been unusual for the locals, as well. Odd, but that’s probably why it’s a culture shock, right? Still, a pretty town and, once they open up, I’m sure the people are warm as well.

  18. Very interesting post! I don’t know much about Macedonia, but so interesting how this town felt so different. Glad you didn’t allow it to hinder you and you explored the mosque and monastery. I had one of those “highway bus stops” in Brazil. It was an odd feeling too. Great photos!! Thanks for sharing your journeys!

    1. David says:

      Glad I could share some of my experiences from there with you. Not a fan of the highway stop personally 🙂

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