Voskopoja and Vithkuq

Voskopoja and VithkuqVoskopoja
Amidst high mountains, forests and rolling green fields some 18 kilometres west of Korça, Voskopoja is a Balkan oddity; a village that was once a bustling town and Balkan cultural centre. Set at 1150 metres above sea level, Voskopoja was founded in 1338 in an isolated and defensible location. Also known as Moschopolis to Greeks and Moscopole to Vlachs, it grew steadily to become one of the larger urban centres in the Balkans, and may have had up to 30,000 inhabitants in the 18th century. The town profited greatly from trading along the shortest land route between Istanbul and Venice, and was also a major centre of Orthodox culture (despite the Ottoman occupation) with 22 churches, a school, library and dozens of workshops producing crafts, books (from the Balkans' first printing press) and religious artworks, including icons. For a while it was even the largest town in the Balkan region. Ottoman campaigns in the late 18th century spelled the end of Voskopoja's glory years. Voskopoja's end finally came in the 20th century, when battles in World War I and partizan warfare during World War II destroyed most of the town. Now only seven churches, a handful of houses and some old cobbled streets still remain.

The Shën Kolle (St. Nicholas) church from 1721 was the only church to be protected in the Communist era (the others were used for storage) and is the only church reliably open to visitors. It has an elegant painted gallery and a dark and moody interior, with fantastic examples of wood carving and sooty wall frescoes. The most valuable icons have been moved to the Medieval Art Museum in Korça. If you find the church closed, simply ask around for someone with the key.

Another church worth visiting is the Shën Athanasi (Saint Athanasius) church, set between fields just east of the village; it's damaged but enjoys a pretty setting and has several well-preserved frescoes. Finally, the Shën Mëhill (Saint Michael) and Shën Ilia (Saint Ilia) churches are worth a look – finding someone to unlock these churches can be difficult, however. In the woods, a bumpy 2 kilometres beyond the village, lies the the Monastery of Shën Prodhomi (St. Prodhon), a peaceful complex with a charming 17th-century brick church in the courtyard. The guard is usually at hand to unlock the gate and let you in. The church celebrates Saint Prodhon's day every year on June 24, when it's the site of a well-attended religious festival. The Vlahos festival, celebrating Vlach/Aromanian culture, is held annually on July 4.

There's a daily morning bus from Korça to Voskopoja. Otherwise, you can charter a taxi for the ride. The roads all the way up to the monastery are accessible for cars.
Voskopoja is perfect for a picnic in a flowery field – brings supplies from Korça. There's a restaurant serving Albanian dishes at the Hotel Akademia. Two trout-farm-cum-restaurants, Ura e Kovacë and Taverna Peshku, are located halfway up the road to Voskopoja; both have seats beside the fish ponds and serve good-value, freshly grilled trout.

Although Voskopoja is an easy daytrip from Korça, consider staying the night to enjoy the peace. There are several simple guesthouses with rooms for tourists in the village, best found by asking around. Along the road east out of Voskopoja towards the St. Prodhomi monastery, the renovated Hotel Akademia complex (tel. +355 69 225 86 46; 27 rooms: 16 doubles and 11 chalets, 3,000-4,000 lek) has simple rooms and new chalets (some with fireplace) overlooking gardens and forests; call to check when loud parties take place.

The nearby village of Vithkuqi, 25km southwest of Korça and reached by minibus or taxi, is a picturesque and ancient mountain village with mineral water springs and several Orthodox churches that are worth a visit, most notably that of Shën Pjetër (Saint Peter) monastery. Vithkuqi suffered the same fate as Voskopoja and was wrecked several times since the 18th century. A calm and pretty village remains now, with several guesthouses and restaurants. Annual village fairs take place on June 29, St. Peter's day, and on July 10, St. Nikodhim's day.

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