The road ends at the small Kosovar village of Letnica on the border with Macedonia. The white church of the Black Madonna watches over the town from a small hill. The large church only magnifies the empty feeling of the town where only about 100 people are left. Dirt roads snake into the town in between dilapidated stone houses. Despite the abandoned air the town is surrounded by forested rolling hills, giving the area a peaceful feel. The twittering of songbirds floated through the air as we climbed the small hill to the church.
If the town was ever to have a crowd we found it as four men sat outside the church socializing and taking in the surrounding views. A middle aged man reeking of raki (the Kosovar equivalent to Italian grappa) shadowed us the whole way, pleading for money and trying to be best friends the way only drunk people can. Inside the church worshipers knelt below the 300 year old Black Madonna statue, made from blackened wood, praying for a child. Christian and Muslim couples alike venerate it and believe it can help childless families. On 14-15 August the town is beset by the faithful as more than 30,000 worshipers arrive to take part in the two day festival of the Assumption. Mass is held in multiple languages and the Madonna is paraded through the streets in between the thousands of newly pitched tents.
The town has an authentic charm that is not easily found anymore in Kosovo as residents rush to Prishtina or abroad in search of work. The money they earn is usually used to destroy old stone houses and replace them with incomplete exposed brick structures. Below the church along a small river sits a traditional mill owned by Froke Dokic, an older Croat miller. The water powered stone mill ground the corn he fed by hand into fine flour. There was nothing modern about the building and I couldn’t even find a light bulb ensuring a work day that started with first light and ended with dusk. Everything in the old mill was covered in fine corn dust, from an old typewriter, to traditional clothing, to a coke bottle used to hold candles, and even to old Froke himself. The miller is a solid man, not given to speaking much but friendly enough and quick to let you in to see the old mill at work. We placed an order of 5 kg of flour before we set off into the country side for a hike.
It’s easy to leave the town and reach the surrounding hills. After just ten minutes we had left the town behind. Grazing sheep roamed the hills in the distance, and a pack of horses ate their fill right next to us as we took a short break near a natural spring gushing from the ground. A view of the church opened up before us below, revealing the rows of the pilgrim huts sheltered amongst its walls. As we wound our way higher into the hills we passed through a beautiful old village, filled with traditional stone houses and ottoman style windows and eaves. The heavy stone houses magnified the feeling of loneliness as we realized the town was deserted. Only one elderly woman was left, kept company by her sheep and goats. Supposedly the rest had left during the 1991 Croat war for independence, pushed by Serb hardliners to settle in abandoned Serb houses in Slovenia.
No one seems to want to farm these days and the land around us lay fallow, satisfying only the hungry bellies of the grazing sheep and horses. Well worn but unmarked trails disappeared into the forests and most likely into neighboring Macedonia. Like most of Kosovo, Letnica requires a bit of work to discover. It’s not a place built for tourists, but you are rewarded for your adventurous spirit through the pleasure of new discoveries down each unmarked path or over the next bucolic hill. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place just one hour from Prishtina, perfect for a day hike and a picnic. On our way out of the village we stopped by the old mill to pick up our natural flour and thank Froke for the trouble. He didn’t say a word, just turned back to his mill and continued feeding it corn.
If you have a car read on…if you don’t have a car, go rent one or find a friend with one and then read on. Ok, ok, it’s possible to catch a bus to Ferizaj or Gjilan and then transfer to a local bus to Viti and then rent a taxi to take you the final distance to Letnica (don’t forget to arrange a pick up time or get the taxi’s phone number for your return trip).
If you took my earlier advice and you found a car, take the Pristina-Skopje highway heading south for about 35 km and follow signs to Viti. Once in Viti things get a bit more complicated. Drive around the main square and cross the river at the Steta Petka church, turn right around the secondary school and follow the road to the village of Verbovc. Once there bear right and follow the road to Letnica. Yes, you will get lost a few times so ask directions often.