The Albanian village of Voskopoje harbors hidden treasure: remnants of extraordinary ecclesiastic art, murals and frescoes which unexpectedly survive in a handful of ancient mountain churches.
It is a miracle they’re still standing, having been battered by just about everything: war, erosion, abandon, graffiti.
Many of the walls are gone, the ceilings crumbling, paint flaking and in at least one case, at St Nicholas (Shën Kolle) below, shameful graffiti defaces an entire façade. Under Albania’s brutal and excessive brand of Communism, most of these architectural and artistic wonders were abandoned, plundered, dismantled or in some cases turned into storage by soldiers, who enjoyed using the priceless frescoes for target practice.In the quiet hamlet, which isn’t far from the busy town of Korça in Southeast Albania, donkeys lounge in the streets. It’s hard to believe that at its height in the 1760s this was a bustling cultural and artistic center on the trade route from Constantinople to Venice, home to more than 20,000 inhabitants, 26 Orthodox churches, countless artisans, a university and a library. It even boasted the Balkans’ first printing press back in 1720, and may have been, for a time, the Balkans’ largest city.
The churches of Voskopoje – or Voskopoja, as it is also spelled – have received some protection from the government, the European Union and foreign groups like the World Monuments Fund and parts have been restored. In some cases the work was structural and prevented churches from crumbling to the ground. In others repairs tried to keep out rain and cold and leaks. Yet the job is far from done, and villagers, many of whom are caretakers for the churches, are unsure about when – and if – the restorations will be completed.
The churches aren’t all near one another, but the major ones can easily be covered in a day hike. The mountains ringing the town are peacefully beautiful (although much of the forest was on fire when I visited in August) and it’s easy to imagine packing a picnic and setting off to see the frescoes.
The road from Korça takes under an hour and taxis will usually take you up. Stay the night in one of the local hotels if you can. If you plan to hike, a guide would be useful because signposts are rare and maps more so. It would also help to have an Albanian speaker who can find the priests in charge of each locked church – and each key. Ask at the cafe – or pretty much anyone in the street.
What you’ll see is truly stunning, colors and designs whose robustness has saved them from almost certain destruction, true artistic and spiritual beauty that should never have been allowed to deteriorate.
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