Whilst staying in “Korça”:https://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/review/attraction/200720-review-sight-seeing-in-kor-a, south east Albania, we visited the small nearby villages of Vithkuqi and Mborja to visit Byzantine churches whose frescos were painted by famous medieval Albanian artists.
From the main road, it was a climb up a narrow, twisting track to Vithkuqi. Like “Voskopoja,”:https://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/review/attraction/200739, which we’d visited the previous day, the small village had been much more important in the past, but having been destroyed many times, it was eventually usurped by Korça. We stopped on route, whilst there was still mobile reception, for our driver to call ahead and arrange for the church to be opened. Many of the Orthodox Churches we visited in Albania, rely on local people acting as key holders.
Of the four churches of note we visited two, in what is collectively named the ‘Touristic Area of Vithkuqi’. Having found our ‘key man’ he took us to the first church, St Michael. Unlike the churches at Voskopoja, it was well preserved with all the elements still in place: the narthex, nave, sanctuary and exterior arched portico and bell tower. Inside, the iconostasis, or wall of religious icons which separates the nave from the sanctuary, depicted the life of Christ. One showed Jesus on a donkey riding into Jerusalem with a man perched high in a tree. I immediately recollected a rhyme I’d learned at Sunday School over 50 years ago – “Now Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he . . .”. Not only could I remember all the words, I could still do the actions much to the astonishment of our driver and the key man. The frescoes were in really good condition and we were pleased we were given permission to take a few photos.
Back in the car, we drove up a very rough and steep track to the next church, that of St
Peter which was more ornate in terms of its architecture. Behind was a small chapel where down a few rough steps, were the skulls and bones of around 30 monks.
We then drove to Mborja, to St Mary’s Church which our driver expected to find open. Unfortunately, it was locked, but a young boy of around five who was nearby, seized the initiative and went to fetch the key man. Our driver gave him a coin for his efforts and later we found him leaving the small village shop, munching on a bread roll. An elderly man arrived and let us in, and we found the frescoes mentioned in Bradt: unhappy sinners being whooshed down a chute into the jaws of a dragon or being attacked by serpents. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photos.
Having seen a cross high on a hill, our driver suggested visiting for the views. Although it looked impossible to reach by car, we were surprised to find a well-paved, but narrow twisting road. On reaching the top, we realised why: there was one hotel/restaurant, the Montagne, and another huge hotel and spa under construction. We walked the last section up to what was the Millennial Cross where we also found a small modern church. We wondered what attendances they get as getting to it must take 20 minutes of driving and another 15 minutes of walking. The views of Korça were incredible but the weather was blowy and as it began to rain, we head back to the Montagne for a reviving coffee and raki to warm us up.