Located at the foot of the Šar Mountains which separate Macedonia from Albania, Tetovo has long been a stronghold of the country’s ethnic Albanians. We spent a day here, getting an impression of life in this crowded and hectic city.
Though it’s only an hour from Macedonia’s capital, Tetovo feels like a different country. The style of dress is different and people speak a different language; both English and German might actually be more common here than Macedonian. Most shockingly, a different flag is flown. The gold and red Macedonian flag, so ubiquitous in Skopje, is a rare sight in Tetovo, usurped by the black-on-red two-headed eagle flag of Albania.
Tetovo’s heart is definitively not with Macedonia. And there have been times when the city actually did belong to Albania, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and during the Bulgarian occupation of World War II. And when Yugoslavia fell apart in 1990, there was a failed movement to have Tetovo secede and join Albania. Most recently, the city served as the main base for Albanian insurgents during 2001’s conflict with the Macedonian government.
After arriving, we headed straight into the hills above Tetovo, to visit a large Ottoman-era fortress and gain a panoramic view of the city. There wasn’t another soul in sight, and the fortress felt practically forgotten, in ruins and without any signage or protection. We climbed around the crumbling old walls, scraped through thorny brambles, and surprised a group of cows that had been napping in one of the fortress’s shaded cells.
Seen from above, Tetovo looked like a sprawling mess, and it was somewhat reluctantly that we hiked back down into the steaming, noisy chaos. Indeed, our ensuing tour of the city was unpleasant. The traffic in Tetovo is a nightmare. Cars everywhere, constant honking, streets far too narrow, sidewalks used primarily as parking spots. The city’s urban planning seems non-existent, and we ducked into cafes just to get away from the stress.
Tetovo isn’t the most beautiful of cities, but it has a few things going for it. One of Macedonia’s biggest universities is based here. There are a lot of students wandering around and hanging out in the bars, so the vibe is youthful and energetic. And there are a couple of cool historic sights, including a colorful mosque and a tranquil tekke used by Bektashi dervishes.