Much has been said of this masterpiece of medieval European art, yet seeing it live and in person is an experience that tops even the most poetic of descriptions. The brief evening encounter - limited to the outside, viewed from the refectory and dormitory in the cool rainy night - was my first, and the feeling was genuinely sublime, making me quickly forget the ominously strict security measures administered at the entrance by a professional but friendly Italian KFOR. Unfortunately, we were late for the Canon of St. Stefan Decanski - a unique and sublime service offered weekly in veneration of the patron saintly monastery founder, whose wonderworking relics reside within - but hoped to get a glimpse of that spiritual journey at the next morning's regular liturgy. Prior to retiring, we head to the refectory for a light supper and meet with Fr. Sava, acting Abbott in place of the traveling bishop Teodosije. A rather prominent figure in his own right, the well-informed, articulate and forthright Sava quickly engages us in a combination of debriefing and inquiry. At some point he introduces us to a departing couple of 'internationals' - a female Italian humanitarian and the Venezuelan UNMIK administrator for the Decani region - a man, we were later told, of courage and objectivity, respected by the monks and Serbian community. The significance of the moment becomes apparent some half an hour later, as Fr. Sava's cell phone rings, and after an agitated conversation in English, we learned the disturbing news: the international couple had just been attacked by three Albanians at the gate to their apartment complex. Luckily, Luis - "street-smart from tough urban Caracas" - managed to fend them off. This time. But the escalation path of provocation, intimidation and violence used by separatist criminals seems all too familiar, as is the goal of removing - one way or another - all those that stand in the way of their nefarious plans. We soon return to our main line of conversation with Fr. Sava, but the uneasy feeling lingers on. Eventually, it is time to retire for the night, as our third and final day has a packed program again.
Velika Hoca Winery
The third day begins by attending part of Holy Liturgy at the church. This needs to be experienced - the hallowed space, the saints and warriors silently staring from richly illumined walls, the transcendental chant of the monks - the feeling is simple yet sublime... After a simple breakfast, we head back to Velika Hoca, to collect our equipment, vehicle, and record some of the numerous smaller churches from the broader Velika Hoca region. Departure is delayed by a visit to 'Decanska vinica' - a brief tour of the local winery and wine-making facilities. The winery is owned and administered by the Decani brotherhood and boasts a royal medieval pedigree; czar Dusan was purported to have erected a 25-km long porcelain vinoduct from here to his imperial capital of Prizren. The master winemaker, brother Marko enthusiastically shows us around, and as we exit we are treated to another unusual spectacle - the installation of three giant steel tanks. The gigantic portable military crane supplied by the German KFOR engenders a few engineering problems, and even more solutions from the onlookers and farmers. Some of our team are tempted to see the development lead to a grand resolution, but time is of the essence and we will have to settle for a simple inspection of the outcome in the afternoon. Here we temporarily part ways - the core team goes to record a local site, St. Nicholas Church, as I join our escort on a business mission that will take us south, to the very aforementioned Prizren - a once glorious city that suffered heavily both in 1999 and 2004. As we drive through Metohija, we go past various villages, including abandoned returnee projects built for Serbs from Albania during the Milosevic years. Sinisa tells me of his mother's native hamlet nearby, and the 1999 massacre of Albanian men by neighboring Serbs, preempting a revealed similar plan in reverse. A glimpse into the recurring spiral of violence, a vicious cycle so hard to break...