Saturday, 1 August 2015

Kosovo – A wet and wild time in a recent warzone

July 30-31

Hello everyone!

Before moving on to a new Balkan country, I visited the Albanian town of Berat. The medieval stronghold is well-regarded in these parts, being described as the ‘highlight’ of any visit to the country.

Traditional Albanian patterns

Many people told me that you need to spend more time in Berat than any other Albanian destination. I’d have to disagree with them. It’s true that I would have been more impressed with it if I hadn’t already visited a very similar place – Gjirokaster – a few days earlier. Yet though it has some postcard-quality views, particularly from the Christian quarter south of the river, I didn’t really see anything that would keep me there for more than a few hours.

View of Berat from the fortress

View of Berat from the old bridge

After a final adventure geocaching in Tirana (I found three, with one tiny one being hidden in the bunker), it was time to leave Albania. I wasn’t going far and actually moving onto a place which has a majority of ethnic Albanians. It’s also more renowned as being a war zone, one the most horrific of the Balkan battles of the 1990s. Welcome to Kosovo.

The first - and by far the largest - geocache I found in Tirana

RKS = Republic of Kosovo

Yes, Kosovo is a country. In spite of what its Serbian neighbours may think, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 and is seen as an independent nation by 56% of UN member states and 82% of EU members. It is not yet a member of the UN but is part of many other international organisations, such as the World Bank and IMF.

Tensions between the ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the region led to a war in 1998-9 which was only ended with a NATO intervention. The country pays its respects both to its own fallen comrades and the Americans who saved them. I honestly don’t know if Madeleine Albright has a street named after her anywhere else in the world.

Madeleine Albright - Kosovan heroine?

Kosovo’s history stretches much further back than the last twenty years, though. Kosovo is a more Muslim country than Albania, which itself was officially atheist for much of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. The number of mosques and Turkish baths – hammams – dotted around the city of Prizren are evidence of the spread of Islam to this part of the Balkans.

The main mosque at dusk

The old town of Prizren

Prizren was a charming city, with architecture similar to the Albanian towns already mentioned. The difference, however, was the vibrancy of the place. We went for food one night and my mind was blown by the volume of people walking around in the main streets and relaxing in the cafes. On a Thursday night. It was incredible, as was the food (that plate includes grilled meat stuffed with melted cheese: heart attack heaven!).

Prizren by night. There are thousands of people here but you can't see them. There are, though. Honest.

First taste of salad outside of a kebab since Greece

Clearly the locals enjoy themselves once the sun has gone down. This was evident from the people working in the hostel, who plied me with beer within minutes of my arrival. They also liked to experiment with cocktail shots…

The hostel owner reeled off at least four different liqueurs that went into this shot - and water as he ran out of juice...

Whilst enjoying city life, I want to take any possible chance of exploring the natural beauty of the Balkan countries I visit on this trip. It was due to this that I boarded a morning bus to Kosovo’s second city: Peja. I wasn’t coming here for the city itself but for what sits behind it.

Rugova Gorge from Peja

A closer view of the start of Rugova Gorge

Rugova Gorge is tucked in those enormous mountains which create such a spectacular backdrop for Peja. I hiked through the gorge for a while until I found a waterfall and the perfect chance to cool off, which was necessary in spite of the sun popping periodically behind the clouds.

The main waterfall itself was too deep to get under (not to mention fierce – I dipped my head under briefly and felt like I was under attack) but the water was delightfully refreshing. The rocks in the river were fairly uneven, resulting in me cutting my foot.

The tail end of the waterfall

Shortly before dipping my head under the thunderous waterfall

I dried off and decided to head back to Peja as the last bus was in two hours and I was over 8km from the city. It was just at that very moment that more water came…in the form of rain…

See that patch on the middle of the road? That's a puddle that appeared in less than five minutes...

I don’t know what ‘torrential’ is in the local language but this was certainly an apt description of what was falling from the sky. Heavy raindrops clattered the road. Walking with a dodgy foot through this – in T-shirt and shorts, lest I forget – at the speed needed to get to the bus on time? Trouble brewing…

One of the people I’d met in Prizren the night before was a young Japanese man who was hitchhiking across Europe. I was fascinated by his stories and decided that this was my possible escape. I hid under an arch and, smiling as best as I could, popped my left thumb out at each car that sporadically passed.

Fifteen minutes later, a car stopped. The man spoke no English but nodded when I said Peja. I hauled myself into the back seat. A woman turned around from the front passenger seat and, in a strange accent that I thought I recognised, remarked, “Wot ya doin out ere?” A bit of conversation led to me learning that the woman was indeed Kosovan but had spent her last 16 years living in…Manchester. Where I went to university, and clearly where she’d picked up her northern twang. They kindly drove me back to town and the rain soon relented.

The car of the folks who kindly gave me a ride

People hear ‘Kosovo’ and often conjure up negative, grave images in their mind. I had a fantastic time in this young country, enjoying the hospitality of proud, expressive and joyful people who were keen to help with a smile on their face. Even the rubbish bin collectors play music out of their trucks! A big thumbs up for little Kosovo.

Love you all


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