Keel’s Excellent Adventure #4: What’s a “Kosovo”?
Slowly, ever so slowly I am catching my blogs up to where I am actually at in my trip. After I do, I’ll try to shorten my posts a little and send them more frequently. When last I left you, I was heading out from Vienna to Budapest, and from there to… somewhere. Well, I decided on going to Kosovo, and not only did I end up cutting out a few other places from the trip, but it ended up being one of my favorite places that I have been. The food, the weather, the hospitality, the natural beauty — all of them were incredible. Oh, and it also uses the Euro, does not require a visa, and English is relatively widely spoken (as is German, apparently), so it’s simple to get to and around.
First, a number of people have wondered how I travel. A brief explanation on my trip to Kosovo may be informative. Prior to this trip, I had purchased plane tickets for my various stops in Europe on my way to Asia, but had not made any sleeping reservations — I have found on my travels that there is aaaaaalways somewhere to stay, and leaving things to the last minute on a trip like this gives you more flexibility as you travel. Anyways, so I new that I was flying out of Belgrade, Serbia on April 5th, giving me ~8 days after leaving Budapest to go somewhere. I like to do book research (Lonely Planet, almost always) before heading out, and Kosovo looked like it had an interesting mix of hiking and cool churches that would allow me to see things for a couple days before coming back to Belgrade and spending time in Serbia. After arriving in Kosovo, however, I found so many interesting things to do that I decided to pretty much cut Serbia out of the trip, leaving me with an entire week in Kosovo.
I took an overnight, sleeper train (~8 hours) into Belgrade from Budapest, and after a ~4 hour stopover in Belgrade (during which I visited the main castle overlooking the Sava river and the city at dawn), I hopped on another 7-hour bus to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. For those of you who don’t know, Kosovo was a part of Yugoslavia before its breakup, and became an administrative region of Serbia following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Kosovo is majority Albanian, most of whom are Muslim. Serbia as a whole is not, and in fact the Serbian Orthodox Church is based out of a church in Kosovo. As you can imagine, there were some ethnic tensions. While much of the former Yugoslavia had their situations resolved (relatively) in the early ’90s, Kosovo did not, which led to the Kosovo War in 1998–1999. While I do not want to get too deeply into the politics / tit-for-tat of what happened during the war, Bill Clinton and NATO intervened to prevent genocide, leading to Kosovo gaining official NATO protection. Finally, in just 2008 Kosovo declared a non-violent independence. While a number of nations (including Serbia, Russia, and China, but also Spain, India, Brazil, and Mexico) still do not recognize Kosovar independence, it is for all intents and purposes independent. The only travel-related impact this has on you is that if you plan on traveling from Kosovo to Serbia, you must either travel first from Serbia to Kosovo (in order to get a Serbia entry stamp in your passport), or you have to leave Kosovo for a neighboring country and then travel from there (Skopje, Macedonia → Belgrade is pretty common). Serbia does not recognize Kosovo entry stamps as valid for entering Serbia, and does not consider the border between Serbia and Kosovo to be “external”, so you need to get your entry stamp elsewhere.
So what did I like so much about Kosovo, and where all did I go? I went between Kosovo’s three main cities: Pristina, Prinzren, and Peja, as well as on some day-trips to smaller areas outside the cities. So, first of all, Kosovo has incredible natural beauty. It is mostly ringed by mountain ranges to the West / Southwest (Albanian Alps and Accursed Mountains) and South (Sharr Mountains), while the North and East are a flatter plains area. The weather was incredible, as it was generally in the 70s and sunny during the day, but would cool down into the 40s or 50s in the evening — just absolutely ideal. Everything is very close as well. Nothing in the country is more than ~90 minutes away by bus, and once you get to a town everything is easy walking distance.
Pristine is Kosovo’s capital and largest city. What I liked most about it was the energy that you could feel in the city — it’s incredibly young, and people were just always out and walking about, enjoying the fresh air and the infinite coffee shops that lined the streets in the city. Pristine served as the jumping off point for the first UNESCO Serbian Orthodox Monastery that I visited — Gračanica (pronounced Gra-chuh-nee-tsuh).
The monastery is a 20 minute busride (50 cents) from Pristina. Take the bus to Gjilan and just tell the driver to let you off at Gracanice. Tickets are all purchased onboard the bus. While the monastery may not look like all that much from the outside, the true treasures were the 500–800 year-old murals on the insides. Looking through these old, tiny churches I wonder if this is what churches and monasteries in Western Europe used to look like, before Catholicism got all that money and re-built everything, just fancier. I’ve not seen any churches so quaint in their construction but also so ornate in their interior.
Pristina also had a lovely old town to walk around in, and an ethnographic museum that I did not quite make it to. I stayed at the Han Hostel in Pristina, and would definitely suggest others to do so as well. Dorms were 10 euros / night, and the staff was friendly and helpful.
During my stay in Pristina, I made a day trip to Prinzren. This was definitely the correct choice, as while Prinzren certainly has the most picturesque old town, there is not as much to do as in Pristina or Peja. Still, it was really beautiful, as the old town was dotted with Ottoman-era mosques and much older, more run-down churches. Two highlights here: (1) was climbing the hill to the Prinzren Fortress (built in the 11th century by the Byzantines and expanded in the 13th century as the capital of the Serbian Empire at the time), which had a great view over the city and up into the Sharr Mountains, where I got my first peek of snow!
I also had one of my top meals of the trip. It was some sort of lamb stew, but with the lamb and veggies baked into a piece of Serbian bread (like a pot pie), and finished with a “glass” (which ended up being a 1/2 bottle) of local wine. Meal total was ~6 euros.
While Pristina and Prinzren were excellent for their atmospheric old towns, awesome churches and mosques, and good food, the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly Peja. Nestled at the foot of the Albanian Alps right where Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania come together, Peja was not only incredibly beautiful, but also had the top historic sites that I saw. Also, I stayed at a hostel called Hostel Serac. I was their first guest, and it was awesome. 10 euros including breakfast, which was homemade sheep’s milk cheese, fresh bread, and veggies. They just renovated a traditional family home for travellers, and have tons of good tips on where to go and how to get there.
First, the sites. Peja, and a town a short bus-ride away, are host to two of the most important Serbian Orthodox Churches / Monasteries in the world. The Visoki Decani Monastery was built in the 14th century and is nestled up in a pine and chestnut tree forest in the town of Decani (30 minutes from Peja — take the bus to Gjakove and get out at Decani).
Walking up to the monastery you quickly encounter one of the pervasive facts of independent Kosovo — the ubiquitous presence of international peacekeeping forces, especially around Serbian holy sites. Most of the major sites are guarded by KFOR (Kosovo FORce, a NATO mission) troops, and you will need to hand over your passport whenever you enter. As a foreigner, it is not a big deal, but the troops are there to prevent attacks on the churches and monasteries, many of which bear evidence of bomb blasts and fires on their frescoes.
Anyways, the monastery itself is beautiful, and you can do some hiking in the ravine up behind it as well if you have time.
The other sacred site is walking distance from “downtown” Peja, and is the highlight of the three. The Patriarchate of Pec (Peja’s Serbian name) is a 13th century monastery, and contrary to its name is actually an active nunnery. It is called the “Patriarchate” because it is where the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church is crowned — most recently Patriarch Irinej in 2010. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures inside (and had a very busy nun watching over me), so I don’t have anything from the inside. Just know that it was one of the most incredible religious locations I have seen, even if it doesn’t look it from the outside. Some of the frescoes inside were almost 900 years old, and there were three different chapels with different decoration styles corresponding to when they were constructed.
Aside from the excellent churches, Peja is known for its hiking — it is an excellent jumping off point for hikes into the Albanian Alps (including the 10-day“Peaks of the Balkans” trek that goes through Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania). I was only able to make it up for a day hike, but I plan on returning ASAP for further exploration.
Look, if I haven’t convinced you of the excellence that was Kosovo, I probably can’t. However, if you need just a little extra inspiration, here are some more pictures of food. Go there as soon as possible