History, wild places and meals that will stop you in your tracks, Europe’s newest country packs quite a punch. And that’s before you get started on the local raki.
By my third day in Kosovo, I began to suspect that my arrival in each town was being preceded by that of a representative of the local tourist board, sent ahead to make my journey as memorable as possible.
I’d just been driven to the door of an impossibly atmospheric 12th-century house/fortress, called a kulla, by a man who’d picked me up on a lonely road in south-west Kosovo. As I walked into the smoky bar to see if they had a room for the night, I was called over to a table by three local men and plied with Kosovar beer.
I’d barely had my request to buy the next round unceremoniously slapped down when a group of men sitting at the table opposite pulled out strange two- and three-stringed instruments and started playing traditional Albanian folk songs.
I drank a lot of free beer in Kosovo.
The lone tourist
My journey actually began in Macedonia. It’s cheaper to fly into Skopje and make your way into Kosovo overland than fly into the capital Priština. That’s what Kosovar expats do, including Argon, the guy sitting next to me on the plane. His brother, Bitim, met him at the airport and they gave me a lift to Priština, saving me a night in a hostel in Skopje and a five-hour bus trip the next day.
Priština is a bit scruffy and non-descript but there’s a real buzz to the city as the locals enthusiastically grab the opportunity to shape the destiny of their new country.
A visit to the excellent Kosovo Museum got me an invite to the opening of an art exhibition in the same building later that night. By my second glass of wine I’d been befriended by an artist, a filmmaker and a photographer, and dragged off on a gallery crawl through Priština.
The next morning, I popped across to the Serb stronghold, Gračanica, and its famous monastery. The village is only 10km from Priština and is one of the finest examples of late Byzantine architecture. The only other soul was a wizened old lady trying to sell me religious trinkets. Her prices were in Serb dinars, but she happily accepted euros.
Kosovo is a relatively small country and there are regular buses from Priština to most places. I headed north to Mitrovica, another Serb stronghold, where the town is divided into Albanian and Serb sections by the Ibar River.
Things were a little tense when I visited. Serb nationalists had blockaded the new bridge, built by the French. Some Italian soldiers were on hand to keep an eye on things; funnily enough, the Serbs seemed to despise them more than the Albanians.
From Mitrovica I caught a bus through rolling hills to Peja (or Peć), an old Ottoman trading town at the foot of the Rugova Gorge. I was staying with a family in Reka e Allages, a remote village high in the northerly Accursed Mountains. Mustafa, the head of the family, met me at the end of a dirt track and led me past grazing cows to his farmhouse, nestled in the shadow of Mount Hajla, on the border with Montenegro.
It was quiet and empty and the tinkling of bells on the cows echoed across the valley. Along the way we met other shepherds who Mustafa greeted with a series of questions about their health and well-being and the health and well-being of their extended families. They asked Mustafa the exact same questions in turn. It was almost dark when we finally got to the farmhouse.
In that time Mustafa’s wife, Fete, had laid out a traditional Albanian feast of roasted peppers and flia (a layered pastry tart). Mustafa and I ate first, as is still the custom in the mountains. Then Fete and the kids fell upon what was left. Mustafa brought out his horde of Peja beer and we spent the evening toasting each other and fashioning conversations from phrases at the back of my guidebook.
The next morning a taxi dropped me off at the Peć Patriarchate on the edge of town. The 13th-century monastery sits at the foot of the Rugova Gorge, beside the Bistrica River, and is a tranquil haven of Serb orthodoxy. The frescoes are amazing, but watch out for the crazy priest who paces up and down the compound yelling into his mobile phone.
The itinerary I set myself for that Sunday was the most audacious of my tour. I got the bus driver to drop me off at the turnoff to Isniq so I could check out the restored Kukleci and Osdautaj kullas (fun-sized family-run forts) – you just knock on the door and someone will show you around.
I hitched a ride to the Visoki Dečani Monastery where I was shown around by Brother Peter, who explained the tenets of Serb Orthodoxy as he lit the candles for the evening service. He talked me into staying for the first half-hour of evening service, arguing that I’d still have time to catch the last bus to Junik. I didn’t, and instead found myself hitching a ride with a van full of pretty Swiss students and their driver, who clutched his head in disbelief when he discovered that the strange guy he found beside a road in the middle of nowhere was an Australian.
I spent my last couple of days in Prizren, a picture-postcard town with a medieval stone bridge and a hilltop fort. Faik, from the filigree co-operative, showed me around his ‘factory’ and taught me how to knock up a delicate brooch out of intricate pieces of silver and lead.
I finished my trip back in Priština, waiting beside the ‘Newborn’ sculpture for Argon and a lift back to the airport in Macedonia (he was on the same flight back to London). I’d tried to blow the last of my budget having lunch in one of Priština’s best restaurants but I still had a tenner burning a hole in my pocket.
It struck me that the two Albanian phrases I’d used the most during my stay were gë zuar! (cheers!) and faleminderit (thank you). I’d visited Kosovo at just the right time. Everyday basics are cheap, facilities are getting better and travellers are still welcomed with open arms.
But be warned: there’s a Kosovar with a welcoming glass of raki waiting around every corner.
Take a trip for under £250
Access city: Priština or Skopje, Macedonia
Currency: Euro (€)
Language: Albanian, Serbian
When to go: Apr-Jun for flowering meadows and springtime temperatures. Jul-Sept is peak season so expect flights to be booked up; also, it can reach mid-30°Cs during the day. Sept-Oct’s cooler days are ideal for walking. Nov-Feb is very cold; snowy conditions may hamper travel
Getting there & around:
Wizz Air flies Luton-Skopje twice a week (from £59 return; 2hrs 30mins). The flight arrives after the last bus to Priština leaves (6pm), so you will have to take a taxi to downtown Skopje (around €25) to bed down for the night. Shanti Hostel, one of the cheapest places to stay in Skopje, will pick you up for €15 if you book a bed with them (from €8).
The bus service in Kosovo is very good and links most of the country through the capital. Do take a piece of paper and a pen to aid communication.
Normal hotels are expensive. Thankfully, a growing ‘chain’ of kullas (restored using EU funding) offers comfortable and atmospheric accommodation for €15 a night, including a huge traditional breakfast with raki! See Cultural Heritage Without Borders, Priština; chwbkosovo.org. The Kulla in Junik is run by Zymber (+377 44146960). He doesn’t speak English but he does speak German.
Rugova Experiences can organise family homestays in the mountains as well as transport.
Food & drink:
Eating in Kosovo is very cheap – a luxury meal costs no more than €10.
A traditional Albanian option is tavë, a hearty oven dish of meat, tomatoes and aubergine. Do try flia, a delicious layered pastry tart. Raki is a clear and potent spirit, which you’ll find Kosovars drink at all times of the day!