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Balkan Odyssey Part 12: Kosovo!!!
After spending a few days in the mountains of northern Albania, it came time to leave the village of Valbona.
The best way to do so is to hike up the valley and over a mountain pass to the village of Thethi. This 7-hour hike is supposed to be amazing and should be done with a guide, as it is not clearly marked. Such trips can be arranged through Alfred at the bar/cabin in Valbona, or with the fine folks at Outdoor Albania in advance.
Unfortunately for myself, it started raining and I wasn't able to even attempt the trek. I didn't want to backtrack through Lake Komani again, no matter how beautiful it was, so I had to improvise. This is where it pays to have a guidebook that covers a larger area than where you initially planned to travel. I learned from my Lonely Planet Western Balkans that the closest place of interest was easy to get to by car was just across the border in Kosovo.
The name alone implies the same war-heavy weight and connotations of horror that places like Vietnam still do. But, according to the guidebook and a brief discussion with some Valbona locals, Kosovo is safe these days--providing one doesn't stray too far from marked paths where active land mines still lay.
So, I was up early in Valbona to catch the 6 a.m. minivan back to Bajram Curri. The otherwise pleasant drive was punctuated by a baby lamb, tied up and tossed in the back of the van that bleated in horror throughout the trip. This was a one-way journey for Little Bo Bleat; she was on her way to market in Bajram Curri.
In Bajram Curri I discovered that the next minivan to Gjakova, Kosovo wasn't leaving for about five hours so I hired a cab for the two-hour journey ($30) and headed east. Kosovo is technically in Serbia but the border is manned by UN troops. This was my first ever UN border crossing and other than barbed wire and those white UN vehicles you always see in photographs of really bad places, it was otherwise quite peaceful.
The best news for my travel weary bones, however, was that the highway crossing through the border had recently been paved and was the smoothest ride I had in all of Albania. Not too far beyond the border, I was dropped off at the Gjakova bus station where I caught a bus for two euros for the hour long trip to my final destination: Prizren.
Prizren turned out to be a pleasant surprise and one of the highlights of my trip. It's a wonderfully quaint town with cobblestone streets, ancient two-story homes, pedestrian walkways, mosques, and a sea of red-tiled homes.
Shadrvan Plaza in the center of town is a lively square packed with restaurants and cafes. This is the place to be. I was fortunate enough to arrive when the town was celebrating the 128 Anniversary of the Prizren League ("a nationalist movemement which sought autonomy from the Turks) so the square was more lively than normal. This is definitely a café town; residents spend hours enjoying coffee or cold beers in the outdoor cafes which surround Shadrvan Plaza.
About 90% of Prizren residents are ethnic Albanians and the Albanian flag can be seen everywhere--far more often than I saw it in Albania itself. The people, however, are of a very different mentality. Of course, it could have been the 128th anniversary celebrations, but in the evenings, a number of discos and pubs exploded with drinking and dancing. This was a far different breed of Albanians than their more conservative cousins I came across in Tirana. Indeed when I later told a taxi driver in Albania that I had visited Kosovo his eyes lit up. I thought he was going ask me why I had gone to such a dangerous place, but instead he merely wanted to know if I had gotten lucky.
As part of the celebrations, a number of ethnic dance troupes came out to do their thing. It was a wild foot-stomping good time.
The only real tourist attraction is the Fortress of Prizren located on the top of a mountain overlooking the city. Not much remains, but the steep walk to get there is rewarded with wonderful views.
Perhaps the greatest highlight for me came rather unexpectedly. Upon arriving I popped into the first restaurant I could find, Besimi/Beska in Shadrvan Plaza and ordered some chicken. I expected the same, tough chicken I had throughout Albania, but boy was I wrong. Prizren still retains a heavy Turkish influence from its days in the Ottoman Empire and thankfully, so does the food. The chicken was amazingly succulent and seasoned with phenomenal spices. It was the best meal I had my whole trip. I kept returning for most of my other meals as well. Everything was excellent, the beefsteaks, Greek salad, baklava, bread and more.
The low point of Prizren, however, was accommodations. The Lonely Planet failed to mention even a single suggestion and now I know why. Their brief description of the town, however, referred to Hotel Theranda as a reference point. So that is where I checked in. This was a big mistake and I ended up doing something I've NEVER done before: I left.
I shouldn't have expected very much from a room that costs only 15 euros. Normally any roof over my head is good enough for me, but this was too much. The hallways were like something from The Shining; they looked to be slowly melting in on themselves. The room was worse. The first thing I noticed was the dozen or so flies swirling about in a circle above the bed as though something had recently died there. These weren't airy little gnats, either, but bug ugly horseflies.
Shortly after seeing the flies, the smell hit me. Bad smells are never your friend. I can always close my eyes to the ugliest of hotel rooms, but there is no way to stop the stink.
I left my bags in the room and started looking for another hotel. There was one directly across the street, but when I checked out the rooms they were only marginally better for 30 euros. It wasn't until a few hours later, while talking to some local who had stopped to ask where I was from, that I learned about a pension in town. Bujtine Pension (rr M. Ugarevic – E Bujtinave 14, Tel. 381/0/29 631-628; 45-342) is located near Shadrvan Plaza. It was clean, had a nice bathroom with hot water, and was pretty much everything you could want for a place for the night. And, it was only 20 euros.
It was strange to think of ethnic cleansing while sitting in a café watching the crowds of people wandering past. And yet, every one of these people in this photograph was marked for extermination by the Serbs who wanted to wipe the ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. This wasn't some World War II horror, but one that happened just a few years ago in 1998/99. It was difficult to imagine, everyone was in such a happy mood with the city celebrations going on, but the horrors are still very fresh.
Here's the conflict in a nutshell. Muslim dominated Kosovo had been granted autonomy while part of Yugoslavia. This autonomy, however, was revoked in 1990 during a period of strikes against Serbian domination. To make matters worse, the Serbs banned the Albanian language in much of the mass media--the first sign of an empire swallowing up an indigenous culture. The Kosovo Liberation Army formed in 1996 and fought a guerilla style war with the Serbs. In early 1999 Slobodan Miloševic amped up the Serbian campaign and drove 850,000 Albanians into exile across the borders into Albania and Macedonia. NATO responded with a bombing campaign which eventually led to Serbian forces withdrawing from Kosovo. The exiled Albanian returned en masse and extracted what revenge they could from the few remaining Serbs. This included torching Serb homes on the mountainside (above photo) and destroying orthodox churches.
Christ the Savior Church, half way up the mountain towering over Prizren, was one of the churches damaged, but not completely destroyed. Today, it is manned 24/7 by an International Peacekeeping Force. You can see their bunker in the photo above.
Of course, history is always more complicated than the simple nutshell explanation I've provided above, so I apologize for such a brief summary. Those of you interested in learning more about the Kosovo conflict can click here.