We had another leisurely start today. 8:00 breakfast and 9:00 departure, probably a good thing as a fair amount of wine and raki was consumed at dinner last night – not by us you understand.
We started with the Patriachate of Pec convent, best to go early so we were the only visitors there. The convent was originally built in 1233. There are ruins of a couple of old churches on the site but the main building is still well preserved.
From the 13th Century until about one hundred years ago this was the seat of the heads of the Serbian Orthodox church so it has a great historical and political significance. There is still a local police presence here as well. It’s an unusual arrangement of three churches side by side with a long covered entrance along the front of all three.
We were given audio guides to tell us about the history and some details of the frescoes but these were in very dry, quite technical ‘Google Translate’ English and not always easy to follow. The tour first takes you around the outside of the main church – at the back is a graveyard for the nuns, the top of the building has a number of domes. The inside is overwhelming: every section of wall and ceiling is covered in frescoes showing the history of the church, significant figures from the churches’ history, biblical scenes and a large representation of Christ’s family tree. Each of the three churches has its own character having been painted and restored at different times throughout their history, they are all stunning and as always we don’t have nearly enough time to do them justice. After the church there’s time for a brief visit to the gift shop to pick up some souvenirs – walnut liqueur made by the nuns. They also offered a small glass of raki.
After the convent, we headed into the hills for our second activity of the day – a hike in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains. The road follows the Rugovska Klisura gorge, a blue river tumbles down the rocky valley. It’s very narrow, the road has been cut into the side of the sheer cliffs, tunnelling through the rocks in places. At the top of the gorge, we turn off onto a small road to Shqiponja guesthouse which is the starting point of our walk and later our place for lunch.
The walk starts off with a steep climb out of the village, past a small local mosque. All the buildings here look new, most of the old ones were destroyed with napalm grenades by Serbian solders during the fighting for Kosovan independence. The scenery is again very alpine – steep green meadows with low wooden buildings and cows with tinkling cowbells.
There are many explanations of where the mountains got their name from; curses from mothers who lost their sons, malicious fairies or linguistic confusions – who knows? We stopped regularly for shade and drinks, the air temperature was around 30 but the sun was strong making it feel much warmer.
After a couple of hours, we stopped at a farmer’s house for tea and coffee, the view from the garden was huge – a deep green valley to our left, men working on a farm across the valley and above us on the right the 2,800m high ridges that mark the border with Montenegro.
Refreshed we continued, crossing meadows of wild flowers, there were butterflies everywhere. Our guide countered this sylvan mood by telling us stories about when he worked for the UN mine-removal teams. In one village, they were tasked with removing cluster bombs that were known to have been dropped there. They talked to some villagers about them and showed them photos of what they were looking for, one man told them the bombs were located on a particular hillside above the village and he also had about twenty at home. This turned out to be true, it was decided the best solution was to explode them where they were and the UN would build him a new house.
We started to head downhill towards our starting point, the ground is very dry and crumbly and probably harder to walk this way than up. We passed a concrete shell of a hotel; the owner had been obtaining money from a UN development fund – this source had dried up and building had stopped leaving a 4 storey white elephant abandoned in the hills. The location was fantastic; hopefully it will be completed one day.
Back at the guesthouse, we were reunited with Florence who had a relaxing time reading about Kosovo and taking in the beautiful surroundings.
Lunch was served, another wonderful meal of local produce, salads, bread, spinach cakes, soups and for us a very slow-cooked vegetable stew with sticky rice. This late lunch was another slow leisurely affair, nothing to rush for, we eventually left about 5pm and made our way back down the gorge to the hotel.
After a rest and clean up, we went out for a walk as the town was coming alive for the evening. We walked along ‘Tony Blair Street’ then found a Kula – an old house that Florence had read about. It had survived the war but had its ceiling removed by ‘irresponsible persons’.
We went back to the same restaurant as last night, not local food but the pizza was very good and the Stone Castle wine from a nearby vineyard was surprisingly good. We walked back through the town centre, which was now packed. Our guide told us that summer everywhere in the Balkans is like this, people work overseas and bring their money back here for a long summer holiday and they are as rich as kings for a month. Everyone is friendly and having a good time, nobody’s really drunk and no hassle anywhere.