Quite a leisurely start to the day with breakfast at 8am and departure at 9:30am. I’m really getting a taste for cheese and honey!
The drive to the border was short. 45 minutes or so. On the way, we followed the Dragobi river. Ivan told stories of the law of the mountains which still operate in the region. Historically, there was no police force around, so this was how law and order was maintained. But it is very much about blood feud – a perpetual cycle of violence based on revenge.
Crossing into western Kosovo was sleek. The border officer came on board, took our passports and came back within a few minutes.
We are in Kosovo; the newest country in Europe and the second newest in the World – after South Sudan. Newest and youngest, with youth representing a third of the population.
The first thing to hit you is the number of graves everywhere. Most of them from 2008/2009. We all know about the atrocities and the fighting that came with the independence of Kosovo. To date, the country is not recognised by all UN countries.
We stopped at the Dečani monastery. This UNESCO World Heritage site is guarded by KFOR, as are many Serbian monasteries in Kosovo. The seriousness of the NATO troops dealing with us (we had to leave our passports with them) give an indication of how raw things still are here.
“Despite attacks from ethnic Albanians who’d like to see the Serbs leave, the 25 monks living here, in total isolation from the local community, have stayed and in 2016 even won a legal case reaffirming their right to ownership of the land.” (source: Lonely Planet)
We were promised a treat, and we were not disappointed.
The monastery was founded in the first half of the fourteenth century.
The 700 year-old frescoes are original; they were preserved by the smoke of the candles. They are carefully cleaned once a year. One of them is unique in that it is of Jesus with a sword – and if not unique, then one of the rarest depictions of Jesus. The sword holds a spiritual meaning and does not have any connotation of war. There are over one thousand compositions and a few thousand portraits. Once you enter the church, a sense of tranquility descends upon you. They only allow one group at a time, and we’re a small group.
The vibrancy of the colours; the smell of incense; the diversity of subject matters and a true sense of history make for an incredible site.
Ivan had told us to stop at the shop to buy a bottle of 2009 red wine. This wine – made by the monks who still live on site – is allegedly one of the best in the Balkans.
We got to Peja after a short drive; checked into our room (I need to mention the art in our room. We have three frames. They are all empty) and made for lunch as the call to prayer started. We kept it light for lunch – but did try a draft Peja pilsner – and set off for a tour of the town.
Having asked Ivan about safety in town, we opted not to take our camera bags with us and went off with just our cameras. He’d also told us there wasn’t much to see in town and his orientation tour took about twenty minutes. We saw the Bajrakli Mosque; the Ottoman-era bazaar – which was rebuilt after the Kosovo War, and the diaspora monument.
Kosovo was one of the countries on my list. From the moment it became a country. And it is a difficult reality to be here and see that there is still much work to be done before people can be comfortable here. Politicians are corrupt; youth unemployment is between 50%-60%; it is one of the poorest countries in Europe with the average salary being €300… and allegedly, this is one of so called ISIS most successful recruitment grounds.
Interestingly enough, on our walk yesterday, Adenis told us that the UK was no longer a popular country to move to – as it now costs £12,000 to enter illegally. The stories we’re hearing here – and in the Valbona valley yesterday – are that the people who do move abroad – and now it is likely to be Germany or Switzerland – pour money back into the local economies. And these are the people who are responsible for moving their country forward and giving their families a decent lifestyle. A consequence of this is that the younger generation doesn’t now need to move abroad, and Adenis is making his own luck in Albania, guiding local and international tourists, aged 19.
We left the centre of town and walked through the suburbs to walk along the riverside. It was only 3pm and we were not ready to go back to our hotel. So we explored. The walk wasn’t scenic, but it was good to stretch our legs. We noticed some abandoned houses. Ivan told us Serbian families lived there, and the houses were set on fire. The street signs are in Albanian and Serbian; I noticed one where the Serbian name was crossed out.
We got into a semi-wooded area, and a bit further along a clearing with a few cafés. The place was incredibly busy; mostly older men sitting, chatting, playing cards. All topless.
We crossed the river – the banks full of rubbish – and walked back to town. We had a cool drink in one of the terraced bars and refreshed continued to explore the centre of town. It was only 4:30pm but the only museum in town was now closed so we wandered around. There are many shops selling incredibly detailed wedding dresses – colourful, fashionable or traditional. A young woman was trying a dress on and we found out it costs €380. And alongside, sport shops selling football shirts – Mustafi and Xhaka in particular.
The excitement of realising that dinner was at a restaurant our Dutch friends in Tirana recommended to us died down quickly as I read the menu and saw that it was Italian. This is the best restaurant in town; I would have liked to try Kosovan food. The walk back to the hotel took us down a pedestrian street – with restaurants and bars packed.
We got back to our room and immediately, it became apparent that we wouldn’t sleep much tonight. There is a wedding party in the hotel restaurant and the band has just got going. Wish us luck!