Travels in Kosovo
History of Kosovo
The name Kosovo derives from a name meaning “field of blackbirds”. It is the smallest country in the Balkans, surrounded by several large mountain chains. It has a very young population, a quarter of which are under the age of 15.
It was part of the medieval Serbian empire before being ruled by the Ottoman empire for nearly 500 years, from the middle of the 15th century until the early 20th century. It then became part of Serbia and then the federation of Serbia.
in 1989 opposition to the Serb government grew amongst ethnic Albanians. their leader Ibrahim Rugova initiated a policy of non-violent protest. Tensions increased and the conflict escalated. The Kosovo Liberation Army came to prominence in 1996. They launched attacks on Serbian police officers and politicians. In 1998 the Serbian special police, later joined by the Yugoslav army tried to reassert control. Many atrocities were committed and large numbers of refugees began to flee the country.
The conflict was well documented by the international media. A “Contact Group” which consisted of the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, Italy and Russia made demands for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Yugoslav and Serbian forces from Kosovo. They also wanted international monitors to be allowed to enter the country.
The president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic outwardly appeared to accept these demands whilst actually implementing none of them. The KLA regrouped and launched more attacks. President Milosevic’s response to this was to introduce a policy of ethnic cleansing. Horrendous atrocities ensued. Despite efforts by the United Nations and the Security Council peace negotiations broke down.
On March 24th 1999 NATO commenced airstrikes on Serbian military targets. President Milosevic’s response was to try to expel all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, hundreds of thousands arrived in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. the NATO airstrikes went on for 11 weeks and finally Belgrade was also targeted. In June a peace accord was signed. Its terms included the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops, the return of 1 million ethnic Albanians who had fled Kosovo for other countries, as well as the 500,000 who had been displaced. Within Kosovo UN peacekeepers were deployed and it came under UN control.
Tensions continued. The federation of Yugoslavia broke up in 2003 and a federation of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo was formed. In March 2004 anti-Serbian riots broke out in many cities, leaving 30 dead and 4,000 Serbs and other ethnic minorities displaced. In Feb 2008 Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Many countries around the world recognise Kosovo as an independent country. these include; the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Japan, Italy and Sweden. Those that don’t include; Serbia, Russia, Argentina, Spain, Greece, China, India and Brazil.
In May 1999 Slobodan Milosevic was indicted for offenses against international law committed during the Kosovo conflict. He was then arrested in 2001 to stand trial for the charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war cimes committed during the conflicts in the Balkans. The trial began in February 2002 but was never concluded. Milosevic was found dead in his prison cell on March 11th 2006.
I took part in an aid convoy to Bosnia at the height of the conflict there.
Being the smallest country in the Balkans, it is possible to visit a lot of the country in a short time. The normal starting point is Kosovo’s capital Pristina. It is an easy, interesting place to start with a lovely old town next to a sweeping boulevard full of shops and outdoor cafes. Pristina also has a lively cafe scene and there are many funky coffee shops, restaurants and bars, I tried several of them. It is also an easy city to explore by foot.
On arrival I’d arranged to meet for beers with a local woman who has spent the last 3 years working for the UN in South Sudan. She was home visiting and was accompanied by an Egyptian friend who is doing his masters degree in Pristina. One of the best things about travelling for me is the wonderful and interesting people you meet along the way.
Things to See and Do in Pristina
The Newborn Monument
Newborn monument was erected when Kosovo gained independence from Serbia and its design changes every year.
The Saint Mother Teresa Cathedral
This very grand cathedral was consecrated in 2017. Thousands of Christians and Muslims gathered together for the consecration of the only cathedral dedicated to the Albanian born saint. The man appointed by Pope Francis to lead the ceremony was Father Simoni an Albanian priest. For 30 years the now 88 year old had been held in labour camps and regularly tortured under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. During this time practicing religion was banned. Twice he was sentenced to death. In 2016 he was made cardinal of Albania.
Read more about Mother Teresa and about the dictatorship of President Hoxha in my Albanian post;
Mother Teresa Statue
The main boulevard is also named after Mother Teresa. It is a lovely area to walk around and where you can also find the statue of Mother Teresa. The square also leads to Skanderbeg Square, the main plaza in Pristina. It is named after the Albanian freedom fighter whose statue dominates the square.
Wave at the Bill Clinton statue
Bill Clinton is held in great esteem here in Kosovo for his help in the fight for Kosovan independence. There is Bill Clinton Boulevard, a huge banner of his face and a larger than life statue. They give him credit for the Nato bombing campaign which ended the conflict here in 1999. There is also a clothes shop called Hillarys.
Visit the National Library
This is the National library in Pristina, Kosovo. It has been described as the world’s ugliest building! It was designed by a Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic, it opened in 1982. There were already tensions in Kosovo and he looked for something to unify the 2 sides. He came up with the idea of using cubes and domes which are common features in Ottoman and Byzantine architecture. There are 99 domes of different sizes. You will either love it or hate it but either way it is worth a look. I think it looks better from a distance. In the war the Serbian army used it as their headquarters.
It is in complete contrast to the building it sits next to.
Cathedral Church of Christ the Savior
Construction began in 1992 but it was never completed. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic ordered its construction in the mainly Albanian city to strengthen the Serb hold there. When war broke out construction stopped. It has never been finished and neither was it demolished. It can’t be agreed what should happen to it, so its ghostly presence haunts the city. Some locals still refer to it as the Milosevic church.
Walk Around the Old Town
Wander around the old town and visit the Sultan Mehmet Faith Mosque built in 1461 and the old clock tower.
Where to Stay in Pristina, Kosovo
the most famous hotel is the Swiss Diamond Hotel , a luxurious 5 star hotel just off Mother Teresa Boulevard.
My budget didn’t stretch to this. Instead I stayed in a lovely family run guesthouse just across the road called the Sleep Inn
Where to Eat
All the locals I spoke to recommended one restaurant ‘Liburnia’. It was wonderful, a real secret garden, full of character. This is where I spent my last night in Kosovo. A good way to finish in this lovely, old restaurant. Beautiful place, full of character and fabulous food.
About 25 mins drive outside of Pristina is the bear sanctuary. For me visiting there was quite an emotional experience. I worked as a volunteer at a bear sanctuary in Romania. It was a wonderful experience to get to know the bears and their characters. Their stories were horrific, including one who was blinded to prevent him from trying to run away. Many of these had similar sad stories, as shown by the photos of the conditions some were found in.
This sanctuary was wonderful and brought back lots of memories. It is in such a fantastic setting too. It was sad to read the stories of the individual bears and a couple were obviously still traumatised by their experiences. To see others though relaxed and clearly enjoying their space and new surroundings was magical. It is a fabulous place and does lots teaching future generations about bears and other wildlife conservation. The sanctuary in Romania should also be visited, again over a massive area with forest and rivers.
I caught the local bus for Pristina to Peja, it took one hour 40 minutes. The good thing about travelling with locals is that you pay local prices it cost 4 Euros.
Peja is nestled in the Accursed mountains. With a river flowing through the centre and with views to the mountains it is a pretty spot.
The old bazaar is not the original. This was destroyed twice during World War 2 and again during the war in Kosovo. It is now a mix of ancient and modern.
I’d also been told about the local cheese market. As I love cheese it was a must visit. I got to sample lots of homemade cheese and came away with a bag full.
There is also a lovely main square.
As I had a full day hiking the next day I had a leisurely wander then relaxed in one of the bars and restaurants by the river. A lovely little spot for a beer and a cocktail.
The reason most people visit Peja is for the wonderful nature and hiking opportunities nearby.
The Rugova Valley
The following day I’d arranged to do a full day’s hiking tour. The 1st stop was at one of the oldest local bakeries, where we bought burek, fresh out of the oven. The drive through the 25 kms of Rugova canyon is both incredibly dramatic and very beautiful. At times it has a depth of 1,000 metres. Created by the Pej glacier it left me awe struck. Flanked by the Accursed mountains, its forests still home to bears and wolves. The villages in the canyon were evicted by Serbia militia’s during the conflict and then burnt. Now villagers are starting to return. Previously they were farmers and pastures their animals on the slopes. Now as both local and foreign tourists begin to discover the beauty of the area, many are opening restaurants and chalets.
One of the most popular stops is at the view of the old stone bridge.
We stopped at the top of the mountain where we ate our burek. A beautiful breakfast view and a lovely start to the day.
From here we began the hike to Lake Liqenat. The hike was through a forest in the Accursed Mountains with fabulous views all around. Wild blueberries grow by the sides of the path and wild flowers also abound
The lake is at an elevation of 6,463 feet and marks the border between Kosovo and Montenegro. You can swim across it and cross the border, although being a glacial lake it may be a tad chilly! The colours are stunning, the greens of the forest and white of the clouds reflected on the blue lake. Wild flowers add splashes of purple and yellow. It was so peaceful, the only accompaniment the songs of the birds.
Apparently I am like a wild goat. We reached the lake in about half the normal time. The guide said I had a very fast pace, I thought I was taking it steady
The Patriarchal Monastery of Pec
In a beautiful setting situated halfway between the city of Peja and the entrance to the Rugova canyon lies the Patriarchal Monastery of Pec. The red walls of the monastery provide a striking contrast to the green of the surrounding hills. it is a very peaceful and tranquil spo.t Built in the 13th century, it is now home to an order of 20 nuns who follow the Julian calendar .There is also a little gift shop where I purchased some of their homemade red wine.
Inside the church are some lovely, well preserved frescoes.
The White Drin River
The White Drin river is the longest in Kosovo. It originates in a cave before cascading over the 25 metre waterfall. When I visited there was not much water, although it was still very beautiful and very clear. In the Spring with the melting snow the water pressure is very fierce. It is another lovely area for a hike through the park and is only 11km from Peja.
The Sleeping Beauty Cave
This is the origin of the White Drin river and is reached by a path by the side of the waterfall and up a winding path through the forest. it was originally just used by locals and was subject to litter and grafitti until a project was initiated to preserve it. The path leading to it was dark and dangerous. My guide for my hiking tour was part of that project and now overseas the running of the cave. Metal bridges were installed . 4 types of bat inhabit the cave and special lights were installed that do not interfere with their natural habitat. The cave is at least 2 million yeas old. There is even a bats gallery which I was entranced by,
Bats fly overhead, glistening stalactites hang from the ceiling and new stalagmites form into all kinds of shapes and colours. Digital mapping of the cave was carried out by teams from all over Europe and I was lucky enough to see the results.
Wow, what a day -I’d been out for 8 and a half hours. I was now totally shattered, but had seen and learnt so much. I still had burek and the bottle of wine from the monastery. The nun said it is dry and strong, it’s bloody lovely. This is the Lake Liquenat. Everything was on such a big scale today.
Where to stay in Peja, Kosovo
I stayed at a lovely family run place called the Stone Bridge Hotel . So friendly and helpful with great recommendations and a lovely rooftop terrace on which to relax.
Where to Eat in Peja
There are some fantastic bakeries for tasty snacks. One of the good things about staying with local families is recommendations for the best food. The Art Design restaurant didn’t disappoint. Great setting, fabulous decor and wonderful food.
I organised my hiking tour with Outdoor Kosovo. They were absolutely excellent, so much knowledge and care and gave me a good price as I was travelling solo.
Prizren is situated at the foothills of the Sharr mountains with the Bistrica river running through the centre. Surrounded by rolling hills and overlooked by a magnificent citadel. It is very pretty with its mosques, churches, ancient hamam and old stone bridge. Although it didn’t much ffrom bombing during the war, during the further unrest in 2004 many buildings and cultural treasures were damaged or vandalised by rioters. Many ethnic Albanians left the city in the early 1990s. When the war ended in 1999 and peacekeepers entered the Albanians returned and in return the Serbs fled. 97% of Serbs and 60% of Romas left. Of the 20,000 Serbs who were here in 1999 only 20 remain.
Some of the best views are from the old fortress, high on the hill and it is well worth the hike. The path is well marked and there are scenic views en route. The path takes you past another famous landmark.
The Church of the Holy Saviour
Built in 1330, it was declared a monument of culture of extreme importance. It was badly damaged during the unrest and riots of 2004.
The views of Prizen from the top of the fortress are spectacular.
The Sinan Pasha Mosque
At the heart of the old town sits this very impressive mosque. It was built from marble taken from the 14th century monastery of Michael the Archangel.
St. George’s Cathedral
It was built between 1856 – 1887. During the unrest and riots of 2004 it was looted and set on fire. It has since been renovated and has since been visited by Ban-Ki-Moon and Prince Charles.
The Church of Our Lady of Ljevis church was also badly damaged during the rioting. It was placed on the UNESCO in danger list. It remains closed
The Old Stone Bridge
The most famous bridge over the river is Ura e gurrit – the old stone bridge. Built in the 15th century it has been damaged many times and was destroyed by a flood in 1979. It was soon rebuilt, this bridge is under state protection.
Gazi Mehmed Pasha Hamam
The original Turkish bath was built from 1563 – 1564 and is well worth a look.
Just Wander Around
Prizren is one of those cities best explored on foot just wandering around immersing yourself in the atmosphere.
Prizren by Night
Prizren by night is also very beautiful. With the river running through the city spanned by the old stone bridge and the illuminated mosques, churches, and fortress. These sitting alongside funky bars and restaurants. A city of contrasts. With such a young population the city comes alive at night.
I stayed at the wonderful Monarch Boutique Hotel. Some of the best photographs I took were from the balcony of my hotel room.