Kosovo is Europe’s newest country. At the heart of the Balkans, it is truly a fascinating land rewarding visitors with genuine generosity of it’s people, warm smiles, charming mountain towns, fantastic hiking opportunities and breathtaking medieval monasteries containing some of the most precious art in Europe.
Declaring independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has only been recognized as an independent nation by 112 countries. There are still many nations that do not accept Kosovan independence, including Serbia. The country has been the recipient of massive aid from the international community, particularly the EU and NATO. The horrors of Kosovo’s past are clearly on display all over the tiny nation: roads are dotted with memorials to those killed in 1998 – 1999 and NATO forces still guard Serbian monasteries.
Even though this is a nascent nation with huge unemployment and much struggle ahead of them, we felt absolutely safe there. The people of Kosovo may not have much but they are incredibly generous with what they do have – much more so than any of the more well to do countries that we have encountered.
Given that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation it is important to plan ahead. As a consequence, Serbian border officials will prevent non EU citizens from entering Serbia from Kosovo without first obtaining a Serbian entry stamp from a Serbian point of entry that is not on the Kosovo-Serbia border. For example: If you enter Serbia from Belgrade airport, or neighboring Macedonia or Montenegro, and receive a Serbian entry stamp upon entry, you may travel through Serbia to Kosovo and then back into Serbia without difficulty. If you first enter Kosovo from a country other than Serbia, and then try to cross into Serbia from Kosovo, the Serbian authorities will not allow the traveler to enter Serbia. Serbia does not recognize entry stamps by Kosovar border authorities at Kosovar ports of entry, including Prishtina Airport. This provides a bit of a headache, but is surmountable given that you go to Serbia first, Kosovo second and then exit through Serbia. Unless of course you have more than one passport or the Schengen Green Card.
If you are driving, the multi-national “green card” that is purchased with the car rental does not cover Kosovo (even though they assured us that it will). We had to pay another 15 Euros at the Kosovo border.
In hind sight, Prishtina is a city that we could have easily skipped. As the capital of this newborn country, we decided to take a closer look and spent a night there. The downtown core has a pedestrian walk which stretches across the city and shows off it’s few attractions. My favorite was the Newborn sign. These large letter blocks spell out the word NEWBORN. Every February since 2008 (Kosovo’s Independence Day) the letter blocks are decorated or arranged in a new way to portray an annual message. This year the message is Climate Change – “do all you can to help combat it”. Hopefully we all will.
Prizren is definitely the jewel of Kosovo as it is the true culture capital of the country. Seated at the foot of the Shar mountains and close to the Rahovec wine region, Kosovo’s second biggest city packs a heavy punch with its rich history, traditional handicraft shops and gastronomic delights.
Throughout history Prizren has played an important role in the region which was first settled in Illyrian times – starting in the middle of the 4th century BC. Situated at a major crossroad on the Balkan peninsula, the town hosted a handful of empires, with Byzantine and Ottoman architecture leaving the most distinctive marks on the look of the town.
The well preserved city center is made up of cobblestone streets, ancient mosques, centuries old churches and numerous bridges that for ages have straddled the Prizren Bistrica River. Overhead, a medieval fortress (Kalaja Fortress) looms on the hilltop, keeping a close eye on the city below.
Shar Mountain Range
Prizren is a perfect starting point for exploring the Shar mountain range, which borders Macedonia and Albania. Brezovica (about 40 km east of Prizren) is Kosovo’s main ski center which is undergoing a big face lift as it has not been updated since it’s heyday in the 1980’s (it was a downhill-ski backup for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo). In the spring, summer and fall the area is perfect for hiking, biking and generally enjoying the stunning nature of this beautiful area.
The Dragash area (35km southwest of Prizren) is especially scenic with more than 150 species of medicinal plants growing in the wild, frequent encounters with roaming shepherds, and peaks over 2500 m. Less than 3 km south from the quaint village of Brod is Arxhena Hotel – a bit of a hidden treasure, with spectacular surroundings and development of its own ski offerings in the works.
Gjakova is a laidback, historical town famous for having the longest bazaar in the Balkans. While much of the modern town is fairly unremarkable, its old town and Čaršija (bazaar) are both charming and it’s worth a short stop as you travel between Prizren and Peja.
Rob had been looking for coarsely ground coffee for his travel coffee press for what seemed like months. In the Bazaar in Gjakova he found a small shop which was roasting and grinding their own beans imported from Brazil. Rob was elated, but when I tried to pay, the owner would not take our money no matter how hard we tried to give it to him. Such incredible generosity from people who really don’t have that much but give magnanimously.
Peja is Kosovo’s third-largest city and one flanked by monasteries that hold some of the most divine art and architecture of the Balkans. With a Turkish-style bazaar at its heart, Peja is a worthwhile short stop on its own, but for most visitors the real reason to visit is to use the town as a launch pad to some wonderful mountain adventures in the spectacular nearby Rugova Valley and surrounding mountains.
Visoki Decani Monastery
Time stands still within the Visoki Decani Monastery, nestled among chestnut groves and pine trees at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains and just 16 km south of Peja. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2004, UNESCO cited the 14th-century abbey as an irreplaceable treasure, a place where “traditions of Romanesque architecture meet artistic patterns of the Byzantine world.”
Built in the early 14th century by Serbian king Stefan Dečanski, this monastery has over 1000 floor to ceiling well preserved frescoes making this one of the most beautiful churches in Europe.
Visoki Decani Monastery is heavily guarded around the clock by KFOR – Kosovo Force is a NATO-led international peacekeeping force which is responsible for establishing a safe and secure environment in Kosovo. Its operations are being gradually reduced as the new nation becomes more independent and gains strength. We really enjoyed the beauty and people of Kosovo and truly wish them a peaceful and prosperous future.