Balkans                                          2016

Balkans 2016 Albania Kosovo Macedonia

Balkans - Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia - 2016


It isn’t easy to find a dedicated travel guide to Kosovo, but I did manage to do so when I was planning this trip to the Balkans.  The book contains a map at the front with eight highlighted points of interest that should not be missed.  One of them is Prizren, and five of the others are in the area north of Prizren that we visited today on a 200 kilometre round trip journey.

We began the day with a better than expected breakfast.  Our expectations plummeted when we saw that we were to choose our breakfast from a small plastic folder containing colour photocopied photos of the options available.  Di and I both chose variations of omelettes, perhaps because they weren’t green like the photos of the sausages.  Fortunately, the food was far better than the photos in the catalogue-menu.

We began our day by driving north and taking a minor road through the valley of the White Drin River.  Our first stop was in the small village of Zym, which sat on a hill overlooking the river valley.  To reach Zym, we had to drive about 5 kilometres up a steep switchback road, quite a challenge for our little Dacia Stepway which performs much better going downhill; the steeper the better.  We went to Zym because we understood the people there still wore traditional clothes, with the women having wooden bars beneath their skirts to help carry milk and other heavy goods.  We also expected to see traditional stone houses, which have now become a rarity in Kosovo.  I think we must have been about 15 years too late to see either of these sights, as everyone dressed in apparent knowledge that this was indeed the 21st century, and most of the stone houses had either been totally renovated or allowed to collapse.  Nonetheless, the village was pretty, and the views of the valley below from the switchback road were stunning.

Returning to the valley floor at Gjonaj, we proceeded northwards along the narrow road through rich farmland and a series of surprisingly affluent villages.  We made just one stop on the outskirts of the village of Kushnin, where there was a small, isolated, old stone building over the top of a small creek.  It was a 500 year old water-powered mill that was using millstones to grind corn into cornflour, using technology that had not changed since the mill was built.  An elderly man was there, the operator of the mill, who was delighted to escort us inside and watch the mill in operation.

We re-joined the main highway north from Prizren at Bishtazhin, where we made our second stop.  Spanning the Eriniku River was a 15th century stone bridge, known as Ura e Terizive, or Tailor’s Bridge.  It was 190 metres long and just 3.5 metres wide, with 11 semi-oval arched openings for the water to flow underneath, each of the central arches causing to road to rise and fall in an unusual zig-zag pattern.  The bridge was in excellent condition, no doubt aided by repairs in the 18th century and again in 1982-84, and the fact that all motor traffic now uses a newer bridge that parallels Ura e Terizive just a few metres to its side.

Our third stop was just beyond the town of Deçan, the famous Visoki Dečani Monastery.  My guidebook describes it thus: “It’s really a masterpiece of orthodox monastic art, a fusion of styles and maybe the most peaceful and impressive monument in Kosovo today... the undisputed highlight and a real must for any visitor to Kosovo”.  The guidebook also says (correctly) that the monastery is guarded by Italian KFOR (NATO’s Kosovo FORce) troops who require a photo ID to enter.  What the guidebook neglects to mention is that the only photo ID that will satisfy them is a passport — and you can probably guess which Australian travellers in Kosovo left their passports at their hotel in Prizren, not thinking they would be needed.  So, we satisfied ourselves with some exterior photos, which is all we could have taken anyway, as photography is banned within the monastery, and headed back to our car.

Our next stop was just a few kilometres north at a small village off the main road known as Isniq.  In contrast with the villages we had visited and passed through earlier, which were mainly Catholic, Isniq was Muslim, and a substantial mosque was located beside the town square in the heart of the village.  The village had a fascinating and quite complex social structure that arose during the Ottoman era, with the village divided into several ‘timars’ (military estates), each controlled by a different knight, with a legal system that seems to have included more than a few blood fueds.

The attraction in Isniq was several outstanding examples of traditional Albanian ‘kullas’, or ‘tower houses’.  Built with one metre thick stone walls, windowless ground floors and tiny upper windows, two kullas had been restored and were occupied by families.  We managed to see the ground floor of one of the kullas that had been converted into a small museum (a fairly pathetic one at that), while the family in the second restored kulla were no home when we called.

From Isniq, we continued north, through the city of Peja (also known as Peć) and into Rugova Gorge.  The deep, narrow, limestone gorge was breathtaking in its scale and rugged nature.  The surrounding peaks rise
above 2,500 metres, with the highest — known as Accursed Peak — soaring to 2,560 metres.  The narrow, twisting road through the gorge is about 12 kilometres long, with several undercuts and tunnels through the rock, as well some great places to stop and admire the waterfalls, rapids and, yes, landslides.

The Rugova Valley marked the northern limit of our drive today.  We returned to Prizren along the main highway with just one final stop, the martyrs’ memorial cemetery at Landovicë.  Marked by a tall, white, abstract twisting sculpture, a large Albanian flag (yes, not a Kosovar flag) and graves of soldiers who were killed in Kosovo’s war of independence in 1998-99, the cemetery was a memorial to those who died on the winning side of the conflict (i.e. no mention of Serb forces).  At the entrance to the cemetery, a plaque welcomed visitors with the simple words in Albanian “Lavdi Dëshmorëve”, meaning ‘Honour the Martyrs’.  Given the high, if one-sided, aspirations of the memorial, it was surprising that it was already in such disrepair, with many of the marble surfaces falling way to reveal the concrete beneath.


Day 5 - Zym, Isniq and Rugova Gorge, Kosovo

Friday 3 June 2016