The past eight weeks we’ve had fantastic weather most of the time. Afternoon temperatures were always 25 degrees Celsius or more, the last five weeks 30-40 degrees was more or less standard. But as soon as we entered Kosovo from Macedonia our luck changed for a few days.
Rainfall, thick cloud cover and chilly temperatures (14-18 degrees Celsius) were our due as we drove to Prishtina, Kosovo’s not so pretty capital. Kosovo is the youngest European country, only gaining independence in 2008. Still a lot of countries don’t recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state and tourism from other countries other than Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro is very limited.
It’s one of the last real ‘undiscovered’ countries in Europe. For us, that was its biggest appeal. The country is very small too. We managed to visit the three major cities of Kosovo and its most beautiful valley in only three days and on half a tank of gasoline.
Buying car insurance
That Kosovo still has not found complete connection to the international world became apparent when we had to cross the border. In all other Balkan countries our Green Card that states in which countries our car insurance is valid was accepted. But Kosovo is not a member of the Green Card system yet so we had to buy Kosovar car insurance at the border valid for 15 days.
The border crossing went without a hitch and the drive to Prishtina was mostly wet and muddy. Just before getting to the city we visited yet another nice eastern orthodox monastery in Gračanica with yet again some beautiful frescoes. We stole some pics here by using our mobile phone.
Capital of Kosovo: Prishtina
We found Prishtina interesting but not very exciting. That it was Sunday and most of the few tourist sites in the city were closed didn’t help either to get a favorable first impression. It had a mishmash of architectural styles, seemed to lack city planning and it misses real touristic highlights. A surreal looking National Library, a unexpectedly small Bill Clinton statue and the Newborn monument that had been given a dull grey paint job this year were some of the top attractions.
Old world charm: Prizren
Prizren, the second city of Kosovo, agreed with us much more. It was still grey and a bit too cold the next day when we drove to this small city, but the old center had a lot of old world charm and with many terraces filled with holidaymakers mainly from Kosovo and surrounding countries, it was fun to wander around here for a day. We even took a ride in a tourist train, which with the fort (steep climb but nice views) seemed the most popular attraction in town…..
Heavily guarded: Visoki Dečani
From Prizren it was again a short drive to Peja (or Pejë/Peć), the third largest city in the northwest of Kosovo. Just before getting to Peja we visited the Visoki Dečani monastery. This must be one of the most sobering travel experiences we’ve ever had.
Kosovo gained independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia refuses to accept this. As a result nowhere else in former Yugoslavia the new-found political constellation is as fragile as in Kosovo. This is especially apparent around many Serbian orthodox churches and monasteries in the country. The predominantly Albanian Muslim population rather see the remaining Serbs in Kosovo leave.
Some of the churches and monasteries, however, are among the most important religious sites of the Serbian orthodox church. In Prizren we already saw guards protecting some churches, but nothing prepared us for the fortress-like protection of the Visoki Dečani monastery.
The monastery and the 20 resident Serbian monks are protected by UN KFOR troops and to enter we had to pass barricades that would be more common at a military camp in a conflict zone. We had to turn in our passports for the visit as well.
The interior of the monastery’s church was amazing though. It had some of the best frescoes we’ve seen on this trip. At first we were told that photography was not allowed inside and outside of the church, but after asking a second time we were granted permission to take pictures with our smart phone. Yay!
Sacral monument: Patriarchate of Peć
In the churches of the Patriarchate of Peć, one the most important sacral monuments in Serbian history in Peja itself, the resident nuns were less accommodating. Pictures from the outside were okay, but one of the nuns kept a vigilant watch as we admired the frescoes, making sure we were not going to take any photos. Security on the other hand was a little less tight here, the monastery and the nuns living there being guarded by local security. Our passports were checked but we didn’t have to turn them in.
Scenic drive: Rugova mountains
This monastery was on the road into the Rugova gorge and mountains, bordering Albania and Montenegro. It was a lovely scenic drive with some very steep hairpins at the end. After the tarmac stopped we did a pretty tough two hour return hike to a small but picturesque mountain lake.
Border crossing detour
The current political situation also dictated that we couldn’t directly drive from Kosovo to Serbia, but had to leave Kosovo first for another country and then travel into Serbia. That’s why we took a long and scenic but tiresome drive to return to Montenegro. Like at the Albanian border our car full of stuff raised some suspicions but luckily we didn’t have to unload this time. Our ‘Montenegro’ to the customs officials question on where we were going seemed to be satisfactory.
Outdoors: Durmitor National Park
In Montenegro we visited Durmitor National Park for a few days. It’s the biggest and most popular national park in Montenegro. That high season had started was clear here; many people wanting to enjoy some nature. Most people stick to Crno Jezero (Black Lake), which is close to Žabljak, the gateway to Durmitor, and has an easy hike around the lake.
On the many other trails it was more quiet. On day one we hiked to Jablan Jezero, a not too strenuous walk (classified as intermediate) to a lake that already had dried up to more than half its original size, which made the scenery less spectacular than expected. Most glacial lakes in the park shrink in size due to lack of rain.
The next day I did the hike to the top of Bobotov Kuk (2.523 meters), the highest peak in Durmitor National Park and the fourth highest in Montenegro. Eugénie opted out of this one because this is a seriously hard hike with very steep climbing and some rock hopping and climbing. The climb also had some scary parts in it, involving narrow ledges and ropes to hang on to above deep abysses. But the scenery was amazing with spectacular views from the top (which I had to share with a surprising number of other people).
I took the ‘easy’ route (there are four), doing the return trip from the Sedlo Pass (1907 meters) car park. This was already tough enough, feeling tired from the past week of traveling and being unused to these altitudes. I still managed to complete the hike 10 minutes quicker (including a short unplanned detour and many photo and rest stops) than the three hours that stand for it. Getting down was almost as hard on the legs as getting up, I fell hard on the loose stones once, but made it to our temporary home in Žabljak before the thunderstorms rolled in.
While I was away Eugénie went in search of a dentist because the tooth she had treated five weeks ago in Budva is giving her some trouble again. Unfortunately the town’s dentist was on vacation. She was forwarded to the hospital but after taking a look at it she decided it probably was better to wait until we get to Belgrade in a few days’ time.
Deep: Tara Canyon
Our last day in Durmitor was spent taking a short hike to the Curevac viewpoint overlooking the Tara Canyon, the deepest canyon in Europe. The views from Bobotov Kuk were better though. We also took a zipline across the canyon near the Tara Canyon bridge. At 20 euro we found it a bit expensive but went ahead with it anyway. It was great, but we were across the canyon before we knew it as well. Next stop: Serbia.
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