Friday, 28 July 2017

Kosovo: Off, Off, Off the Beaten Track in the Balkans

Balkan Travellers   
The Balkans, this troublesome part of Europe that in the last two decades flooded Western European and US media with news of violence, hides the greatest variety of pristine, off-the-beaten track destinations on the Old continent.

With Kosovo’s status now apparently resolved, even more spots become accessible to adventurers – from the underdeveloped ski-resorts and spa wells, hidden in majestic mountains and numerous, yet-to-be-explored natural parks, to the rich and intriguingly cultural heritage sites brimming with controversy.

Until now, travel in the territory that was an autonomous Serbian province and a UN protectorate was problematic. An unclear border regime, issues with green cards for automobiles and other insurance and the danger of unrest discouraged many travellers from going into the territory, causing them to avoid it.

Derelict infrastructure is, and will probably remain for a while, one of the serious obstacles to Kosovo’s becoming accessible to tourists.

But at least five spots in the newly established republic have the potential to turn into attractive destinations, and are already causing many travellers’ mouths to water.

Bjeshkët e Nemuna Ski Resort
The Serbian Monasteries

Bjeshkët e Nemuna Ski Resort

Kosovo’s biggest winter resort is located in the dramatic landscape of the Prokletije Mountains – the steep, spooky range between Kosovo and Montenegro. Their name literally translates to ‘accursed’ because of the difficulty in crossing them, but they are also known as the Albanian Alps.

With its highest peak – Gjeravica at 2,656 metres, this mountain is considered to have highest potential for tourism development in the newly established republic.

The resort, which started to be developed during the times of former Yugoslavia, is surrounded by pristine mountains of rare beauty, where numerous medieval monuments are yet to be properly explored and made accessible.

According to local authorities’ evaluation, the "Albanian Alps" could accommodate up to 30,000 winter tourism visitors.

The Serbian Monasteries

For almost two decades the numerous and splendid Serbian monasteries and churches all across Kosovo have been inaccessible to Albanians, and due to the ethnic conflict in the territory - to foreigners as well. The restrictive, nationalistic policy of the Serbian Orthodox Church was derived from history, but also from the Serb Patriarchy’s fear that Serbs may lose this heritage. In the coming months the Serbs will obviously have to come to terms with reality.

According to the Serbian Orthodox Church there are 27 monasteries on the territory of Kosovo: 11 of them are active, seven are preserved and sometimes used for religious services, and nine lie in ruins. The most remarkable among them are Dečani, Gračanica, the Patriarchate of Peć, and the Most Holy Theotokos of Ljeviš.

Currently many of these places are guarded by KFOR soldiers. Visitors are required to get permission to visit, but that is no difficult to obtain, at least for non-Albanians.

It is only after the war in 1999 that it has become a possible target of the Albanian forces, as it has been respected over the centuries. According to the statements of the Albanian community, this intolerance, turned against religious symbols, was caused by the fact that within these walls the Patriarch Pavle had blessed the Serbian paramilitary forces at the beginning of the conflict in Kosovo. Today this place is guarded 24/7 by the Italian KFOR soldiers, but it is quite easy to get the permission to visit.


Although calling Priština a beautiful place would require a stretch of the imagination, the spirit of this town is its true and chief attraction. Fashionable cafés and restaurants serving delicious food, its welcoming people with an average age between 25 and 30 and its energy and optimism are what makes up for the construction work, going on literally on every corner of the town, and its unremarkable architecture.

Yet there are buildings and places that shouldn’t be missed in Priština. In one of its main squares stands the fifteenth-century Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque, one of the most beautiful Muslim buildings in Kosovo. Converted into a Catholic Church at the end of the seventeenth century during the Austrian-Turkish wars, and decorated with swastikas by the German troops during the Second World War, the mosque was given a facelift by the international community in the last decade.

Next to it stands a hammam, a Turkish bath from the same historical period and a clock tower from the nineteenth century.

The historical museum of the town should also not be missed, as it contains a splendid collection of ancient artefacts, including the small clay statue of a fertility goddess, which is used as a symbol of Priština. In 1998, 1,247 of its valuable objects were taken to an exhibition in Belgrade, never to be returned.

The museum is situated in an Austro-Hungarian inspired building, initially constructed for the regional administration, though between 1945 and 1975 it was used as headquarters for the Yugoslav National Army

Up the hill from the monument of Skenderbeg – the Albanian national hero known for his struggle against the Ottoman Empire, on a green lawn, stands a concrete monument to the victims of the latest ethnic conflict between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs. It is surrounded by the grave of the charismatic late leader Ibrahim Rugova, and with a long row of graves of Albanian freedom fighters, immersed in heaps of artificial and real flowers.

Another site that contains the recent past’s memory is the Orthodox church, built by Milošević shortly before the eruption of the ethnic conflict. Its brick walls and concrete domes are topped off with a huge shining cross – a daily reminder to the citizens of Priština, which are almost exclusively non-Orthodox Albanians of the town’s bitter modern history.

Peć / Peja

This is the second biggest, and arguably the most beautiful town of Kosovo. Lying at the foot of the Prokletija/e Mountains, it features the typical for the region mixture of Eastern and Western architectural traditions. Although it suffered heavily from the military conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs at the end of the 1990s, the town could easily revive its pleasant atmosphere and offer inspiring walks along narrow, cobbled stone streets, interrupted by breaks at the squares that emanate a provincial European grandeur, only at times disturbed by concrete masterpieces of the socialist era.

Churches and mosques are amongst the most interesting attractions to travellers in the town, including the old Ottoman Bajrakli Mosque, built in the fifteenth century, and the Patriarchate of Peć.

The impressive mountains that dominate the town’s landscape offer not only an extraordinary background, but also good opportunities for hiking and rock climbing.


This ski resort, built on the slopes of the Šar/Sharr Mountain that lies along the border with Serbia and Macedonia, is considered to be one of the most important tourist destinations of the country. The hotels area is placed 900 metres above the sea level, while the skiing slopes start as high as 2,500 meters, guaranteeing a season that starts in December and lasts easily until the end of April.

The relatively new resort was established in 1983 with the idea to develop winter tourism in the region.

Sleepy in the summer, during the winter the place has attracted tourists despite Kosovo’s troublesome fame – its slopes for slalom and giant slalom are claimed to be of superb quality, and are officially registered by the International Ski Federation.

One of Brezovica’s great advantages is its location – it lies at an almost equal distance from two international airports: those of Skopje (70 km) and Prishtina (60 km).

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