Kosovo, at the time of writing, is the world’s second newest country. I was visiting Macedonia with my friend Dave, so it seemed a good chance to cross the border and explore Kosovo, a place largely overlooked by guidebooks and travel blogs. Our destination was Prizren, a town in the south of the country.
The main road from Macedonia to Prizren is varied. Giant potholes, steep drops, narrow passes and hairpin bends mean it’s a slow route on a good day. Even Google didn’t have a good idea of the road, and kept thinking we had driven off a mountain.
As we climbed higher and the temperature dropped, the roads become icy, and we wished we had hired something more substantial than a Skoda. We had anticipated warmer weather, so were not expecting the incredible winter views we encountered en route. At one point, a break in the clouds coincided with a tight hairpin, so we pulled over and accidentally took some promotional images for Skoda, as well as some photos of the mountains peeping through the mist.
As it enters Kosovo, the E65 passes through Kačanik, a town whose main claim to fame seems to be its contribution to Islamic extremism. For such a small town, a significant number of young men have travelled across to Syria to fight with Isis. The rise in extremism within Kosovo is attributed by people with far more knowledge than me, to an influx of radical preachers following the Kosovo war and a series of secretive associations funded by extremist Saudi organisations. Whatever the reason, we didn’t stick around in Kačanik for long, and continued to Prizren.
In the gorge of the Lepenica River in southern Kosovo, a huge project is underway to construct Route 6, or Autostrada Arbën Xhaferi. What was astounding was the scale of the project. Vast concrete plinths, towering hundreds of metres into the air, will one day support the dual carriageway between Skopje and Priština. Every support column was covered with fluorescent-clad workers, cranes and scaffolding in a feverish bustle of activity. As we were driving past, a fleet of former American school buses turned up with the next shift of workers, driving along winding trails cut into the rock in order to reach the base of the plinths. The project will cost an estimated €600 million, and is set to be completed by the end of 2018. Now I don’t know a lot about building motorways but given that there wasn’t actually any road yet installed, I think that seems an unlikely completion date.
It was eight degrees below zero as we neared Prizren, and we passed through rocky tunnels hewn into the mountains, with giant icicles hanging from the roof. Dave and I spent most of the rest of the journey speculating whether they would pierce the car/our skulls when they fell. We hoped not to find out.
We eventually arrived in Prizren and set about exploring the town. The centre dates back to the 11th Century, and is divided by the fast-flowing Prizren Bistrica river. We happened to arrive just as a drone was being prepared to take a photo of Kosovans in traditional dress standing on the Old Stone Bridge, which has provided me with a convenient main photo for this post.
The town is dominated by a vast stone fortress on a hill, which we decided to explore. As usual, I was woefully under-prepared for a climb, but slipped and slid my way up the steep cobbles to the fortress. From there, we had a wide, sweeping view across the town to the mountains, and Albania beyond. Prizren suffered very little during the Kosovo war of 1999, but many buildings suffered minor damage during unrest in 2004. Prizren today is among the most diverse towns in Kosovo, with communities of Bosniaks, Turks, Serbs and Romani as well as Kosovan Albanians.
As we were walking past the Sinan Pasha Mosque, I realised I had never actually been inside one. I took my shoes off and popped them into the shoe rack, then stepped inside the 15th century building. The carpet was cold on my feet, but slightly springy. There was no-one inside, and the thick walls muffled the sound of passing traffic. The inside of the domed roof was painted with a beautiful Arabic script, and in each alcove were copies of the Quran and other Islamic texts. It was a peaceful and reflective place.
One of the refreshing things about Prizren is that you still feel like you are discovering new things. There are few online reviews for Kosovo, and only one guide book in English. Noteworthy places we went to duringout short trip included Prince Coffee House alongside the river, and the excellent Restaurant Marashi. We went to Marashi for lunch and ordered far too much freshly-baked bread, as well as a steak which we cooked at the table ourselves on two hot stones. Just because somewhere doesn’t feature in a guidebook doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting.
It was Dave’s turn to drive back to Macedonia, which meant I was in charge of directions. As we were weaving through the narrow streets of Prizren, every single car seemed to be coming straight towards us. As Dave skilfully avoided the fifteenth oncoming vehicle, it dawned on me that Prizren actually had a poorly-signposted one way system. Sorry Dave.
Eventually we found our way onto the main road and headed back to Macedonia, leaving Prizren behind us. Kosovo certainly an interesting place. For a country so young, Kosovo is equally historic, so it was a fascinating place to explore. As we made our way back along the winding mountain roads, we noticed that a few of the huge icicles had dislodged and crashed down into the road. We drove a lot faster through the tunnels on the way back.