Kosovo is perhaps one of the last ‘off the beaten path’ destinations in Europe. Due to its tumultuous recent history, the country has often been overlooked by travellers in the Balkans. But thankfully Kosovo is experiencing a revival of sorts, and is now firmly back on the itinerary.
This once war-ravaged country is buzzing, with beautifully restored old towns, trendy cafes and great beer. It is also ridiculously cheap. Like, SE Asia cheap. We spent 3 days in Kosovo based in the country’s second largest city, Prizren. Here is a short history and some great places to see during a visit to Kosovo.
A short history of Kosovo
Kosovo is Europe’s newest country, having been declared independent in 2008. It was once the centre of a Serbian kingdom, but later ruled by the Ottomans from the mid-15th century to early-20th century. The population is predominantly ethnically Albanian, but many other Kosovars identify themselves as ethnically Turkish or Serbian. The predominant religion is Islam, along with significant numbers of Catholic and Orthodox followers.
This melting pot of cultures, religions and histories led to rising tensions in the 1990s, which culminated in an ethnic Albanian-led rebellion for independence in 1998. This led to an international crisis ending with the bombing of Serbia and Montenegro by NATO in 1999. Once peace was restored, Kosovo was administered by the UN until its independence in 2008. Serbia (and some other countries including Russia) continues to reject Kosovo’s independence, and still considers it part of Serbian territory.
Is it safe to visit Kosovo?
Absolutely. The overall security situation in Kosovo has calmed since the 1990s, and is now very safe. The local people are also incredibly friendly and helpful. We walked around at night without any concerns. As always, use common sense and steer clear of any anti-government protests etc. Hiking and camping is generally very safe, but ask a local about landmines before you set out especially if you will be near border regions. We seriously think you would have more chance of finding diamonds, but it never hurts to check.
Places to see in Kosovo
We only had three days in Kosovo, so we aren’t proclaiming to have seen the whole country. Having said that, it’s not a very big place so you can see quite a lot in a few days. We decided to skip the capital, Pristina, because most people we met said it was a bit ‘meh’. We based ourselves in Prizren instead, and highly recommend it. Here are a few things to see in and around this gorgeous city.
Prizren has a charming cobble stoned old town that is sliced in half by a small river. The stone bridges crossing the river are perfect for photos and people watching. Kosovo also has an impressive coffee culture. You can arguably find the best macchiato in Europe here – and it will cost less than 0.70 euros! In the afternoons, the old town in Prizren is filled to the brim with Kosovars relaxing in the sunlight with a coffee in hand. There is an enchanting atmosphere to the place, and we loved sitting back at a sidewalk cafe with a coffee watching the world go by.
We highly recommend climbing up to the Kalaja Fortress, which cuts an imposing shadow over Prizren. The climb takes around 30 minutes from the old town. There is a great walking trail at the back of the fortress, which leads down to the river and back to the old town (4km).
There are also some beautiful mosques dotted around Prizren. The most prominent is Sinan Pasha Mosque in the heart of the old town. The mosque is very welcoming to tourists. Just remember to take your shoes off at the entrance, and wear modest clothing.
The bustling Ottoman city of Gjakova is a great stopover between Prizren and Peja. Gjakova was an Ottoman trade centre with a huge central marketplace built in the 16th century. Gjakova suffered badly in the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, and the Kosovo War in the 1990s. However, there is little evidence of this war-torn past in this bustling regional hub now.
The cobble stoned Old Bazaar (Çarshia e Madhe) is packed with outdoor cafes and shops. The Hadumi Mosque Complex is also located in the Old Bazaar. Most of the complex was burned to the ground in 1999 during the Kosovo War, but the mosque and minaret survived.
Patriarchate of Pec
The serene Monastery of the Patriarchate of Pec is the main attraction in Peja, a small city located around 1.5 hours from Prizren. The monastery is located at the entrance of a beautiful gorge on the outskirts of town. The monastery was first built in the 12th century, but there have been many additions since then. It is still one of the most important Serbian Orthodox centres in the Balkans region. As a result, there are quite a few nuns still living and working at the monastery.
There is an audio guide included with the small entrance fee, but it’s pretty hard to follow to be honest. We tried rakia made by the nuns during our visit – it was potent stuff! The nun we spoke with said that she would live at the monastery until ‘the end of her days’. A truly amazing place.
Spring of Drini i Bardhe
This legendary mountain spring is located around 10 kms outside Peja, and is well worth the visit. There is now a rather ugly resort/hotel built near the entrance, but don’t let that deter you. Follow the boardwalk behind the hotel along the gushing icy river, then climb up the stairs to see the stunning spring waterfall. You can even walk above the waterfall to the spring source, and see water bubbling out from the rocks.
Where To Stay
We highly recommend M99 Hostel in Prizren. Edis and his brother are possibly the most welcoming and generous hosts we have ever encountered. Edis will even take you on a free orientation walk around the city centre. He also knows some great places to eat – we recommend Te Syla and EGO Restaurant.
We caught a direct bus to Prizren from Skopje (Macedonia). There are also daily connections with Tirana (Albania) and Belgrade (Serbia). There are also regular buses from Peja and Pristina to Prizren.
We hired an English speaking driver/guide through M99 Hostel for a one day tour of Gjakovar, Patriarchate of Pec and Drini i Bardhe. It cost 60 euro, and it was worth every cent. Our guide, Nedi, was really open and honest. He could not only tell us about the places we were visiting, but also about life in Kosovo.
There are also regular local buses travelling between Prizren-Gjakovar-Peja. To visit the Drini i Bardhe spring you will need to hire a taxi in Peja. We estimate a return trip should cost less than 10 euros.
Have you visited Kosovo? What did you think? Tell us in the comments below!
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