Day one in the Balkans

I am a man who loves his sleep, so it was a tough gig for me to rise at 3.30 am on the departure day of my holiday. This was necessary because of the need to check in by 4.25 am for my flight from Luton Airport. I spent the night at the nearby Ibis Hotel and then walked to the airport in the dark.  We flew with the wonderfully-named, Hungarian-owned budget airline Wizz Air – which sounds like something from “Harry Potter” – and the flight in an Airbus A320 took 2 hours 50 minutes. Albanian time is one hour ahead of British time. 

We landed in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in beautiful sunshine (19C) and I quickly linked up with the other members of the group (there are 10 of us, three from Liverpool, two from Scotland) and the tour leader Muamer Sivrikoz known as Miku. Our tour bus is not the greatest, especially if – like me – you are tall, but it is adequate. 

Miku soon told us his story. He is the youngest of eight children and, like most Kosovans, he is ethnically Albanian. He was 17 when Serbian armed forces sought to occupy Kosovo and he became a refugee in Macedonia for three months until NATO bombing forced the Serbian military to withdraw.  Some 10,0000 were killed in the conflict and he told us “When you see a war, it changes you”. He explained that there are still small-scale NATO forces in the country in a peacekeeping role.  

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, making it Europe’s newest country, but – as Miku set out – the situation is still complicated.  Dozens of countries – including China, Russia and of course Serbia and Bosnia  – do not recognise Kosovo. Four languages are formally recognised: Albanian, Serbian, English and Turkish. To avoid causing offence to any ethnic group, the national flag is not like that of Albania and the national anthem has no words. Although Kosovo is not a member of the European Union, it uses the Euro (as does non-EU Montenegro).

Although most of the group had had little or no sleep, the tour started straightaway as we headed south-west for visits to two sites of special importance to the Orthodox Church of the Serbian minority. The first was the 13th century Patriarchate of Peja with stunning wall paintings and iconic images. The second, after a break for some brunch, was the Visoki Decani Monastery which is the largest medieval church in the Balkans. 

We then headed south-east to our first hotel of the tour: Hotel Kacinari in Prizren which is the second city of Kosovo and the former capital. After literally 15 minutes to take our cases to our rooms, we were off on a short walking tour of the city. We visited the Sinai Pasha Mosque. Unlike the churches of earlier in the day, we had to remove our shoes but we were allowed to take photographs. Next we took in the iconic view of Prizren: the 16th century Ottoman stone pedestrian bridge as foreground to the coloured roofs and towering minaret of the mosque. 

After a little free time, the group reconvened at the shadervan (fountain) in the main square and walked to our evening meal at a traditional food restaurant called “Tiffany”. We were ready for it: soup, dips, ajvar, salads (mixed, shope, Greek), casseroles (elbasan, sarma, mantia, xhyveq), shish (calf, chicken), and baklava. 


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