18April2014

Articles

Picturesque Kosovo

The New York Times listed Kosovo as one of its ‘41 Places to Go in 2011’, highly recommending its ‘mountains, medieval Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and unexpected nightlife’. Positioned in the centre of the Balkan Peninsula, Kosovo comprises a series of picturesque mountain ranges and pine forests interspersed with fertile green valleys. Only 10,908 square kilometres in size, most parts of the country can be accessed via a short drive from the border it shares with Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. What Kosovo lacks in coastline scenery it makes up for in the mountain and cultural heritage departments, and moreover visitors are always pleasantly surprised by the friendly café, food and nightclub culture found in Prishtina, the capital. This very young nation, which only declared its independence in 2008, has already become one of the more interesting, scenic and affordable destinations in the region.

Despite Kosovo’s problems and controversies, there has been much progress on the tourism front: a €1 billion highway project by American construction firm Bechtel is underway, government-owned hotels have been privatised and refurbished, various historic sites have won UNESCO World Heritage status, and Prishtina International Airport, in the midst of a 120 million Euro refurbishing and expansion, now welcomes flights from key global airlines including British Airways and EasyJet.

Visitors will also find that Europe’s youngest country likewise boasts the continent’s youngest population. Around half of its citizens are under 25, a statistic that comes to life in Prishtina, where, thanks in part to the return of enterprising young Kosovars from abroad, the streets are lined with cafés and restaurants. Over 500 espresso machines have been installed in Prishtina in the past three years since independence. During the hot, dry summers, these are full of young people at all times of day, creating an enjoyable, relaxed atmosphere. In terms of restaurants, Te Komiteti is great for a light lunch, with good daily specials, steaks and fresh fish. For drinks, head to The Cuban, which gets busy after 10pm and is especially popular for salsa dancing on Wednesday nights. The smaller  hotels in the city’s central neighborhood of Peyton Place are reportedly the best in the centre of the city, while most cafés have lots of tables outside and  can be lovely places to sit and watch the world go by. The Emerald Hotel, meanwhile, is Kosovo’s first five-star hotel, but it is located 20 kilometres outside Prishtina.

Heading out to the countryside, the hills and mountains have plenty to offer in terms of natural beauty. A visit to the mind-blowing Rugova Gorge, in itself worth the drive, is a good stop on the way to the Accursed Mountains, which straddle the border with Montenegro. There, spectacular granite cliffs climb almost vertically for a couple of thousand feet. And if caves are your thing, then the 1260-metre-long Marble Cave, discovered in 1969 in the hill of Murtur at Gadime, about 20 kilometres south of Prishtina, is well worth a visit; it is renowned for its smooth, mottled red, pink and brown marble walls, stalagmite and stalactite formations and rare crystals.

The White Drin River runs through Kosovo into Albania. Its source is at Zhleb Mountain in north-western Kosovo, where the river begins as a 30-metre-high waterfall, and is a popular tourist attraction.

The Sharr Mountains extend from southern Kosovo and the northwest of the Republic of Macedonia to northeastern Albania. In the Kosovan part, many alpine and glacial mountain lakes can be found, especially south of the village of Dragash, the area of Shutman and the region north of Vraça. The ski resort of Brezovica, with an elevation of 900m to 2,524 metres, is located in the northwestern mountains in Kosovo, and there are plans to develop it for summer as well as winter tourism. The Sharr Mountains National Park is the habitat of the lynx, bear, chamois, wolf, roe deer, wild boar and a rich variety of bird species.

Handicrafts have a long tradition in just about every city in Kosovo, the best-known being Prizren, Peja and Gjakova. Kosovar artisans are distinguished by their rich and skilled use of filigree, silver, copper, brass, argil, wood and other materials. Wonderful examples of such work can be found in souvenir shops throughout the country.

Archaelogical findings show that people were living in the region from the stone age. Later, from the second millennium BC, Illyrians, from whom present-day Albanians descended inhabited the Balkans, and the territory that is today’s Kosovo. The  Illyrian tribe  of Dardani occupied the territory of ancient Dardania, which was subsequently conquered by the Romans.

The Museum of Kosovo and the Ethnological Museum in Prishtina offer an exquisite journey into the past of the country. The former is located in an Austro-Hungarian inspired building originally built for the regional administration of the Ottoman Vilayet of Kosovo. Highlights include the Neolithic Goddess on the Throne terracotta (around 4000BC), unearthed near Prishtina in 1960 and depicted in the city’s emblem. The Kosovo Museum has an extensive collection of archaeological and ethnological artefacts, although many of them were stolen by Serbian authorities during the 1999 conflict. The museum currently seeks the return of these artifacts from Serbia in a cleverly designed campaign - ‘We want to go home.’

Some of Kosovo’s main attractions are found in the remnants of its Byzantine and Ottoman pasts. Once the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the city of Peja contains the Patriarchate of Peć, a complex of medieval churches packed with frescoes overlooking a jagged gorge, and the Deçani Monastery, built in the fourteenth century and filled with vivid biblical scenes. Architectual monuments from the Ottoman period include a number of fine mosques such as the Fatih Mosque (1461) in Prishtina, and the Sinan Pasha Mosque, in Prizren, which towers over Shadërvan Square and dates back to 1615. Draped along the banks of the River Bistrica, backed by towering green mountains and dotted with elegant buildings constructed over many centuries, Prizren is certainly Kosovo’s prettiest city centre. This fascinating destination, covered by snow in winter and dust during the hot summers, is also renowned as a cultural capital, being home to many summertime festivals including the annual Dokufest for documentary and short films.

With all this on offer, why not try Kosovo for yourself, and spend a weekend in Europe’s newest state?

 

 

Dokufest film festival

For a week each summer, the picturesque Kosovan town of Prizren is peppered with cinema screens and  teeming with visitors. Since 2002, Prizren has hosted Dokufest, an annual international documentary and short film festival where over 200 films from around 50 countries are screened. Last year, it was voted one of the top 25 international documentary festivals in the world.

But it has been a meteoric rise from humble beginnings. Diplomat caught up with Veton Nurkollari, Dokufest’s Artistic Director, who was quite plain about the fact that when he and a few friends set up the festival, they had neither the experience nor the intention to run an international event. ‘Back then it was very modest. We have had to teach ourselves; for example, we learned how to translate and subtitle films – we didn’t know how!’ It is incredible to think that Dokufest, the largest cultural event in Kosovo, happens in a town which has no cinema; ‘The aim was simple: we wanted a cinema in Prizren, but despite the huge success of Dokufest we still have not achieved this!’

Nurkollari, however, is pleased with what they have accomplished; the lack of a cinema has led to temporary screens being put up in unusual places – ‘open air theatres; there is even one over the river’ - one of the things which make Dokufest charming and individual. Dokufest also makes an important contribution to the area: culturally, of course, but also economically. ‘We give back a lot,’ Nurkollari points out; ‘we have revived the city. Each year, the festival brings several million euros to the country.’ But as with most projects at the moment, especially artistic ones, money is hard to come by; ‘Raising the budget is the biggest challenge. We are growing every year and we need more sponsors from public and private resources’.

As a foreign visitor, the striking thing about Dokufest is simply how fun it is. Alongside the edgy, interesting documentaries there are workshops, photography exhibitions, camping, concerts – all of which bring Prizren, a beautiful old town, to life, and attract a young, hip and lively international crowd. This year, musicians including Sofa Surfers and PJ Harvey were among the crowd. As one might expect, the festival is well-known for lively nights after film viewing is done. Nurkollari is keen on encouraging this youthful character; ‘In future, we plan to focus more on film production for the youth of Kosovo – this is what the workshops are for; we want to attract younger film-makers to come and learn to use the equipment and so on.’

Already a wonderful example of blossoming culture and tourism in this new state, it seems that Dokufest will only get better in its second decade of existence.

 

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