Thursday, August 8, 2013


When we rented our car for our trip to the Balkans, the car rental company told us we could take it everywhere we wanted to go--except Kosovo, which is still considered a war zone. However, a few years ago when my brother-in-law Chris was on a work assignment for several months in Kosovo's capital city of Pristina, a native Kosovar named Inan translated for him and they became friends.  Chris contacted Inan and the two of them arranged a way for us to travel in Kosovo. What are the chances of all those pieces falling into place? It is a series of little miracles.
Inan and Chris
Inan, who now works for Kosovo's Department of Agriculture, has worked for many U.S. agencies, including USAID, and speaks fluent English. He has also worked with many drivers who are responsible for transporting foreign officials. He organized a day trip for us, complete with an English-speaking driver who would pick us up from our hotel in Skopje, drive us across the border into Kosovo, and take us on a drive through the Sari Mountains and into Prizren, Kosovo's second most-important city, where Inan would be waiting to show us around the city.

I was more than a little hesitant. If the car rental company didn't want us going to Kosovo, what made us think it was safe? In the end, Bob had his mind made up, and I had to trust Chris's high praise for Inan and his positive comments about his own experience in the country. 

Although the war in Kosovo was less than a decade ago, before this trip I was embarrassingly ignorant about Kosovo's history. I have since learned that as an integral part of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, which had a majority Albanian/Islamic population, was granted more-or-less self-governance by Tito in 1974, but during those years the standard of living was pitifully low. Tensions between resident Serbs and Albanians rose under Tito's successor Milosevic, and in 1989 Milosevic suspended Kosovo's autonomy and a state of emergency was declared. In response, ethnic Albanians declared independence from Serbia in 1990, and the Serbian government responded by replacing all the Albanians in government with Serbs.  

War broke out in 1992, ethnic conflict heightened, and the US got involved in 1999 when the Serbs drove 850,000 Kosovo Albanians out of the country as part of a program of ethnic cleansing. When Serbia refused to let up, NATO began a bombing campaign in March 1999. By June, Milosevic began withdrawing troops from Kosovo, and the country became a UN-NATO Protectorate. Ethnic violence broke out again in 2004, and in 2006, Serbia voted in favor of a new constitution that included Kosovo. The Kosovo Parliament re-asserted its independence in 2008, and the UN recognized their status as an independent nation, although Serbia did not and has not, which is why we were not allowed to take our rental car into the country. Who knows what might happen next?

Currently, five out of the twenty-seven European Union countries do not acknowledge Kosovo's independence--Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia. Although Kosovo is not part of the European Union, it does use the euro rather than the Serbian dinar. The only other non-EU country that uses the euro is Montenegro.

It is incredible to think we were traveling in a country that was only five years old. What a miracle! That would have been the United States n 1781 when the British were still pretty sore about the War for Independence. The only newer country in the whole world is South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in 2011. 

And now, with that very superficial overview of recent history, back to our travels. 
Our driver, Bekim, picked us up right on time at 8:00 a.m. at our hotel. We later learned that he had left his home in the capital city of Pristina very early (5:00?) to ensure he would arrive on time. We made our way to the border and crossed without any problems into Kosovo, a country roughly the size of Connecticut.

Almost immediately we began to ascend from the flat plain of Skopje into the Sharr Mountains, a drive as beautiful as any we've been on in the United States:
Kosovo would be mecca for hikers and climbers:
At the top of a mountain pass we came upon the tiny town of Prevalla. We stopped for a soda and heard some baa-ing and maa-ing coming from over the hill. When we went to look, we saw these sheep and goats being let out of their pen to graze on the lush grass of what in winter is a ski run.

Note the two dogs indicated by the red arrows below. More about them later.
I think this is a t-bar rather than a ski lift.
The shepherd, complete with his staff:
The dogs are incredible. They are enormous but also lean and muscular with thick, bushy hair. They are bred in this region specifically to be sheep dogs. In fact, this dog is one of the oldest native breeds in the world. Our driver/guide called them "Shari sheepdogs" (named after the Sharr Mountains where they are most commonly bred and where we are in these pictures), although I've found them called many other variations of that name on the Internet.

The men at the site told Bob not to approach them when they were working as they can be quite fierce. Shari dogs can hold their own against the wolves that are common to this area and have been known to take on a bear. Some are bred for fighting and can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. When the two we were watching got their herd situated, they came over to get a drink:

. . . and then Bob was allowed to approach them. They were quite friendly and docile:
Seeing Bob's interest in the sheep and goats, the men working the little store full of snacks for travelers told us (through our driver/guide) that they had a batch of fresh cheese made from the sheep's milk and offered us a taste.  The pulled out a plastic bucket with a hunk of white, milky cheese at the bottom and cut some off for us to taste. Bob reacted positively, so they offered to sell him some. He agreed, and somehow we ended up with the bulk of the day-old cheese, much more than we could possibly eat.
It was very mild, almost too mild. Oh well. It was cheap, and I think we made their day.
They told our driver about a nice little waterfall down a dirt road, and our driver good-naturedly agreed to take us to it. The road was a little bumpy, and I think Bekim was not too happy about what the road might be doing to his car, but the scenery was lovely:

We got back on the main road and continued our journey to Prizren, stopping now and then for a few pictures.
Sam, my mountain-climbing son, would love this place.
One of the first pictures I took when we arrived in the city:
This prominently placed statue is a good reminder that the Kosovo War is not that far in the past:
Kosovo today is made up of 92% Albanians, the great majority of which are Muslims. We did see one Orthodox church in the center of town, but it was locked and we were unable to see inside, although we did see some priests. I have to admire them for sticking with it in a country so obviously antagonistic towards them. I would like to have heard about the last decade in Kosovo from their perspective.
One of the first things we did was share a meal with Inan, Chris's friend. Conversation over lunch is a great way to get to know someone.
Shopska Salad, common all over the Balkans
Wonderful bread
My delicious meat platter
Bob's Skanderberg--a traditional dish of meat, cabbage, and cheese rolled together, breaded, and fried.
It was named after Albania's most important hero.  Unfortunately, it was only so-so.
An artistic display of colorful beans in a shop window
An interestingly asymmetric stone bridge crosses the Prizrenska Bistrica River.
Later in the day we passed another section of the river with this impressive graffiti on the wall separating the river from the street:

It's always fun to see teenagers, who seem to be so much alike no matter where in the world they live.
Young people everywhere love hanging out downtown.
After lunch, Inan took us to the main "downtown" mosque, the Sinan Pasha Mosque, built in 1615.

Inan was obviously proud of his Muslim heritage, and later took us to another mosque, the Gazi Mehmet Pasha Mosque, also known as the Bajrakli Mosque. Built in 1561, it is one of the oldest structures in Prizren.

The interior ornamentation is simpler than the Sinan Pasha Mosque, but it is large, airy, and tranquil.

The carpet has individual spaces marked off for prayer services, all pointing towards the mihrab. I would have loved to see each of these occupied:

Standing in these places of prayer and meditation, it is difficult to imagine this city at war, and it is also easy to understand why Inan and others are anxious to distance themselves from the Islamic extremists. And yet, other sites we saw in this tortured country reminded us that the Kosovo War was and continues to be a very complex conflict.

John Esposito, the author of What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, is a Professor of Religion and International affairs, Professor of Islamic Studies, and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. He was also editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam and other books about Islam.  In other words, he knows his material very well. What makes Esposito especially interesting to me is that he was raised as a Roman Catholic in an Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn, and he spent a decade in a monastery, later earned a master's degree in theology, and followed up with a PhD with a focus on Islam. He is not a Muslim himself, but he has spent his life studying Islam and promoting understanding between Christians and Muslims. 
This is not the type of book I generally pick up, but it was the selection for a book club I belong to. It was perfect for me, a novice. It is written in a Q&A format, and so sometimes material appears more than once, but that just makes it easy to find.  A must read for anyone visiting a Muslim country or seeking a better understanding of Islam.

Next: Kosovo Part 2


  1. How amazing to visit this country that most tourists probably avoid. And what beautiful country it is!

    I love that red rug picture. I wonder if people have "their" space like Mormons have "their" pew.

  2. An interesting contrast in perceptions: from what we knew before going, to what we knew after going. A reason that travel is a great perception changer. Different views of Islam, Kosovo, etc. A wonderful day.

  3. Some beautiful country and interesting experiences (goat cheese? sheep dogs?). I have to say one of my favorite photos is the shop with the beans in the window--so classic. I'm enjoying this armchair trip to a place I'll never go--thanks!