In Kosovo’s self-preserving tourism, old traditions and thrilling new adventures

Written by Travel Adventures

It’s a lesson I learned over and over, including later that same day in Gjakova. The town’s Old Bazaar is a kilometre-long pedestrian street paved with stone and lined with Ottoman-style wooden storefronts under adobe tile roofs. The Grand Bazaar and its more than 500 buildings, once the largest in southeastern Europe, dates back to at least the 16th century. But like so many of Kosovo’s cultural treasures, it was destroyed in the war.

The buildings represent a physical symbol of the spirit and culture that couldn’t be crushed. In the one-time centre of tailors, silk workers, and tanners, I wandered into one of the remaining workshops. Woodworker Ruzhdi Qarri’s handcrafted, brightly painted djepa (cradles) almost made me wish for a third child, just to have a reason to purchase one. Though he spoke no English and my Albanian barely gets me through a lunch menu, Qarri showed off his work and credentials from representing his country and his craft at international events. I left with a few spoons, a carved flute for each of my children, and a completely clarified understanding of the importance of rebuilding such places.

A smaller Ottoman bazaar flows through Peja, the jagged peaks of the Accursed Mountains as its dramatic backdrop. The peaks, along with nearby Rugova Canyon, one of Europe’s longest and deepest, put the town on the leading edge of Kosovo’s fledgling adventure travel industry. From Peja, outfitters guide visitors rock-climbing up cliffs, spelunking down into caves, and traversing the gorge by via ferrata or zipline. Lush, green mountains and sprawling bucolic panoramas make this a destination for hiking, mountain biking, and paragliding. Multi-day trips embark or pass through by bike and foot, with many eventually leading across the border into neighbouring countries along the Peaks of the Balkans, Via Dinarica, and new Trans-Dinarica routes. Along the way, guesthouses quarter hungry hikers, feeding them hearty homemade feasts laden with the region’s renowned, traditionally made cheeses.

With my six- and eight-year-old forcing me to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, my adventure was limited to locating the Saturday market in Peja selling those cheeses, on a small square just west of Muharrem Pasha Street, south of the main bazaar. The butter and cheesemaking traditions still practised in tiny villages here go back more than a thousand years. I accepted many samples from tall wooden barrels filled with the fragrant fare, and after tasting one creamy and complex love child of feta and stracciatella, decided I needed more than just a sample. The woman scooped a chunk the size I had mimed, waving away my money. Someone nearby translated: it was so little, she wouldn’t bother charging me.

In Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, I spent the saved money on a cup of gelato while wandering down Bulevardi Nënë Tereza. Stalls selling books and cafes spilling tables and chairs onto the street line the broad pedestrian path where families strolled, couples canoodled, and friends gossiped. My children copied the local kids by using the bottom of one of the many statues as a slide. The street ends at Bulevardi Xhorxh Bush, one of many named after American leaders pivotal to the war and independence era – “xh” in Albanian is pronounced like the soft ‘g’ in George. Around the corner sits the Newborn Monument, a 250-ton, 10-foot-tall sculpture that spells out the word “Newborn” as an ode to the country’s young independence; it gets an annual makeover, and this year it features Seven Skies, a series of European skylines celebrating the latest chapter in Kosovo’s slow journey to international recognition of its independence: each from a country Kosovars can now visit freely, thanks to recently lifted EU visa restrictions.

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