Western Balkans – Day 5 – Kosovo
Although we could get our breakfast only at 8 a.m. again, we managed to leave at 9 a.m. We descended to the Tara Canyon, the second deepest in the world after the Grand Canyon. It is the largest and deepest canyon in Europe, which is for the most part located in Montenegro, and to a smaller extent in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We stopped at the Đurđevića Tara Bridge that was built between 1937 and 1940 in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The 365-metre-long (1,198 ft) bridge has five arches; the largest span is 116 metres (381 ft). The roadway stands 172 metres (564 ft) above the Tara River. At the time of its completion, it was the biggest vehicular concrete arch bridge in Europe. It is still very impressive today:
We followed the canyon and had some great views, although it is difficult to stop at the best ones. The waters are spectacularly green and clear. For the next 40 km, there was no settlement or even hamlet, just the canyon and a good road. Fantastic.
The landscape after this was less spectacular, but still beautiful. We rolled slowly through the green countryside and enjoyed the morning. Then I had missed a turn and pointed to Stefan to turn left. I heard a crashing noise behind me and saw man and machine on the ground. He slipped on some sand when he wanted to turn. But luckily it is a BMW GS with crash bars so no harm done to rider nor steed apart from a few scratches. It showed, however, that carrying gloves even in hot weather is still a good idea. In Rozaje, we filled up tactically to have enough juice for the whole day. We rode up some densely wooded mountains and arrived at a pretty abandoned border post. The Montenegrin side took it slow, the Kosovan side as well. It’s good to have some quiet border crossings as well. We had to buy some insurance for the Kosovo which required some patience and explanations to the clerk but we succeeded and we were now owners of a very colorful piece of paper for 10 Euros. Before that, we had to pass a herd of cows that shared the road with us. Their cowboy said that he had lived in Augsburg for 30 years. It’s a small world.
While decending, the Kosovan plain was right in front of us. We sat down under a tree, had a little break and enjoyed the view. .
This was the only picture I took in Kosovo and later it will turn out why. We carried on and arrived at the city of Pejë. The towns we crossed were bursting with life, a lost of recent progress seems to have been made. People have come a long way, it is a weird mix between old and new, it reminded me of the situation in Eastern Europe in the nineties. The was one special place to visit according to the Lonely Planet guide: The Visoki Dečani Monastery. Luckily, my Sat Nav found the way, roadsigns seems to be really absent in the area. When we approached the monastery, we had to pass a check point (!) by the…..KFOR! It began to dawn on me that this could be a political issue. The monastery is Serbian orthodox, surrounded by ethnic Albanian Kosovars. I had a look in the guide. Indeed, I was right. The KFOR is the peacekeeping force of NATO members stationed in Kosovo after the Kosovo war in 1999. From Widipedia:
The Visoki Dečani Monastery is a medieval Serbian Orthodox Christian monastery located near Dečani, Kosovo. It was founded in the first half of the 14th century by Stefan Dečanski, King of Serbia. In 2004, the monastery was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO) as “an irreplaceable treasure, a place where traditions of Romanesque architecture meet artistic patterns of the Byzantine world.”
Albanian civilians seeking refuge in the monastery returned to their homes following the withdrawal of Serbian military from Kosovo in June 1999. An Italian unit of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) was subsequently assigned to guard the monastery, which was attacked on several occasions. Since 1999, attacks on the Monastery have increased, there have been five significant attacks and near miss attacks on the monastery.Wikipedia, Visoki Dečani
Suddenly we were reminded of this frozen conflict that is pretty much forgotten in Central Europe. We found the entrance to the monastery that was guarded by a heavily shielded check point. We were friendly asked by a soldier to park opposite on the parking lot. At the gate, I chatted a bit with the Italian soldiers, but they were well trained and gave diplomatic answers about their mission and the situation in general. We had to leave our passports and received a visitor badge. After that, we could enter the small, walled area. The church is not so big, but it does indeed have a byzantine touch about it. The next pictures are all from the internet, no photographs were allowed.
We entered the churched and were immediately stunned by the quantity of the frescos that covered all the high walls. We were asked about our whereabouts and the friendly man started to tell us something about the church’s history. This developed into an interesting talk, partly speaking in code because our conversation touched politically and historically sensitive subjects, such as the founding of the monastery by the Serbians, the Battle of Kosovo (Schlacht auf dem Amselfeld) in 1389, the role of Kosovo in Serbian history, the Balkan War in 1912 etc. It was a very good background given from a more Serbian point of view.
In the monastery shop, I purchased two Rakija (“Grappa”) from the monastery for late use. When walking back to the parking, I was thinking about this absurd situation that represents the complicated entanglement of “ethical” relations in the whole region of the Balkans. Croats vs. Bosniaks vs. Serbs vs. Kosovars/Albanians vs. Macedonians vs. Bulgarians…. what a mess.
We rode towards the mountains and the border, this was a only a very short visit to the Kosovo. Shortly before the border, a very ambitious Golf III overtook Stefan, but he wouldn’t overtake me as well, would he? Well, he managed in the last 20 m before the checkpoint! Wow! A first glimpse what was ahead of us in Albania. The border checks were quick and my question where I could buy an insurance was met with an indecipherable grunt that probably meant “I don’t know/who cares/please leave/don’t embarrass me”. The first town we crossed looked different from the other countries we had visited so far. A tad less developed. I thought to have even spotted an old monument of the Enver Hoxha era.
We entered the Valbona valley, probably one of the best natural beauties in Albania.
The Valbona Valley National Park is a national park inside the Albanian Alps in northern Albania. The park covers a total area of 80 km2, encompassing Valbona River and its surrounding areas with mountainous terrain, alpine landscapes, glacial springs, deep depressions, various rock formations, waterfalls and the Valbona Valley with its dense coniferous and deciduous forest. It is characterized by its very remote areas which have a large preserved ecosystem all of which is primarily untouched with pristine quality. This vast pristine ecosystem is the centrepiece of what has been referred to as the Albanian Miracle of the Alps.Wikipedia
The views were indeed spectacular. A deep valley and high mountains. Clear rivers. Definitively Alpine. But not something you would expect at this latitude.
I had reserved a room in a hotel at the very end of the valley, reachable by a bumpy piste after 1 km. The place was modern and clean and after stowing our luggage, we went back to the XBR to fix the play in the sprocket/rim/damper. By working hand in hand, we quickly removed the back wheel, cut some rubber stripes out of the rubber mat I bought in Dubrovnik and placed the pieces to reinforce the rubber damper, thereby reducing the play. The whole work lasted less than 20 min. I also exchanged the spark plug and topped out the chain lubricant, service done!
After a well-deserved shower, we occupied a large table with gorgeous mountain views, accompagnied by some quenching beers. We ordered dinner and the young waiter who spoke some German elegantly made us order more and more until the large table really made sense. It was all very good and we managed to eat almost all of it. After all, we have no lunch breaks so the stomachs are pretty empty.
Later in the room, I tried to write my report and upload the pictures, but I did not succeed. This means my reports will be a bit delayed from now on.