Perched in the foothills of the Sharr Mountains, the Kosovan village of Runjeve is so sleepy that the arrival of our car merits an audience. Farmers down their wooden tools and children interrupt their games in the primary school yard to stare as our low-slung saloon grumbles up the poorly surfaced road.
At last, we reach Hangjik, a stone house overlooking the valley. This year, a British couple and their Kosovar neighbours have sensitively restored it in traditional Albanian style and opened it as a holiday home, complete with the bridal chest and wooden cradle of the family who once lived here.
Just 14 years ago, Hangjik was briefly used as one of hundreds of Kosovo Liberation Army hideouts, during the bloody war between Albanians and Serbs. Now its transformation is being echoed throughout Kosovo as a country once famous for war begins to embrace tourism.
“When I go back to Britain, people still say ‘you’re so brave — are you not frightened being there?’” says Mary Packer, who restored the house with her husband Alan, and their friends from the village, Nazmi and Kadrije Berisha. “It is time to throw off that old image and tell a different story, about the cultural heritage that is here and the hospitality that comes so naturally to the locals.”
This landlocked Balkan country is not the most obvious holiday destination but five years after the former region of Serbia declared independence, westerners are starting to visit. For the moment, they are counted in their hundreds not thousands, but these first tourists are discovering an enchanting country with rugged scenery good for walking and Ottoman-era architecture, ideal for a relaxing long weekend or an excursion as part of a longer tour taking in neighbouring Macedonia or Montenegro.
Apart from the area north of the city of Mitrovica, which is closest to Serbia and still the most heavily contested, it is now calm and the Foreign Office says most visits are trouble-free. It is also cheap, even by Balkan standards: a glass of wine or a bottle of beer is less than £1.50 and a main course that costs more than £5 is considered pricey.
That is, when the Kosovars’ code of hospitality permits you to pay at all.
We have already eaten when we arrive at Hangjik but the Packers insist we try Kadrije’s delicious home-made take on the local speciality of “three milks”, a light sponge cake made from condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream. “In Kosovo, you never just get a cup of tea,” explains Mary.
Alan, who works in local government, left the couple’s North Yorkshire home in 2000, a year after the war ended, to help temporarily with reconstruction but quickly decided to stay. Mary, a gynaecologist, came out to join him. “It is just so beautiful,” she says. “We take pictures of the mountains every day — they always seem slightly different. In the evenings, the locals celebrate weddings by spontaneously singing with tambourines.” They welcomed their first guests in March and have been fully-booked each weekend since.
From Hangjik, we drive along a twisting road through the mountains 4,900ft (1,500m) above the valley. We pass no other cars for half an hour, but each turn offers another stunning view down to the forests below or up to the snow-capped peaks.
Two hours later, we reach Prizren, a bustling city in the south west with narrow cobbled streets in a well-preserved Old Town built by the Ottomans, who occupied the country until 1912. It largely escaped the wartime bombing and the 16th century stone-arched bridge over the fast-flowing River Bistrica survives intact. South of the river, there are half a dozen attractive mosques, including Sinan Pasha, which was built in 1615 and features intricate pastel coloured murals. Opposite the mosque, the tiny 14th century red brick Holy Sunday Church stands barely 15ft tall, dwarfed by the two-storey houses on either side. It is maintained by a local family who speak little English but happily show us the palm-sized icon of Christ inside.
The country’s Christian heritage extends well beyond Prizren. More than two dozen Serbian Orthodox monasteries are scattered across Kosovo, including the 14th century Romanesque church at Decani, an hour and a half north-west of Prizren, near the border with Montenegro. Father Sava Janjic, who has been a monk here since 1992, insists on showing visitors round. The church embodies Kosovo’s fusion of east and west, with Gothic elements on the outside but Byzantine style frescoes inside.
“There has been uninterrupted monastic life here for almost 700 years,” says Father Janjic, as he offers us homemade rakia (brandy) on the balcony of the monks’ quarters. “But we have had our ups and downs.” This understatement alludes to the international fame Janjic achieved during the war for sheltering hundreds of Serbs and Albanians alike. Four years later, Albanians who viewed the monastery as a symbol of Serb cultural oppression launched a rocket propelled grenade attack from a nearby hill. The monastery survived, however, and the monks continue to open the 14th century sarcophagus of the monastery’s founder, King Stephen Uros III, each Thursday evening to let visitors view the relics.
Few such traditions survive in the capital, Pristina, where much of the Ottoman architecture was demolished under Yugoslav rule to make way for ugly Soviet-era shops and apartments. There is little to see during the day but at night the capital’s youthful residents converge on the lively wine bars and jazz clubs that line the central street, Rexhep Ruci.
Even in this vibrant capital, echoes of the war are inescapable. Streets are named after Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, honouring their contribution to the NATO campaign that ended the war.
Kosovo is still best known for this turbulent recent past, but those in the know in fact seek out the country for relaxation. Back at Hangjik, I ask Kadrije Berisha if she worries an influx of foreigners would disturb Runjeve’s peace. She is unequivocal. “The change is very welcome,” she insists. “The local women say to my husband: you brought Kadrije to the village, and now she is bringing everyone else.”
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