For the last few years, Kosovo, which celebrates a decade of independence in 2018, has hovered at the radar’s edge for in-the-know explorers. By many demographic and administrative metrics, this diamond-shaped nation in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula is still a youngster.
But the reason for the country’s burgeoning popularity as a travel destination is simple – a few hours’ plane ride from nearly anywhere in Europe takes travellers off the typical tourism grid and into a new world of adventure and culture experiences fuelled by palpable old-world spirit.
The planet’s second-newest country with Europe’s youngest median population, Kosovo – once an autonomous province within the former Yugoslavia – blows out the cake candles on its first ‘round’ birthday this year. The last decade hasn’t been without challenges. Independence was declared in the capital Pristina on 18 February 2008, yet only 112 of 193 UN member states have recognised the declaration. Political agendas, however, rarely paint an accurate picture of a place. That’s what travel is for – and rare is the traveller who doesn’t fall in love with Kosovo’s hospitality, dense traditions and mountainous landscape.
Roughly the size of Jamaica, with a population of nearly two million, Kosovo boasts two mountain ranges and two of the continent’s best long-distance hiking trails: the Peaks of the Balkans, a circular route that also covers Albania and Montenegro, and the Via Dinarica, which traverses eight countries from Slovenia to Macedonia. More than a dozen vineyards are nestled within this peak-laden landscape. And come summer, an acclaimed film festival transforms the sublime Ottoman-era city of Prizren, on the edge of the Shar Mountains, into an open-air movie stage.
Adventure on two fronts
A group of trekkers stands atop the 2656m Mt Gjeravica. The peak is Kosovo’s highest in the Accursed Mountains (Bjeshkët e Nemuna in Albanian, Prokletije in Serbian) range which, in turn, is part of the larger Western Balkans’ Dinaric Alps that extend to the Adriatic coast. From here, the world feels simple and ancient. Far below, glacial lakes, glimmering and aqua-blue in their stone basins, give way to green meadows where sheep glide and dart and change directions with their shepherd’s guttural cluckings. Craggy peaks fill the panorama and march west towards the borders of Albania and Montenegro, where they fade into the expanse and over the earth’s curve.
The landscape may be ancient, but the adventurers on this summit hike are part of a new breed of worldwide tourism – one expecting more from guided trips than typical sightseeing. Kosovo’s recent success comes because the country is in a perfect position to play the poster child for the travel industry’s push for destinations to provide authenticity and more inventive itineraries. This two-day expedition began in the ‘newborn’ capital Pristina with a stroll down the pedestrian, cafe-lined Nene Tereza Boulevard, before visiting the Imperial Mosque which dates back to 1461 and exploring the city’s growing number of boutiques and bistros. From the urban bustle, the journey transferred to the trail for a climb to the Gjeravica peak, with camping under the stars and beside Gjeravica Lake, a session of bouldering and mountaintop yoga classes. The adventure ended in a welcoming village over a traditional meal of flija (a flakey pastry cooked over red-hot coals and filled with local cheese).
‘Because of our newness, and the wide-open nature of our tourism model, innovations are, in some ways, easier in a country like ours,’ said Uta Ibrahimi, the founder and owner of Pristina-based Butterfly Outdoor Adventure, at the bottom of the mountain after the group’s yoga class. Ibrahimi, a pioneer in the industry, is the first ethnically Albanian woman to summit Everest, and she’s now attempting to climb all 14 of the world’s 8000m peaks. ‘Kosovo is also lucky because we have two mountain ranges,’ continued Ibrahimi. ‘From this peak, we look over Albania and Montenegro. But in the Shar Mountains, to the west, we share a border and a ridgeline with Macedonia – the mountains are even bigger and there is the Brezovica ski resort. We are a people with adventure in our bones.’
Case in point, Butterfly Outdoor Adventure tours complement classical sightseeing with cross-country cycling journeys, mountain biking outings, traditional food and rakija (locally made schnapps) workshops, guided climbing, yoga and trekking trips to multiple peaks, and excursions scaling a rock face along a via ferrata route in the Rugova Canyon near the town of Peja (Peć) on Kosovo’s western frontier.
Culture meets the silver screen
No place can live on adventure alone. Since 2002, the Dokufest International Documentary and Short Film Festival has acted as Kosovo’s artistic pulse and cultural crossroads. Each year in August, travellers and film lovers from around the globe congregate in the ancient city of Prizren, at the foot of the Shar Mountains, for the country’s largest movie gathering and round table for cinematic culture.
More than 200 films are chosen for the nine-day festival. Outdoor screens – showing non-fiction cinema, short fictional pieces, animation and experimental cinema – are raised all over Prizren, which is crammed with centuries-old mosques and churches, and distinguished by a medieval fortress on a hilltop above the old town and the Ottoman-era Old Stone Bridge spanning the Bistrica river. There are also art exhibitions, music programs, and film workshops and masterclasses – not to mention a week’s worth of parties.
Part of what makes Dokufest special is the setting. The old town’s landmarks are transformed into an atmospheric moonlit cinema, from the fortress to the riverbank; panel discussions take place in a restored hammam and photo exhibitions are staged on the city walls. Equally important is the festival’s social dimension – the enthusiasm of organisers and locals, reflected in a huge number of young volunteers, and the dedication to tackling environmental and human rights issues.
‘Dokufest has played a part in shaping a more positive image for the country and is an important momentum in building its new history,’ says Nita Deda, the festival’s director since 2016. ‘Our vision is to use culture as the main ambassador for our developing country making its introduction to the wider world. It is a way to see Kosovo for what it really is: a young, vibrating place full of talent with a fascinating energy of collaboration.’
Make it happen
Kosovo is visa-free for EU, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and US passport holders. It’s easily accessible by air, with regular direct flights connecting Pristina to several major European cities. Buses are the best option for travel to and from neighbouring Balkan capitals and for getting around the country.
Note that Kosovo’s independence isn’t recognised by Serbia, so if you plan to continue to Serbia but entered Kosovo via Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro, you’ll need to exit to a third country and then enter Serbia from there. If you entered Kosovo from Serbia, there’s no problem returning to Serbia.