We arrived in Kosovo’s capital city late at night, after a longer than necessary day of bussing from Sofia via Nis in Serbia. We now know that because Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo as an independent country, it doesn’t service the route well) and had we taken the alternative route to Kosovo via the Macedonian capital of Skopje, we would probably have avoided a 7 hour wait in Nis!
Anyway, we cycled the couple of km from the bus station to our Couchsurfing host Irfan’s flat and, after enlisting the assistance of a passerby who called him to advise that we were outside (we had no wifi), we ate a late dinner but delicious dinner whipped up by Irfan in next to no time, shared some stories and a drink or two and then crashed out well after our normal bedtime.
Spending 2 nights in Pristina gave us a full day to explore (without the bikes). We had heard that the bear sanctuary and monastery were both well worth a visit, so, after a good night’s sleep, we set off by foot, at the not so early time of 10.30am, to walk the 2km or so to the bus station. What struck us immediately was that, despite the clear Balkan/Albanian feel, there has been an obvious influence of new money from the UN and particularly the US since the Balkan war. Loads of new buildings and impressive roads, complete with grand service stations and shopping malls. We walked along Bill Clinton boulevard and Irfan advised that there are also Tony Blair and George Bush streets!
After a 30 minute bus ride through the suburbs and winding its way up a beautiful valley next to a sun-kissed reservoir, we were dropped at a road junction, leaving us with a 2.7km stroll to the bear sanctuary, along the opposite side of the reservoir and through another valley. The walk was enjoyable on a very quiet road, in the cool crisp late autumn air with great views and the odd hole in the road or strange road sign to intrigue us.
The only downside being the amount of rubbish strewn around.
As we walked up the valley, we saw surprisingly few vehicles, other then the odd ‘KFOR (NATO backed Kosovo Force) 4×4 military truck, which struck us as a little strange as it was a Saturday and we would have expected visitors to the sanctuary.
Prior to 2010 there was no law against keeping brown bears in Kosovo and all privately kept bears lived in small cages at restaurants, having been born wild and snatched from their mothers by animal dealers. Restaurant bears were supposed to attract customers. In November 2010, when it became illegal to keep bears privately, there was a need for a new home for the restaurant bears rescued from captivity.
In 2013, Bear Sanctuary Pristina was founded in 16 hectares of National Park by Four Paws Austria in collaboration with KFOR and the Kosovo government. It provides species-appropriate accommodation for all restaurant bears in large enclosures resembling the bears’ natural habitat.
Approaching the sanctuary, there were only a handful of military vehicles and a couple of minibuses in the car park, with a soldier guarding the boom-gate at the entrance. We also spotted 2 large brown bears in the valley ahead of us, that appeared to be on or near the road. One of the minibuses arrived just as we did and a hoard of children, along with a couple of adults, joined us in walking towards the entrance. Vanessa jokingly (not really) mentioned the ‘stray’ bears to a gentleman, who assured her it was safe as the area was fenced and who then advised that the sanctuary was closed to the public today due to a NATO funded community project involving ethnic Albanian and Serbian children!…This was the cue for looks of disbelief and distress (Vanessa has perfected this) from the 2 of us. The gentleman was clearly touched by our genuine show of emotion and asked where we were from. We responded ‘Australia’ and that we had only the day in Pristina, which was enough reason for him to advise that he would see what he could do.
We stood at the boom-gate and waited, for what seemed forever but was probably 15 minutes. With the prospect of only a long walk back to the bus stop ahead of us, we were eventually motioned by one of the soldiers to enter. He explained that there was very high security as the commander of KFOR was at the sanctuary but they would allow the 2 of us ‘special dispensation’ to enter provided they saw some ID (thankfully we had our Australian driving licences with us) and first carried out a search of our bags and clothing etc. We had nothing to hide (after explaining that we had a knife in the bag for our lunch) and one thorough search later we were in.
We felt very privileged to be let in. All the kids and the KFOR troops were on the lawn doing some presentation thing, which meant that for an hour or so, we had the whole park to ourselves (and the bears). Plus, free entry!
We loved it. An intimate, close up experience, with some magnificent and very healthy (and content-looking) bears, set in a magnificent forested valley.
We walked contentedly back to the bus stop. After waiting 10 minutes, a car stopped and the driver happily offered us a lift and drove us the 5km or so back to the town of Gracanica, which has a fully operational 14th century monastery (700 years old!).
The curator let us in (once Jon took his hands out of his pockets), to look but not touch, as there were a number of artists painstakingly touching up the magnificent fresco decor inside the main chamber of the church.
From there we grabbed a bus back to Pristina bus station as the sun was setting and then walked the 2km or so back to Irfan’s apartment. What a cool day!
Peja – Day 1
We woke up pretty early today and were keen on her out for a run (first one in 4 months). Looking outside the visibility was low, as either mist or smog was quite intense but that didn’t stop us. We stuck to pavements and parks, running 45 minutes in the not so warm 3 degrees.
Returning with our second loaf of bread (first one was given to a very hungry/cold elderly man), our host kindly made us omelette for breakfast, which we devoured!
We thanked our lovely Couchsurfing host ‘Irfan’ for his hospitality and cycled to the bus station hoping there would be a bus leaving soon to Peja. We were very fortunate to find one ready to leave and an extremely helpful bus driver, who was happy to assist us put the bikes in the luggage compartment. An hour and thirty minutes later we had arrived safely in the impressive city of Peja, surrounded by the enchanting snow capped Rugova mountain range. We couldn’t contain our excitement!
We quickly found our hostel, where the host spoke great English and was able to sent us a Mapsme download with hiking paths.
We dropped off our things, packed our lunch and set off for a 3 hour round trip hike into the Rugova mountains.
The sun was glistening high above the mountains, enhancing the autumnal mixture of colours from all the deciduous trees and evergreens.
We climbed for a short 30 minutes, stopping frequently to snap photos of the splendid views before we came to a picnic table and decided as it was already 1.45pm, that this was a perfect spot for lunch.
As we climbed the views got more and more magnificent, especially when reaching the pass. We could see the canyon which opened up…absolutely stunning. We managed to follow the well marked trail quite easily, stopping occasionally to check Mapsme when we came to splits in the path or if there were no red/white painted markings on the trees.
Reaching Saca’s meadow, we snapped a few more photos and layered up as we were descending and would mainly be in the shade. After squelching through some soft mud, trying to avoid slipping on our behinds, we came to another opening, where we had fun setting up the timer and taking a few more photos.
The descent was through dense deciduous trees that had lost their leaves. Which made for fun walking and throwing leaves.
We followed the signs to ‘The Ranch’. Approaching ‘The Ranch’ a giant swing encroached the sky ahead of us, which took us by surprise. We had entered an adventure park. Luckily for us ‘The Ranch’ restaurant was also in the same location, with striking views of the Rugova mountains. We had a hot herbal tea and looked through our dozens of photos.
It was another 30 minute descent with a 15% gradient, which turned out to be a little challenging, as by this time Vanessa’s knee started to feel sore. Jon tried carrying her for a short couple of hundreds metres (with good intentions) but it was too much. We then decided to walk backwards downhill, this helped a great deal.
We arrived back at our hostel just before it got dark.
Fantastic hike and highly recommended. Looking forward to tomorrow’s bigger hike!
Peja. – Day 2
With another clear day forecast, we set off for a second day’s hike in the Rugova mountains. Vanessa’s knee had recovered a little from the previous day.
The first hour of the hike took the same route as the day before. At the point where we had previously turned to the south, we instead continued west through the valley.
We climbed steadily upwards for most of the morning, with beautiful views of the canyon ahead. We didn’t see another hiker all day. At around hungry o’clock we spotted a precariously placed picnic table and stopped to eat.
Shortly after this the narrow path became much steeper and we clambered uphill on loose scree surface. Then it passed over a ridge and descended steeply down. With the aid of some handily placed ropes and the odd metal ladder drilled into the rock face we slowly made our way downhill for what seemed like hours. Vanessa commented on the rope burns on her hands.
Eventually the trees cleared and we descended to join the road which wound its way alongside the river through the valley. On a small island of rocks and stones in the middle of the river were a number of random pieces of furniture, some small tents, paintings and unusual artefacts.
We couldn’t resist a closer look and crossed the makeshift bridge onto the island, where we found a newspaper article explaining that this was the home of Kosovo’s Robinson Crusoe (a slightly eccentric local dental technician who had dropped out of everyday life and decided to live in the middle of the river. Fortunately for us he was not at home.
Back on dry land and with only a couple of hours daylight left we stuck out a thumb and the first car to pass us stopped and delivered us 3km back down the valley, where we hopped out at the Unesco listed Pec monastery.
The guards at the gate asked where we were from. When we advised we were Australian they couldn’t do enough for us. We looked around the beautiful monastery for a short while (keeping photography to an absolute minimum out of respect) and then walked the remaining 3km back into the city, by which time Vanessa’s knee was starting to ache again 🙁