A holiday in Kosovo? Yes, please! Pristine nature, cultural traditions and a vibrant urban scene are just some of the young nation’s charms. Best of all: the people and the warm welcome they offer you.
The muezzin is struggling. His voice usually booms out of the speakers on the minaret undisturbed, but today it is forced to compete with heavy beats. Kosovo’s biggest party is in full swing: Dokufest, a music and film festival, and a magnet for creative minds and culture fans from all over the country. There are even more girls in summer dresses and boys in tight polo shirts on the riverside promenade than usual. The man behind this party is Veton Nurkollari, a skinny fifty-something who started the event 15 years ago. “All we wanted then was for the old cinema to reopen,” he explains. “We had absolutely no idea how to organize a festival.” Dokufest now lasts a full week, over 200 films are screened, and festivalgoers can dance the night away at Marashi Park. The festival attracts 30 000 people, and locals rent out their spare rooms to make up for the lack of hotel beds.
International visitors are increasingly flocking to the festival. They take photos of the Ottoman stone bridge, the hammam that has been encased in scaffolding for years, and the Sinan Pasha Mosque with its crumbling floral frescoes that have been restored with a little help from Turkey. They stroll up to the castle on the hilltop and the stone wall doubling as the festival’s most spectacular open-air cinema with fantastic views across the red roofs, churches, minarets all around and the green hills in the distance. The festival has a different motto every year, and this time it’s “Future,” one in a series of political-sounding themes, which so far included “Migration,” and in 2016, “Corruption.” “We are living in a country where corruption is rife and spreading daily,” says Veton Nurkollari. “You can either live with it – or fight it.”
However, most visitors seem to be more interested in partying than politics. “That’s why I love it here,” says Blerta Zeqiri. Dokufest brings together people whose paths would not usually cross. The 38-year-old filmmaker offers to show us her favorite spots. What starts out as a mini tour merrily takes on a larger dimension. Every few steps she stops and greets a friend: a jewelry designer who lives in Iceland, a Freddie Mercury lookalike: bleach-blond quiff, mustache and tiger T-shirt. At Zeqiri’s favorite café, we meet another group of pals: a photographer, an architect, a jazz pianist – a cross-section of Kosovar creatives. Zeqiri orders tea and a backgammon board, and plays against her husband, chatting and nibbling nuts. Elsewhere you would only see men in a café like this, “but Prizren is more tolerant,” she says. The town is also home to Bosnians, Serbs, Turks, Roma, Gorani, Christians and many Sufis.
At the heart of the old city is Halveti Tekke, a dervish monastery built in 1835 for the largest Sufi order in Prizren. We are here to meet Sheikh Abidin Shehu, the spiritual leader. We sit around a carved wooden table; the floor is covered with heavy rugs, and the walls and ceiling are all in dark wood paneling. There’s a venerable feel to it all – apart from the sheikh, a 35-year-old who seems very worldly, leaning on a motorbike and posing with sunglasses on the beach for Twitter photos. Shehu is the ninth sheikh in his family. “Many believe what we do here is mysterious magic, but we just spin round and round,” he says. Then he lights up a cigarette and invites us to return at 10.30 pm to see the weekly ritual. Done.
Dancing dervishes: heads nod, the circle closes in, the chanting gets louder
At the ceremony, the men stand up, hold hands and slowly turn around. The monotonous chanting swells to an entrancing loop, broken only by a soloist. The Sheikh stamps his foot, the tambourines rattle, the men place their arms over each other’s shoulders, spin faster. Chests sway, heads nod left and right, the circle closes in, the drummers bang frenetically; everyone is hopping and nodding, as though in a trance. Then abruptly, it’s all over. Arms are outstretched and a final prayer is said. This was possibly the best show you could see here this evening.
Next day, we drive to Prishtina, over undulating hills and through villages with bare brick houses. Most of these buildings have been paid for by “Schatzis,” as Kosovars call their compatriots who moved abroad for work, most of them to Germany or Switzerland. They come home in the summer to see relatives and marry. We see long lines of black Mercedes and BMW sedans festooned with flowers and tulle. People here like to display their wealth.
“Hello,” the men call out to us as we stroll along the new avenue in Prishtina. The city’s patriotic heart beats here, and statues of the national saints stand proud: Skanderbeg, Ibrahim Rugova and Mother Teresa. It’s a strange boulevard, seamed as it is with an eclectic mix of glass bank tower, luxury hotel and swathes of socialist concrete. Only a handful of Ottoman mosques remain, and there’s no intact historic center. It takes true determination to admire the other landmarks: the national library with its veil of steel bars and 99 domes, and the Palace of Youth and Sports, a masterpiece of brutalism. Everyone loves the monument in front of it, though: the word “NEWBORN,” spelled out in three-meter steel letters. Unveiled on February 17, 2008, it celebrates independence. Each year since 2013, the letters have been presented in a special way to mark the anniversary. This time, the letters N and W were laid flat and connected with white paint to read “NO WALLS” as a reminder of the limited freedom of movement Kosovars have.
Many want to leave, says Baton Domi, one of the few who returned. Domi, 38, sports a mustache, earrings and dark circles around his eyes. He is sitting in the garden of Soma Book Station at a counter made of railway sleepers; strains of soft music emanate from the restaurant he opened two-and-a-half years ago. “This place is the soul of the city,” he says, and by the look of his patrons, he’s right. Women in cocktail dresses and men in smart jackets and designer glasses crowd the bar. Expats home on vacation eat steak between bookshelves and piano. “I never wanted anything elitist,” says Domi, “the guests just took the place over.”
He returned 13 years ago after studying art in Dallas and opened a small bookshop close to his present location. Art is still important at Soma, so during the daytime the shop is a library and co-office space, and in the evening, concerts are held in the garden. The walls are covered with the work of a Kosovar photographer, images of gay men and drag queens in Brazil. “Only a few years ago, we still had some nice bars here with live bands,” he says, “but they were all kicked out. Many talented artists gave up to earn a living at a bank – the nightlife has become more sterile.” But it’s not boring here, either: Young folk dance to electro at Bahnhof and Klubi M Club, while muscle-bound Schatzis nod to hiphop rhythms at Duplex and 13 Rooftop. We decide to skip the party and get up early next morning for an outing.
The Mirusha Waterfalls, widely considered a natural spectacle, seem disappointing, as a blue pipe connecting two kiosks spoils the lowest fall. But we are told there are eleven more higher up, so we set off, a handful of youths in bathing shorts in our wake. The higher we climb, the more beautiful and solitary it becomes. At the fourth fall, the banks narrow to form a dramatic gorge, and only a threadbare, partly broken rope hooked to the wall provides support. Enough adventure! We join Ylber Berisha and Endriketa Bahtiri, two Prishtina locals in their mid-thirties, who come to the mountains every weekend. They pull out their beer bottles from the icy pool and invite us to join them for a drink in the evening sun.
The idyll is marred only by an Albanian flag someone has spray-painted high up on the cliff, flanked by portraits of Albanian national heroes – history is everywhere here. Of the 193 members of the United Nations, 114 recognize the Republic of Kosovo as a sovereign nation, but the majority of Serbs view it as a inseparable part of their homeland. And so Kosovo, with its roughly 1.8 million inhabitants, of whom roughly 90 percent are Albanian, remains a deeply divided country.
Two of the most sacred sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church are in the west of the country; both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites protected by high walls and KFOR soldiers at the gate. The Visoki Dečani Monastery is a place of pilgrimage; King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski lies buried here, “uncorrupted after 700 years,” as the young guide earnestly explains. We are the only visitors crossing the immaculately kept courtyard to the marble church. The only other place even more sacred is the Patriarchate of Peć, the medieval spiritual seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It is also silent and deserted. A Japanese tourist skulks around the 800-year-old mulberry tree; a stern-looking nun ensures no photos are taken.
We have had enough of martyrs and warrior kings, and drive on a few kilometers to Rugova Canyon, to see a different side of Kosovo. An Italian soldier built the first via ferrata here, 300 meters up a steep wall. “But really easy,” says Uta Ibrahimi, a wiry 33-year-old with pale-blond dreadlocks, who quit her corporate job in Kosovo and Albania to start an agency for hiking tours. We follow her across the hanging bridge and hook ourselves up to the steel rope. The route is simple, and we climb the rungs easily. The view along the gully, across wooded slopes and down to the river is spectacular. Every few minutes we hear shrieks and a hum, as someone flies along the zip line. It opened this year, along with a second via ferrata. It sound like things are set to get louder and more exciting in the mountains!