Gračanica, Kosovo

“I really need to get out more,” is what I keep telling myself. I go to Pristina often, Peja occasionally, and everywhere else … never. Since I am almost halfway through my Peace Corps service (isn’t that crazy?!), I keep telling myself I need to make an effort to see more of Kosovo.

Last Tuesday was a national holiday, “Europe Day,” so we didn’t have school. I decided to take the opportunity to visit a friend in Gračanica, Kosovo, a Serbian village just outside of Pristina.

I talk a lot about Albanian culture on this blog. Albanians are in the majority here in Kosovo, so I have had more exposure to their culture. I was happy to have a chance to visit Gračanica and learn a bit more about Serbian traditions.

Where is Gračanica, Kosovo?

It is south east of Pristina (Kosovo’s capital city).

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My friend was a great tour guide, and even provided me with these informational booklets from the municipality. The information I share in quotes comes from these booklets. (They’re awesome — they even have traditional recipes listed. I might share some more info from them in the future.)

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Our first stop was Ento Kuka, a restaurant that serves traditional Serbian food. I got chicken and potatoes.

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Next, we visited “an archeological site of the Roman and early Byzantine city Ulpiana. It reached its peak development in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.”

I knew that Kosovo had once been under Ottoman rule (which is when much of the country converted to Islam), but I had never given much thought to its prior history. I was so surprised to learn that Kosovo has Roman ruins.

We saw the site of a church, public baths, and a cemetery.

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Next, we visited the Gracanica monastery. My friend told me that there is an exact replica of the monastery in Chicago, Illinois. I used to live in Chicago, and did not know this!

Taking photos inside the monastery is not allowed. (It is really beautiful.) Here are pictures of the outside:

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Last, we visited the “Missing” sign. It is “the work of the artist Goran Stojcetovic … plastered with photos of missing and kidnapped Serbs from 1998 until 2000. It is a memorial against the crimes of the Serbian people.”

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It was a very interesting visit and I am thankful to my friend for giving me a tour!

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Guest Blogger: Andrew Bivins (Outdoor Sports and Ecotourism in Kosovo)

A while back, I asked my friends and family members to send me questions to answer on the blog. My Dad asked about sports and the outdoors in Kosovo. Since I’m not exactly Sporty Spice, I decided to outsource his questions to someone more knowledgeable than I. My friend Andrew has participated in a lot of outdoor fun since he moved to Kosovo. Without further adieu … –April

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Andrew Bivins

Përshëndetje! I am excited and honored to be taking over April’s blog this week. Apparently I have gained a bit of a reputation for loving the outdoors, especially in Kosovo. In fact, the nature here is so beautiful that I started documenting it, which led me to discover another passion of mine, photography.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

Back in the U.S., I was just getting into hiking and kayaking before I moved to Kosovo for my service. I am from Atlanta, so it was quite common for my friends and I to flee the city for the weekend for some fresh air on the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect once I found out I was moving to Kosovo. I had read that Kosovo was mountainous and forested, so I knew there was potential, but I wasn’t sure how accessible outdoor activities would be.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

During my first year, I went on a lot of hikes with other volunteers and we usually found some great trails on our own through trial and error. The town I live in is pretty flat, so I usually relied on my friends who live in the more rugged areas to ask around and get an idea of where we should go. Unfortunately, unexploded landmines from the war are still a concern, especially in the mountainous border regions. It’s best not to get too adventurous, unless you really know where you are going and that the area has been confirmed to be free of mines. Luckily, there are many public and private organizations in Kosovo that are actively working to rid Kosovo of mines and other unexploded ordnance. There are also a lot of resources available, such as maps and local tour guides, that will allow you to safely enjoy the nature here.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

I was talking with a local friend the other day and we were discussing how we have both noticed the recent increase in opportunities to take part in organized outdoor events. It has been amazing to watch Kosovo develop in this way during my nearly two years of living here because I truly believe that Kosovo has an incredible potential for ecotourism. Seeing that potential slowly turn into reality is pretty cool. Every week you can see new tour companies popping up on your newsfeed, advertising organized group hikes, bike rides, rock climbing, cultural tours, etc. These offers are usually at a pretty low price and they include transportation, food, and an expert guide. I recently took advantage of one of these opportunities and I went snowshoeing for the first time. We started in a village called Restelica and walked 10+ km over a mountain to the village of Brod. This was in one of the most remote regions of Kosovo and I never would have felt comfortable to do this without a guide, especially in the snow when visibility is so low and avalanches are such a risk. It was certainly a challenge, my legs are still burning three days after the fact, but it was an amazing experience. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and I was able to learn the basics. My only disappointment is that it is the end of winter and I only just now discovered that I love snowshoeing. Next winter I plan to snowshoe as often as possible. I am also hoping to pick up skiing. I went once when I was in high school, but I would hardly call myself an expert. Kosovo is definitely a great place to learn! Depending on where you are, you can find slopes for beginners, or more challenging ones if you already know what you’re doing. I’ve also seen a lot of snowmobiles during my visits to Brezovica (the main ski resort in Kosovo) and I think it would be awesome to learn how to do that as well. With that said, PCVs aren’t allowed to drive cars or motorcycles, so I assume there is some sort of rule about snowmobiles. If you are currently serving, it’s probably just best to wait until you close your service before you give that a shot.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Bivins

I think a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers in Kosovo will tell you that winter is tough. My first winter was the most difficult part of my service. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I spent far too much time sitting inside and feeling sorry for myself. My second winter has been the exact opposite. Yes, it was still cold, but I got out as often as possible, enjoyed myself, and stayed busy. Winter was still there, it didn’t change, actually it was colder this winter, but my perspective changed and it made all the difference in the world. My family and friends back home have been shocked to see me enjoying the snow so much. I was never really a winter-type of guy, but I suppose you can count it among the MANY things I have learned to love during my almost two years in Kosovo.

April’s Note: If you enjoyed Andrew’s beautiful pictures, please follow him on Instagram: instagram.com/seekosovo

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

 

Tirana, Albania: Today

This is the third post in a three-part series I am writing about my recent trip to Tirana, Albania. — April

Monday morning, my friend and I were trying to decide how to spend our last day in Tirana. It was raining, but all of the museums were closed due to it being Independence Day. A man on the street overheard us and stopped. Turns out, he is a tour guide, and he took us on an impromptu tour of the city.

We made several interesting stops along the way, including the Albanian parliament. We were standing outside of the building, talking, when the guards invited us inside.

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As I posted yesterday, Albania was under communist rule until 1990. Today, its government consists of two parties, the Socialists and the Democrats.

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One thing that really struck me about Tirana (and Albania in general) is the mix of influences you see. Like Kosovo, Albania is largely Islamic (due to influences from the Ottoman Empire) and has a minority Catholic population. Our tour guide told us that under communist rule, religion of any kind was banned. The churches and mosques in the city today are all new.

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This mosaic of Mother Theresa is made with seashells.

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This pyramid is a famous source of controversy in Tirana. It was built by Albania’s communist ruler, Enver Hoxha, as a tomb for himself. He died in 1985. His body was entombed in the pyramid for only a few months, and was then moved to a cemetery outside the city in order to discourage protests. There has been much debate about whether to tear down the pyramid, or to keep it as a reminder of history. According to our tour guide, Tirana plans to begin restoration on the building sometime next year, and turn it into a museum.

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One thing to note, while our tour was interesting, our guide was evasive about the price until the end. My friend and I both feel like he overcharged us. So I would say if you’re a foreigner traveling in Tirana, use extra caution and insist on prices up front!

Tirana, Albania: History

This is the second post in a three-part series I am writing about my recent trip to Tirana, Albania. — April

Disclaimer: Some of the images and descriptions in this post are graphic in nature.

When we were talking about things we’d like to do in Tirana, my friend suggested visiting BunkArt. I didn’t do any research on it beforehand, and kind of assumed it was an old bunker turned into a modern art museum.

Boy, was I wrong.

BunkArt is a museum dedicated to teaching about Albania’s communist history. When it comes to Kosovo, I feel like I finally have a grasp on at least the country’s recent history. But when it comes to the rest of the Balkans, I am only just beginning to learn.

While Kosovo’s population is largely ethnically Albanian today, Kosovo and Albania have had very different recent histories. Kosovo was a part of the former Yugoslavia and fought a war against Serbia, whereas Albania was not part of Yugoslavia and was under communist rule until 1990.

I am no historian. I can’t pretend to be an expert on Albania’s history. But here are some pictures I took at BunkArt, along with descriptions of those pictures.

“The weapons displayed in this room have been deactivated and turned into museum objects.”

This coat was used to train dogs to attack people trying to illegally cross the border.

From a posted museum description:
“Throughout the communist regime, police dogs were considered as a strategic element to the aid of the police: there were more than 200 dogs that were used along the border mainly to signal those trying to leave the country, or those trying to enter illegally … The use of dogs in the border was so important that, if one of them got sick the General Commander should be informed, until reaching to the level of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.”

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It is hard for me to begin to wrap my mind around such horrors. And Albania was under communist rule until 1990, which means it happened in my lifetime, not in some distant past.

I’d like to end this post with a quote from Mother Theresa (who was Albanian):

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“Evil settle(s) roots when a man begins to think that he is better than others.”

Tirana, Albania: Nature

This post is the first in a three-part series I am writing about my recent visit to Tirana, Albania. — April

Hi, everyone! I am back home in Kosovo after having spent the last three days visiting Tirana, Albania. Tirana was high on my list of places I wanted to visit here in the Balkans. I was thinking I would visit there for spring break. But then my friend (who has been to Tirana several times) asked me if I wanted to go for a long weekend, and I figured, why not go now?! We (the Peace Corps) have been on a travel restriction since we arrived in Kosovo in June. But the restriction ended this weekend, so now we are free to start using our vacation time. (If you’re curious, volunteers accrue 7 weeks of vacation for the 2 years we are serving. That sounds like a lot until you realize we don’t get weekends off … any travel done outside of Kosovo counts against our vacation time.)

My friend and I left Pristina, Kosovo on a 6 a.m. bus on Saturday. We arrived in Tirana at 11:30 a.m. After we ate lunch, we took a long walk through the city down the main boulevard.

Tirana is bigger than Pristina. The streets are much wider. The city was decorated for Independence Day (November 28).

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Tirana is south of Kosovo and has much milder weather (it’s been freezing at home … I wore my winter coat last week.) I had debated whether to pack my peacoat or my winter coat for the trip, and am glad I opted for the former. We lucked out with the forecast, too. It was supposed to rain all weekend, but it only rained on Monday.

The weather still felt like autumn. In Kosovo, the trees are all bare, but in Tirana there were still pops of color everywhere.

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As I said, my friend has visited Tirana several times in the past, and she was commenting on how much the city has changed since her visit 2 years ago. She said it was much cleaner than she remembered.

At the end of the main city boulevard, we reached the city park.

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My friend was also telling me about the recent changes made to the park, which included the addition of an awesome playground.

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After walking through the park, we reached Tirana’s (man made) lake (which is still very pretty).

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Stay tuned for more posts about Tirana this week! I’ll be writing about history, art, and the city as it is today.

Nature Walk in Peja, Kosovo

A few weeks ago, I went on a nature walk with four other volunteer friends in Peja, Kosovo. I have visited Peja a few times now. It’s one of Kosovo’s biggest cities and it’s in the northwest part of the country.

Previously, I went on a hike in Peja. This time, we took a less strenuous path, one that is paved and flat. We walked about 8 miles total.

Autumn is my favorite season by far. I had a wonderful day, getting out and exploring.

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We came across this art display made of trash.

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We stopped at an adorable log cabin restaurant for pizza.

Then we continued walking a bit further.

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It was a autumn lovely day spent with lovely people! 🙂

Guest Blogger: Ingrid Lantz (Hiking in Valbonë, Albania)

Hi, guys! My friend Ingrid has gone on some very cool hikes, and I asked if she would write about her experiences for this blog. Read on to learn about her recent hike in Valbonë, Albania. All of these beautiful pictures were taken by Ingrid. –April

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Photo by Ingrid Lantz

Since I’m from a state known for its mountains, I’ve been longing to see and experience the mountains of Kosovo and beyond since I arrived. In my 4 months here, I’d yet to see much of the wild parts of Kosovo, so a trip to Valbonë National Park sounded great. Even though I live near Prizren, which is in the south of Kosovo and near the mountains or right up next to them, it’s often difficult for me to get to any hiking. As a Peace Corps volunteer we’re not allowed to drive, and shuttles or local hiking buddies can be difficult to find. This trip was a charter trip with a tourist company called Eurotrip to Northern Albania … and while that’s not technically Kosovo, it’s just two hours northwest and over the border in a country that shares a common language and heritage with Kosovo. In fact, Kosovars are so linked to Albania that most of the time they use the Albanian flag at celebrations and not the Kosovar flag.

Leaving from Prizren early in the morning we headed northwest towards the market town of Gjakovë. Just after the city, as we traveled directly west over the border. You could see the craggy peaks of the Albanian Alps in the distance. They looked imposing. Another name for them is the Accursed Mountains. This part of Albania is known for it’s rugged isolation, both of the environment and its native people, and until recently, few outsiders ventured there. Now it’s one of the gateways to the Peaks of the Balkans trail, where you can hire a guide traverse these pristine mountains through the countries of Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro.

As we wound our way up the narrow valley road that hugged the river between towering peaks, I gained abundant respect for the driver as he negotiated hairpin turns and one-lane bridges. Along the way fall colors erupted from trees sprinkled among the evergreens. We slowed often for cows and herds of shaggy longhaired goats. Most perplexing to me was the goatherder sporting a full suit but with a hobo bag on his back. Small villages dotted the landscape in the lower valley, hay stacked in formations that looked like giant beehives.

Our bus dropped us off literally at the end of the road into the park at Hotel Burimi I Valbones, a lovely and large hotel with a restaurant and most importantly, a bathroom! Which, of course, they graciously allowed all 60 or so of us to use. From the hotel the trail strikes out across a deep, wide glaciated valley. This part of the trail is along a very rocky blindingly white stony glacial moraine and goes for about 3 miles. Sturdy shoes with good soles are recommended. Even though it was October, the exposure and the rocky trail gave me a good feeling for what it would be like in the height of summer. It was hot. A backpacker couple told me later that the mountains don’t have much water and are extremely hot and dry in the summer. Even in October, they still carried water for overnight backpacking.

Along the valley are some abandoned old stone houses that looked interesting to explore. Towering peaks on both sides and ahead reminded me of the stony craggy peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada range. About 3 miles in we came upon a fully functional restaurant, bar and guesthouse. They served traditional Albanian food, salad, buke (bread), fried peppers, cheese and meats. This was at the end of the 4-wheel drive tourist road that some took instead of walking. The sweeping view from this restaurant allowed you to see for miles down the valley. Directly in front of the restaurant, across the valley, the mountain rose up like a great wall several thousand feet up. The granite tops looked white, and at first I thought it must be snow, but then I realized the rocks on top were streaked white.

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Photo by Ingrid Lantz

After this restaurant the trail narrowed and was not accessible by vehicle. About a mile after there was another small café and as I passed by a woman was in the process of making flia, a very traditional Albanian dish that consists of multiple crepe-like layers brushed with cream, oil and flour. It looked like it would be ready on my way back. She smiled as I asked if I could take her picture.

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Photo by Ingrid Lantz

After that, I followed the trail steadily upward through forest and deeper into the canyon. In a couple miles we began to climb steeply and then for the last 30 minutes we clambered over tree roots and stones to our final destination, a waterfall.

As we savored the cool spray, some ate and splashed in the water. One devout hiker laid out his prayer rug on a flat rock at the bottom of the falls and pointed downvalley – apparently the same direction as Mecca – and with a view that went for miles, began to pray.