Cycle Tourers Without Borders 

It took us a day to cross the flat plain. Our map showed two routes to Montenegro and we opted for what we thought would be the quieter road. It also promised to be a spectacular climb up through the Ragova canyon and we spotted that we would be able to make a quick detour to visit Visoki Decani – one of the ancient Serbian monasteries now guarded by UN peace keepers. 

It was a warm day with the midday temperatures working their way up to 25 degrees. Cycle touring is so much better when it’s sunny and warm; where there is no need for the incessant layering and de-layering of clothes all day. 

The monastery was interesting but we couldn’t take any photos due to the armed presence there. We didn’t linger, just a quick look at the famed 13th century frescos and a brief chat with the Italian guards at the gate before heading back along the road to scout out a camp spot. Here we cook up fajitas before settling down to sleep in our chosen spot – next to an old stone ruin in a roadside field.

The climb would take us the majority of the day – 25km of climbing – but just as we reach the start of the climb we spot a tourist information centre and decide to stop and use their bathroom. We get chatting to the attendant who tells us that in fact our intended route has no official border crossing and the road is now unused on the Montenegrin side. The open border is a further 20km up the road over a longer, steeper pass… We’re told its a beautiful cycle however and that we could play ignorant if we happen to meet anyone official on the other side.

It’s not keeping to border rules we know but the promise of a secluded beautiful cycle was too strong so we decide to try. We reason that if we hadn’t stopped we would have been non the wiser… Before we leave we gain assurance from him that there will be no snow at the top of the pass on the closed road (1500m).

Ragova canyon is an impressive gorge and the road is cut right into the sheer rock face – very cool. There is very little traffic and we really enjoy the cycle. Before lunch we reach the borderline and our road turns into a bumpy track before linking to the closed (but well paved) road on the Montenegrin side. We both feel a little uneasy about entering here but having come this far we recklessly cycle up the track and cross the border line.

Having just crossed the border line…

Here we stop to have lunch and consider our options. It wasn’t as if we were eager to cross the border illegally but any cyclist will know that turning your back on a climb which is 3/4 complete is psychological torture. While we’re weighing up the pros and cons of turning back to alternatively carrying on to find a police station in Montenegro two Kosovan border personnel appear as if by magic from the woods. They’re very friendly and explain we’ve crossed an unofficial borderline and the road is closed – all this we knew but we decided it was better to play the ignorant tourist at this point. They check our passports and inspect the bike before telling us we can keep going rather than turning back – just this once! Relieved we jump on the bike, keen to reach the top (12km away) in good time. 

The cycle continues to be stunning and because the road is closed we’re the only people for miles… As we’re nearing the top however our earlier fears about snow creep back. If the road is closed and we’re going over 1200m, and the slope is north facing (which it was) there was probably going to be snow. Sure enough, we turn a corner and the asphalt disappears under the familiar white carpet.

Dragging the bike through snow when it’s flat or downhill is hard enough but we had 5km of steep switchbacks before we would reach the top. Sometimes these decisions pay off and other times they don’t – admitting defeat we turn around and start the heart-wrenching decent back down. One more night in Kosovo to go then before we cross the border – this time sticking to the rules! 

Dinners in the Den 

So having crossed the border with Macedonia we kept climbing through a picturesque valley to the top of the pass before dropping down. There was a howling headwind at the border crossing but as we entered the country the sun came out and spilled out over the mountains. It stayed with us for our whole time in Kosovo! We received a passport stamp at the border which we were both excited about as we thought 2017 would be a stamp free year – another one to add to the growing collection! 

We dropped down into a place called Doganaj and treated ourselves to a meal in the local restaurant before cycling a few kilometres to a wooded area off the road where we pitched the tent. Just as we were drifting off to sleep we hear some shouting from the road. 

‘Hello?! Are you OK? We don’t want to hurt you, we just want to check you are OK!’ 

Paddy goes out to investigate and finds three 20 something year olds teetering on the edge of the wood. They were super friendly and asked if we wanted to come back to their house instead of camping but we declined explaining we were all set up and already in bed. 

The next morning we had a 1000m+ pass to cross. The inclines and roads are great here and we made good progress. The countryside is lovely around here and we pass through a number of towns including the Ski resort town of Brezovice – apparently the resort is a decent size with a good selection of runs. There’s no snow in the town now but the high mountains are still very much covered and the views were spectacular. We manage to reach the top before lunch. It was a Sunday and there were lots of families picnicking here at the top.

We then had a long down to the lovely town of Prizren which is full of old buildings and bridges and lots of restaurants which line the riverfront. The town is absolutely heaving and we stop to enjoy the atmosphere with an ice cream in one of the riverside squares. After enquiring at all three Hostels and being quoted overblown prices we decide to cycle back up the road and scout out a camp spot instead. A few kilometres from Prizren upriver there is a collection of allotments and homemade summerhouses. As we’re stopped on the road looking down at this potential camping spot a group of men call out to us. I run down to investigate and am greeted by Bardi who asks me if I speak French. Time to test that 13 year old GCSE I got!! 

After I cobble together a fragmented response he explains we are welcome to pitch our tent in their little garden as they were all planning to leave after having dinner together that evening. So began our two day hangout with Bardi and his gang of mates… 

It turns out that the ‘garden’ was actually what Paddy and I came to call the homemade ‘man den’. It was brilliant! A lovely spot right by the river with a small garden, vine covered balcony, big barbecue, electric stove, running water and one inside room with sofas, tv and a big dining table. Bardi and his mates who are all in their 60s and 70s come here almost everyday to eat and hangout together. Many of them are still married but I didn’t like to get too much into what they get up to in the meantime… I like to think they’re having as much fun as Bardi and his mates have in the man den. 

Bardi spoke very good French which he learnt in school and perfected during a short stay in France in his youth. Before he retired he worked as the head receptionist and later the bookkeeper for the biggest hotel in Prizren. Naturally he was the accountant for the group and kept a little black book which detailed everything each of the guys owed for the food and upkeep of the man den.

They were great company and we ended up making this spot our home for the next two days, sleeping on the sofa bed at night and eating delicious home cooked food prepared by ‘Doktor Cusine’.

‘The Doktor’ as he was commonly know by the group was a lovely guy of Turkish decent in his 70s. He was the one who looked after everyone, preparing the food and constantly making us Turkish coffees. We concluded that the den was owned by The Doktor because there was always Turkish music programmes playing on the TV and Turkish flags hung up on the walls.

Then there was Ramke who was the quiet one. He was a lovely unassuming guy and it was only in the last 30 minutes of the second evening that we got to know him a bit. Skehder and Jalcih, who is Serbian, completed the group. We also assume that there are others who form an outer circle to this core group because we were shown lots of photos of them all holidaying together in Albania. ‘We’re a democracy here, no politics just life’ states Bardi. These guys have clearly seen enough politics in their lives…

They were all so hospitable and welcoming to us and we enjoyed eating with them in the evenings. One very interesting difference between us and the gang was the speed in which we eat. Kosovans – it turns out – take a long time to eat a meal. Now, since being on the trip Paddy and I have probably developed a bad habit of engulfing our food as quickly as possible; but even taking this into account, the difference between our eating paces was incredible. In theory we can both get on board with this relaxed approach to dining, but in practice it’s goes completely against everything we know to let a plate of steaming, succulent beef stew and creamy mashed potato go cold. The lads took 90 minutes to finish this meal something we just couldn’t understand! We did manage to take our time over the homemade rice pudding. 

At the end of every evening each of them took a box of leftovers home with them and left us to snuggle down into our sleeping bag. In between these two enormous meals dished out by the Doktor, we had a lovely rest day washing the bike, ourselves and all our clothes before walking up to the castle fort which overlooks Prizren. We enjoyed clear blue skies and a picnic at the top before walking down to meet Bardi for coffee in the town.

Snuggling down…

From here we’re crossing the country across the flat plain towards the Montenegrin border. 

Kosovo – Country No.17!!!

Paddy and I both remember the Kosovan war from news bulletins; a conflict which was part of the wider Yugoslav wars and ended with UN airstricke intervention and the withdrawing of Yugoslav troops – but at the cost of thousands of lives and nearly a million people ending up displaced. It was only in 2008 the country declared independence.

The conflict harks back to cultural and religious divisions between the ethnic Albanian (Muslim) and Serbian (Orthodox) communities. Although I think it’s fair to say the rivalry goes far deeper than religion. Serbia gained control of Kosovo after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire while Albania declared independence in the same year and this created the divisions. Nothing was done to try and neutralise hostilities during the Yugoslav/Tito-era period and integration between communities in the form of marriages, schools remains rare to this day.

Serbian still does not accept Kosovo as an independent state. A big sticking point for Serbia is that Kosovo retains a huge slice of ancient Serbian orthodox heritage. Some of the most important Serbian churches and monasteries sit in what is now dominated Muslim Kosovo. In fact, Religious sites were easy targets on both sides during the conflict and many ancient mosques and churches were destroyed. As a result we still see signs for camera surveillance around religious sites and a number of important Serbian churches are still heavily guarded by UN troops.

We have already seen Polish, German and Swiss guards on duty during our short time here. Skirmishes still happen although the country is now on the whole very safe. It is however, vulnerable to organised crime and money laundering; as is the case in neighbouring Albania. In fact, ethnic Albanians are said to supply up to 20% of western Europe’s heroin.

This introduction all sounds a bit bleak but little Kosovo is far from it – we were both excited about visiting here and were keen not to let any preconceived ideas cloud our experience. What did little Kosovo have to offer despite its turbulent recent history? Well, we found a country full of some of the friendliest, pragmatic people we have met so far, picturesque little towns and villages and a lively outdoor tourism sector. Apart from the military presence there really isn’t much evidence that a war took place at all. Kosovo is prospering – it’s GDP was one of the few countries which continued to grow during the crash. 

They have the Euro here but prices are low and there seems to be two economies: urban and rural. All the towns and villages are filled with big modern houses, the roads are well maintained and community parks, and buildings nicely looked after. 
Although it would take years to fully understand the situation in Kosovo now – and we only have four days! – there does seem to still be a significant amount of segregation between the two rival communities – one town we pass through will have mosques and be flying the Albanian double eagled flag but the next village will have a church and versions of the Serbian flag will be flying. War tribute monuments are also common.