A trip to Kosovo has long been on my agenda, after all one cannot call oneself the Balkanista and only have visited Albania and Macedonia so far.
Autumn is perhaps my favourite season in this part of the world due to the abundance of rich colours that punctuate the landscape, combined with a faint smell of woodsmoke, and burgundy pomegranates bursting with sweet juice.
With that in mind, we loaded up Dea’s considerable luggage and two small bags for us, and headed off towards the border. We have driven a million times through the flatlands of the Tirana plain, framed by the mountains to the right. Passing farmers selling fruit and large colourful gourds by the side of the road, I admired the vibrant yellow, ochre, and rust coloured leaves on the branches of the trees. At this time of year, it looks like nature has some kind of pre-planned colour scheme that every plant and bit of foliage adheres to- orange, red, burgundy, brown, umber, and splashes of dark green here and there.
After an hour or so, we turned off onto the Rruga e Kombit that winds and turns all the way to the Kosovo border. This new road replaces a perilous almost single lane road that runs within eyesight of our path and it makes me anxious just to look out of it. A snakelike dirt path cut out of the side of the mountain that almost seems to disappear completely at some points. I cannot imagine the terror of those who had to take that road as until recently it was the only road to Kukes, and the border crossing nearby.
This part of Albania is very different from every other part- it is wild, unreachable, desolate, remote, and we pass villages and clusters of red roofed houses that look like they are stuck in another age- in a good way. Some houses are perched on small ledges in the vast, craggy mountains and with no visible road leading there, I wonder how those people live and whether they get a sense of peace from being so cut off from the rest of everyday life.
As we continue on our way, I start to notice an increasing number of abandoned houses and industrial units- half built, falling down, inhabited but crumbling- it seems that industry that once thrived here, does not so much any more. There are large piles of different kinds of sand and rocks, corrugated factories and rusting trucks and lorries behind barbed wire fences, exposed to the elements and left to rot.
Accompanying us on our drive is a large silty river that is half full with brilliant turquoise water. This area is often full of snow in the winter months and when it melts, the river becomes a raging body of ice water, flowing towards the ocean. We continue on our way and the mountains get more spectacular as we go, we appear to be heading into the clouds as some of the peaks are obscured and in some places, forgotten wisps cling to the side of the hills.
We are now in Mirdita region of the country- the highlands of Albania full of history, tribal tradition, customs, and a very different way of living to those who inhabit the larger cities. It is breathtakingly beautiful here and I love the isolated peace of the villages, towns, and smallholdings that we passed.
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Eventually, we end up at Kukes at the Fierza lake. I get angry as we pass local men catching wild birds, but as we turn a corner I am presented with the most spectacular view. The lake, surrounded by hills and mountains, gives off a fine mist that rises upwards, contrasting with the orange and yellow trees that frame it like a border. I stop to take a photo and we continue to the border, passing into The Republic of Kosovo.
It’s funny- whilst some say that Kosovo is Albanian land and that the borders have changed a lot over the years, I still see a difference in the land, the light, the atmosphere, and the architecture as soon as we move from one to the other. As soon as we took the road in Kosovo, our surroundings became bathed in a golden light- the sun that had started ever so slightly descending in the sky, cast a warm glow all around us.
The houses, the roads- everything seemed different, and I made a note of many of the road signs being in Albanian and Serbian, but many had the Serbian names scratched out or taped over in an act of protest.
were in for a treat. The floor manager for the evening, a lovely woman from Peja, showed us to our seats and cooed over Dea (it’s impossible not too). As Dea proceeded to grin at everyone in the restaurant, and the delightful staff kept filling my glass up to the point I was soon a little beyond the definition of a ‘responsible mother’.
We ate quinoa with pomegranate, avocado and shrimps, sea bass with orange sauce, and a selection of creamy, chocolate desserts. The food was excellent, on par with that of Tirana and the service was some of the best I have had in the Balkans.
The floor manager and I sat outside to smoke a quick cigarette and she told me how after the war, she left for New York but had to return after 12 years. She told me how hard she finds it to adjust to live back in Kosovo.
“Time has passed but there are still many gaps in society” she tells me. “Building new tower blocks and apartments doesn’t change the past or fill these gaps, only time will.”
With Frank Sinatra playing in the background, we decided to wobble upstairs to bed feeling fat, happy, and very, very tired.