HIKING IN KOSOVO? WHY NOT!
In the heart of the Balkans is a small territory called Kosovo. We hardly dare call it a country so much the subject is sensitive. Once again, as we approached this border, we have seen our ignorance about a country so close from ours and we are pretty sure that it's the same for most of you. On one hand you probably know how to name beaches in Thailand and know what Central Park looks like, on the other hand to situate Kosovo on a map or imagine the way of life of its inhabitants, it is less certain.
Kosovo has a long history of diverse occupations and conflicts over its belonging. It was part of Yugoslavia, as an autonomous province of Serbia, although mostly populated by Albanians. At the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kosovo sought independence and was violently repressed by Serbia. In view of previous developments in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also for fear that the conflict would spread to Macedonia, between March and June 1999, NATO conducted air strikes on Serbia and forced Milošević to retreat from Kosovo. It is only on 17 February 2008 that Kosovo's independence was proclaimed unilaterally, it is not yet recognized by the entire international community.
Despite our curiosity, two things pushed us to shorten our crossing of Kosovo. The plan was to arrive directly from Montenegro but we decided to take a hike through Northern Albania. We had read so many testimonials about the valley of Valbonë and the surroundings of Theth that we felt we could not miss it (we will talk about our crossing of Albania in a few weeks after being to the South too!). So we entered Kosovo a little further South than expected.
Finally, because we understood that we should take seriously the meaning of border crossings in this area and that the border between Albania and Kosovo is still riddled with mines, we changed our route again to cross the border officially, by the road that cars take. As a result: we spent only 5 days in Kosovo.
The first thing that struck us when we arrived in Kosovo was that everything seemed richer and more modern than in Albania. We were expecting to find villages still marked by war, partially destroyed, and, to be honest, a much lower level of development. How to explain that Kosovo seems much more developed than Albania for example? By development we mean what was observable from our position of walkers: houses, what do I say, mansions, new roads and cars. After NATO's intervention to repel the Serbs from Kosovo, the country received billions of dollars for its reconstruction.
Do you want our opinion? They should have devoted a small part of it to put in place a proper waste management system... Without any question, Kosovo won the palm of the country with the most garbage in the nature. This is even more sad when you know that the country has a great potential for nature/adventure tourism. We did not have the impression of making a difference with 1KG FOR THE PLANET because we had trouble finding bins and regularly we met dumps and understood where all this was going to end anyway...
Very quickly, the sense of welcome of Kosovars/Albanians jumped to our eyes. Did we need something? Did we know where we were going? Did we need to be dropped somewhere? Did we want to have coffee? And you know what? Often these questions were asked in French! Yes, during the war, many Kosovars fled abroad, especially in France and Switzerland, spent a few years working there and came back when the situation had calmed down.
We were not alone when crossing Kosovo. Noé, Nil's brother, came to spend nearly 3 weeks with us. First in Albania, then in Kosovo and a brief visit to Macedonia. Excellent companion of adventure, he has now 5 countries on the counter with us and he holds without question the record of the number of days spent with us.
The day after we arrived in Kosovo, a fourth walker completed our troop. Ursula also crosses Europe on foot, in the other direction. She started in Kiev, Ukraine, and returns home to the UK after a slight detour through Spain. Her solo hike is also an opportunity for her to raise money and awarness for ovarian cancer. Just as much reasons that made us very excited to meet her! Follow her trip on Facebook, Instagram and blog, it's called One Woman Walks!
Spending these four days with Ursula allowed us to compare our experiences, to measure the difference involved in making such a trip alone as a woman and to realize that many things brought us closer as hikers of the world.
When the elements are against us...
Unfortunately, the weather did not help much in our discovery of the country. The two days we wanted to spend in the mountains were done in the rain and we even had to give up our border crossing at 2,100 meters altitude as the rain, the wind and the cold associated to make us turn back.
You may remember that last year in Catalonia I celebrated my 30th birthday. Whatever we do, birthdays are the kind of stuff that comes back every year... So this year we celebrated it as a group of four people, around a campfire on the bank of a river. This year again, Nil redoubled ingenuity to surprise me and spoil me! If everything goes as we think, we will celebrate two birthdays each on the road...
We leave this 10th country with a feeling of "not enough". Kosovo was a big question mark for us and we still have some outstanding issues, but the fact that we spend so much time in Albania should still help us to respond.
Here we are in Macedonia, ready to welcome a new guest! And yes, sunny days make hikers out more than winter...
Talk to you soon! Marie & Nil