Peja, Kosovo, plus Albania

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 68 of the March 2011 issue.
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by Randy Keck (Part 2 of 2)

Continuing through Kosovo in October 2011 as guests of the American Tourism Society, our group of three journalists traveled from Pristina to Peja via the enthralling Rugova Gorge, one of the country’s most scenic attractions.

We stopped at Hani Restaurant for lunch and meetings with local tourism officials and were able to savor the beautiful display of fall colors lining both sides of the gorge. We enjoyed a meal featuring trout and other regional specialties, a value at $9, excluding drinks.

Peja

Peja streets have room for all. Photos: Keck

With its dramatic natural setting surrounded by snowcapped mountains, Peja (pop., 100,000) was easily my favorite city in Kosovo. It reminded me of some areas in Switzerland and Austria but without the pretense or cost.

Peja is the administrative center of the Dukagjini Valley and is recognized as one of the oldest inhabited areas in Kosovo. Civilization in the region dates back to Roman times, with its period of “modern” history beginning after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

The makeup of its population — 90% Albanian and 10% a mix of Serbians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Romas and others — mirrors that of much of the rest of the country and insures that a variety of cultures and religions are on display.

The place to stay in Peja is a “no brainer”: the impressive, streamside Dukagjini Hotel (phone 385 [0] 43 300 801), which, unfortunately, was undergoing extensive renovation during our visit. It has a fine-dining restaurant, but I was most impressed by the huge café and leisure lounge, which was clearly the most popular evening meeting venue in the city. I recommend their fine ice cream selections, especially sour cherry.

While touring the hotel, I was pleased to learn that new laws against smoking in public places would be in effect throughout Kosovo in the very near future.

An area adjacent to the hotel is being converted into an expansive pedestrian mall — perfect for day and night strolling and accessing a variety of interesting restaurants and coffee bars.

Decan Monastery

Near Peja is one of the most significant must-see attractions in Kosovo: the 14th-century, Serbian Orthodox Decan Monastery, a site richly deserving of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls of the church are brilliantly adorned with hundreds of magnificent, well-preserved frescoes.

A traditional kulla outside of Peja, Kosovo.

The attractive, serene monastery complex is self sufficient, growing a variety of crops. It even has its own vineyards. Despite the peaceful setting, access to this amazing site is controlled by a small contingent of UN (Italian) soldiers.

Upon direct questioning away from the main group, our priest/guide confided to me that the monastery is one of the most important Serbian Orthodox sites and the monastery officials consider it to be part of Serbia, not Kosovo. It would seem this issue is not resolvable.

The kulla experience

Midday, we enjoyed a traditional meal at Mazrejkave Kulla, one of the region’s preserved, historic, three-level residential dwellings. Traditionally, livestock occupied the ground floor and the family the second floor, with guest accommodation, kitchen and dining areas on the third floor.

Some kullas are now being set up to cater to visitors, offering meals and overnight accommodation.

Onward to Albania

As we departed Kosovo for neighboring Albania, we were not prepared for the dramatic Alps-like passage between the two countries. The snow-covered mountain vistas persisted for most of our four-hour journey, and as we entered Albania the road widened into a most impressive four-lane expressway.

Our ultrabrief two-night, one-day experience in Albania would offer a mere taste of the many attractions of this up-and-coming tourism destination.

Tirana

A child at play in the mountainside village of Kruja, Albania.

Our arrival in Tirana (pop., 600,000) delivered the added bonus of temperatures much warmer than those we had experienced in Kosovo. We had, unknowingly, dropped into the Mediterranean zone, and all were happy with the change.

Compared to other cities in the region, Tirana, founded in 1614, is relatively new. The political, cultural and economic hub of the country, it became Albania’s capital in 1920 and is undergoing well-planned redevelopment. It is booming in terms of growth, offers good value, is safe for walking, both day and night, and simply has a good feel to it.

An additional plus — based on past military-related assistance provided, Albanians are especially friendly to Americans.

We were accommodated at the Tirana International Hotel (Scanderbeg Square 8; phone +355 42 234185). Ideally situated in the heart of the city and a great location from which to explore on foot, the hotel is user-friendly in terms of restaurants and other facilities. A standard double costs $170, including all taxes and a bountiful breakfast.

Our whirlwind city tour in the a.m. revealed good museums, historic sites and myriad architectural styles, from the Mussolini-era Italian planning of the city center to the modern-day influence of an artist mayor who has championed numerous colorful art districts in Tirana.

Kruja

In mid morning we departed for the mountain village of Kruja, 32 kilometers from the capital and close to Tirana International Airport. At an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet, Kruja, at every turn, offers expansive views toward the coastal plain.

We first visited Scanderbeg National Museum, which chronicles the exploits of the 16th-century national hero whose brilliant tactics resulted in Kruja’s being a bastion of unrelenting resistance against the Ottomans.

Next we visited the fascinating Ethnographic Museum, which provided much insight into past Albanian lifestyles within the region. We also traversed the mountainside bazaar, which offered some traditional handicrafts.

On our final evening in Tirana, we were hosted for dinner at Sarajet 1837 Restaurant, a short walk from our hotel. Sarajet offered a great dining experience, with excellent traditional cuisine and décor. Meals cost $12 to $20, excluding drinks. The evening made for the perfect finale to our Kosovo and Albanian adventure.

I particularly look forward to returning to Albania to experience the historic, cultural and seaside offerings along its alluring Adriatic and Ionian coastlines.

For information, contact Albanian Tourism (phone 355 [04] 273 778) and Albexx Travel & Tours (phone 00355 67 21 17 222 or e-mail albexxtravel@yahoo.com).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Where hospitality is the way of life and the home is always open for guests ❞
— Randy revering an old Albanian tradition

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Randy Keck (Part 2 of 2)

Continuing through Kosovo in October 2011 as guests of the American Tourism Society, our group of three journalists traveled from Pristina to Peja via the enthralling Rugova Gorge, one of the country’s most scenic attractions.

We stopped at Hani Restaurant for lunch and meetings with local tourism officials and were able to savor the beautiful display of fall colors lining both sides of the gorge. We enjoyed a meal featuring trout and other regional specialties, a value at $9, excluding drinks.

Peja

Peja streets have room for all. Photos: Keck

With its dramatic natural setting surrounded by snowcapped mountains, Peja (pop., 100,000) was easily my favorite city in Kosovo. It reminded me of some areas in Switzerland and Austria but without the pretense or cost.

Peja is the administrative center of the Dukagjini Valley and is recognized as one of the oldest inhabited areas in Kosovo. Civilization in the region dates back to Roman times, with its period of “modern” history beginning after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

The makeup of its population — 90% Albanian and 10% a mix of Serbians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Romas and others — mirrors that of much of the rest of the country and insures that a variety of cultures and religions are on display.

The place to stay in Peja is a “no brainer”: the impressive, streamside Dukagjini Hotel (phone 385 [0] 43 300 801), which, unfortunately, was undergoing extensive renovation during our visit. It has a fine-dining restaurant, but I was most impressed by the huge café and leisure lounge, which was clearly the most popular evening meeting venue in the city. I recommend their fine ice cream selections, especially sour cherry.

While touring the hotel, I was pleased to learn that new laws against smoking in public places would be in effect throughout Kosovo in the very near future.

An area adjacent to the hotel is being converted into an expansive pedestrian mall — perfect for day and night strolling and accessing a variety of interesting restaurants and coffee bars.

Decan Monastery

Near Peja is one of the most significant must-see attractions in Kosovo: the 14th-century, Serbian Orthodox Decan Monastery, a site richly deserving of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls of the church are brilliantly adorned with hundreds of magnificent, well-preserved frescoes.

A traditional kulla outside of Peja, Kosovo.

The attractive, serene monastery complex is self sufficient, growing a variety of crops. It even has its own vineyards. Despite the peaceful setting, access to this amazing site is controlled by a small contingent of UN (Italian) soldiers.

Upon direct questioning away from the main group, our priest/guide confided to me that the monastery is one of the most important Serbian Orthodox sites and the monastery officials consider it to be part of Serbia, not Kosovo. It would seem this issue is not resolvable.

The kulla experience

Midday, we enjoyed a traditional meal at Mazrejkave Kulla, one of the region’s preserved, historic, three-level residential dwellings. Traditionally, livestock occupied the ground floor and the family the second floor, with guest accommodation, kitchen and dining areas on the third floor.

Some kullas are now being set up to cater to visitors, offering meals and overnight accommodation.

Onward to Albania

As we departed Kosovo for neighboring Albania, we were not prepared for the dramatic Alps-like passage between the two countries. The snow-covered mountain vistas persisted for most of our four-hour journey, and as we entered Albania the road widened into a most impressive four-lane expressway.

Our ultrabrief two-night, one-day experience in Albania would offer a mere taste of the many attractions of this up-and-coming tourism destination.

Tirana

A child at play in the mountainside village of Kruja, Albania.

Our arrival in Tirana (pop., 600,000) delivered the added bonus of temperatures much warmer than those we had experienced in Kosovo. We had, unknowingly, dropped into the Mediterranean zone, and all were happy with the change.

Compared to other cities in the region, Tirana, founded in 1614, is relatively new. The political, cultural and economic hub of the country, it became Albania’s capital in 1920 and is undergoing well-planned redevelopment. It is booming in terms of growth, offers good value, is safe for walking, both day and night, and simply has a good feel to it.

An additional plus — based on past military-related assistance provided, Albanians are especially friendly to Americans.

We were accommodated at the Tirana International Hotel (Scanderbeg Square 8; phone +355 42 234185). Ideally situated in the heart of the city and a great location from which to explore on foot, the hotel is user-friendly in terms of restaurants and other facilities. A standard double costs $170, including all taxes and a bountiful breakfast.

Our whirlwind city tour in the a.m. revealed good museums, historic sites and myriad architectural styles, from the Mussolini-era Italian planning of the city center to the modern-day influence of an artist mayor who has championed numerous colorful art districts in Tirana.

Kruja

In mid morning we departed for the mountain village of Kruja, 32 kilometers from the capital and close to Tirana International Airport. At an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet, Kruja, at every turn, offers expansive views toward the coastal plain.

We first visited Scanderbeg National Museum, which chronicles the exploits of the 16th-century national hero whose brilliant tactics resulted in Kruja’s being a bastion of unrelenting resistance against the Ottomans.

Next we visited the fascinating Ethnographic Museum, which provided much insight into past Albanian lifestyles within the region. We also traversed the mountainside bazaar, which offered some traditional handicrafts.

On our final evening in Tirana, we were hosted for dinner at Sarajet 1837 Restaurant, a short walk from our hotel. Sarajet offered a great dining experience, with excellent traditional cuisine and décor. Meals cost $12 to $20, excluding drinks. The evening made for the perfect finale to our Kosovo and Albanian adventure.

I particularly look forward to returning to Albania to experience the historic, cultural and seaside offerings along its alluring Adriatic and Ionian coastlines.

For information, contact Albanian Tourism (phone 355 [04] 273 778) and Albexx Travel & Tours (phone 00355 67 21 17 222 or e-mail albexxtravel@yahoo.com).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Where hospitality is the way of life and the home is always open for guests ❞
— Randy revering an old Albanian tradition