Friday, 9 August 2013

the other albania

Despite getting up at 6am we are riding up the long hill to the border with Kosovo in baking heat. (I am no longer allowed to say "Cor, it's hot" - that catchphrase has been prohibited.)  In the middle of nowhere we pass a tiny cafe with a patio surrounded by shrubs.  I go in to ask for water.  The cafe has come straight from Italy, along with plush leather sofas, and been placed on a tired road linking one dusty town in Albania with another dusty town in Kosovo.  The two young guys inside are only happy to give us water - ice cold from their fridge.  A bit further on up the road we stop in the shade of another cafe to grease the squeaky chains on the bikes.  We are welcomed and invited in by a local who speaks some English.  It turns out Nick worked in London for three years on building sites.  He spent all his money on having a good time - he was 18 when he arrived in England, illegally crossed from France in a truck.  However, he did manage to bring back not one, but two Mercedes, of which he seems very proud.  We have seen tons of cars with English plates and, appropriately, even a car-breakdown truck.

Around midday we reach the pass and the border comes into view.  The Albanians wave us straight through and the Kosovan border policeman chats amiably to us.  "It's hot isn't it?" he asks.  My lips remain sealed.  Down the other side we start looking for a lunch spot and come to rest in a clump of pine trees offering the best shade for miles around.  There's a brand new restaurant in the woods where we seek refuge and hamburgers and chips.  Some of the staff are young Swiss- or German-born Kosovans over for the summer.  They ply us with litres of cold water.  It's not enough.  We snooze away the afternoon heat at a table in the shade and as the sun starts dipping to meet the mountains we have left behind in the west, we ask the owner if we can camp for one night in the woods next to the restaurant.  "Stay a month" he says.  In Gayle's never-ending search for peace and quiet, she leads me further and further away from the restaurant.  I am only slightly perturbed.  Didn't we read somewhere about UXO - unexploded ordnance?  Gayle points to the cow pats dotted around.  Ah, I counter, but we haven't seen the cows - they might all have three legs.

checking for UXO

Despite my worst worries we make it through the night without explosions - though I confess to not going that far when I had to get up to pee in the night.   I am treated to a morning macchiato gratis at the restaurant.  The ride down hill to Djakova in the early morning sun is wonderful and at some point we cross a river and are embraced by the coldest pocket of air we've encountered since January.  

The landscape here is much flatter - better suited for farming than anything we've seen in Albania - and there seem to be new houses everywhere.  There are more houses too - a greater density of people.  The roads are good and it's hard to imagine that Kosovo is poorer than Albania when faced with signs of all this endeavour.  In Djakova we hunt out some bread and food for tea.  Outside the bakery a woman gets chatting to us and in Basic Albanian and Advanced Sign Language we chat a while. She invites us to her house over the road for coffee.  Where are we staying? Camping? Then you must want a shower.  Finally we agree to fresh water for our bottles.  It's only nine thirty so what's the rush? But we have calculated that we could actually reach Prizren by lunchtime, beating the heat.

The main road is busy with cars and trucks so we take a smaller road on the other side of the river which passes through small villages all with new houses.  At least they look new - it's rare that anyone has rendered the brick and concrete walls so they look just-built.  There are Albanian flags flying from many houses and we see only a few Kosovan flags.  This must say a lot about how people identify themselves.  Is Kosovo going to be a country that remains independent or will it one day merge with the Mother Country?  We spot a German KFOR jeep, but apart from the road signs at bridges for tanks, there's no obvious sign of the war from 1999.  We wonder how long KFOR will police this new country.

We are cycling along the flattest road we've come across since leaving Puglia.  We wind along the valley beside the river that suddenly turns 90 degrees westwards and heads into Albania.  Our road continues directly southwards to Prizren, Kosovo's best preserved Ottoman-era town.  We stop at a petrol station to put air into the tyres but nothing doing.  We are directed to the garage next door where a whole troop of grease-monkeys are working on a truck.  Well, actually one man is, whilst the rest all stand around and watch.  We try and mime putting air into the tyres.  But how to mime it?  They think we have a puncture.  Thankfully the man fixing the truck speaks English.  This is Cem.  Cem is a young Turk from Bursa.  He gets the compressor out but refuses to pump the tyres when he feels them.  I almost give up but persuade him to at least fill Gayle's back tyre.  He seems astounded at the pressure (4 bar) required.  Once done, we all relax.  Everyone starts smoking, chairs are dusted off for us and we are offered cold water, coffee and then coke. 
Lots of questions from both sides.  We have obviously broken the morning's monotony but it's also very nice to receive such hospitality and be able to ask questions ourselves.  Cem arrived here on his national service as part of KFOR.  Now all his family live here and he has just married a local.  He tells us Kosovan drivers are crazy.  We already know this - about an hour earlier we heard a squeal of brakes and rounded a corner to find an old Mercedes had rear-ended a white van.  We say our goodbyes and ride the busy road into the centre.  Approaching traffic lights that are just turning red I decide to coast through.  The car in front of me in the centre lane pulls up, but the car behind it was watching me, and promptly rear-ends the one in front.  About a kilometre further on there is a traffic jam.  Two cars are abandoned in the road - the third collision of the day.  It doesn't bode well for road users....

Thankfully we are in the centre and a hostel is easy to find.  To be honest the old town centre is a little disappointing.  There is a river flowing through the old town, a few Ottoman mosques, a little square and a clutch of old shops now dedicated to souvenirs and gold.  There is also the obligatory burek shop - burek being the Balkans best-known pie, although it probably originates from Turkey.  However, down the narrow streets there are not many old houses left.  Was it all destroyed in 1999? It's hard to tell.  In some places old houses are being pulled down to allow for modern concrete structures.  Not much sign of restoration or conservation, which comes as a surprise.  There are a clutch of cafes, bars and restaurants and a few hotels and there are tourists about.  All the Serbian orthodox churches have barbed wire around them, and warning signs against vandalism.  The cathedral is being restored and the only open church has an armed guard.
It's the end of Ramadan.  You wouldn't know Ramadan was taking place when we arrived - the cafes and restaurants are busy all day long.  However, on the day when Eid falls the town shuts down completely.  This seems to be the reverse of our previous Ramadan experiences in Turkey and Pakistan.  We haven't experienced the fast-induced frenzy of the evening meal at sun-down, nor the all-out sense of relief and holiday fiesta at Eid. Time for some baklava.

1 comment:

  1. Mmm Baklava. (Mind you, my teeth are itching at the thought!).