One of the great things about our cycle touring is meeting new people, not just people from the places we travel to, but also those travelling and visiting places themselves. It really blows my mind how many ways there are to travel. We’ve seen lots of people travelling as we do, they’re easy to spot, the bike is usually a dead giveaway when it’s covered with overladen panniers. Along the way though we’ve also met people hitchhiking through Europe, Hiking in the Montenegrin mountains, Travelling by train from city to city and yesterday, we met a great family who have said Adieu to working their backsides off in high powered jobs. They are travelling with their two young children through a huge array of countries with a car and a massive sense of adventure. Spending an evening with them was great, we heard some traditional Kosovar music and talked about our experiences.
Our day had seen us arriving in Peja quite early, a town at the gateway to Bjeshket e Nemuna National Park. Having read about a cheap hotel, but knowing only it’s name and not location, we used Sam’s intuition (I don’t have any) to search for Hotel Park near the biggest park in town. It worked a treat and despite a previous guest having punched a hole in the bathroom door (which may or may not have something to do with the meager amount of toilet paper supplied) the hotel is clean and kind to our wallets.
We dropped off our bags before we headed up to see the Rugove Gorge. On reading about it, most people are of the opinion that the first 6 kilometres or so of the gorge are the only bits worth looking at, so we decided we would see that much and then decide if we wanted to look a little further. Of the blogs and tips that I read, most people reported that beyond that point it was mostly through forest without any views. A quick burek stop had us feeling full enough to tackle what appeared to be a pretty steep incline along with a few tunnels. The road leaving Peja is narrow and wiggles past the Patriarkana e Pejës Monstary. This monastic settlement of huge significance to the Serbian Orthodox church has been protected by the UN throughout the war and although the barbed wire along the boundary walls is happily no longer in place, the presence of police and KFOR soldiers reveals the tension that still exists here, albeit on a much lesser level than has existed over the last 15 years.
We passed by, intending to visit after our ascent of the gorge and began a gentle ascent. When we had considered whether we would cycle into the National Park, it made me think of some of the beautiful places we have seen so far. I worry that we will become somewhat blasé about the absolutely mind blowing natural beauty we find ourselves amongst and decide “It’s just another gorge” and give places like this a skip. We don’t, and it’s always worth it. No two gorges, hills, mountains, rivers or lakes are ever the same.The Rugovë Gorge begins with impressive steep, rocky sides. Trees defy gravity along the canyon walls and the water is an ethereal sky blue. Our experience in Kosovo so far is that they haven’t quite got a grip on the whole rubbish in a bin thing yet. This somewhat detracts from the stunning scenery, but I’ve found a way around it. I find that if I squint a little, they fade out of view. Hopefully, they’ll get to grips here with keeping their amazing landscape as stunning as it should be and then travellers won’t have to go around looking permanently as if they’ve got something in their eye.
The ascent of the hill was impressive both from a scenery standpoint and the fact that someone had built this road despite all the obstacles in the way. Rocks and crags hung precariously over our heads beside never ending drops to the river below. Switchbacks with tunnels on corners followed swiftly by bridges over river tributaries make me wonder what sord of mad hatter ever thought this was a good idea. It makes for a stunning cycle. We continue on and on, past this famed 6 kilometres and up further. At this point, the scenery above us becomes like something you would see in a Japanese lithograph. Sharp shards of stone reach for the sky, trees grow in fantastical shapes from little barren looking nooks and a soft mist sits around it all. And so we make it as far as the first hotel. Warm and cosy inside and with beautiful views from the terrace, it has a commanding view point over the valley. Perhaps that’s why they charge twice as much as anywhere else for a coffee! We still pay it, we deserve a hot cuppa in the chilly mountain air, before getting on our trusty steeds to enjoy the fruits of our uphill wander. The 10km back as far as the monastary takes less than half an hour despite having to come to a swift halt when a daft lady decides to leap from the side of the road straight into my path. I avoid her and then have to repeat my disaster avoidance tactics immediately after as a Pajero pulls out in front of me without a by your leave.
As I rejoined Sam who had not had to deal with the same levels of stupity as me we wiggled into the switchbacks and through the tunnel, under the teetering overhangs and before we knew it we were back at destination number two, the monastary. Security here meant that passports were handed over to the police before the barrier was lifted for us to shake our way down the long cobbled avenue to see the Serbian church. It’s been a while since we’ve been on cobbly surfaces and they had faded to but a blurry, bad memory. By the time we reached the gate, my hate had been very much reborn and we entered the manicured grounds wih my teeth still shaking inside my head. Having noticed that the one car outside had a British registration plate and was covered with stickers from Morocco to Iceland, we greeted the first touristy looking person inside the gate with a hello, and lively conversation ensued with Ryan and Emy while their little ones kindly handed me as many bugs as they could find (Quite a lot as it turns out). Having chatted with this wandering, energetic Californian family for some time, we promised to call by their hotel later that evening to hear some Kosovar music and tell and hear a few more stories.
On entering the small warren of interjoining churches Sam was informed by the stearnest looking of three nuns that his shorts would not do, and so he was given a becoming looking, blue, frilly number and hastily covered up his sinful legs. The churches are really something of beauty. Lovingly, lavishly painted frescoes adorn the walls. Age has taken it’s toll and beneath the dim lighting it’s easy to see where the edges are crumbling or where time has removed all traces of frescoes here and there. Despite this, or maybe even because of this, it is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever visited. The watchful eye of the nuns as you wander round gives a certain air of gravity to it all and silence pervails. Returning back to the sunshine, I turn to take a photo of the church, bu despite having been told by the youngest nun that photos are ok outside of the church, Sister of the Leg Dissapproval gives me the hairy eyeball and I swiftly put my camera away until she glides around a corner and then take a quick snap.
Our evening consisted of drinking more coffee. Macchiatto is the national drink in Montenegro and these guys have it down to a fine art. You couldn’t get a bad cup of coffee in this country if you tried. When hunger overcame us with a rude bang, we wandered in search of food. We had worried earlier that with the ongoing Bajram celebrations, we might not be abe to find many places open, but we need not have feared. By 8pm the streets were buzzing with people strolling arm in arm and spilling from cafes into the street. A chance turn led us to the best pizza either of us coud have wished for. With 4 people supervised by what I can only assume is some sort of Pizza Genius Extraordinaire in a space smaller than our hotel room, these guys were churning out fresh pizzas from a wood fired oven all at the perfect price of 2 euros for a large pizza swathed in suxhuk, the local salami. They tasted like heaven!
Heading over to listen to Kosovar music with Ryan and Emy, we found ourselves at another lively spot. Kosovo knows how to party, with a room packed to the rafters, there was singing, dancing and clapping. Before we knew it, it was after 1am! The evening was whiled away with travel tales, life stories and dancing and the particularly woeful tale of two cyclists rapidly running out of tabasco. When we left, we parted with new friends and thanks to their generosity and kindness, a full bottle of chilli sauce!