Before you start: this post is not a guide to Valbona National Park and the popular hiking trail from Valbona to Theth. For a practical guide to that, please check out Emily’s post over at Wanderlush!
Everybody warned us about Albanian men. ‘They’re all Mafioso, they will take you, sell your body and harvest your organs,’ they said.
The stigma surrounding Kosovo was even greater.
‘Kosovo isn’t safe, it’s a warzone. You’d be mad to even think about visiting.’
Of course, the people harbouring such views have never set foot in Albania, Kosovo, or even the Balkans. As I sit in Prizren writing this, I can’t help but smile. I stop for a moment to take a sip of my Turkish coffee and look at my surroundings. Sleepy white cottages and fruit trees line the cobbled street that leads down to the river and the centre of town, where Serbian Orthodox churches and Ottoman mosques sit side by side, taking it in turns to announce the hour and envelop the city with the haunting melody of the Muslim call to prayer.
Groups of young men sip espressos, all with the same stylish haircuts and flashy sunglasses. Wizened old street vendors peddle their goods while groups of school girls huddle around giggling together. It certainly doesn’t feel like a warzone.
That said, you can never be too careful. These are the Balkans. You never know when two handsome Albanian/Kosovar men might lure you into their car with the promise of a day trip before driving across the Albanian border into the looming mountains of Valbonë and informing you that you won’t be returning back to your hostel anytime soon.*
This is the story of exactly that. I got whisked away by two Balkan men and it was the best 24 hours ever…
As most good stories do, ours begins with wine. My friend Sarah and I had managed to snag a table at the elusive hidden restaurant, ‘Renaissance’ in Pristina. After we’d gorged on baked cheese, grilled aubergine and tender veal until our waistbands couldn’t take it any more, we proceeded to enjoy an endless supply of wine and plum brandy (raki) with one of the restaurant’s owners, Venet, and his younger brother Andi, who had been our waiter for the evening.
We talked, we laughed, and parted ways on a promise.
‘Come back tomorrow, 9pm. I’ll make lamb for you,’ Venet said.
Now, to those unfamiliar with Pristina, this may not seem like a particularly unusual or exceptional offer, but those in the know will know that Renaissance is one of Pristina’s most popular restaurants and is often fully booked days in advance. Even the prime minister of Albania has been denied a seat in Renaissance, so be personally invited back by the owner is an honour indeed, and not an opportunity we were going to pass up!
Fast-forward to the next evening and we found ourselves presented with a banquet of salmon sashimi, a rack of lamb ribs, more grilled vegetables and succulent chicken strips, this time all on the house. Once again the wine flowed and we enjoyed the wonderful company of Andi and Venet until the early hours. I would be lying if I said that I remembered everything we talked about that night but the following morning I did remember one thing – we’d planned a road trip.
Neither myself nor Sarah were certain if this road trip was anything more than a drunken promise, made with the best intentions but ultimately empty. However, we should have known that our new friends wouldn’t let us down, and so we found ourselves, a few short days later, bundled into the back of Andi’s car and being driven across Kosovo and Albania!
The first stop, as always in the Balkans, was coffee. As we succumbed to our caffeine addictions in a riverside cafe in Prizren, we were told in no uncertain terms that we wouldn’t be paying for a thing.
‘If you take out your money, I become John Wayne,’ Venet grinned. ‘I take out my gun.’
The four of us laughed as Sarah and I reluctantly put our purses away and prepared to be spoilt by our hosts.
Next stop was Shulina Winery. Although Renaissance buy all of their wine from Shulina, they’d never actually been there so it was a first for all 4 of us! After being given a tour and a look at all of the fancy machines used to produce the wine and raki, our kindly Albanian host seated us at a table where we enjoyed glasses of both the red and white wines accompanied by cold meats and cheeses. However, this wasn’t the end: just as we were about to leave, the man from the winery disappeared and came back with two bottles of white wine; one each for me and Sarah!
After we’d expressed our gratitude, we piled back into Andi’s car for the next stop on our magical mystery tour – Gjakova, the place where both boys were born.
En route, the boys explained to us that Gjakova is a very special city in Kosovo, for it was the first city in Kosovo to be accepting of homosexuality (although the joke goes that everyone in Gjakova is gay, a stereotype the people in Gjakova accept with good spirits). As we parked the car and walked through the city, I was struck by how many people were sitting outside sipping coffees and chatting under the afternoon sun. Before long though, the boys ushered us through a door and into a restaurant. Following them through the building and into the garden, we were greeted by an older man with a long grey ponytail and numerous necklaces, one of which boasted a Hamsa pendant.
‘Dani, Sarah, this is our father,’ they grinned. ‘He’s going to cook for us.’
I think my jaw probably hit the floor. Not only did this go above and beyond any expectations I’d had for the day, but I also couldn’t get over how cool this guy was. Kosovo is a pretty conservative society with very traditional gender roles and not a lot of room for the quirky or bohemian. To see a guy with a ponytail and a string of beaded necklaces was so refreshing!
After we’d shaken hands with him, the boys’ Dad, Ilir, disappeared, only to return with two bottles of wine.
‘For you,’ he smiled.
He disappeared again and came back with even more wine and a bottle of aged pear brandy. Venet busied himself with pouring us all a glass of both the wine and the raki (brandy), and we all clinked glasses. ‘Gëzuar!’
Fortunately, Ilir could speak English and so we all enjoyed a glass of wine together while talking to him about his plans to open a new retaurant in Tirana, Albania’s capital. After we’d finished a glass, he disappeared to cook up a feast for us, and what a feast it was.
To start, we had thick crusty bread with salad, olives, baked cheese, vegetables and veal, followed by salted seabass stuffed with garlic and herbs. It was divine. Even Sarah, who doesn’t usually eat fish, was brave enough to try some. In hindsight, I guess it made sense that their Dad would be a fantastic cook. After all, with sons as talented as his, he couldn’t not be, right?
We lingered over lunch, sipping our raki and mopping up all of the delicious oils with bread until our stomachs could no longer take it and we were forced to admit defeat. I could have stayed all afternoon in that garden, drinking raki and enjoying the late afternoon sun on my skin but the boys had other plans: we were going to Albania.
Bidding their father a warm goodbye, we clambered into Andi’s car once more for the final leg of our trip – the mountains of Valbonë.
Unbeknownst to Sarah and I, the boys had actually planned an overnight trip, which we didn’t discover untlil we were across the border – we’d figured we’d be back by the evening! After an initial mini-panic (pyjamas? toothbrushes?!), we assured Venet and Andi that we were more than happy to spend the night in their company, and so on we continued with our adventure.
It didn’t take long after crossing the border to be deep in the Albanian mountains. The narrow, serpentine roads took us further and further into the wilderness, and as darkness descended, it felt as though we were the only people for miles round.
After a couple of hours (and another coffee break!), we reached our destination. The boys had taken us deep into Valbonë National Park, to a cosy restaurant (Tradita) surrounded by tiny wooden cabins. Once we’d dropped our bags in ‘our’ cabins, we all headed to the restaurant for herbal tea followed by thick crusty bread, tender lamb on the bone, homemade pie (one of the most quintessential Balkan foods!) and salad, along with a delicious cranberry raki and bottle after bottle of wine.
As the drinks flowed, the conversations became deeper and deeper until we were philosophising on the meaning of love and the limitations of language – there must have been something in the mountain air!
That night, we slept like babies, rising only for cups of steaming coffee (Turkish for me, espresso for the others) and pancakes with jam and salty white cheese. After breakfast, we spent some time admiring the views (and cuddling the friendly mountain cat) before beginning the long journey back to Prizren. This time, we able to fully appreciate the views as we snaked along the winding roads of Valbonë and inched closer to Kosovo.
The journey went smoothly, with the exception of the border guard who decided he didn’t want to let me enter Kosovo becaue my passport is ‘full’ (it’s not), but after he’d flexed his muscles and left us in no doubt of his Small Man Syndrome, we were able to enter Kosovo and return to Prizren without further incident.
So, my dear readers, thus concludes my experience of being taken to the mountains of Albania with two almost-strangers. Our holiday may have only been one night, but it was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best travel experiences I’ve had to date, all thanks to our lovely hosts, Venet and Andi.
Whenever people hear about Albania and Kosovo, they’re always quick to talk about how unsafe both countries are, despite not actually having personal experiences to speak of. I wrote this post, first to share a story of an incredible day, but also as a lesson to those who allow their prejudices to define them. If Sarah and I had been closed to the possibility of new friends and new experiences, we would never have had the privilege of being shown around two beautiful countries by two even more beautiful people.
In Venet and Andi, we’ve not only experienced hospitality totally unparalleled, but we’ve also made friends for life. Already we’re planning more trips together, and if all goes to plan, the boys will be flying in a plane for the very first time next year for a Mancunian Christmas (we have guests, sorry mum)!
Andi, Venet – thank you SO much for such an incredible experience; not only our road trip but also the many evenings we’ve spent together in your restaurant. You guys are really special people and I look forward to our next adventure. Ju dua boys!
*OBVIOUSLY the kidnapping thing is a joke, for anyone who’s triggered. I’m playing on the negative stereotypes and prejudices that people hold when it comes to people from Albania/Kosovo. If you didn’t get that from the tone thus far, you probably shouldn’t be reading my blog because u r basic.
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