Kaliningrad Russia Federation
Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Greetings from Pejė Kosovo,
Located in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains near the border with Montenegro, Peć or Pejė is the ancestral home of the Mediaeval Serbian Orthodox Church and was heavily damaged during conflicts in 1999. Today, I see no evidence of the war time destruction. The central city plaza does give the appearance of being recently developed, however. The only deluxe hotel in the city, the Hotel Dukagjini is bordered on the west by the plaza and on the south by the Lumbardhi River, today contained in a stone retainer wall as it runs through the center of the city. With an urban population of a hundred thousand, walking the business district of the city feels like being in a rural village rather than one of the major metropolises of a country with a long and tumultuous history.
In my last postcard I noted the 09:30 departure from Bijelo Polje by bus to Berane where I caught the 10:45 international bus heading into Kosovo. That bus arrived in Peć around noon where I confronted gangs of military age boys practicing their alpha male confrontation strategies on anyone they considered threatening... like a white haired, bearded foreigner carrying a backpack.
Checking the GPS display it appeared the distance between Berane and Peć as the crow flies is less than thirty miles and should have taken less than an hour. In reality the winding road twists its way over the mountain pass with a heavy snowfall the previous night making the road potentially hazardous for our bus. The hour and a half trip included brief stops for expedient immigration checks on both sides of the border.
Off the bus I immediately headed toward what I assumed must be the center of town looking for hotels as I went. The only one I saw before reaching the large open plaza was the Hotel Gold which didn't look too inviting and in any case had a locked main entry door. When I found the Hotel Dukagjini at the plaza my spirits soared. It appeared to be a four or five star house, though no sign on the outside so labeled it. The receptionist confirmed she had a room, but only for one night as a major convention had reserved all the rooms for the following night. The receptionist on duty, Albana took me up to inspect the room herself and I found it deluxe in every way.
When she announced the room rate of fifty Euros I took it. The next morning with her encouragement, I checked with her several times hoping for an unexpected availability between forays out to the surrounding area looking for emergency alternative hotel options in case the hoped for "early guest departure" never materialized. This time I managed to get inside the previously closed Gold Hotel and discovered it to be a good value at 35 Euros, though the WiFi only worked well in the lobby according to the young guy handling reception. Still, it would be acceptable as an emergency lodge if the Dukagjini kicked me out. At the last minute before my noon checkout deadline, Albana managed to miraculously steal a room for me. Now with the lodging problems solved I had no excuse for not getting caught up with postcard writing. The included breakfast varied from a lavish buffet during mornings when the hotel had more than fifteen guests to selections prepared individually for each guest when there were fewer guests registered. The buffets allowed guests to enjoy magnificent views of the snow covered Accursed Mountains through large windows surrounding the second floor dining room.
For such an elegant house management has chosen to adopt some aggravatingly petty economy measures: major international credit cards are not accepted, but debit card transactions are (though mine were declined!), central room heating is limited to the hours between 05:00-9:00 and 18:00-22:00 and is not very effective even then (After my complaint they gave me an electric room heater), the shower gel has been so diluted it dribbles through your fingers and the shower floors are polished marble that are dangerously slippery from the cleaning soap residue. Strangely, the ecologically justified reuse of linen policy common all over the world has not been offered to guests in this hotel. None of these deficiencies alter my observation that this is an excellent house and clearly the best in town.
The tourist information center located across from the hotel on the eastern side of the main plaza is staffed by an amiable gentleman who speaks colorful, if limited English. When I complimented him on his understandable language capability he replied: "Oh no. I small speak English." Confessing my total inability to speak even a single Albanian word, I asked him to teach me the words for "thank you." His reply sounded something like: Falla Men Diary. Knowing my first words of Albanian, I use them frequently.
While this is definitely a Muslim country I didn't hear any of the three daily calls to prayer for three days until Sunday noon. Furthermore, Friday seemed to be an ordinary day like every other in this city. I learned from several informants that Albanians are not super radically religious; it is something personal and never political. Most of the residents of Peje are Albanians which seems strange in a city with so many reminders of its Christian heritage.
During the few conversations I had with people who spoke English it became clear there is still palpable animosity toward the remaining Serbian minority in Kosovo. Several people unprompted mentioned the Serbian atrocities committed during the struggle for independence. Back in Belgrade Serbia I spoke to several Serbs who made it clear from their side that there still are deep resentments among ordinary people towards the Albanians who "stole" an important part of their cultural/religious heritage. I suspect the NATO mission to insure the uneasy truce between the two hostile sides may be a long one.
One evening while I enjoyed a "toast" sandwich in a very popular little cafe two teen age boys who spoke English encouraged me to talk with them in English. So, I asked them about all the gangs roaming the city and the meaning of the three colors of borders around posted funeral announcements seen all over town.
Later, the night receptionist, thirty-seven year old Dennis and I had a similar discussion. Learning I am an American he eagerly noted his father was an American as we discussed all the posted funeral notices. Black means Catholic (Serbian), Green means Muslim and Red means patriotic (Muslim veteran of the war for independence or non-religious Communist). He corroborated what the boys had told me about the dysfunctional families: disillusioned boys anxious to get away from their abusive, unemployed, drunken fathers roam the streets and often don't go to school. They are the country's lost generation. Gangs protect their neighborhoods like in American Ghettos. Any young man violating the rules of the hood is likely to be attacked by the neighborhood gang.
My last full day in the city I walked west of the city center to see the Serbian Orthodox Church compound. Surrounded by three meter high stone walls the cloistered Patriarchate of Peć is currently protected by an armed contingent of NATO soldiers and entrance is by invitation only. I spoke to the young Slovenian officer manning one of the bunkers who said everything has been quiet for years, but the religious facility is a symbol of the hated Serbian occupation and therefore is being protected by KFOR. Most of the NATO troops assigned to KFOR are drawn from Balkan countries because of the language requirements, he noted. Assignment to this role as protector is considered a preferred duty: "I just sit around drinking coffee all day. It is a good way to satisfy my military obligations." While I explored the religious controversies in Kosovo, Pope Benedict announced his resignation and North Korea detonated it's third nuclear bomb, adding to the consternation of all major world powers and earning UN condemnation.
Monday night the weather forecasts looked good for the following day and I planned to retrace my entry route over the snowy mountains by bus, heading back to Belgrade on my way into Hungry and Poland. These two countries I have somehow managed to miss during several previous forays into Europe. Awakening Tuesday morning the pile of snow on the balcony with more coming down suggested I might need to reevaluate those plans. After breakfast the heavy snowing had stopped and I decided to go on down to the bus station to see if the bus company planned to climb the mountain despite all the snow. The ticket seller at 09:30 nodded when I asked her if the Montenegro bus would make its scheduled 11:00 run and yelled: "Yes, at eleven o'clock."
About 11:05 with no bus in the allotted #7 parking place I returned to the ticket seller who shook her head and wrote on a piece of paper 14:00. Other passengers hovering around waiting for the same kind of information about the Montenegro run established the two o'clock run would be made by a minibus or "combi," if at all! I pondered all the options I could imagine and decided Saint Serendipity had intervened once again.
Buses leave for Pristina hourly so I grabbed the next one thinking I could catch a Belgrade bus in that large transportation hub... or possibly find a train heading north into Serbia. And the rest of the story will continue in the next postcard from Pristina Kosovo. Until then,
Fred L Bellomy