The landlocked Balkans nation of Kosovo is not an obvious holiday destination – but that deserves to change, writes Tom Rowley.
This landlocked Balkan country is not the most obvious holiday destination but five years after the former region of Serbia declared independence, westerners are starting to visit. For the moment, they are counted in their hundreds not thousands, but these first tourists are discovering an enchanting country with rugged scenery good for walking and Ottoman-era architecture, ideal for a relaxing long weekend or an excursion as part of a longer tour taking in neighbouring Macedonia or Montenegro.
Foreign Office says most visits in Kosovo are trouble-free. It is also cheap, even by Balkan standards: a glass of wine or a bottle of beer is less than £1.50 and a main course that costs more than £5 is considered pricey.
A must visit town in Kosovo is Prizren, a bustling city in the south west with narrow cobbled streets in a well-preserved Old Town built by the Ottomans, who occupied the country until 1912. It largely escaped the wartime bombing and the 16th century stone-arched bridge over the fast-flowing River Bistrica survives intact. South of the river, there are half a dozen attractive mosques, including Sinan Pasha, which was built in 1615 and features intricate pastel coloured murals. Opposite the mosque, the tiny 14th century red brick Holy Sunday Church stands barely 15ft tall, dwarfed by the two-storey houses on either side. It is maintained by a local family who speak little English but happily show us the palm-sized icon of Christ inside.
Few such traditions survive in the capital, Pristina, where much of the Ottoman architecture was demolished under Yugoslav rule to make way for ugly Soviet-era shops and apartments. There is little to see during the day but at night the capital’s youthful residents converge on the lively wine bars and jazz clubs that line the central street, Rexhep Ruci.
Even in this vibrant capital, echoes of the war are inescapable. Streets are named after Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, honouring their contribution to the NATO campaign that ended the war.
Kosovo is still best known for this turbulent recent past, but those in the know in fact seek out the country for relaxation.
Germania (flygermania.de; 0049 1805737100) flies from Gatwick to Pristina, from £180 return. Wizz (wizzair.com; 0906 9590002) flies from Luton to Skopje in Macedonia, a short drive to southern Kosovo, from £50 return.
Where to stay
Hangjik is a stone house among the mountains, close to Kacanik in southern Kosovo. From £29 a night for a couple or a family with children under 16 (hangjik.com; 00377 44127817).
The Swiss Diamond in Pristina is the country’s most upmarket hotel, with gaudy décor but spacious rooms and a luxurious marble spa. Doubles from £140 (sdhprishtina.com; 00381 38220000).
Regent Holidays runs a group tour, covering monasteries, Ottoman towns and battlefields. Next tour May 25 to June 1 2014. From £1,295 (regent-holidays.co.uk; 0207 6661244).
Nicholas Wood, the former New York Times Balkans Correspondent, leads trips combining sightseeing with briefings on political issues. Next tour 15-22 March 2014. £2,550. Political Tours: (politicaltours.com; 0843 2892349).
Bradt publishes a comprehensive guide by Gail Warrander and Verena Knaus.
There is no official tourist website but beinkosovo.com offers useful travel information.
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