After two weeks in Kosovo, we were eager to take our first weekend bus trip. The quickly-cooling weather reminded us that we better get out and see more of the country before the snow sets in and gets comfortable, interrupting transportation.
Peja is the largest city in the western half of Kosovo. It is known for its stunning setting against the edge of the vast Rugova Gorge leading the way to Montenegro, and for being the location of the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
We checked our Bradt guidebook for a rough and somewhat outdated bus schedule and showed up to the Mitrovica Stacioni e Autobusve as early as we could manage (a pitiful 10am). We wandered between the buses scattered throughout the station, carefully examining the signs in each bus’s front window for our destination. Soon enough, we found the only bus to Peja. Unsure whether or not we could get on the driverless, open-doored bus, we waited until some other people did and mimicked them.
After a few minutes’ wait, a driver arrived and the small bus trembled out of the station, heading west out of town. For the first time, we saw what lay beyond the station: an empty park of grass littered with gazebos and a view of red roofs dominated by deep green mountains.
Less than a mile from the station, we pulled to the side of the road to let a couple on. Albanian folk music slipped through the speakers and we were off again, past half built buildings, tire stores, produce stands, pedestrians, gas stations, fields of trash and broken bricks, and two story stucco and brick homes with laundry lies hopeful of sun.
The clouds soon gave way to sun as we stopped every few miles to gather individuals standing at arbitrary points on the roadside. Pick your spot, give a wave, and as simple as that, you have a ride. The driver had this down to a fine routine, stopping no more than 60 seconds for passengers before getting back in third gear.
Three miles or so and we were in the hills. Buildings faded to autumnal forest. The tips of leaves just beginning to burn yellow and rarer red. Years in San Diego have kept me from fall. No longer. Power lines criss-crossed the hills while homes and Albanian flags dotted the valleys. Boulders and strata cliffs jut from under soft grasses and clusters of thin leafy trees.
We passed through countless small villages united by nothing more than a market, gas station, and war memorial. At least half the bus’ patrons were traveling from one of these villages to another a few miles down the road. Some carried bags of groceries or new water tanks. In one such villages just before Vitak, a a man tanned by decades of days outside waved down the bus while standing in brush. Once on the bus, he approached the driver with handfuls of walnuts. After some discussion, he dumped them in the driver’s lap and our journey continued.
After an hour or more, we reached Runik, a full-scale town in comparison to the previous villages. It sat on the crest of the hills overlooking a large valley of patchwork fields, green groves, and corn crops turned golden. Many of my bus companions left me in Runik, including the man that had been sitting to my left most of the ride. He had an unmistakably rugged appearance with an untamed bristly mustache resembling steel wool, a worn leather jacket and boots, and a camouflage hunting cap with “Los Angeles” sewn in the back. The bus may have been non-smoking, but that wasn’t going to stop him from using his time well and knocking back a pint of Peja (Kosov@’s only beer) on our mid-morning drive.
Another hour through that patchwork valley, and we arrived in Peja. Buildings slowly doubled in size signaling the city’s approach. It was immediately clear that this city was much larger and more urban than Mitrovica. Buildings were not only taller but more dense. The city was large enough it had directional signs to point you to the center. In Mitrovica, this is not necessary. More traffic, more people, more noise. We soaked it all in as we walked from the bus station to the center. Bakeries, clothing stores, trees that were more than sapplings.
In the central square, there were two young men on segways recruiting for a tour. What country had we mistakenly traveled to? Segway tours in Kosov@? The river running through the city had bridges lined with bright potted flowers. Not only could you cross the bridges without controversy, but there were flowers. And across the central bridge, there was another surprise: a park filled with grass and towering trees. We could not resist sitting ourselves on a bench and gazing at the greenery of Ibrahim Rugova Park. Moving from Seattle, where you could spend many months getting lost in the city’s well-kept parks, to Mitrovica, where it is difficult for me to label anything as a park, has not been easy.
After a walk through the grounds of Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church and through the city center itself, we wandered south to discover an even larger expanse of nature. Paths snake through Peja’s City Park, taking you through forest and hidden clearings. Kids were playing football and parkour, while older men sat together and smoked. From the remnants of an old Yugoslav monument in the park, you can see the whole city nestled against mammoth rocky mountains.
There was not much time to savor the drama of the scene and the sense the day had given us of the city. Back to he bus station to catch the last bus back to Mitrovica–a winding tour hour ride in complete darkness, where we relied completely on our driver’s memorization of the roads’ curves.
- Images from Peja (Pec) (wantofwonders.com)