Discovering Rugova Canyon, aspiring model for eco-tourism in the Balkans
(Published in September 2008 on “Autonomie e comunità”)
At the beginning it was a rifle on the shoulder. Then, a red and white varnish bucket to mark the paths. Finally, a backpack with tent and sleeping bag. In 9 years, the walker’s typical baggage has deeply changed in Rugova valley, a mountain area in western Kosovo, near Montenegrin border, not far from the city of Pec /Peja. In 1999, places like Rugova Canyon gave shelter to guerrilla fighters from Uck, Kosovo liberation army, many of which leaders sit now in the newborn government (Kosovo, after 9 years of United Nations’ administrations, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on February 17th 2008).
Plenty of smugglers, people say, still use these passes to cross illegally to Montenegro, but for today’s hiker the biggest danger is probably a heatstroke in sunniest hours: in Kosovo summer, hot and dry, temperature often goes over 35C. Lumbardhi river’s limpid water flows in Rugova Canyon, which mouth hosts the most sacred place for Serbian orthodox church, Pec Patriarchate. Still contested, the site is protected day and night by Kfor Italian soldiers. Among fields, forests and stones in this luxuriant area, Italian province of Trento finances a sustainable tourism project, together with local association Marimangat e Pejes, Spiders from Peja.
“On our right hand we have Zoom, our winter gym for climbing”, says my young guide Egzon, while we walk with Zana, the interpreter, from city center towards Lumbardhi village, a walking tour from 500 to 1700 meters altitude. Egzon, 18, studied with Alpine guide Lorenzo Isgnieri. With other “Spiders”, he practices mountain sports all year round, from ski to climbing, from hiking to speleology.
Center of their activities is Peja touristic information office, which also offers chalets or bed and breakfast for less adventurous travelers. “In the winter we have a very firm snow, ideal for snowshoes walking. Many expats, who work for international organizations in Kosovo, spend winter weekends here or in Bresovica, another ski station close to Macedonian border”, clarifies Syzana Baja, responsible of the office, while we share the unfailing Turkish coffee. “Next summer – she adds – we will mark new mountain paths, one of which leads to a recently discovered waterfall”.
The way to Lumbardhi is almost a hour on asphalt road, where teenagers and day trippers, on foot or by bike, look for a cool place along the river. Another four hours of dirt road, almost all under the shadow of a deep wood, eventually lead to the village: a grassland covered by small chalet, built with local pine trees and complete of parabolic aerials despite lack of electricity.
Environmental consciousness is still a new concept for many Kosovars. Among the biggest problems in the valley there’s illegal wood commerce, and the lovely underbrush shows both berries and cans, equally divided among multinational drinks and local beer. Promoting environmental protection is among Spiders’ duties, who educate children from elementary schools, and on Sundays distribute plastic bags to day trippers, inviting them not to abandon their garbage.
In the evening, admiring the lights of Peja around the fire, Egzon and Zana tell me about local traditions and private dreams. “It’s a shame you aren’t staying in august”, says Zana, whose name means Fairy: “It’s a month full of happenings, because all the emigrants are home for summer”. The same rule works for marriage: people waits all the year to celebrate with America’s or Germany’s uncles, and many families get into debts organizing parties for thousands of euro. Despite 9 years of international presence, Kosovo still doesn’t have a proper economy. Unemployment is up to 70% and, besides discordant estimates on illegal traffics, many families are actually maintained by relatives living abroad. For local economy, a sustainable tourism like this could become, with time, a real breath of oxygen.
Also, if Spider’s hiking will be successful, one of the greatest results will be on foreign visitors and commonplaces about the Balkans. Theaters of war, but also kissed by a beautiful nature, spectacular artistic heritage, and a sense of hospitality forgotten in many areas of Old Europe.
Pec/Peja, 120 thousand inhabitants, is around 70 km from Kosovo capital city, Pristine. Pristine – Peja is a two hours bus ride for approximately 5 euro. For itineraries in Rugova Valley the contact is Syzana Baja, rugovaexperience.org, firstname.lastname@example.org. Around Peja, Pec Patriarchate and Decanj Monastery are a must for the visitor, among the best examples of Romanesque architecture and Byzantine painting in the Balkans. In the south, it’s worth seeing Prizren, Turkish city with ancient and well preserved heart.