Years ago, those who ventured into the mountains of the Rugova valley in western Kosovo often had a rifle slung over their shoulders. Then came the brushes, the buckets of white and red paint and the first volunteers to mark the paths. And today there are many who come for the weekend, with boots or mountain bikes in summer, cross-country skis or snowshoes in winter.
During the 1999 conflict the Rugova canyon and the mountainous area around the city of Pec / Peja sheltered the KLA guerrillas, the Kosovo liberation army, many of whom now sit among the government benches after independence from self-proclaimed Serbia in the 2008.
It is said that the smugglers still illegally passing through the Rugova valley to reach Montenegro, but in reality for today's hiker the greatest danger is heat stroke in the sunny hours: the hot and dry Kosovar summer it has temperatures that often exceed the 35 degrees.
The clear waters of the Lumbardhi river channel into the Rugova Canyon, at the mouth of which is the most sacred place of the Serbian Orthodox church, the Patriarchate of Pec, the Serbian name of the city. A still disputed site, protected by the Italian soldiers of KFOR who have their base, not far away, Villaggio Italia. Among the meadows, forests and rocks of this luxuriant area, still little contaminated, the "Trentino table for Kosovo" finances a sustainable tourism project in collaboration with the local association Marimangat and Pejes, the Spiders of Peja. "This to our right is the Zoom center, where we have the winter gym for climbing", explains Egzon, the very young guide, while together with Zana, the interpreter, we set off from the city center for the excursion to the village of Lumbardhi , 1700 meters of altitude. Egzon, 18 years, followed the training courses with the mountain guide Lorenzo Isgnieri, and together with the other "Ragni" of the association is dedicated to mountain sports for 12 months a year: from skiing to climbing, from trekking to caving. “In winter, here there is a firm and compact snow, ideal for snowshoe hikes. Many foreigners living in Kosovo working for international organizations spend the weekend here, or in Bresovica, a ski resort on the border with Macedonia ”, points out Syzana Baja, office manager, while offering me the inevitable Turkish coffee with fruit juice . "For those looking for less adventurous vacations - he adds - we also have cultural itineraries and tastings of local organic products".
The ascent to the village of Lumbardhi begins with almost an hour's journey along the paved road, beaten by kids and day trippers, on foot or by bicycle, looking for some coolness along the river's banks. Another four hours of climb on a dirt road, almost all in the shade of a dense forest, lead to a prairie dotted with small chalets, built by cutting the pine trees in the woods and even equipped with a dish, powered by diesel generators. Electricity, which often fails even in the capital Pristina, obviously does not reach this point. One of the most serious problems of the valley is the illegal trade in timber, while in the enchanting undergrowth there is no shortage, among berries, butterflies and orchids, including litter and cans, equally divided between multinational products and local Peja beer. Making the inhabitants aware of environmental protection is another of the tasks of the Spiders, together with the tourist office and other local associations. We start with elementary school children, with workshops and excursions to make nature known, and we arrive at symbolic campaigns, such as the distribution of plastic bags to the Sunday afternoon excursionists, accompanied by flyers inviting us not to abandon our waste.
In the evening, while we warm ourselves by the fire and admire the lights of the city of Peja from above, Egzon and Zana tell me a bit about folklore, dreams and aspirations. "Here the best time is August", she says, whose name means Fairy: "it is the month in which all the Kosovars of the diaspora fall, and for them theatrical events and traditional music are organized". Not to mention weddings: we wait all year to celebrate them with the uncles of America or Germany, and there are many families that get into debt by organizing parties for over 20 thousand. Despite the 10 years of international presence, Kosovo still lacks an economy worthy of the name. Unemployment touches peaks of 70% and, apart from the illegal traffic on which the estimates are conflicting, many families are in fact maintained by relatives abroad. For the local economy, sustainable tourism, accompanied as in this case by integrated projects for organic farming and the enhancement of local products, can become over time a real breath of oxygen.
But if the "Spiders" treks are successful, perhaps the greatest result will be on foreign visitors and the clichés that accompany the Balkans. Certainly theaters of war and destruction, but also kissed by the beauty of nature, by spectacular artistic legacies, and by a sense of hospitality now forgotten in too many parts of old Europe.
Pec / Peja, 120 thousand inhabitants, is about 70 km from the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, reachable by direct flights from many Italian cities including Verona. The bus from Pristina to Pec / Peja takes little more than 2 hours with a cost of around 5 euros.
Nearby, do not miss a visit to the Patriarchate and the Decanj Monastery, a UNESCO heritage site, one of the most beautiful examples of Romanesque architecture and Byzantine painting in the Balkans. In the south, Prizren, a well-preserved Turkish city with a mosque where the tradition of whirling dervishes is practiced, is worth a visit.
In Pec / Peja, the tourist promotion office, the referent is Syzana Baja, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rugovaexperience.org.