Peaks of the Balkans, Day 5: Pejë Play Day

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Matt, 28 June 2017
We wake up “late” at 7:30 and take care of some internet business in the comfort of Villa Tygany before Marigona, our guide for the day, meets us to take us on a day tour of Pejë, a city of 125,000 inhabitants. We began by transferring our bags to a fancy hotel in the center of town where we have a big breakfast guaranteed to keep our growing hiker hunger at bay, at least for the next few hours while we explore the adventure capitol of Kosovo. 

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The restaurant is located on the edge of the Gryka e Rugoves River which flows right through town. Marigona then takes us on a walking tour of downtown Pejë, which is centered at the confluence of three small streets. We visit the old bazaar where we see a mosque that dates back to 1471, but was almost completely destroyed by the Serbians during the 1999 war. It has now been rebuilt and is quite busy as Ramadan ended here only three days ago.

Religion does not seem to be a dividing factor here in the Balkans. Christians and Muslims live peacefully side-by-side and, according to both of our young guides, is not even a determining factor in the daily life of the citizens of these three countries. Some women wear the hijab but most do not. We have heard the call to prayer a few times, but the people here in Pejë, at least, seem to be modernized Muslims, a refreshing experience given the impression we are fed back home via American media.

The old bazaar has lots of shops that are open, mostly dealing in jewelry and wedding dresses, but there are some jarring modern images like the “iPhone Shop”, a kiosk with the Apple logo which stands in contrast to the mosque.

It’s hot already by late morning but pleasurable to stroll at a leisurely pace in shoes rather than boots. We fill our water bottles at a fountain that brings fresh water from the mountains here to the downtown.

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We make a stop into the cheese market that occurs on Wednesdays and Saturdays and sample several of the cheeses on offer. The only cheeses we have tasted here in the Balkans seems to be fresh and quite young. We have yet to see any aged or hardened cheeses. 

We buy some peaches from an older gentleman who lived here through the war. On discovering that we are American, he is quick to weigh in on our recent election, comparing Trump to Hitler. He then smiles a grin that is several teeth shy of a full set.

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We take a taxi to the Visitor’s Center to drop off our bags and pick up our climbing equipment. We then head a few miles up the canyon leading out of town to try our hand at Pejë new Via Ferrata. Noli, the ambitious 27 year-old local entrepreneur and the brains behind Balkan Natural Adventures in Pejë, studied the via Ferrata in Trento, Italy. He has already built two courses and two ziplines here in Kosovo and has future plans to build a third via Ferrata course as well as a beautiful lodge with mostly glass windows overlooking the mountains outside of town. 

We are dropped off beside the road at the bottom of the canyon where Marigona helps us into the climbing harnesses and explains how to use the cable and carabiner system. For two people who have never done any formal climbing, this turns out to be a fun and safe way to scale a thousand vertical feet of rock.

The principle is simple, she tells us. Using two carabiner clips attached to a harness, we should never unclip our back clips until we are firmly attached to the next cable, maintaining at least one point of contact at all times.

Our first test comes crossing the river on a narrow footbridge. It looks relatively safe, but Marigona tells us we can clip in if we wish. She does, so we follow suit and cross the bridge without incident.

From there, we have a short, steep climb up to the start of the cables. Marigona assures us that this is, in fact, the most difficult part of the day. Once we reach the official start of the via ferrata, Marigona leads the way and talks us through all of the more challenging spots.

There are a few nice rest breaks built into the course. After our initial climb we unclip to go explore the first of two caves that we will see.

The pace is measured and methodic but also designed to build confidence. Soon we are taking pictures of each other at precarious angles and hanging off the rock face trusting the cable and harness system.

There are common falcons riding the thermals above us and cars on the road far below. The higher we go, the more challenging the course becomes. Marigona is patient with all of our picture-taking and encouraging during the more difficult sections. She is a good match for us. This will be good training for the Dolomites we hope!

Before long we have made it to the top, feeling exhilarated by the experience. We celebrate the completion of our very first via ferrata and take some photos of the outstanding views that we can now enjoy a little more with two feet planted on the solid ground. We don’t have anything to compare this experience to, but we definitely enjoyed the course and recommend it if you ever find yourself in Pejë.

After a brief rest at the top we start the walk down to the road. Along the way we have a bird’s eye view of Pejë as we wander through an orchard with apple trees and rosehip bushes. We pick some apples to munch on on the way down.

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We then have to walk up the road back up to the zipline. It is midday and quite warm. We see loads of locals swimming in the river and cooling off on this hot summer day. It would be fun to join them, but we are headed to try the zipline. We do make a quick stop at the cafe for a rare afternoon beer before harnessing up.  

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We go one at a time on the zip line. It’s 640 meters and one quick minute of pure fun as we sail across the canyon, over the river, smack into the finish line.

Our mini adventure day in Pejë complete, it’s time to grab our bags and head to our next guesthouse for another day of hiking tomorrow. Before we do, we stop at a bakery for a piece of burek for the road. Ours is hot out of the oven and tastes delicious. The food here in the Balkans is amazing, simply put.

The drive to Reka e Allages is a short 45-minute climb back into the mountains and back to simple village life. We are staying at the quiet Ariu Guesthouse run by a delightful couple, Fetye and Mustafa. The three Germans are here, too. We shower and do some laundry before moving outside to sit at the picnic tables and chat with them over Turkish coffee and tea.

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Later we all have dinner together at the family dining table in their home. The food is traditional and delicious: roasted pepper over seasoned rice, spinach burek, pepper in cream sauce, a coleslaw style salad and more amazing freshly-baked bread. We retire to the picnic tables to chat about hiking and bear encounters over room temperature bottles of Birra Pejë.

It’s almost 9 pm, aka Hiker’s Midnight, so one by one everyone drifts off to bed. Dogs bark in the distance, crickets chirp and the family chats amiably. It’s pleasant to be in a world where the company of other people is all the entertainment anyone needs. Buona notte!

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