So, it's not everyday that a friend you haven't seen in years invites you on a trip with people you don't know to a country you had never considered visiting . . . but such was the case when my friend Adam U invited me to join an international crew made up of mostly French, but with 2 Germans, 2 Swiss, and an Albanian to ski in Albania and Kosovo. Since the trip met my criteria for being totally random and interesting and the only thing Adam could conclusively say was "guaranteed adventure," I decided I should probably give it a go . . .
So, on Feb 17, 2011 I found myself landing in Pristina, Kosovo on their 3rd anniversary of independence . . . wow, now there's a concept! I had studied the Balkan conflict in high school but had honestly forgotten most of what I'd learned in the interim and admittedly hadn't paid much attention to how the situation had developed since then . . .
Adam entering Kosovo
We opted to head straight to Brezovica, a ski area built as a backup for 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, and only about 1.5 hrs away from town, but first stopped in downtown to have a drink and a quick snack . . . Driving down Bill Clinton Blvd, I learned that people in Kosovo were super pro-US due to our support of the 1999 NATO bombings that ultimately turned the tide on the Serbians performing an ethnic cleansing of Albanians (Kosovo is 90% Albanina, 10% Serbian) out of the country, both by force and by forced adoption of Serbian language/religion/customs, etc. In current times, it was a little uncomfortable to be in a country that is so pro-US after spending so much time travelling lately with a sense of guilt for the role our country has played on the international scene, but I have to admit it was nice as well . . .
So, we arrived in Brezovica and headed up to the Albanian bar, where we celebrated independence with Peja beer and gypsy music . . . it was a pretty mellow, but fun evening!
A happy ex-soldier from the Kosovo Liberation Army, as commemorated by the medal around his neck . . .
The gypsy band
The next morning saw high winds and the ski area on hold, so we decided to take off for Albania, but not until after some strolling and a nice lunch! It was nice to have a good night's sleep and a mellow day to start the trip on, thus mitigating some of the jet lag!
Brezovica was historically a Serbian area, in part due to the village at the base of the mountain being Serbian, but today it's enjoyed by Serbians and Albanians and serves to many we spoke to as an example of how economic co-depedence (Serbian business owners need Kosovo's Albanians to support the ski area, especially since international travelers have not really come back, and many Serbians don't feel safe traveling in Kosovo) is the necessary integration to create a peaceful future.
An Albanian and Serb working rental huts at the base of the ski area, pointing out (in international communication signs of course) their friendship
And so, off to Albania we went for a week of ski touring in the Valbona valley . . .