Gjakova is a town in Western Kosovo that is often overlooked by travelers – or at least quickly passed through en route to Northern Albania/Lake Koman and as a halfway point between Prizren and Peja. Case in point: ME.
So after three or four very brief visits within the past year, I decided it was finally time for an overnight stay to get to know it better and found there are actually quite a few cool things to see and do, “Gjakovar gems” if you will. You just need to linger a little bit longer.
Stroll Çarshia e Madhe
Having been an important trading town in the Dukagjini region for over 500 years, there is more history to Gjakova than you might imagine upon first glance but sadly much of it was destroyed during the 20th Century. Quite a bit of destruction occurred, particularly in the old town, during the First Balkan War (1911-1912), the Second World War (1939-1945) and then again during the Kosovo War (1998-1999) when some 75% of the population left or were expelled. You can definitely catch that vibe, that it is a place still trying to recover after having been through hell, but have a wander around Çarshia e Madhe/Çarshia e Vjetër and chat with the locals. It is only then you can catch the vibe that it’s also one of those places with an unbreakable spirit that may have been knocked down a few times, but always gets right back up again.
Çarshia e Madhe, or the Grand Bazaar, is the oldest and largest bazaar in Kosovo measuring in at approximately one kilometer long. Though it was heavily damaged during the war in 1999, it was rebuilt pretty fast and for the most part back to its original architectural glory.
Back in the day it was filled with all kinds of artisans peddling their products – tailors, hatters, carpenters, saddle makers, shoe makers, gunsmiths, silver smiths, leather smiths, Will Smiths.
Over the past decade the shops are slowly but surely getting filled again, though the main action of this place happens right at the top by Ismail Qemali where on summer weekends I hear you can barely move in between all the packed cafes. I have yet to experience this for myself, it’s been super quiet every time I’ve visited because of the season, but still it’s a pleasant place to pass some time with a macchiato nevertheless.
Visit the Tourist Information Office
Highly recommended before venturing out further afield is a visit to Gjakova’s Tourist Information Office. Not usually one for tourist information offices, the fact is these are few and far between in country with no national tourism organization so I see it as better to get all of the travel information that you possibly can while you can. You can pick up a good map of the city for €1.50 and they are generally very happy to help you plan your time not only in Gjakova, but also its surroundings.
Hadum Mosque is one of my favorite mosques in the Balkans and found just around the corner from the Tourist Information Office. Somewhat a symbol of the city, its construction in 1594 sort of sparked Gjakova’s growth into one of the most important trading towns in the region during Ottoman times servicing the route between Istanbul and Shkodra as well as the villages of the Gjakova Highlands. The history/myth behind its creation involves a shepherd named Hadum, a trip to Istanbul, a dead ox, and two brothers named Jak and Vulë – but I’ll leave further explanation to one of Gjakova’s friendly locals who I am sure will be willing to tell you the story.
Climb Çabrati Hill
I was looking for a pretty view of Gjakova so the Tourist Information Office recommended I make the trek up to Çabrati. About 20 minutes from the center by foot (and maybe 5 minutes by taxi), it’s definitely worth the climb to see the city from a different perspective and appreciate its geographical position not far from the Albanian Alps. From the end of Çarshia e Madhe, walk straight past the roundabout and hook a right on the street with Belushi’s barber/hair salon. If time permits, maybe you’ll even want to pop in for a proper Blue Brothers-esque haircut…whatever that is. You do know those dudes were/are Albanian, right?
For about 5-7 minutes you may feel like you are getting yourself completely lost in a far off Gjakovar neighborhood as you walk past multiple-story home after home, but hang in there. Once you spot the spawn of Skopje’s main post office, you’ll know you made it to the right place.
In addition to a fantastic view of the city, on top of Çabrati there are also a few bars/restaurants where you can wet your whistle and treat yo’self after that climb. Index Bar was the first one that caught my eye and I was pretty impressed by what I found. Or maybe I was just desperate for a glass of wine and a chair. Either way, got that pretty view I was looking for and një gotë verë bardhë.
Peter, Paul & Mary Church
Or St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Church. Pauly and Pete’s Cathedral. Whatever you want to call it, it’s another symbol of Gjakova and one of the tallest buildings in the city you won’t miss with its shiny double towers (maybe one is for Paul and one is for Peter?) – particularly when you are walking down from Çabrati or driving onward to Albania. More about driving across the border soon.
The Çarshia e Jupave Experience
One of my main motivations for planning an extended stay in Gjakova was so I could check out Çarshia e Jupave which always caught my eye on every time I passed through. From the outside it looked cool and what I found on the inside…well, let’s just say it is for sure one of the sexier hotels that exists in Kosovo.
Creativity and attention to design is something that is rarely a priority for hotel proprietors in this region so I get extremely excited when I see places like this that are not just places to sleep, but they are also experiences. What’s great about finding these kinds of places in the Balkans as well is the killer deal you can get in comparison to boutique/design hotels in Western Europe. Singles go for €40/doubles for €50 and that includes a feast of a breakfast buffet. For sure you can end up paying the same or more for two crusty hostel beds in central London that doesn’t include anything except bed bugs, so you get my point.
Aside from its visual appeal, Çarshia e Jupave is also a full-blown family affair and as a result much attention is placed on making you feel right at home. While not everyone may have the pleasure of having a coffee with the owner and his son (shout out to Zoti Shkëlqim and Rron Jupa) and checking out pictures of them with Nicole Kidman, Eliza Dukshu and the former King of the Albanians (?!) when they visited, you will most definitely find them on the ground trying to ensure all guests are well taken care of. History of hospitality in their family runs back some 60 years and is incorporated in the details of their “compound” both large and small.
Aside from the hotel and its restaurant, they have also built a sassy little underground wine bar which no doubt was a highlight for me. Only recently opened this year, it’s already packed when the weekend arrives with locals, overnight tour groups, and occasionally me and my Gjakova squad. My favorite element is the retro MOTEL sign behind the bar which actually came from motel/restaurant Zoti Jupa’s father had back in the day. You see, it’s the little things…
Between the live music, delicious Balkan-style tapas, and incredible wine, I didn’t want the night to end. Or actually, I just wished I could have put the place in my pocket and brought it back to Prishtina with me, but then it would surely lose its charm. Some great things are better left for the ones willing to make an effort for it and even if you don’t get a chance to stay the night, I say definitely make it a point to stop into Çarshia e Jupave for a glass of wine or three and ride the elevator.
Go to Valbona
This is where my journey through Gjakova ended and where my journey to Valbona began. As I mentioned before, Gjakova is a main connector to Northern Albania and incredible Valbona in the Albanian Alps/Accursed Mountains which was another main reason why I ended up staying overnight. If you are trying to get there via public transportation like I was, there is a mini bus to Bajram Curri – gateway to Valbona Valley National Park – that leaves at 12:30pm everyday from this place on Nënë Tereza that is a 10-15 minute walk from Çarshia e Jupave depending on how fast you move. If you have your own car you’re golden and will be there in an hour and a half or so depending on how fast you drive.
This list of things to explore in Gjakova is just a start and as I spend more time living in this country, it will surely grow. For example, I heard there is a good Ethnographic Museum, some tekkes, some old bridges, nearby Radoniqi Lake…and what else? Open to suggestions for next time!
Getting to Gjakova from the other main cities in Kosovo by public transportation is extremely convenient and goes a little something like this:
From Prishtina (~1 hour and 30 minutes/4 euros) – buses every half hour from 6am to 8pm
From Prizren (~1 hour/2 euros) – buses every 1/2 hour from 6am to 8pm)
From Peja (~ 1 hour/2 euros) – buses every 1/2 hour from 6am to 8pm)