Celebrations in Kosovo

Day 3 of our tri-country crawl saw us travel from Tirana into Kosovo, an ancient territory that was known as the Kingdom of Dardania in the 4th Century BC. In 2008, following war in the Balkan region, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

The national flag is unusual in that it depicts a map of the country, one of only two to do so. Name the other to avoid a place in the prize draw.

Ethnically 92% of Kosovo is Albanian so there is a close relationship between the two countries. We leave Tirana behind, having negotiated hazards like cars reversing at speed towards you down the main highway, and pass buildings used as a political prison during the Hoxha regime.

The fast four lane carriageway is a toll road (5€) that climbs through the Sar mountains. It’s a spectacular ride as the temperature drops.

The border crossing is near the city of Kukes, where the new airport has flights to Germany and Switzerland. We pass Prizren, Kosovo’s historic capital and second largest city on our way to Suva Reke (also known as Suhareke) a town of 60,000 people located about 40 miles south of the capital Pristina.

Suva Reke has a troubled recent history. 48 people were killed by Serbian police in 1999. After the war Serbian churches were destroyed. Political tensions simmer in the region with the Serbs regarding Kosovo as an autonomous province of Serbia. 97 (of 193) member states of the United Nations recognise it as such.

Today is a much happier occasion in the town as the local football team, FK Ballkani, have won the league for the first time. Admission is free on the day and the one-sided ground is full an hour before kick off apart from a section for the ultras, who are rehearsing their routines outside. A thousand more hang out of flats or other vantage points overlooking the ground, including a few on the upper floor of a derelict house on the hillside.

As the teams come out motorised paragliders with congratulatory banners fit into plumes of orange and black smoke from flares set off by the ultras.

Several are thrown onto the pitch, scorching the artificial surface.

The stand is so packed that people are sitting on the concrete ledge in front of it, regardless of a 4 metre unguarded drop onto the pitch. Nimble lads race along it, avoiding dangling limbs to sell beer from huge trays for 1€. At the back of the stand in the VIP seats, the WAGS take group photos. This one wasn’t taken, I believe he’s a Kosovan politician with a famous name.

Not that one

The visitors, SC Gjilani, are chasing European qualification themselves but subside to a 2-0 defeat after missing a twice-taken penalty following a VAR review.

It is a joyous occasion. On the way back to Tirana our driver stops at a peaceful, isolated mosque to pray. A nightingale sings in the nearby bushes. Happy memories to take with us as the sun sets over the mountains.

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