Shepherding in the new Kosovo

As the ethnic Gorani people of Kosovo's Šar Mountains turn from shepherding to work abroad, ghost villages and tranquil wilderness are left behind – all best discovered on horseback.

The houses were all empty. As our car rattled around increasingly vertiginous turns through southern Kosovo's Šar Mountains, our driver pointed out nearby villages, each a haphazard cluster of homes dotting the golden-brown heath. None, he said, had inhabitants.

Their residents, he told me, had all decamped for the season, leaving to serve as migrant workers in Germany, which is home to the largest Kosovar diaspora outside the Balkans. From there, they would send money back to family elsewhere in Kosovo. Sheep-herding, the customary way of life in the Šar Mountains, is hardly profitable; many of the region's ethnic Gorani, whose name derives from the Slavic for “highlanders”, now seek a more stable life elsewhere.  

Among these ghost villages, a few still function. One of these is Brod, located 45km south of Kosovo's second-largest city, Prizren. With creaking Ottoman houses and cobblestoned streets, Brod has been the most successful in developing a modest tourist economy, welcoming travellers who have come, like me, in search of authentic Gorani culture in Kosovo's most remote highlands. With only a couple thousand inhabitants, it is home to the region's only hotel, the Hotel Arxhena; in recent years, the United Nations Development Programme has worked with locals to develop official hiking routes around the village. As I’d soon find out, however, the preferred method of sightseeing is on horseback.

Girdled by streams and sun-parched grasslands, Brod is one of the region's most picturesque towns. When I arrived, the whitewashed houses leaned precariously over cobblestones; the September wind whipped up a chill through the alleyways. Sheep nosed at long grass; horses whinnied; beetles darted where rocks cleaved in the sun.

Kosovo's reputation in recent decades has been for war, not tranquillity. The 1998-1999 Kosovo War – which resulted in Kosovo's independence from what is now Serbia – left its marks; hiking in several areas of Kosovo still requires a guide savvy to the locations of unexploded landmines. But as coastal Balkan countries like Croatia and Montenegro have developed tourist infrastructures in the decades following peace, Kosovo, too, is starting to welcome visitors. The 272km highway between from Milot, Albania, to Pristina, Kosovo's capital, via Prizren, completed in 2013, has made Kosovo’s south more accessible to visitors. The upcoming construction of another major road, running for 60km between Skopje, Macedonia, and Pristina, is expected to bring in even more.

Still, infrastructure in Brod is definitely more modest than that of its Balkan neighbours. To find us accommodation, our driver had only to lean out his car window and bark at loitering locals that we were in need of a room. We soon discovered that – as everyone in Brod seemed to know – arriving guests were to seek out a man named Bilygaip Zilje. A few years ago, Zilje inherited a ramshackle second home at the edge of town, which he transformed into central Brod's only homestay. Its 10 beds are more than enough for the visitors who trickle through.

It took only five minutes for Zilje himself to arrive and ferry us through Brod's unmarked alleyways. We negotiated in broken Russian – while most people in Kosovo speak Albanian, the Gorani language is in the Slavic family – finally agreeing on 10 euro for a bed, five more for food. And of course, we had to have horses.

There are more horses than cars in Brod, my Bradt guidebook said. In fact, from a cursory glance at the streets, it seemed there were more horses than people. And the only way to see the canyons and cliff sides surrounding the village, Zilje said, was by horseback. For 10 euros we could get a mount, and for 20 more, a guide.

No sooner did we agree on a price than the guide appeared: a grinning boy of about 10 years whose command of English was limited to a singsong and belated “good morning”. He seated me on one barely-saddled horse, vaulting himself upon another. A tawny foal scampered unridden alongside us, nipping at my horse's mane.

Then we were off.

We rode across streams and up pathways so narrow and steep I felt sure my horse was about to tumble onto the rocks below. Soon the villages disappeared, replaced by only grazed grass and sweeps of stone. The clouds cast shadows on the cliff side. The foal followed us, every so often making his presence known with a playful kick to my horse's flank. Rams stared us down as we passed on our way south, along the Brod Gorge, toward the Macedonian border.

The boy sped up. My horse rebelled into a gallop. The foal took this as a challenge: goading my mount into a full-on race. My experience with North American horses – altogether a more docile bunch – had not prepared me for this.

By the time we reached the end of the valley, I was clinging to my horse's mane, stifling screams.

The boy rolled his eyes and broke into a stop by the brook. He calmed my horse, giving the scampering foal an exasperated slap across the nose. I dismounted and ate my lunch – sun-ripened tomatoes and soft cheese – at a suitably safe remove.

A group of old men sat by a woodshed near the stream, flanked by two more young boys wearing sheepskin capes. They offered, in ponderous German – a second language to so many returned migrants – to help me re-mount my horse. After all, there was more sparschiene (sightseeing) to do.

I pointed helplessly at the horse. “Schnell,” I tried to explain. Fast.

The children broke into hysterics. Poor horsemanship was evidently uncommon here. The old men lifted me onto my horse, stifling their own laughter.

 “Schnell!” Their guffaws echoed across the canyon as my guide and I rode the 5km back toward Brod.

But Brod, I discovered, is expecting to welcome more uneasy riders in the near future. A 3km alpine hike from Brod is the Hotel Arxhena, an inexplicably luxurious chalet-style resort nestled between two cliffs in the gorge. When I stopped by, construction workers were installing the foundations for a new tennis court. Promotional photographs in the lobby showed groups of people hiking, riding and, rock climbing. White peacocks – hardly native – wandered the grounds, pecking at sawdust. When I peered inside, the liveried waiter offered me a cappuccino and the wifi password.

News of such development, however, has not yet reached central Brod. The next morning, after licking flakes of fresh-baked burek pastry from my fingers, I go in search of coffee. I find the second floor of a village house, its propped-open door the only indication of commerce within. It takes me a few minutes to be certain I haven't wandered into someone's living room. Several old men in suspenders are seated around the perimeter of the room, watching news coverage of a three-legged race in Belgrade. They offer me Turkish coffee and sit side by side without looking at each other, punctuating the silence with the occasional grunt.

Outside, my guide is piling blankets on a mare. “Good morning,” he sings. “Good morning, good morning, good morning.”