Kosovo is home to less than 100 bears and sadly some have been stolen from the wild and kept in tiny cages outside restaurants to entice guests in. The conditions were awful, the bears were fed bread and beer and were taunted by customers and staff through the cage. Luckily the Four Paws charity came to Kosovo and has now successfully rescued the bears, meaning there are no longer any privately owned bears in Kosovo. They were all moved into the Bear sanctuary just outside the capitol of Pristina and it’s pretty much the only reason we bothered coming to the capitol which has very little else to offer. We visited the History of Kosovo museum which just had a few old coins and pots downstairs without any information plaques and then it skipped 2000 years and had a display of guns and army uniforms upstairs. It also had a cute room with a fancy silk flag for every country that recognises Kosovo as a country. Craig pulled open the Kosovo flag and the pole wasn’t strong enough so the whole thing fell towards him. Geez, he almost had the entire room of flags falling down like a row of dominos. Other ‘top’ sights in the city were the statue of Bill Clinton (Kosovo loves America and especially Bill) behind the statue was the fancy ladies suit shop called ‘Hilary’s’ and nearby was the ‘worlds ugliest building’ aka the library.
So, with the city done and dusted in an hour we excitedly hoped on a bus to see the bears. It cost just €2 per person to enter and a lovely trail led us around the large enclosures. Each one had 1-3 bears inside and they made sure they got on well together. Some bears showed typical signs of a bear that’s been in captivity with a lot of repetitive pacing back and fourth. It’s so sad to see, like their in a trance or have Alzheimer’s and keep forgetting where they’re going.
Most bears looked very content though, laying in the sun with trees and grass all around them or playing on climbing frames with other bears. Of course it would be much better if they could be released back into the wild but it’s just not possible after they’ve been in captivity. They don’t know how to hunt for food and may be inclined to visit towns and populated places as that’s what they’ve become used to.
My favourite enclosure was one with three bears called Ema, Oska and Ron. They were all rescued as month old cubs after authorities discovered they’d been sold to families as pets! They were probably the most chilled bears as they were so young when they were rescued that this forested enclosure is all they’ve ever known. Considering they were all the same age it was interesting to see one was quite small, almost looking like a juvenile, one was medium and the final one was absolutely massive. The latter seemed to be in charge and they were doing some strange things; the big boy was having his ear nibbled or sucked by Ema the little bear while he nibbled on the other ones ears. They were making all sorts of crazy grunting and general beastly sounding noises. It was funny seeing how different the fur on their ears looked to the rest of their face as they were absolutely drenched in saliva.
Each enclosure had a description about the bear inside and how they ended up here. It was nice reading about their preferences, some loved swimming and playing in their pools while others liked to just swipe the water with their paws.
The sweet bear called Kassandra had one of the toughest lives in captivity. She was kept as a restaurant bear in Albania where she was fed bread crusts and other unsuitable foods. She had to live under the scorching summer sun and in the cold rain and snow. She lived like this for 11 years and the worst part was that the restaurant actually closed down and the prick of an owner just abandoned her in the cage. She had to suffer the trauma of being teased by people and their dogs who threw rocks at her which just breaks my heart to hear. She was the first bear to be rescued by the sanctuary and her grey-brown fur was in an awful condition, now she’s got a beautiful new blonde coat. She’s also the fussiest eater, avoiding vegetables but devouring sweet fruit, especially watermelon.
She’s clearly still disturbed by her long life in such awful conditions, just us walking towards her enclosure caused her to charge us and swipe the air with a wild growl. Yet she was in an enclosure with a huge beastly bear and her behaviour completely changed when he approached. She went from being defensive which was probably how she reacted when people threw stones at her, to completely submissive. Whenever this giant causally strolled past like he owned the place she’d lay down out of his way.
We’ve visited bear sanctuaries in Finland, USA and Romania (where I accidentally touched a electric bear fence with my leg and let out a horrifying scream of pain before I even realised what had happened) and we both agreed that this one in Kosovo was the best. The bears had good size enclosures with a nice mix of terrain and veterinarians make sure they are as healthy and happy as possible.
The following day we travelled to Prizren, the second largest city in Kosovo but it’s a world apart from the capitol. It had a delightful cobbled lane old town with a mix of beautiful mosques and churches. A raging brown river flowed under lovely stone bridges and it was evident how much rain they’ve had lately. It was a pleasant place to stroll around and stop for a delicious macchiato, cold pint of beer or a scoop of the creamiest gelato.
We also wanted to use the town as a base for exploring the mountains within Sharri National Park. To reach them by public transport we had to catch a shared Marshrutka (minivan) at 7am up to the mountain village of Prevallë. The village looked lovely with lush green pastures and locals getting ready to release their sheep into the mountains for the day. This region has sharri mountain dogs who have the very serious job of protecting the sheep from wolves and bears.
We went a little further on than the village and disembarked the van at our trailhead to Jazhince Lake. It was a very muddy route through the forest that led alongside a river gushing with white water. The trail actually headed through a ford section of the river and we weren’t sure how doable it would be in high water but luckily there was another route we wanted to take as it was much shorter, but with that came steepness. It was tough work getting up the slippery track covered in leaves but it soon opened up into a vast meadow with mountain views. We were hiking through prime bear habitat so we treated the hike like we would in North America and made sure to call out “HEY BEAR” every so often just to give a warning to any potential bears in the area so as not to surprise them, although it seemed silly to bother, our chances of seeing a bear were slim to none.
The trail became very overgrown and was quite horrible to walk through as morning dew soaked our feet. Then the trail deteriorated even more and at times it was hard to see the route. We became reliant on looking for distant red and white paint on rocks and following the rough route on our map. Then we ended up clambering over a giant mound of boulders towards the lake.
The lake was incredibly clear and blue with mountains encircling it. The weather had turned a little though and cloud was swooping over the peaks. Our plan was to continue hiking over the mountains towards the border with North Macedonia and then back down to Prevallë via a different route but we just couldn’t find the path. It was so overgrown and didn’t match up with our map, we saw some markings on rocks but it wasn’t a route nor on our maps. After a few attempts we decided to give up and go back the same way. It felt like a truly wild area, there wasn’t another soul and after our hike in the storm and Via Ferrata in Kosovo we decided it was time to just take the easy option. So after some lunch above the pristine lake we made our way back down.
As we were going down the track I stopped to get a splinter out my foot and Craig said “Lauren there’s a bear!” Up on the grassy mountainside above us was a big brown bear searching for food. I quickly grabbed my camera but he was quite a distance away to get a decent shot. Albeit he was far away bears move very quickly, their strides are big and we knew if he wanted to he could run down to us in less than a minute. We couldn’t believe we were actually witnessing a wild bear in Europe though, it’s the first one we’ve seen on this continent and I think we’re very lucky as many locals have never seen one in Kosovo. The bear was digging the ground and lifting rocks in search of food but occasionally he’d stop to sniff the air and have a look around. We felt a little unsettled because sometimes his direction would be towards us but we still didn’t know if he knew we were there.
It’s amazing how confident we feel hiking with bear spray which was the norm for us in North America. Without it we felt rather vulnerable. The bear moved so fast and seeing him come our way was a little scary so we grabbed a couple of rocks and made a quick getaway down the mountain. We lost sight of him for a while but we soon spotted him further around the mountain pasture. Luckily he stayed up high and I was very grateful that we can live in harmony with such incredible and potentially fierce wild animals.
Downhill was steep and slippery as expected but we eventually made it to the main road where we hitched a ride back to Prizren. Now it’s time for us to say goodbye to Kosovo and we’re pretty sad to leave, it’s a beautiful little country but what made it really special was the friendly locals.