The land of the Sleeping Beauty Cave is waking up to tourism

Formerly war-torn Kosovo has many natural wonders, including some of Europe’s most stunning underground worlds.

One autumn morning near the village of Radavc in the Rugova Valley of Kosovo, I took a walking path from my hotel along the White Drin River, a brisk and chilly habitat for trout that flows from the Rusolia peak of the Accursed Mountains nearly a hundred miles southward into Albania.

The river’s waterfall, Kosovo’s largest, is a wondrous spectacle of episodic cascades. Eventually, I continued along the trail for another half-mile, past the season’s final white blooming vestiges of edelweiss, until I arrived at the gated entrance of a cave.

A young woman in her twenties sat in a nearby booth. Her name was Melisa Bojku, and after accepting two Euros, she handed me a hard hat, walked with her keychain to the gate and together we squeezed our way through the cave’s narrow mouth. It was cold and humid inside. A few bats flew above our heads. A musty but not overpowering scent of guano hung in the air. The cave’s floor was slick but not difficult to navigate, and its brawny limestone corridors were discreetly illuminated with green, yellow, and red lights. It was at the same time austere and baroque, like entering a magnificent cathedral of a primordial deity.

Bojku said that the hydrologically chiseled cave was at least two million years old and that the damp stalagmite knobs beside our feet were mere babies, probably about 500 years of age, compared to the glistening stalactites overhead. She pointed out the red iron oxide streaks describing the ancient collision between limestone and volcanic rock. Descending steadily, we eventually could see the dark contour of a subterranean canal. Further beneath us, there dwelled a large if invisible population of crickets that subsisted on insects from the bat guano.

We couldn’t visit an additional room, Bojku apologized, because it contained Neolithic human remains from six thousand years ago that were now being examined by archaeologists. A bullet from World War I had also been found there, as well as a man’s pipe from that era. There may also be evidence of World War II soldiers there, according to stories locals had told her. Who knows what else might turn up during the digging?

There may be a thousand bats in the cave, representing eight different species. “During the day, they’re chilling out,” Bojku said. With a shy smile, she added, “I like to come in here after I get off work, around four or five in the afternoon, just to stand and listen to them flying around and going crazy. My friends think I’m a little bit strange.”

Cave nerds

The Sleeping Beauty Cave, as the ancient Radavc geological phenomenon is now known, was first discovered in 1968 by Serbian archaeologists. But it would not appear on any Kosovo map, much less be a touristic destination that attracts up to 23,000 adult visitors a year, were it not for the efforts of Fatos Katallozi, the 57-year-old outdoorsman who took a perfectly normal schoolgirl in Bojku and trained her to become a cave nerd.

Katalozzi is almost singlehandedly responsible for establishing Kosovo as a major cave-exploration site in Europe. His story is very much in keeping with that of other Kosovars who have shown remarkable determination in rebuilding their war-torn country over the past two decades.

(This U.S. national park has the world’s longest cave system.)

Though the renowned caves of the world include a few made entirely of ice (such as the giant Eisriesenwelt in Werfen, Austria), and others of volcanic lava (like the Cueva de los Verdes in the Canary Islands), the vast majority of them are produced from porous limestone.

The Balkans region, with 70 percent of its earth composed of limestone, is therefore over-abundant with caves. The most famous of these is also Europe’s largest: the 15-mile-long Postojna cave in Slovenia, which was discovered 200 years ago and has attracted a staggering 38 million visitors during that time. Romania’s caves include some that are deeper than Postojna, while a great deal of recent exploration has been devoted to the caves in Albania and Bulgaria.

Though Kosovo is barely the size of Connecticut, it is a nature lover’s small paradise of muscular mountains and glittering waterways. The world has been slow to take note of this. So, frankly, has Kosovo’s government. As the newest country in the Balkans, not to mention the poorest and one that has yet to receive official recognition by its neighbor Serbia, war-scarred Kosovo has not had an easy time selling itself as a vacation spot. The country lacks a Ministry of Tourism. It has only two national parks that are almost completely unstaffed. Kosovo’s underdeveloped tourist industry has therefore relied heavily on the initiative of local protagonists like Katallozi.

I met Katallozi at his business, Outdoor Kosovo, which is situated in the ancient gold and silver trading city of Peja. The city was mostly razed by Serbian troops during the war in 1999 and has subsequently been rebuilt. The exterior of Katallozi’s office still bears scorch marks from the war.

Lanky and with hawkish facial features, Katallozi led me to his jeep, which was loaded down with spelunking gear. We drove northwest, out of the city traffic and another 20 minutes into the Rugova Valley, plunging into a forested range that was electric with autumn foliage and waterfalls seeping out of seemingly every mountain façade.

“As a kid mountaineer, I was always curious about caves,” Katallozi told me as we drove. “But you can’t go wandering into one alone without special lights.” He recalled being on a weekend family picnic in Radavc at a place known for its butterflies, foxes, edelweiss, and of course, its magnificent waterfall.

While there, the villagers who sold local honey and walnuts steered the Katallozi family to the cave. He still remembers the blast of cold air gusting out from the narrow entrance. They did not go inside, but the boy vowed one day to do so.

Years passed, during which Katallozi served in the Yugoslav army and then attended college in Kosovo, until the Serbian officials shut it down for teaching in the Albanian language, which was forbidden under the Milosevic regime. Katallozi moved to London during the war, where he worked as a maintenance engineer for the national railway. He returned in 2002 to see Peja still in ruins. There was no place for Kosovo to go except up. Instead, Katallozi went down.

In 2005, he and a few friends formed a speleological club in Kosovo. He made it a point to investigate caves in every European country he visited, from Greece to Luxembourg. While doing so, Katallozi recalled the cave from his youth and the alluring waterfall beside it. He returned to it, crawled inside for the first time, held up a lamp and was astonished by what he saw.

(Here’s how Balkan nations are becoming an adventure tourism nexus.)

The local municipality of Peja agreed to let Katallozi repurpose its local cave as a tourist site. He drew up a proposal for erecting metal bridges, light fixtures, and a concession stand. In October of 2016, a Swiss agency that invests in Kosovo agricultural and tourism programs gave him a small grant, with the stipulation that he hire at least three local employees, at least one of them a woman. Katallozi hired seven, including Melisa. He opened the cave for visitors the following April with its new moniker—“because what would you rather visit, the Radavc Cave or the Sleeping Beauty Cave?” he laughed.

Hidden worlds

Katallozi maintains that every cave is as different as every human body, each possessing its own quirks of history, morphology, climate, and dimension. In the Rugova Valley, we descended into the country’s largest underground complex: the Great Canyon Cave, an imposing city-state of limestone spires and undulating galleries, eight miles in length and with ceilings exceeding a thousand feet, bottoming out with four subterranean lakes that have yet to be fully mapped.

Exploring it requires half a day, along with the requisite intestinal fortitude. Katallozi and his club are the cave’s literal gatekeepers, in sole possession of the entryway key. “It’s like a maze and without a guide you’ll get lost,” he said, not needing to elaborate further.

More easily navigated are the four caves near the village of Kusar, accessible from a forest trail. Shrouded beneath dense foliage, the four Kusari caves are less remarkable for their geological features than for the dark streaks from fire along the walls, plain evidence that humans once lived inside them. Katallozi has uncovered a number of ancient mammal bones, suggestive of family banquets. The locals—including the shepherds who first told Katallozi about the Kusari caves’ existence—continue to speak of them as sacred.

(See glowworms give a dazzling show at this national landmark.)

With the help of Kusar’s mayor, Katallozi raised the funds to build staircases and hand-rails throughout the cave network. For that matter, Katallozi is also responsible for opening the Great Canyon Cave to visitors, after first spending years with teams from Slovakia and Italy mapping its depths.

As with the Sleeping Beauty Cave, they are forthrightly natural showcases—a marked contrast to the government-run Marble Cave not far from the capital city of Pristina, with its glass doorway and restaurant and daily riot of schoolchildren. The future of any country, including Kosovo, depends in part on how it tends to its past.

Today, the Peja outdoorsman continues to scour the mountains of western Kosovo, his eyes on the alert for signs of water having extruded its way through the limestone, carrying with it calcium carbonate and other minerals and forming cracks that widen into a dark demimonde of hidden life. “They’re everywhere up there,” Fatos Katallozi said as we drove within view of Pashtrik Mountain along the Albanian border. His voice was wistful. “I’d love to explore there. But it’s not safe.”

The month-long 1999 battle of Pastrik, Katallozi explained, was where the Kosovo Liberation Army aided by NATO airstrikes finally broke the backs of the Serbian army, forcing them to surrender. The mountain remains littered with NATO bombs. For now, at least, Kosovo’s recent history kept its ancient history just out of reach.

Robert Draper is a National Geographic contributing writer. Find him on Twitter.

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