DECANI, Serbia The Visoki Decani Monastery is nestled in a stunning canyon ringed by rugged mountains, but it's not the altitude that takes your breath away.
Step inside the 14th century Serbian Orthodox abbey, inhale the fragrant myrrh that perfumes the frescoed interior, and suddenly you're transported through the ages to a bygone era of monks, marauders and martyrs.
It's a rare Balkan oasis a place of unspeakable beauty, sanctity and solitude. And somehow, the heavily armed Italian peacekeepers standing respectful guard just outside the ancient monastery's cobblestone courtyard make it seem all the more poignant.
Decani is among the delights that await in Kosovo, the breakaway southern Serbian province that seems destined to become Europe's newest country. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have pledged to proclaim independence in early 2008, and the U.S. and several EU states have indicated they would recognize it.
"Kosovo is an intriguing place and full of paradoxes and surprises for any first-time visitor," says Verena Knaus, co-author with Gail Warrander of the newly released "Bradt Guide to Kosovo."
Off the beaten path? No question about that.
But for the adventurous seeking a glimpse of a region still colored by the medieval collision of Slavs and Ottoman Turks and spiced by Islam and the mysteries of Eastern Orthodoxy, Kosovo is deliciously uncharted territory.
Is it safe? That's a fair enough question to ask about a place where a 1998-99 war between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serbian troops killed 10,000 people, and where ethnic strife still occasionally erupts.
The answer: an unequivocal yes. About 16,000 NATO peacekeepers patrol the province, which is roughly the size of Belgium or Connecticut, and visitors can count on plenty of warm Balkans hospitality.
Pristina, Kosovo's gritty capital, is the most logical starting point, if only because Austrian Airlines and a handful of other carriers fly there daily from Vienna and a few other European cities.
Its tiny airport is your first clue that you're about to alight in what was, just a decade ago, a rough neighborhood. Military jets and helicopters line the tarmac and signs warn visitors not to snap pictures.
Don't be put off by Pristina's drab communist-era apartment blocks and muddy trash-strewn streets. The city is working hard to clean up its act, and tucked among the tenements are some of southeastern Europe's most lively cafes and bars. Demographically, it's much like Dublin: a youthful city where half the population is under age 25.
Pristina's top watering holes change every few months, but among the current hot spots is "212," owned by an Albanian-American and named for New York City's area code. Quench your thirst with a bottle of Kosovo's signature Peja lager, or just drink in the live jazz.
Apropos New York, this is one place where Americans are practically worshipped rather than reviled, at least among the province's independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority.
A little background: In 1999, U.S. forces led the NATO air war that broke the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's grip on Kosovo, and Washington has been a staunch supporter of statehood. That helps explain why the capital's main street is Bill Clinton Boulevard, and why a 6-story-high poster of Clinton who was president at the time towers over the city center.
Kosovo's beleaguered Serb minority doesn't share this pro-America sentiment. But visitors, regardless of the passport they carry, are likely to be offered a glass of home-distilled "slivovitz," the region's ubiquitous firewater. It's sometimes called "rakia" or plum brandy, a decidedly dainty name for a drink that to the uninitiated can burn like jet fuel.
Now get out of town!
The best of Kosovo is just a two-hour drive to the west, where the settlement of Pec (known to Albanians as Peja; and yes, where the beer is brewed) rises from the forested foothills of the craggy range that forms the border with Montenegro.
Or roughly the same journey to the south, where the picturesque city of Prizren offers a glimpse of remarkably unspoiled and intact Turkish baths and other Ottoman Empire architecture.
In Prizren, wander the banks of the River Bistrica, which winds through the town, and haggle with the merchants selling hand-crafted silver jewelry and embroidered cloth. Indulge in a cappuccino the Kosovar version is especially decadent, topped with a thick dollop of cream and chocolate syrup.
Climb the hill and take in the panoramic views from Prizren's 11th century Kalaja Fortress. Back down in town, check out the Mehmet Pasha Mosque, built in 1561, and its hexagonal mausoleum; and the larger Sinan Pasha Mosque with its Baroque paintings and ornaments.
Although Kosovo is unquestionably Albanian, arguably its greatest treasures are its Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries. The most important of these have been under NATO protection since 2004, when ethnic Albanian mobs attacked the Serbian minority and defaced or destroyed about 30 churches.
Not to be missed: a visit to the Decani Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked in a verdant valley below pine-studded cliffs.
The elegant exterior of the church, built with sumptuous slabs of pale yellow onyx and light violet breccia marble, is a marvelous combination of Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque features. Equally lovely is the courtyard, where the scraggly bearded Serb monks offered safe haven to Albanian refugees during the war.
But it is the interior that beckons. A single step inside helps explain why Serbs stubbornly cling to their conviction that Kosovo is the heart of their ancient homeland, if not the cradle of civilization itself.
A hush to the spiritually inclined, an undeniable presence washes over you the moment you set foot inside. Christ and the saints beam down from some of the continent's best-preserved fresco paintings and icons, and the monks say the faithful are still healed by contact with the remains of Holy King Stefan entombed in the chapel.
Conflict of any kind seems entirely out of place, even though as recently as last spring, someone fired an anti-tank rocket that damaged Decani's outer wall.
No one was hurt, and the young 20-something monk tending the chapel is nonplussed. He's seen worse, and expects better.
"NATO is here," he says. "But it is God who will protect us."