A cheap flight from London’s Luton Airport can get you a long way with Wizz Air, and this autumn we chose to take the three hour flight east to keep with our theme of countries in the Former Yugoslavia, and visit Europe’s newest country, Kosovo.
Kosovo has a chequered history, mostly involving conflict. From the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, to Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 20th century, the predominantly Albanian-Muslim country seems to have had back luck with its international relations over the centuries.
We began our adventure landing in the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina (or Pristina), before immediately heading westwards in our rental car towards the Albanian border. Our first stop, a city called Prizren, was once home to Albanian resistance and retains an old-worldly theme in its cobbled streets and mismatched Ottoman-style buildings.
The drive was everything we had been warned about. A lot is made of Albanian drivers and the aggression and chaos that comes with tackling the country’s roads.Whilst we were told Kosovo doesn’t come close to the likes of Tirana, it took an elbows-out approach to get anywhere on the surprisingly smooth, wide and inconsistently empty, then busy, carriageways.
By the time we arrived at our apartment in Prizren, situated on a steep, cobbled road that led to the fortress that overlooked the city, the sun had already begun to set. We took a break before heading down in the evening to see the marketplace and its variety of local restaurants and, to our surprise, a KFC! We chose the classy Restaurant Marashi along the river that served local delicacies and beers, and offered an outstanding service and atmosphere.
An early start the following day saw us walk up to the 11th century medieval fortress, called the Kaljaja or Dusans Fortress that looks down on the city. The path was extremely dusty, steep and unsigned (a theme that came with the country). However, the reward was incredible with a symmetrical view of the city, split by the Bistrica river and with the mountains on the horizon.
Making our way down, we passed an Orthodox church, The Church of the Holy Saviour, originally built in 1330, however was heavily damaged in the riots that gripped the country in 2004. A tinderbox of tensions stemming from the 90s war, a story of Albanian children dying after falling in the river after being chased by Serbs caused an outbreak in violence and destruction that damaged many of the Serbian Orthodox buildings in the country. To this day, tensions are still high with recent stories of gesturing footballers and graffitied trains straining relations, territorial swaps and border issues in the north of the country and NATO and the United Nations still largely policing the country.
We walked down the steep, narrow paths to the market to find a place for breakfast. Feasting on Turkish coffee and a “five cheese omelette”, which turned out to be a cheese omelette with four servings of cheese alongside. Afterwards we lethargically walked up the river to the League of Prizren and Albanian museum. The league of Prizren was originally set up to protect the rights of the ethnic Albanian-Muslims living in Kosovo. Despite finding little in the way of English explanations, the artwork, maps and paraphernalia in an old Ottoman compound was a beautiful set-up, and cost no more than a couple of Euros to enter.
Walking back down, we sought out another Orthodox Church and Prizren’s famous clocktower, neither of which turned out to be open to the public, and despite an awkward exchange via an iPhone language translator, we failed to find out how we went about getting in. None-the-less, we did make friends with one of Prizren, and Kosovo’s, endless offering of street dogs.
With time and daylight running out, we walked a mile or so out of town through streets of shops, windows filled with wedding dresses, to see the NATO monument. A metal structure, symbolising the independence of Kosovo following NATO’s intervention in 1999, it sits as a small park off a busy roundabout, filled with yet more street dogs and locals watching the world go by.
The next morning we left Prizren and began the beautiful winding drive back towards the capital, Prishtina. The capital wasn’t our first destination though, as we detoured south of the capital to visit Prishtina Bear Sanctuary near Gracanica (you can learn more about the sanctuary by reading here).
We spent hours at the sanctuary, walking around the (again, very steep) paths that toured the edges of the cages past the friendly bears within. The bears, formerly kept privately by individuals or businesses such as restaurants and cafes to draw in punters, live the rest of their lives in idyllic surroundings, among endless space and trees.
That evening, we set off into Prishtina and its predictably chaotic traffic. After a struggle, we found our apartment and settled in for the night.
That morning we set off into the bustling city to find our first stop, the Museum of Kosovo. Just down the road, we were let in past seemingly abandoned military installations and Roman pottery to a new building of exhibits, including a huge mural of Mother Theresa made, incredibly, of staples. Saint Mother Theresa, originally born in Skopje (the capital of modern day FYR Macedonia, but formerly of Kosovo under Ottoman rule), is seen as a national hero of Kosovo. The museum covers an incredible range in two relatively small floors – from Roman and Byzantine exhibits, pottery and currency, to documents of US acknowledgement of independence and guns and weapons from the World Wars and the late 90s war. Strangest of all was a piece of rock, the ‘peace rock’, from Hiroshima, presented as a representation of peace and the end to war.
Leaving the museum, we found a nearby market where we stopped in a small local café for a meal. The heavens had unexpectedly opened, so we took it as an opportunity to dry off, let it pass and fill up on very reasonably priced sausages, fresh baked bread and coffee.
Walking around into the city centre, we went by old Ottoman buildings, the national football stadium and the famous Newborn Monument before arriving at surely what is one of the most out-of-place statues in the world. Off “Bill Klinton Boulevard”, the main road into the city, stands a 6-foot tall statue of the man himself. Along with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton is seen as something of a hero to the people of Kosovo and an important part of its history, as they both preceded over the peace deal and securing the country’s independence in 1999.
A short stop and a photo opportunity and we moved on to the Cathedral of Saint Mother Theresa. An enormous, new cathedral with a bell tower that looks for miles over Prishtina and beyond. The €2 entry fee, a common amount in Kosovo it seemed, got us a lift journey to the top whereby we watched nightfall decent on the city and the bustling traffic jams turn to trails of taillights.
Heading back, we passed the bizarre Library building of the University of Kosovo whereby we got our first glimpse of the dangers of Kosovo’s stray dog problem, as a pack of five or six, circled a lady with a pushchair. Fortunately, some stern locals managed to scare them off, but it was a reminder that although they may look harmless, the wild dog mentality is there.
North and West Kosovo…
Our final two days in Kosovo were with a tour guide, Vullnet, who was to show us the sights of North Kosovo. Booked through Balkan Adventure, I highly recommend both the tours and Vullnet as a guide. He is a real pleasure to spend time with, has a wonderful sense of humour and his knowledge of the country is incredible, from history and locations, to bizarre facts like how James Blunt was the first NATO soldier to enter Kosovo. Plus he looks a lot like Jeff Goldblum. Some of this knowledge will have come from him growing up in the 90s where Vullnet experienced interrogation by Scottish NATO troops, before he and his family fled to neighbouring Montenegro, returning to find their home had been used as a hospital, and then destroyed, by Serbian soldiers.
Our tour began with a visit to the monument of the first battle of Kosovo in 1389, or Gazimestan, in Kosovo Field, about 6 kilometres south of the potential battlefield. The battle was between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbian Army, where leaders of both armies died on the battlefield, however the Serbian army was eventually defeated and Serbian principalities were annexed by the Ottomans. Serbs gather here every year on Vidovdan (St Vitus Day 28th June) to commemorate the leader of the Serbian army Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic. This was also the site of the infamous ‘Gazimestan Speech‘ in 1989 by then-President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, where he first mentioned the possibility of ‘armed battles’, presaging the collapse of Yugoslavia and the horrific bloodshed that ensued. We then visited the shrine and museum to the ‘benevolent’ Sultan Murad Hüdavendigar, leader of the Ottoman army. This tomb was built by the Sultans son, becoming an area of religious significance for Muslims and the first example of Ottoman architecture in Kosovo. Accounts of the way the Sultan died vary depending on who is telling the story, as is with history where more than one side survived. We were discreetly informed that the shrine which once contained his body, now contains no more than his genitals. We didn’t interrogate further to find out how they know that, or why that would be the case.
Driving north, we visited the divided town of Mitrovica. An extraordinary town, divided by a bridge which is closed to traffic. The south side occupied by Albanians, and the north by Serbs. A deliberate segregation, the north uses a different currency (the Dinar), uses the Serbian language and Cyrillic alphabet and even has Serbian police and council. In the main square, a large statue of Prince Lazar stands imposingly, surrounded by nationalistic street art, index finger outstretched towards the divisive border. Meanwhile, the south abides by the typical Kosovo set up with an Albanian majority, and on the face of it at least, looks much richer for it with modern buildings, and western companies like KFC, whilst the north had small cafes among the tall communist looking Yugoslav tower blocks.
Next, we stopped at the Adem Jashari memorial, museum and graves in Prekaz. Considered the ‘Father of the KLA’ (Kosovo Liberation Army), Adem Jasheri is considered a terrorist to the Serbs, and a hero to the Albanians, in respect of his acts in Kosovo’s fight for independence. His house, standing but mostly destroyed by missile attacks, is where he lived and died at the hands of Yugoslav forces, as he masterminded numerous elements of the rebel movement that ultimately gave the country its freedom from former Yugoslavia. The site is humbling, and somewhat disturbing, not least for the scale of destruction done to his house and family members, the youngest of which was only 7-years old, and how recent the damage appears.
Vullnet treated us to a trip to the Marble Cave, just outside of Pristina in time for sunset. Found by a local who was building a house in the 1950s, the caves are an extraordinary network of marble and bats! We joined a German-speaking tour, with Vullnet showcasing further knowledge acting as a translator from a third language, as we heard about the pipedream plans of extending the caves, possible boat trips and generally putting more on the map. We were given the impression that local politics and financial interests wouldn’t allow this any time soon, but here’s hoping!
We got dropped off back at the hotel, excitedly preparing for another day exploring the less known areas of this lesser known country the next day.
Our final day in Kosovo, and second day of our tour, started with a visit to the beautiful White Drin waterfall. The drive saw us pass eerie abandoned factories, copper mines and hydroelectric plants, remnants from industrial times gone by. The fall wasn’t in full flow due to a lack of recent rain, but the surrounding trees and mountains were in stunning autumnal colours, and its presence put another feather in the cap of this incredibly diverse country.
Next we saw the absolutely incredible Patriarchal Monastery of Peć. This red monastery, sits within a compound, protected by Kosovo Police (an after effect of the 2004 violence). Incredibly detailed, and magically preserved frescos decorate this simply staggering building which still houses a number of nuns to this day. This was followed by a trip to Dejan Monastery which, although not quite as impressive and guarded by Austrian NATO soldiers rather than Kosovo ones, also has incredible frescos and details inside and out.
Lunch saw us take in our umpteenth serving of local sausages, Qebapa and bread (which is incredibly addictive), along with a Turkish drink, Ayan, made from yoghurt, water and salt. An acquired taste.
Our journey back around to Prishtina saw us stop at a number of bridges, including an impressive, although completely impractical for driving over but undoubtedly served a useful defensive tool, Ottoman construction (see below) and a bridge over a valley, famous for divers doing the seemingly Balkan tradition of hurling themselves from great heights into alarmingly shallow waters.
We finished our tour with Vullnet, first with an unsuccessful attempt to see the Archangel Monastery, but then with a successful visit to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Gracanica, lit up spectacularly against the night sky, with echoes of the mass singers surrounding us. One of the few towns in Kosovo that has a Serbian majority still living there, again with separate currency, language and alphabet. After this we went our separate ways, before settling in for the night.
The next morning had us head back through Prishtinia Airport, returning the car before the short flight to Luton, and onto planning our next adventure… Christmas in Estonia!
Kosovo then. Is it worth the visit? Absolutely. Much like we felt with Bosnia-Herzegovina in the summer, the whole place is a museum and a catalogue of protected culturally or religiously or historically important monuments, but with a balance of hospitality and affordability. Strangely, despite only being recognised as a country in 2008 (by some at least, and still not by others to this day), it has more of a western feel to it than places like Bosnia-Herzegovina, and even Croatia to an extent. There’s KFC, Domino’s, big complexes, new buildings, modern universities. But it’s affordable, pleasant and has a charming balance of old, new, metropolitan areas and nature. Complications around its status as a country is likely holding it back as a major destination, and will halt major investment in infrastructure for the time being, but when the time comes and the potential is seen, Kosovo will truly be on the map as a place to experience.
Article and photographs by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan