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For years, the Balkan countries have been one of my favourite regions to explore.
I caught the Balkan bug in 2009, when, spontaneously, I jumped on a train from Athens to Skopje for a few days. Skopje was my second visit to the region after attending an alumni conference in Brijuni, Croatia, a few months earlier. Back then, I had been living in Athens for 8 months on a much-needed career break. Although my choice of holiday wasn’t met with widespread understanding among my Greek friends (for obvious reasons), I ended up having a fantastic time.
My love affair with the Balkans was only starting then. By May 2009, I had found an amazing new job in London, resolutely left Athens behind and embarked on my first business trip with the new employer: to Slovenia, my third visit to the region.
On one occasion, the client drove us to visit the stunning Lake Bled
The contrast between the visibly well-off Slovenia and Macedonia, once Yugoslavia’s poorest republic, couldn’t have been starker. As I walked along the pretty Ljubljanica river in Slovenia’s capital and gazed at the immaculately kept farms on my way to meetings, I was deeply intrigued, asking myself how such different countries could once co-exist in a single state. It was certainly a naïve thought for someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, but I was not particularly worldly at the time.
MANY MORE TRIPS TO THE BALKANS FOLLOWED
The summer of 2009 came, and my interest in the region continued to grow. I could only think of one destination to spend my summer holiday in, and headed to the Balkans again. This time I had planned a 2-week marathon journey along the Croatian coast, looping into Bosnia and Herzegovina and back into Croatia, with a day-trip to Montenegro on the side.
The Croatian island of Korcula was one of the brightest moments of the trip
I could only describe the resulting journey as epic (read about it here in two parts: Part I and Part II). A rapidly growing collection of ex-Yugoslavian rock classics blasting out in my headphones and my conversational Serbo-Croatian improving by the hour, I was having the time of my life. Having been hopelessly spoilt by a full summer in the Greek islands a year before, I found Croatia’s coast and islands closely, if not perfectly, resembling my happy place. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar had me deeply shaken with its tragic past, while Sarajevo had me in stitches at the tongue-in-cheek local attitude towards the most serious of things. Finally, my short trip around the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro really made me wonder if this was the most beautiful part of the world ever known to man.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, was like nowhere else I had visited
And, only a few months after this holiday, I finally crossed another Balkan country off my list: Serbia, where I hopped over for a long weekend. Like everybody else, I had no choice but to fall in love with Belgrade, a natural-born capital city. I could spend hours photographing Kalemegdan and sipping coffee over chats with the locals, watching the mighty Danube merge ever so effortlessly with the Sava in the sunset-coloured haze.
Victor Monument (“Pobednik”) is one of Belgrade’s best known sights
Years went by, and many more trips to the Balkans followed. One weekend, I flew to Zagreb and travelled overland to photograph Vukovar, a border city in Slavonia which was largely destroyed during the war (a short story about it is here). On another occasion, I found myself on a business trip in Belgrade and used the weekend to fly to Ohrid in Macedonia. And, only last year, I extended a work visit to Slovenia to explore the country’s small but beautiful Adriatic riviera.
Enjoying the view of Tartini Square from Piran’s Bell Tower, Slovenia
Most famously though, I once caught the famous Balkan “express” from Belgrade to Montenegro’s low-key coastal terminus of Bar. This unbelievably scenic journey featured as many tunnels and bridges as it did hilarious characters, and I couldn’t have been more entertained. Read about this unforgettable journey here: I hope you will be laughing along with me.
Gliding along the Lim river on the Belgrade-Bar rail journey
MY ONLY OVERSIGHT IN THE REGION WAS KOSOVO
For a very long time though, there remained one country in the region where I had never set my foot: Kosovo. Europe’s youngest sovereign state, Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and has been recognised by over half of the world’s nations to date, including most countries of the Western world. On my scratch map, it stood out like a sore thumb: the tiny unscratched pocket of land surrounded by its glossy neighbours, all of which I had by now visited.
I will be bold here and admit a certain bias as far as visiting Kosovo. My whole family has strong feelings towards Russia, and, as a native Russian speaker, I was raised to believe that Russia, rather than the West, was to be given a benefit of the doubt in most situations. I am not remotely political and tend to dislike most governments equally, but cannot help catching my mind, on occasion, tilting gently but inevitably towards a certain side.
Here I am posing with a Serbian friend and a statue of Tito
One aspect of being raised a quasi “Russian” involves calling Serbs “brother Slavs” and generally liking them – and their choices – pretty much by default. It is well known that neither Serbia nor Russia have recognised the independence of Kosovo to this day, and a part of me was reluctant to visit Kosovo when I was younger. It took plenty of mind-broadening international travel to ditch this prejudice and start seeing beyond nationality – as well as recognise the difference between governments and, well, normal people.
And, when that finally happened, I was ready to visit Kosovo.
BACKROAD TO PRISTINA VIA SKOPJE
2016 was coming to an end, and I again caught myself looking at the little unscratched corners of Europe on my map. After years of being told by many that Kosovo had absolutely nothing to offer, I was keen to establish the truth for myself. I decided to make every effort to visit Kosovo in 2017.
Pristina is not well connected to London for a weekend visit, and I didn’t have much more time than that. Instead, I booked a flight to the city only 87 km away from Pristina on a straightforward road and with plentiful public transport options: my good friend Skopje. With ever growing flight connection between London and the Balkans, I knew I could reach Skopje – and, from there, Pristina – relatively easily.
View of Skopje, Macedonia, on one of my many visits
I landed in Skopje in the early hours of a February weekend and, after a fruitless wait for the last bus, shared a cab to the city centre with a bunch of locals. The taxi spat me out in front of the unusually calm central bus station. Clutching my minimalist backpack, I stood outside for a few minutes, listening to the nocturnal hum of the city. A large cross glistened through the clouds on top of a hill in the distance: Millennium Cross on Mount Vodno, a sight I knew well from my previous visits to Skopje. I remembered the first time I stood on this very spot eight years ago, fresh from the train journey from Greece, only vaguely familiar with the region and its complex history.
‘Taxi?’ a voice cut through the night as a tall figure appeared next to me.
I shook my head. I knew the city well.
ON TO PRISTINA: FIRST MOMENTS IN A NEW COUNTRY
Back at the bus station the next morning, I squeezed myself into an old minibus destined for Pristina. With a cheese burek in one hand and a vending machine “coffee” in the other for breakfast, I couldn’t help but smile at the unglamorous weekend adventure I was undertaking.
Barely half an hour later and relatively uneventfully, I found myself on the other side of the border. My first impressions of Kosovo on this dull, overcast winter day were far from rosy. One of the first sights that visitors from Macedonia see entering Kosovo is an open pit for the extraction of raw materials for cement production. It wasn’t exactly a picturesque view.
Some wall art in Pristina
The ground around the motorway was otherwise barren and devoid of any sort of structure except for an occasional low-rise new build. We passed a small Orthodox chapel on our right, visibly disused, its cross missing from the top. The other two foreigners and I silently followed the sad sight with our eyes until it disappeared behind a road bend.
Despite the decidedly low profile of the country so far, I was excited to be approaching Pristina. When multiple apartment blocks suddenly surrounded us, I knew we had to be close, feeling my heart jump in anticipation.
Mixed Kosovan and Albanian memorabilia in Pristina
I started walking from the bus station towards the city centre – a good 3km walk – guided by the large road sign on the side of the road. When I stopped to take a photo of the sign, I noticed an elderly man watching me from his car.
‘Going to the centre?’ he smiled, putting words together slowly in uneven English, ‘Do you need a ride?’
It wasn’t long before my new companion and I, almost automatically, switched to Serbian. I do not speak Albanian, and Xhelal – as he introduced himself – only knew basic English. Our choice of a common language couldn’t have seemed more natural, although I certainly did not expect to practise my clumsy Serbian in Kosovo.
Xhelal, my first acquaintance in Pristina
THE HUMBLE MONUMENTS OF PRISTINA
After politely refusing a free ride to Prizren and back (God knows I was tempted), I said goodbye to Xhelal and walked through Pristina’s older market neighbourhood. The traditional market was supposed to resemble its counterparts in Istanbul, Sarajevo and Skopje, but, perhaps because of its smaller size, it did not quite have the atmosphere.
A relatively recent capital, Pristina was still only starting to look its title. Ministries had visibly been repurposed from schools and administrative buildings. Most of the city centre was made up of regular apartment blocks not uncommon in more provincial parts of Eastern Europe. Even the hotel where I was staying occupied precisely one half of a nondescript residential building. Pristina was very much a capital city still in the making.
Older neighbourhood of Pristina
The sun was peeping gently from behind the clouds, and the city was starting to look more cheerful. Feeling a sudden rush of optimism, I embarked on a several hours’ worth of search for the three landmarks of Kosovo I specifically came to see: the statue of Bill Clinton, the NEWBORN Monument and the famously hideous – and fabulous – National Library building.
With a population of around 200 thousand people, Pristina is not a big city, and the distances between its tourist attraction points are easily walkable. Even so, it took me a while to notice the statue of Bill Clinton. Dwarfed by the surrounding residential buildings, it sat humbly on a corner of a large thoroughfare – the latter also named after the president. Perhaps with an exception of unnaturally large hands, the statue indeed bore some resemblance to Bill Clinton. The president was holding office when Nato launched air strikes against the Yugoslavian forces. The bombing campaign eventually led to Kosovo declaring independence, and the gratitude towards the US in Kosovo is immense.
Bill Clinton and his unusually large hands
Continuing on the independence theme, I arrived at my next stop, the NEWBORN Monument. Unveiled on 17 February 2008 – Kosovo’s Independence Day – it changes appearance every year to reflect a particular theme. This year the monument had two letters of its name, N and W, lying on the ground, with white writing added to form a phrase “No Walls”. Needless to say that the world that Kosovo entered as a newborn independent country had changed unrecognisably in less than a decade.
NEWBORN Monument is a popular photo spot for locals
With “N” and “W” collapsed on the ground
I had by then walked a fair bit of Pristina, but the building I wanted to see most was evading me. I walked up and down the Mother Teresa Boulevard, Pristina’s main pedestrian street, several times, asking locals along the way. Where was the National Library?
Finally Pristina’s most celebrated building came into view: it was as wonderfully strange as I had imagined. Entirely covered in a thick metallic net and with countless domes of various shapes rising out the structure like ice cream scoops on a cone, the National Library was certainly the finest example of architectural brutalism I had ever seen. It was unveiled in 1982 and, unsurprisingly, quickly became controversial thanks to its unusual exterior. Its unique, infinitely captivating appearance is also the reason why the building has become Pristina’s key landmark and symbol.
National Library on a brighter day…
…and on my first, gloomy day in Pristina
The impressive sight of the National Library was slightly ruined by the sad-looking unfinished skeleton of an Orthodox church looming a short distance away. Started before the war, the Church of Christ the Saviour was never completed, and has divided opinions in Kosovo regarding its future.
Unfinished Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour
MORE RANDOM ENCOUNTERS
As I was coming back to the hotel contemplating a rest, I noticed four men in their 20s waving at me from the entrance of a hairdresser’s salon. Before I knew it, I was inside, taking smiley photos of the foursome and being fed an abundant meal of kebab and some meaty side dishes I did not recognise. I didn’t even have the time to say I wasn’t hungry.
My new acquaintances inside a random hairdresser’s in Pristina
None of the boys spoke English. Through gestures, I discovered that the oldest of the boys – the owner of the establishment – had given up his lunch for me. Barely able to battle off offers of more food and even a free haircut, I remembered my first local encounter of the day, Xhelal, so enthusiastically volunteering to drive me to Prizren on the spot. At that moment I felt humbled at the simple, yet so powerful, hospitality of Kosovars.
Some food I was fed…
…followed by some more
That evening I went out for a meal at Liburnia, a traditional restaurant popular with expats and locals. Over excellent food, I enjoyed a conversation with one of the waiters, Shpat. Infinitely curious about his home city of Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo, I showered Shpat with questions every time he appeared by my side with yet another complimentary shot of Kosovan rakija.
And, with every rakija shot, images of Mitrovica in my head became blurrier and blurrier.
FINAL HOURS IN PRISTINA
The next day brought brilliant sunshine, and I was outside early for a last walk in Pristina. There was a faint but distinct smell of coal smoke in the cold morning air. Many local homes are heated with coal fire, and makeshift chimneys poked out of eating establishments and even modern looking apartment blocks. And the sky wasn’t quite as spotless at a closer look: air pollution was obviously a concern in Pristina.
Palace of Youth and Sports, another brutalist example in Pristina
Taking a circuitous route through the slowly awakening city centre, I arrived at Martyrs’ Hill – a green area in the east of Pristina with a panoramic view of the city’s skyline. The hill is so named because several Kosovars fallen in the conflict with the Yugoslavian forces had been buried there. Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s first president widely viewed as the father of the new nation, also lies there in an immaculately kept grave.
Some art installation on top of Martyrs’ Hill
My attention was drawn to a set of graves some distance away. After a quick look, I was surprised to discover relatively recent death dates in May 2015. Hadn’t the independence fight finished by then? Puzzled, I picked one name at random and ran an internet search on my phone. Most of the information was in Albanian, but a short Wikipedia article informed me that, in May 2015, dozens of armed men clashed with police in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo, resulting in deaths on both sides. Some of the men, including the person whose grave I was looking at, were shot and the rest charged with terrorism.
The graves I was looking at
Suddenly, a middle-aged man appeared next to me. Pointing at the name I was researching, he said something in Albanian.
I shook my head. Perhaps the man spoke English?
And, inevitably, he switched to Serbian.
‘Mirsad,’ he read the name on the tombstone and paused, ‘Moj prijatelj. On je bio njihov glavni.’
I nodded. The deceased man was his friend. He was the leader of the rest of the men buried there.
We stood there for a while, talking – or, rather, the man talking and me asking questions. He visited his friend’s grave every weekend and was glad to have company today.
With the clocks moving ahead fast, I had to rush to get back to Skopje. Overlooking a large, obviously coal-fired power station in the distance, I nearly slid down the hill and made my way back to the centre.
Panoramic view of Pristina from Martyrs’ Hill
On my way to the bus station I once again mentally ticked off the tourist sights I had seen in Pristina – the grotesque library, the large-handed Bill Clinton and the symbolic NEWBORN monument – so unusual for the destinations I normally visit.
I smiled remembering all my brief encounters in Pristina, and sent a mental thank you to everyone who tried to feed me, treat me or transport me to another city for the mere joy of it, in the best traditions of the Balkan hospitality.
Despite its difficult history, Kosovo could not have made a more optimistic impression.
VIEW MY PHOTOS FROM PRISTINA HERE
VISITING PRISTINA: PRACTICALITIES
Arriving by air: I took a detour via Skopje, but Pristina airport is connected to multiple hubs in Europe, including London, Frankfurt, Brussels, Vienna and Stockholm (full list is available here).
Arriving overland: There are well established bus links from Pristina to Skopje, Tirana and Belgrade. I rely heavily on Balkan Viator for bus timetables all over the Balkans. There are around 15-20 scheduled bus services between Skopje and Pristina every day. If you fancy sharing a ride to Skopje from somewhere, Balkan Viator lists available options as well.
Finding a hotel: I greatly enjoyed Hotel Prima where I paid only EUR 30 for a night in a spacious single room, breakfast included. The hotel is a short walk from the heart of Pristina, Mother Teresa Boulevard, in a quiet street.
Where to eat: Pristina has an excellent reputation in the region for good food. I arrived with a huge list of restaurant recommendations thanks to a friend, but, because of my short stay and the locals’ great desire to feed me, had to focus on two options:
1. I highly recommend Liburnia for any meal during the day (the restaurant is open 8am-11pm). The interior is superbly laid out in traditional style, and the menu offers amazing Kosovan casseroles. I recommend trying local beer on tap and, inevitably, finishing it all off with rakija.
Grill a-la Kosovo, a superb dish I tried at Liburnia
2. For a snack in a traditional style I couldn’t speak more highly of Trosha, a central bakery serving a huge selection of pastries with your super strong Turkish tea. I loved Trosha’s spinach croissants and a tray of traditional Kosovan dips. The prices are delightfully low even for Balkan standards.
Trosha’s renowned spinach croissants
Currency matters: Kosovo uses Euro as its currency. Bring plenty of cash, as ATM withdrawals from foreign cards incur massive fees (EUR 5 per withdrawal plus whatever your bank charges at home – expensive!). I was able to pay for my return bus ticket in Macedonian denar, but don’t take it for granted and bring Euros.