Slowly we are working our way through the countries that formerly made up the Yugoslav federation; not only is Kosovo the last to achieve its independence, it's also the world's youngest state. In September 2010 we had planned to travel through Serbia en route to our place in Slovenia but, looking one day at the atlas, I was struck by how close (I have no spatial awareness or concept of distance) the Kosovan capital Prishtina appeared on the map; our plans were altered accordingly.
The first thing you'll notice on arriving in Kosovo is that there appear to be more Albanian flags flying than Kosovan. After first Slovenia, then Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and finally Macedonia left the federation, Serbia and Montenegro remained united; Kosovo was swallowed up within Serbia but with an almost entirely Muslim (and Albanian) population it wasn't long before Kosovo, too, wanted independence. Independence for Kosovo would not come easily and many lives were lost in the fierce fighting that broke out. Today very few Serbs live in Kosovo; most chose to leave, fearing for their lives, while others were literally chased out. The Serbs that stayed, or that have come back, live in enclaves, most notably in the city of Mitrovica (although it is not purely Serbian) and in Gracanica, a few kilometres outside the capital. The rest of Kosovo is almost entirely made up of Albanian Kosovars.
The next thing you notice is that there is one heck of a lot of money being spent in Kosovo, and not just in the capital. We arrived by bus from Serbia and noticed the quality of the roads improve tenfold simply by crossing into Kosovo. Most backpackers arrive by bus; there's no train service any longer. Prishtina's international airport connected the country with most major European cities. Easyjet do have a service to Prishtina, but so far only from Geneva (whether this is because of the large numbers of Kosovans living in Switzerland, or the presence of so many international aid workers whose headquarters are in Geneva, I'm not altogether sure).
Geographically the city forms a kind of bowl on three sides while the fourth side flattens out to the south a long way, then later drops down as you head towards the city of Prizren. First impressions are not great; although I've visited huge sprawling metropolises like Istanbul and Ankara I have to admit feeling pretty overwhelmed. For a start we had expected to be dropped in Gracanica because we had come from Serbia, so when the driver indicated we should get out at a busy roundabout we did so gladly, knowing that we would not now need to find a taxi driver willing to take us into Albanian territory. The trouble was that we had no idea at all which part of the city we were in and therefore no idea how to get to the area we had earmarked as having a couple of possible hotels.
Wherever you look in Kosovo there is building work going on; immense construction cranes loom over the city like overgrown wading birds. Try to walk on the pavement and you'll not get very far before you are diverted onto a pebbly path on the edge of the traffic. The fumes are shocking and you feel grubbing within a few minutes of setting foot out of doors. Recently it was revealed that the high proportion of the new buildings in Kosovo, in particular in Prishtina, are illegal - put up without planning permission - and any that have appeared since the taking of a satellite picture sometime in late summer will have to be taken down. To see Pristina you might think that there was no global economic crisis, or at least not one that included Kosovo; the truth is that international aid has enabled this degree of construction to be maintained.
If you are able to its best to walk in the city; this does mean that it can take a while to get around but the constant traffic jams mean that going anywhere by bus or car takes even longer. Buses are quite difficult to use as it's hard to get a definitive answer as to where to catch a particular service or which numbers apply to which routes. Fortunately, if you don't wish to walk, taxis are pretty cheap and one of the only things that tourists might spend their money on that isn't artificially high because of the large number of foreigners in the city. If you are taking a taxi to the main bus station on the outskirts of the centre, ask the driver to drop you outside the gate to avoid paying the drop off charge (in fact, we gave what we saved to the driver as his tip).
Another problem is that many streets have had several names and people you speak to may not always use the most recent. The street previously named after Lenin is now named Bill Clinton Boulevard. We found that people we asked for directions tended to direct us by landmark which, in a city with a number of memorable buildings and sights is probably the best way to do it.
Breaking away from Serbia was not kind to Kosovo but Prishtina had already lost much of its history decades earlier while Yugoslavia still existed; in the 1960s it was decided by central government that Pristina with its strong resemblance to Ottoman cities was not a fitting example of a modern Yugoslav city and many important architectural treasures were lost. In their place there sprang up countless monstrosities that could never ever hope to match the beauty of what had been bulldozed. I'm a big fan of twentieth century design as seen in many eastern European and Soviet era cities but the few design statements that one might hold up as an example of this movement in Prishtina are now crumbling fast.
The Skenderberg Statue is something you'll pass frequently if you stay for more than a day or two; Skenderberg was also known as Gjergi Kastrioti and he is Albania's most celebrated historical hero, uniting the Albanians against the rules of the Sultan in the fifteenth century. The statue has been placed on a horrible plinth that today looks like a decrepit skate park and surrounded by floodlights, most of which don't work. Nearby is the Kosovo Parliament building which is fairly uninspiring, but next to it, attached to the railings are the now faded photographs of missing people, their fate now unlikely ever to be known, driven from their homes by Serb militia in retaliation for the NATO bombing of Serb targets.
One once grand square is now a sadly derelict pile of uneven and broken paving stones, its once proud obelisk now looking sad and decrepit. The shell of an unfinished Eastern Orthodox church stands nearby; before the war it was planned that it would be the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Kosovo but now it stands as a chilling testimony to the fact that Serbs are no longer welcome here. Even I found little to like in the bizarre honeycomb like building that is the national library though there is no denying that it's pretty unforgettable; building started in the 1970s and was finished in 1981. For ten years Albanian students were not allowed to use the library and when NATO was bombing the Serbs into submission, the Serb military used the library as a mission control centre, during which time hundreds of thousands of rare books were destroyed.