Kosovo Stories and Tips

Pristina - an overview (part 2)

Pristina's National Library Photo, Kosovo, Europe

The heart of the city is Mother Theresa Boulevard, a pedestrianised street lined with shops (mostly international stores that only NGO workers can afford to shop in) and cafes. The area comes alive from late afternoon as school children finish for the day, followed by university students and then office workers. Gradually portable kiosks and little trestle tables start to appear on the boulevard. There's popcorn, doughnuts, hot nuts and candy floss. Old ladies sell paper cones stuffed with pumpkin seeds; giant open chillers filled with ice creams of every colour are dragged out of little yards and hauled onto the boulevard. Then come the mobile phone sellers; they get lots of people coming to have a look but don't appear to sell much. The phones are probably cheap copies of well known brands or else stolen or second hand. There are cardboard boxes are battery operated barking dogs that turn somersaults, glow in the dark headbands, replica sports strips, cartons of cigarettes.

The people sitting in the cafes on the main drag are mostly staff from NGOs, the majority of them American. Americans are loved here; there are huge hoardings at roundabout and road junctions showing posters of American troops engaged in aid work, or else thank you messages celebrating Bill Clinton's efforts to enable Kosovo's independence. In the markets you'll find t-shirts showing the flags of various countries and a thank you message underneath - "Thanks to our wonderful American friends, from Kosovo" and so on; none of them are giving thanks to the UK.

The cafes on the side streets are slightly cheaper and you'll meet more Kosovan people there. Although places like these look busy people tend to make their drinks last a long time; people are smartly dressed and don't have much money for luxuries but the evening stroll is an essential part of Pristina life. As you might expect from a capital city, Prishtina boasts a wide range of restaurants covering most international cuisines. Kosovan food tends to be more or less the same as Albanian, which is essentially very meaty and not unlike Turkish food. Guidebooks on Kosovo tend to be aimed mainly at NGO workers and therefore make a big thing about recommending international restaurants; these tend to be scattered all over the city rather than concentrated in any one area and usually require a taxi ride to get to them. However, there are restaurants in the centre which are perfectly fine yet don't get as much attention from the guidebooks. If you're traveling on a budget you'll find plenty of places around the market where you can get cheap meat dishes; the portions are always generous and the food is delicious.

Prishtina is not a city that is brimming with tourist attractions. One reason is the destruction of some of the city's most important historic buildings, another is the fact that many of the country's important treasures are in museums in Belgrade and unlikely to be returned any time soon. The area around the market is referred to as the old town but it is barely that. However, after you've had a look around the market, you might want to go and take a look at a handful of old Ottoman style houses that can be found nearby. The city's oldest mosque is currently being restored, and the others are not really of any significance. One of the old houses is home to Emin Gjiku, a small ethnographic museum in which there's a modest exhibition of costumes and jewellery and mock ups of rooms from times gone by. In another Ottoman house there's a museum dedicated to the life and work of former Kosovan leader Ibrahim Rugova, architect of Kosovo's independence; this museum is also pretty small and really needs the help of a local to make sense of it. It was OK but if I ever go back to Prishtina, I'll find a Kosovan guide to help me out.

The nature of Prishtina's geography means that there are a number of good view points, the most interesting of which is Martyrs' Hill in the Velania district. There's a memorial to Ibrahim Rugova on the top of the hill; Rugova was a pacifist and there was intense animosity between him and the Kosovo Liberation Army. Even when he died in 2006, the hostility of the KLO did not abate and there was fierce discussion among Kosovans over where Rugova should be buried. Eventually the issue was resolved and you can now visit this white marble memorial on a spot that also gives tremendous views of the somewhat depressing - but nonetheless remarkable - urban sprawl.

Although you won't very often hear the call to prayer or see many ladies wearing headscarves, there's a strong feeling in Kosovo that you're in a Muslim country. Although there are plenty of places to get a beer (or something stronger) you don't see many people drinking alcohol; coffee is the most popular drink but you'll also notice a lot of older men drinking glasses of tea, exactly as they do in Turkey or other Islamic countries. Appearance is very important and young women especially like to dress to impress. The poor condition of the pavements does not deter young women from wearing impossibly high heels; trousers are tight and tops skimpy. The concept of modesty in dress as seen in more easterly Muslim countries does not apply here.

One place that does feel quite eastern is the main market and the shopping area that surrounds it. Certain types of shop cluster together so there'll be a row of ten shops selling metal railing for balconies and staircases, then ten stores selling plumbing goods, then half a dozen selling handmade wooden items. A lot of business is conducted on the street with shop owners bringing out stools and chatting to their neighbours as they wait for the next customer. The market is partly open, partly covered; the covered section is a maze of alleyways, once again arranged pretty much according to the items on sale. When we visited Kosovo it was pepper time and customers were buying big sackfuls of peppers to take home to pickle, keep in oil or to use in making ajvar, a spicy relish served with meat dishes in this part of the world. Most food is grown locally and on the market edges you'll see country people selling whatever they have a surplus of, sometimes this can be just a few bottles of milk from their own cows or goats, or even just a plastic bag full of apples. You tend to see mountains of the same stuff. People eat very much in harmony with the seasons and very little imported produce is available; we spent twenty minutes looking for bananas to take with us on our long bus journey to Belgrade and we found only one small crate of bananas on the whole market.

I was glad to have visited Prishtina but it is not the sort of place I'd recommend for the casual tourist, someone looking for a city break destination. It's dusty, noisy and still a long way from recovering from the ordeal of its recent past. It has a feeling of a city in flux; UN and EU vehicles still fill the city streets, there are cranes looking over every part of the city and just covering short distances on foot can be frustrating and tiring; pavements peter out and you have to walk along side thunderous traffic, there are unpaved areas in the very heart of the city where you have to walk on gravel or jump over pools of drying cement.

However, it's a good base from which to explore other parts of Pristina because it has rather more in the way of evening diversions and a better choice of places to eat than other towns which tend to be fairly conservative and repetitive. The aspects that appealed to me most were the glimmers of the city's Ottoman past; as an ardent Islamophile, though I was a little disappointed that this is not as strong as I had expected. It's unusual for me not to find such cities exciting and compelling but Pristina just didn't excite me that much - and it's a long way to go to be disappointed.

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