Written by fizzytom on 13 Feb, 2011
We walked round to the "Kaderi the Kurila Tekke" (a 'tekke' being the Albanian word for the place where members of the Sufi order meet) but really wished we'd visited on a Friday afternoon as this is the only day where there is a public…Read More
We walked round to the "Kaderi the Kurila Tekke" (a 'tekke' being the Albanian word for the place where members of the Sufi order meet) but really wished we'd visited on a Friday afternoon as this is the only day where there is a public 'ziker' - better known to most people as the ceremony of the 'whirling dervishes', the name given to the devotional dance performed by Sufis (visitors to Istanbul may have attended a ziker). There are three tekkes in Prizren and like the others, this one has a small exhibition in which the traditional robes and ceremonial weapons are displayed. Passing through an old residential district, we started to make our way to the "kale" or fortress, just a ruin these days but worth the hike (the path climbs a steep 500metres) as you will be rewarded with tremendous views over the town in one direction and over the Pashtrik mountain, and beyond it Albania, in the other. Sadly on the way up to the ruins you have to pass a number of ruined houses that formerly belonged to Serbs who were driven out of the city in 1999 when Albanians returned after the 1998/9 war; also on the way up, a handsome Orthodox church which looked to be in the process of restoration, inaccessible due to some serious metal fencing and many hefty padlocks. On a hot September day we plodded up the stone steps, pausing now and then to watch tiny lizards basking in the sun, and to take in the constantly changing view. At the top we were grateful for a tap which had been installed for the workmen who were busying bolstering the crumbling fortifications. Without the advantage of a local historian a hike to the summit is really just about the views. There are plenty of hidden corners to explore but I would advise caution as many of them have been utilised as public conveniences, perhaps by walkers, perhaps by courting couples. It's though that there has been a fortress of in some form on this location since the 6th century. The heyday of the fortress was the Ottoman period when a whole town existed within its walls and military used the site as recently as 1912; sadly, today there is only rubble and a few minor stone walls. It's perfectly possible to get a flavour of Prizren in a day, or even a half day if you don't stop at any museums, but there are a number of interesting sites outside of the city that I would aim to see if I visited again (fairly likely when I go to Macedonia as the Macedonian capital, Skopje is just an hour away). Cafe culture is an important part of Prizren life so you should leave enough time to sample the delights of at least a couple. While its possible to enjoy a beer, and many of the cafes that line the riverbank become very lively after dark, you may feel self conscious if you do because almost everyone else is drinking coffee; the staff won't bat an eye if you order a Peja (the main beer of Kosovo) but you'll likely notice you're the only one drinking beer (contrast that with neighbouring Serbia where a beer is de rigueur at any time of the day or night). If you do decide to spend longer in Prizren (and after any time in soulless Prishtina I would expect that many backpackers at least would find Prizren a lazy, laidback delight) there is a limited range of accommodation available in the centre but more options if you are prepared to stay slightly out of town where there are many brand new hotels where interior designers have excelled themselves in putting together the most lavish displays of kitsch. There are plenty of places in Prizren to eat out but the majority serve local cuisine, unlike those in Prishtina which offer a wider range of international cuisines. Vegetarians will not starve but will find their options more limited as this is meat country and the Albanian 'qebaptore' (literally a place serving kebabs) are ubiquitous. In summer fish eaters should head to "Mullini i Pintollit", a reconstructed watermill in the quaint Marash district where they serve excellent trout. If you're only staying a short time in Prizren you should make a point of sampling one of the local sweet delicacies. You may well be familiar with baklava which is also found in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, but there are other local sweets such as 'ekler' (I'm guessing the name is derived from 'eclair') which are stuffed with rich vanilla cream, and 'revani' which is a delicious moist cake made using sugar water. The "Royal Arabian" which overlooks the river is my pick of the pastry shops. If you like Ottoman towns (and I love them!) and happen to be in Kosovo, then you must make time to see Prizren. It would be a terrible shame to visit Kosovo and only see Prishtina, as is the case for many business people (and for those people I would advise extending your stay in order to see somewhere considerably more "Kosovan" and scenic). There may not be a heck of a lot in terms of "attractions" but the pace of life and the charming buildings make Prizren a welcome change from Prishtina. One of my biggest thrills was to see elderly men wearing the "plis", a traditional hat - it's made only of white felt and is a slightly conical (bit with a rounded peak) brimless hat - that you'll only see being worn in Albania and Kosovo. If you ask someone who speaks English they'll direct you to one of a couple of small workshops where these hats are still handmade today. The plis used to be known as the "liberty hat" because those Albanians who wore it refused to be subjugated in slavery and seeing people wearing them still today is a reminder of the struggle for Kosovan independence. Prishtina may be the gleaming international face of Kosovo but to see what the country is really like you do need to see somewhere like Prizren. Granted it's not the easiest place to get to but a trip to Prizren is essential for anyone spending time in this part of the Balkans. Close
Until I came to do some research for my trip to Kosovo in September 2010, Prizren was just a name to me. I vaguely recalled it being in the news when the country was engaged in its difficult struggle for independence from Serbia, but other…Read More
Until I came to do some research for my trip to Kosovo in September 2010, Prizren was just a name to me. I vaguely recalled it being in the news when the country was engaged in its difficult struggle for independence from Serbia, but other than that I knew nothing. Any tourist literature, or any person who has ever been to Kosovo, will tell recommend a visit to Prizren. It's in the south of the country about an hour and a half to two hours bus trip from Prishtina, the capital, depending on the level of traffic which can be very heavy at times, and hardly helped by the poor roads. Alternatively, if you happen to be in northern Macedonia, Prizren would make an interesting and easy day trip, and, if truth be told, is a more appealing prospect as an introduction to Kosovo than Prishtina. There are a couple of reasons that visitors head for Prizren in particular. One is that it has more to offer tourists in terms of a recognisable Old Town; much of Pristhina's Ottoman past has been obliterated, partly under Tito's socialist regime when it was wanted to present the city as modern metropolis, not one with ties to an Ottoman past, and partly due to damage incurred as Kosovo won her independence from Serbia. That's not to say that Prizren is some stunning little jewel in Kosovo's crown; indeed, many important buildings in the city are in poor condition and while a lot of EU money is being used to restore them, there is still much to be done. In the meantime, though, there's enough there to comfortably occupy day trippers. Another reason that Prizren attracts visitors is that it is unofficially Kosovo's cultural capital, playing host every summer to a handful of festivals. As most tourists come to Kosovo in summer, there's a fair chance you'll catch one of them. There are regular buses from Prishtina's main bus station to Prizren with the last buses returning to Prizren around 7.00pm. The first half of the route is a decent dual carriageway lined with newly built car showrooms, motels, furniture stores, fast food joints, petrol stations and building supplies centres. There might be a lot of vehicles on the road but you have to wonder whether there's a need for so many motel rooms. The roads then become less good and climbs and climbs until the whole of southern Kosovo is stretched out before you. Arriving in Prizren is confirmation that you are heading south. In many respects I found it very like a Turkish town (in fact Turkish is a third official language after Albanian and Serbian), although there are the distinctive domes of the shells of Orthodox churches standing alongside the minarets of the mosques. Except for a clutch of international stores selling designer sunglasses and leisurewear few can probably afford, most retail business is carried out in the street, with shopkeepers displaying most of their wares on the pavement in front of their shop rather than inside. In this part In this part of the world people are much more likely to meet outside the home rather than have friends round for a beer or a coffee so there are lots of cafes, most of them with outdoor seating. Prizren is the main centre for a fair sized region so there are lots of school children, students, workers and shoppers around all day long. There aren't enough schools to meet demand so the day is divided into three shifts, which explains why there are usually children of school age around in town when you would expect them to be in class. Few people have internet access so there are always business people meeting to look at documents, or workers taking documents to be copied or just delivered to offices around the city. Life is centred around the Shadervan district where there are several cafes and restaurants clustered around the square. Lots of people were drinking from an old water fountain in the centre of the square and it's said that if you drink from the fountain you'll come back to Prizren: as I liked Prizren a whole lot more than Prishtina, I had a sip too. You can take a horse and cart ride around the town starting here; all day long Kadri Palla and his horse Rubin wait in the hope of finding some passengers to take on a tour of Prizren in their antique carriage. At Euro5 for thirty minutes it won't break the bank but you'll miss a lot of the little nooks and crannies of Prizren that can only be found by exploring on foot. If you've come by bus then the Shadervan district is on the right hand side of the modest Prizren Bistrica river which divides the town. Several foot and road bridges link the two sides, most notably "the Old Stone Bridge" which dates from the seventeenth century. If you keep following the river you'll arrive in Shadervan in no time at all but you should really veer off into the side streets as they do contain a number of old Ottoman houses - some restored, some being restored and some in a severe state of dilapidation - which are worth seeing. Don't worry if you have a feeling you may be lost; the Sinan Pasha mosque dominates the Prizren skyline and is always a useful landmark to aim for to get your bearings again. There are in fact twenty-six mosques in Prizren and a good number date from the Ottoman period; many of them are currently under restoration and the Turkish government have contributed a great deal of money towards the cost of these projects. You can go into any of the mosques but they tend to be locked up after prayers so you need to go just as prayers are ending and you should find that you can go in. The Gazi Mehmet Pasha's Mosque is especially handsome and sits in wonderful gardens which are a good place to have a rest from pounding Prizren's pavements. This mosque is a stone's throw from the "League of Prizren Museum" which is a must-see when visiting the city as it is a vital part of Kosovo's history. The original buildings were moved twice before the complex as you see it today became settled; in the 1960s, like so many important old buildings in Kosovo, the buildings were moved to make the space for a new road, and in the 1990s Serbian forces all but demolished the monuments. In the late nineteenth century a group of intellectuals from Kosovo and Macedonia started to meet to plan the struggle against the Ottoman empire; their resistance was intended to be not only political and military but also cultural and their aim was to appeal to the Berlin Congress to attain autonomy for an Albanian state. Almost none of the captions in the museum were in English but we were still able to appreciate a collection of paintings of patriots in national dress as well as a comprehensive exhibition of old photographs of Prizren and other towns in Kosovo. Close
Written by fizzytom on 20 Nov, 2010
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…Read More
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. Close
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…Read More
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. Close
Written by HobWahid on 19 Apr, 2006
Approaching the border of the UN-administered region of Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was probably the most nervous I have ever been crossing a border. Not only was I rolling towards the border in my Avis-rented Ford, but I had absolutely no…Read More
Approaching the border of the UN-administered region of Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was probably the most nervous I have ever been crossing a border. Not only was I rolling towards the border in my Avis-rented Ford, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The reason for my crossing was that I ultimately wanted reach Montenegro, but it just so happens that the quickest route from Macedonia to Montenegro goes right through the heart of Kosovo.I, like most of the rest of the world, had no real idea of what exactly Kosovo was like. Just the word Kosovo triggered such phrases as ethnic cleansing, mass graves, and refugees. I had no idea what I was about to get myself into. In fact I wasn't even sure if I was able to actually enter Kosovo without some sort of special permission, but I was determined to find out. The worst that would happen is that they turned me around.As I rolled up to the Macedonian border, I figured that the guards there would make it clear if there was something odd or dangerous about my trying to enter Kosovo, but the guard seemed not to show any sort of emotion as he approached my parked car. Of course, I had Macedonian plates and had no real "foreign" look about me. I rolled down the window, he greeted me with a dobra don, and I replied, using up about the extent of my Macedonian. As he continued on in Macedonian, I just gave him a blank stare and handed over my passport. He looked down, seeing the blue cover emblazoned with a bald eagle and apologized, exposing a shaky command of English. The guard asked no real questions and expressed no real surprise at a random American trying to enter Kosovo (I'd later discover that Americans stationed in Kosovo often hop over to Macedonia). A few stamps later he waved me on.Entering the no-man's land between the borders I was feeling slightly better, but still had a sense of nervousness that made my stomach queasy and filled my body with adrenaline. I started to think of all the so-called "dangerous" places I had traveled before, Palestine, Lebanon, Georgia, but this, I decided, was definitely the craziest. The second thoughts immediately followed.Before I could think too much, though, I was standing at the Kosovo border with a UN soldier in a blue beret staring down at me. He spoke out it Macedonian (or Serbian, I'm not sure). I innocently shoved my passport out the window and the guard switched to English."So who do you work for in Kosovo," he asked."Nobody," I replied, starting to worry, "Do I need a work permit," I wondered. The guard looked at me puzzled and asked, "Well, what's your business in Kosovo, then?""Tourism, I suppose," I replied, but when I saw his worried look I added, "Well I'm on my way to Montenegro, so I'm just passing through." He seemed to understand this better. After a brief search of the car, he handed me back my passport. He hadn't stamped it, which disappointed a stamp collector like me, but I assumed that since this isn't an "official" border, there were no stamps to be collected. He asked if I had any other questions, I shook my head. The guard then smiled and said, "Well, have a good day and good luck!"Good luck was not what I needed to hear.By this time my heart was starting to calm down and the adrenaline subsided. I was actually in Kosovo, there were no problems entering and now all that was left was to drive the entire length of the country, which just happened to involve an unexpected overnight stop in Kosovo's fragmented capital, Prishtina. Close
It only took about an hour to reach Kosovo's capital, Prishtina, from the Macedonian border. By the time I reached the city limits I was fully settling into the idea of being in Kosovo. I was cruising down the two-lane highway, listening to my CDs…Read More
It only took about an hour to reach Kosovo's capital, Prishtina, from the Macedonian border. By the time I reached the city limits I was fully settling into the idea of being in Kosovo. I was cruising down the two-lane highway, listening to my CDs and passing numerous military convoys. I was enjoying trying to sound out the signs in Albanian and passing by the military bases belonging to various NATO countries—it was so far so good. The Kosovo countryside was lush green, with various restaurants and truck stops dotting the highway. I stopped in one for a brief snack and to try and get some money. In Kosovo the default currency is the Euro, and that is what the ATMs dispense. All I had was a wad of Macedonian Denari, a lovely currency, but completely worthless. Pulling into the stop, I again got that sick sense in my stomach, that worried feeling that I was somewhere I shouldn't be, but when I walked in, nobody even blinked. I almost felt a bit rejected, here I was, about as off the beaten tourist track as you can get, and nobody seemed to care. I figured it had to be that there are just so many aid workers and military types floating around, and there have been for a good 10 years now, that nobody sees a foreigner as anything special.After withdrawing some Euros, and getting over the feeling of holding a familiar currency for the first time in almost a year, I headed over to the counter to buy a drink. The man behind the counter looked at me and spewed out something in Albanian, (this was to be a recurring theme). When I gave him a confused look, he repeated himself and looked even more confused when he realized I didn't understand. After an awkward silence I pointed at the fridge and spewed out one of the few pan-Slavic words I knew, mineralna voda (mineral water). I had assumed he didn't know English, and so decided that relying on some odd Serbian-Macedonian combination would work best. The shopkeeper gave me an odd look that seemed to say, "And who the hell are you?" He went to the fridge grabbed the water, and practically threw it onto the counter, muttering something, which I assumed to be the price. I shoved some money his way, he gave me change and then turned away, barely acknowledging that I was leaving.I was a bit taken aback at what had just occurred, but soon it occurred to me. Why did I think it would be such a good idea to make myself sound like a Slav? The Serbs were the ones who oppressed and massacred Albanians for a solid decade, that is what the whole Kosovo conflict was about. The shopkeeper probably assumed I was Serbian, thus the harsh attitude. From then on I decided to leave the Slavic phrases behind and just rely on English. Once I did that it was amazing just how much the people opened up.I had the rest of the drive towards Prishtina to think about my little faux pas, but once I crested the hill and saw the skyline of Prishtina, my thoughts immediately switched to, "why aren't I spending more time here?" Close
When the skyline of Prishtina finally came into view, I immediately started to think that I really should be spending more time in this country than just driving through it. I don't really know what it was, but I suppose it was just that general…Read More
When the skyline of Prishtina finally came into view, I immediately started to think that I really should be spending more time in this country than just driving through it. I don't really know what it was, but I suppose it was just that general curiosity that drives all us travelers and that curiosity that drove me to the Balkan Peninsula in the first place. Prishtina is one of those places that I had always heard referenced, but never really imagined I'd be. It would have been a crime to not at least spend the night. The choice should have been obvious, but it still took me forever to decide. My mind flip-flopped, stay/go, stay/go, stay/go. Before I new it I was on the road out of town and toward the Montenegro border. Then it finally hit me. I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't stop. I turned around.I had no map, no guide book, no list of hotels, nothing, but luckily Prishtina isn't that large of a city, only around 250,000, and finding my way around proved rather easy. From the ring road that skirts around the city, I saw a towering building with the words Grand Hotel Prishtina written on the sides. I decided that that was going to be where I would bunk, so I immediately set out trying to drive my way there.At one point, while entering the city I turned a corner and was greeted by a gigantic (and I mean GIGANTIC) poster of Bill Clinton. It was the sort of poster that you imagine a dictator Muamar Qaddhafi likes to hang in order to remind his subjects who is boss. The poster, I discovered, was welcoming me to Bill Clinton Boulevard. I was literally in awe. I just stood there staring at this easily 30-meter tall poster of Bill Clinton. As I drove on I looked to my right only to see a kebab van titled, Bill Klinton Doner Kebab. Where was I? Having spent the last year bouncing around the world, I had experienced my fair share of anti-Americanism, particularly in Europe. It was a strange feeling to be somewhere where the U.S. was looked upon as a great liberator. I was soon to discover that Bill Clinton is a national hero in this country. A Bill Clinton cult exists in Prishtina the way Che has a cult in Cuba. Good old "Slick Willy" has his face plastered everywhere. All I could do was laugh. "If only all the neo-cons back home could see this," I thought. Around the world people burn the image of George W. Bush, but here in Kosovo Clinton is worshipped. It's the Republican Party's worst nightmare. I knew immediately that Prishtina was my type of town. Close
Written by kolson on 13 Aug, 2002
Outside, an endless line of white UN cars stood parked behind checkpoints and gates. The UN folks keep to themselves and don’t mingle with the natives, Greg said.
Greg also pointed out the 10-story Grand Hotel, currently the Pristina’s best lodging and a landmark…Read More
Outside, an endless line of white UN cars stood parked behind checkpoints and gates. The UN folks keep to themselves and don’t mingle with the natives, Greg said.
Greg also pointed out the 10-story Grand Hotel, currently the Pristina’s best lodging and a landmark I would use later to help me find my way around. But it was a huge color photo on a billboard near the stadium plaza that caught and held my attention. It showed New York smoldering after the 911 disaster. Greg told me that the Albanian text underneath asked for prayers for the Americans "who also were victims of terrorism."
"The Albanian Kosovars love Americans because they think they all would have been killed without U.S. intervention during the war," he said.
I mulled that thought until we reached Tiffany Restaurant, which is one block from the OSCE building, behind the stadium. Here we joined Greg’s colleagues and friends, all of whom work for various U.S.-funded agencies to revive the Kosovar economy and share Greg’s enthusiasm for the region. Most of them are thirty-something young men with graduate degrees and a keen desire to make the world a better place. Two have Midwest connections--Dennis Zeedyk, an agriculture specialist from the University of Illinois at Champaign, and Glenn Surabian an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business.
Their enthusiasm for Tiffany and its owner Luli Zhubi was profuse and with good reason. The meal was nothing less than a feast, and I was the honored guest. This Tiffany is Luli’s second restaurant: The first was destroyed in the war.
Luli is a bundle of energy and full of good humor, but it is his wife Flori who is the genius behind the cuisine. Flori apologized that her dishes were limited because all foodstuffs in Kosovo are imported and she has to use what’s available. It made no difference--the results were spectacular.
I can only describe the meal as Albanian "tapas" because Flori made sure we had a tasting portion of every Albanian dish on the menu. These included sarma, grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb, monteja, pastry balls filled with ground veal, Rugova, a native cheese, a lovely composed salad and several lamb and vegetable stews served in tavas, special clay earthenware dishes that are an Albanian tradition. Luli paired every dish with a surprisingly good Kosovo wine, each a pre-war vintage.
Tiffany’s is one of the brightest spots in Pristina and often caters UN banquets as well as local events. It’s easy to see why Greg and his colleagues consider the personable Luli as one of their friends and why they include him in their socializing. When we were ready to leave, Luli was waiting at the door with a gift "for Greg’s mama." It was a bottle of 1981 Kosovar Bourgunde and an invitation to visit again.
Greg had to work the next day, but he had engaged Dennis’ Moldovian wife Marina to take me to some of Kosovo’s nearby points of interest. In turn, Marina invited her Albanian neighbor, Agim Rama, along to interpret for us.
In the next 12 hours I would visit a 12th Century Serbian Orthodox monastery in Peje, a street full of storefronts made of carved wood in Gjakove and a restaurant on the site of an old mill in Prizren. I also would get a crash course in what makes Kosovo tick.
There are barbed wire barricades and KFOR guards at every Serbian church in Kosovo because of fear of reprisal from the Muslim Albanians, who lost many friends and family during the Kosovo War. The monastery is no exception. After a thorough check of our passports and a phone call to the monastery by the peacekeepers on duty, Marina and I were allowed onto the grounds. Agim was refused access because of his nationality.
Marina, who speaks Ukrainian, was able to ask two black-garbed ladies if we could visit the church, and their faces lit up when they realized I was an American. They opened the church just for us, and there we purchased some religious goods and talked—mostly in sign language—about Chicago, a name the ladies seemed to recognize.
From Peje, we drove to Gjakove, and encountered several noisy motorcades waving Albanian flags and blowing their horns. Agim told us the people of Gjakove were celebrating on their way to meet 102 men who had just been released from Serb prisons after years of incarceration. He said it was a great day and there would be feasting and partying well into the night.
We continued on to one of Gjakove’s main attractions, the street of wooden front stores. With Turkish music blaring from every establishment, goods ranging from clothing to electronics to produce were displayed for sale. Marina explained that these storefronts had recently been rebuilt and restored after a fire destroyed almost everything on the street several years earlier.
We stopped at an Albanian café for lunch, and Agim ordered a regional specialty for us, but I couldn’t finish the huge meat and yogurt stew served in tavas. In true American form, I asked for a doggie bag and was stunned when I was handed my leftovers wrapped, but still in the ceramic cooking dish. Agim explained that the custom of taking uneaten restaurant food home is unknown in Kosovo and that the owner had improvised in my honor.
Another unknown American tradition is the use of travelers’ checks and credit cards. Neither is accepted at most places in Kosovo, and only cash (Euros) is used. There are no ATMs in Kosovo, either, so I had to find a bank where I could change American dollars. I was surprised to find that banks in Kosovo have metal detectors and more security guards than patrons, and that getting the 3rd degree is part of the money changing process. Agim explained that there is a 60 percent unemployment rate in Kosovo and theft and counterfeiting are problems, so banks don’t take chances.
Our final stop that day was Prizren, Kosovo’s second-largest city and Agim’s birthplace. The German contingent of the UN forces is in charge here, and it shows. Roads are in tip-top shape, traffic signs are prominent and streets are free of litter.
Agim told us that Prizren holds mixed memories for him. He reminisced about his childhood and showed us his mosque and other places he remembers fondly. But he also pointed out the former home of one of his best friends, who with 55 others, had hidden behind the city’s bus station while trying to escape during the war. All 56 people, most related to each other, were slaughtered by Serbian forces. Agim thinks of them whenever he is in Prizren.
As we headed back to Pristina, I saw farmland that could have been in Illinois or Kansas, forests that looked like Minnesota’s woodlands and mountain ranges that could have been in Colorado. Except for the land mines that still make wandering dangerous, the beautiful countryside could have been anywhere in America, and I wanted to stay and see more.
However, Greg and I were scheduled fly to Ljubljana, Slovenia, the next afternoon, where we would join his fiance Sanja on a road trip. I decided to use my last hours in Pristina to explore the city on foot. Everywhere I went, I was pegged as an American and greeted with nods and smiles from passersby. It was oddly comforting in a place that had seemed so forbidding just 36 hours earlier.
When it was time to meet Greg, I realized I was hopelessly lost and hopped in a cab. I gave the driver a card with Greg’s office address, but the cabbie didn’t speak English or know how to get there and I didn’t speak Albanian. To my surprise, he didn’t exploit my predicament. Instead, he spent 10 minutes making calls to get directions—without turning on the meter. When he dropped me at my destination, he smiled, tipped his hat and said "Thank you." At that moment, it occurred to me that he wasn’t expressing his gratitude just for my choosing his taxi.
The cab driver’s simple act opened my eyes, which now saw Pristina through the prism of its people. I was no longer a tourist who just glanced at the region’s facades, but a traveler who had been allowed to delve into the culture and mindset of its people. This is a place where Americans are seen as the good guys, a place where U.S. altruism is appreciated. In the eyes of the Kosovars, I was part of that and I liked the association. Kosovo had mesmerized me, too.
Greg’s friend Ilir summed up the dynamic as he drove us to the airport to catch our flight to Slovenia: "If they hear your American accent, they won’t charge us to park," he said. When I asked why, he matter-of-factly told me that "It is out of respect for what the Americans did for us." I felt like dancing.
PRISTINA, Kosovo--Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once observed that "Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." But when I received an airline ticket to this war-ravaged region as a gift, the only dancing I could envision involved high stepping around land…Read More
PRISTINA, Kosovo--Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once observed that "Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." But when I received an airline ticket to this war-ravaged region as a gift, the only dancing I could envision involved high stepping around land mines, rubble and refugees.
Okay, the ticket would enable me to visit my son Greg, who lives and works in Pristina and whom I hadn’t seen for almost two years. Because mail and phone service between the U.S. and Kosovo ranges from erratic to non-existent, we had communicated almost exclusively through email, thanks to his employer’s microwave receiver.
I was eager to spend time with Greg, but I had a persistent, unpleasant mental image of Kosovo that involved a TV commercial showing Americans distributing macaroni-and-cheese dinners to refugees in snowbound tent cities. This was not my idea of a good time.
The population of Kosovo is predominantly Muslim Albanian. Thanks to the war, Pristina’s population doubled almost overnight from 250,000 to half a million when Albanians fleeing Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s "ethnic cleansing" settled there.
Before the trip, I looked for travel guides that could suggest sites worth visiting in this war-torn region that so intrigued my well-traveled son. All I could find was a history of the Balkan Wars, which documented battles and atrocities that had occurred in Kosovo over the last 800 years. I was going to be on my own in the search for Kosovo’s hidden allure.
Getting to Kosovo from Chicago isn’t easy—there are no direct flights, and I had to transfer in Zurich, which included a four-hour layover because there is just one connecting flight per day to Pristina. But I was a mom on a mission and airline schedules weren’t going to deter me.
Greg met me at the crowded, chaotic and inefficient airport, where I collected the half of my luggage that had made the trip on my flight (another story). My orientation to the Kosovar culture began with a wild drive around a city still struggling to recover from the 1998-99 war that tore it apart.
As we approached Pristina proper, I was alarmed at what seemed like my son’s erratic driving. His Land Rover was weaving and lurching, but so was every other car on the road. Greg explained that such diversionary tactics are necessary on Pristina roads, which have been transformed into obstacle courses by potholes, some big enough to hold a refrigerator.
Our odd traffic maneuvers put us in a "rush hour" snarl of civilian and KFOR (Kosovo Forces) military vehicles, many of which were making random U-turns, parking wherever they stopped, and playing chicken with people trying to cross the street. It was like a surreal version of bumper cars.
But this was no Disney World excursion, and the scenery was no back lot wonder that would melt into a picturesque village when the ride was over. Pristina is a real urban jungle of high-rise housing projects landscaped with litter and graffiti and surrounded by countless gas stations and shops selling pirated CDs and cheap merchandise, ranging from clothing to housewares.
Every single balcony of every single high-rise is "decorated" with laundry and two ugly white orbs. Greg explained that satellite is the only way residents can get TV reception and their only connection to the outside world.
What was it about this place that for two years mesmerized my son, a magna cum laude Notre Dame graduate with an MBA who has lived in the south of France and on the beaches of Costa Rica?
The mystery deepened when we reached Greg’s apartment. He rattled off a list of "tips" on how to work the hot water tank, what to do if the electricity went out, how to flush the toilet at night when the water is turned off and how to block out the plaintive wailing of hundreds of stray dogs that prowl Pristina looking for food after dark. This could be tolerable, but it sure wasn’t Provence.
We then headed out to meet some of Greg’s co-workers at their favorite restaurant, which was a 30-minute walk across town. The pedestrian viewpoint helped me begin to peel away the war-torn façade and glimpse a glimmer of the real Kosovo.
As we navigated the maze of side streets and alleys in the dark, I expressed some concern about safety. "Don’t worry," Greg said. "Crime is low here and besides, the Kosovars love Americans; they’re more likely to help you than hurt you."
I filed that away as we walked near a huge sports stadium, half of which is a burned out shell and the other half a school. We passed the United Nations compound, which once was one of Pristina’s most modern buildings and now is a self-contained "city" for UN employees.
Part 2 follows.