“What do you know about Kosovo?” I remember asking a few friends before I set off. The responses were almost universally just that of the conflict in 1999 when Kosovo dominated the media.
The Kosovo War was the first conflict I remember watching on the evening news, aged 10 when I secretly stayed up past bedtime with my grandfather. While its after-effects still linger and many problems are unresolved, I knew there was much more to Kosovo than that. If my time in Northern Sri Lanka and Bosnia were anything to go by, I also knew people who’d been through incredible hardship, who’d lost so much, were also some of the most warm and kind-hearted. So I found myself desperately wanting to visit.
Kosovo’s status as a country is still contentious and a sensitive topic. After its war with the rest of Serbia in 1999 and subsequent UN-rule, it self-declared independence in February 2008. About half the world recognises it as an independent nation, while Serbia officially views it as part of the country. I’m a terrible historian and know there are many sides to understand when you learn about a conflict – so I decided to quietly absorb what I saw and read, and would continue learning when I visit the rest of Serbia in the future.
What’s life in Kosovo like?
The vast majority of cities in Kosovo are very safe. I felt no danger while exploring. The NATO-led peacekeeping force from 1999, though still present, has greatly reduced in number. From dominating the Kosovar landscape with over 50,000 troops just after the war, numbers have dramatically dropped. Now just a few thousand today, it’s handing over responsibility to the Kosovo Police and Kosovo Security Force. The US continues to be present (either through the military or NGOs) and most Kosovars are grateful for the role they (particularly Bill Clinton) played in liberating Kosovo in 1999. It’s still a bit strange to see a military presence from all over the world, but life goes on. Underlying issues still simmer beneath the surface, though.
Cafe culture, like with its European neighbours, is an ever popular pastime in Kosovo. But my Airbnb host, Renis*, also revealed another reason why these cafes are so busy. “Unemployment in Kosovo is quite high. So instead of sitting at home and being miserable, most people order a coffee for €1 and chat for hours with their friends in the local cafe,” he told me one evening. Wherever you hear conversations, Albanian dominates. Hardly a surprise given the vast majority of people (over 90%) are ethnically Albanian and feel great kinship to Albania. It’s also easy to forget the muslim heritage of most Kosovars until you pass a mosque or hear the muezzin’s call to prayer – most people practise a very moderate form of Islam. “Many people eat pork and drink alcohol; women don’t cover their heads. That’s just the way things are here,” Renis explained.
I’ve often read that over time, you forget what you see in places. You just remember how a place makes you feel. Similar to Bosnia, I think Kosovo’s cities are not the most urgently photogenic places in the world. But its the spirit and the warmth of its people that really left an impression on me.
Pristina: Kosovo’s Capital
I didn’t expect a plethora of attractions in Kosovo’s capital. It’s not exactly a hotspot where tourists of the world unite. What I didn’t anticipate was how lively it would be. My memories of the city always included people outdoors. Whether it was friends chatting rubbish at a cafe, teenage lovebirds flirting over ice cream, grandparents leafing through old books, or families with young children excitedly shouting in Germia Park, there was never a dull moment. In fact being out and about is so popular, there’s an Albanian word for it. Xhiro describes a nightly stroll through the main pedestrian area, with pitstops to catch up with people you know.
The other aspect that struck me was the unlikely combination of things that co-existed together. It’s where the mismatched architecture includes a Brutalist library with a metal exoskeleton, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque with its sandstone walls and a cathedral with its bell tower rising high above the city. Where international troops and old Albanian men walk side-by-side on Bulevardi Nënë Tereza. And where grandparents have lengthy chats with the neighbourhood baker in the Old Town’s narrow streets while a bunch of playstation geeks set up for a FIFA tournament. It’s also where you could be surrounded by memories of a Yugoslav past in the dilapidated cathedral-shaped Palace of Youth and Sports, or the forested hillsides of Germia Park. Or where a group of twenty-something year olds sit discussing a project in a repurposed power station. It was this unexpected mélange that gave Pristina such a unique air.
The ugliest building in the world?
As I passed a volleyball match in progress, the National Library of Kosovo entered my line of sight. It’s hard to feel nothing as you look at this building for the first time. While its Brutalist style may not be as eye-catching as some Gothic or Roman libraries, it definitely stands out. Some have bluntly criticised it as one of the ugliest buildings in the world. Designed by Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković and opened in 1982, the building has drawn heated debate on the interpretation of its shape and form.
With marble floors and 99 translucent domes, there is a reference to Byzantine and Ottoman buildings of a bygone era. That contrasts rather sharply with its metal exoskeleton. Covering the whole structure, it could be seen as a fishnet or a veil referencing the predominant religions in the area. Or as some people see it, more a giant prison holding its readers in captivity. Perhaps not the most endearing quality for a library…
A bird’s eye view
“It is a celebration of Mother Teresa’s love, a lesson for all of us that love always triumphs – that the one who is transgressed and who suffers will find light and peace,” said Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci on the new catholic Cathedral that’s dedicated to Albanian-Indian Mother Teresa. As the lift doors opened on the highest floor, I walked past the graffiti-covered pillars towards the railing. Keeping with my tradition of going to a vantage point in each city I visited, the Cathedral’s Bell Tower (€1 entrance fee) was an ideal place to absorb Kosovo from above. With 360° views, it’s easy to see the incongruous mixture of architectural elements that Pristina is.
Termokiss: From a disused power plant to python coding
I was on my way into the city, when I passed what looked like an abandoned power plant. But my peripheral vision detected some activity and people inside. I stopped and took a proper look. There was no sound or steam coming out from the tower. A giant turquoise sign stood above the entrance with the letters ‘Termokiss’ emblazoned on it. Colourful posters decorated the glass entrance. It certainly didn’t seem like a power plant.
I went inside. Nobody asked who I was, or shot any quizzical glances my way. Instead they kept either reading, playing table tennis or continued in deep discussion. A few moments later, a kind face appeared. “Can I help you with anything? Do you want a coffee?” she asked.
That kind face was Eljesa, who works full-time at Termokiss – a community-run centre that has been gathering people from all over Kosovo. An old building that was once part of a thermal plant that fell into disuse, it has been revived under a different guise and functioning since 2016. “It all started with two Swiss/Belgian NGOs revitalising disused buildings for community purposes, to help promote the philosophy of public spaces after the war. It’s now run by local Kosovar volunteers, with a few people working full time,” Eljesa explained. “It’s a place where people come to express themselves and share ideas.”
Eljesa, happy to answer my thousand-and-one questions, continued. “We run all sorts of projects and classes here – from Python coding to yoga, music gigs and salsa dancing to community clean ups. It’s also a shared working space – we’ve got coffee and wi-fi. And it’s free!” In the context where lots of young people were unemployed and struggling to find opportunities a few years ago, Termokiss has not only given its volunteers a newfound energy from helping their community grow, but has also given Eljesa (among others) a purpose; a reason to remain in Kosovo.
Nom, nom, gulp, gulp
- Liburnia: Keen to sample Kosovar-Albanian cuisine, I found myself seated in Liburnia where a surprising number of plants hung in various places, Albanian folk music played in the background and old-school Albanian motifs surrounded me on the well-worn tablecloths. The grilled chicken generously coated with cheese and butter accompanied with home-baked bread was a treat. Word of warning: you may need a coffee to wake you up after eating the heavy Albanian mountain fare.
- Pishat Restaurant: Another place to visit if you want traditional Kosovar-Albanian food – you can’t go wrong with any of their homemade breads or grilled dishes. The sun-filled terraces are an added bonus in summer.
- Baba Ghanoush: For a taste of the Middle East or if you want to escape the heavy meaty dishes that seem to dominate most menus, family-run and vegetarian Baba Ghanoush might just be what you’re looking for. Sat on a table outside the restaurant, which is tucked away on a side street, I devoured the falafel plate I ordered.
- Soma Book Station: Combine edgy hipster chic (think red brick industrial walls, bookshelves) with a leafy garden and a trendy bar, and you’ve got Soma Book Station. I went in the early evening in search of a latte while reading my latest Mary Higgins Clark, and finally found an empty seat between three ladies catching up on the latest juicy tidbits and a couple on a date. I was the only one drinking coffee among a sea of people nursing some kind of alcoholic beverage, and the only one reading a book. Must have missed a memo…
- Dit e Nat: Continuing the hipster chic bookshop-cafe-bar concept, it’s perfect for a spot of breakfast. This time I didn’t feel out of place with a coffee and my book (although I did visit at 10AM)
Mitrovica/Mitrovicë: The Divided City
Jerusalem. Nicosia. Mitrovica (Mitrovicë). What do they have in common? In one way or another, they’re divided cities. Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, close to the border with the rest of Serbia, was the first divided city I visited. The city is separated into a southern (Albanian) and northern (Serbian) part by the Ibar river that runs through it. To be honest, I was a bit anxious. The bus from Pristina wasn’t exactly brimming with backpackers or fanny-pack-toting tourists clutching their worn copies of the Lonely Planet. Trawling through online fora the previous night, I read about ongoing simmering tensions between the two sides that erupted at intervals. It also said some people reacting quite unfavourably to visitors roaming around. Not exactly the most reassuring of things to have read the night before I set off.
Looking back however, I can confidently say I felt safe the entire time I was there. As I walked through the Albanian side of Mitrovica where cafe-lined streets were flooded with people sipping espressos, puffing cigarettes or catching up on the latest gossip, I remember asking myself, “Everyone seems fine – is there actually tension and anger that sits beneath this seemingly calm exterior?”
Several decades ago, Albanians and Serbs worked side by side in this former Yugoslav city dominated by mining and metallurgy. After the Kosovo War of 1998-99, the town’s fabric dissociated. Serb and Albanian communities became segregated, living in different municipalities on either side of the river. The main bridge separating the two sides I’m told, is a barometer of relations between the two communities that live in the same city but largely ignore each other. When tensions are low, the bridge is open and (a sprinkling of) people cross the bridge each day. When tensions rise and violent clashes ensue, international troops close the bridge.
The Albanian Side
On the Albanian side, I sat down on a bench outside the Bajram Pasha mosque. Coincidentally, it was just after Friday prayers had finished. I loved the fact that there was such a strong sense of community. People from children to grandpas stayed on afterwards to jabber and spend time with their friends and family. Suddenly feeling hungry, I found the closest eatery – the Museum Pub – and sat outside. Slightly in disbelief that the chicken risotto cost €2.80, I ordered and inhaled my food within minutes of its arrival.
When I spoke to the friendly owner Ardan after I finished eating, I never expected to discover that this restaurant had a hidden secret: a 160-year-old Albanian hammam nestled deep inside. Seeing my eyes light up as he told me about it, Ardan led the way for me to explore. What could have been the door to a store room near the bar, was in fact a portal. One that opened into an old Turkish-style hammam that sat in disrepair from over a century ago.
As I walked along the river bank, graffiti was a visible reminder of the anger and hate on both sides. Given the war is still so raw in many minds, mixing and mingling between the Serb and Albanian communities across the river was virtually non-existent. It’s almost like walking from one world to another as you tentatively cross the bridge guarded by international forces (the Italian Carabinieri were present when I visited).
The Serbian Side
As soon as you cross over everything changes: alphabet, currency, license plates, religion, places of worship. Even people seem different. On the northern side, Serbian flags adorn the streets, people speak Serbian, and everyone uses the Serbian dinar. Hundred metres away on the southern side, Albanian flags flutter in the wind, people speak Albanian and use the euro. The only bizarre element is that you’ve not crossed any borders at all. While I can relate to the situation having grown up in the midst of a civil war in Sri Lanka, as an outsider I know I can never fully understand the pain people have experienced here. Perhaps it is a futile question, but one I keep circling back to: When there is so much that ties us together, why do we try so hard to find what makes us different?
I was still trying to absorb how the completely different world north of the bridge was in the same city. The kind people running a neighbourhood cafe on the Serbian side confirmed this indeed was true, no I hadn’t got my wires crossed. It did seem surreal that my bill was in Serbian dinars, and not in euros as was the case at lunch. Despite getting closer to the departure time of the last Pristina bus, I hotfooted it to the Serbian Orthodox Church. I knew it was going to be a stressful sprint back to the bus station, but the panoramic views from the church and its rich interior with brightly-coloured frescoes were worth it.
#TransportInfo: Pristina to Mitrovica
With buses from the main Kosovo Bus Station (€1.50) running about 3 times an hour and a journey time of 60 min, it’s easy to do a day trip to Mitrovica. Just be sure to leave Mitrovica around 6.30-7pm to make sure you don’t miss the last bus back (at 7.30pm). To get to Kosovo Bus Station, I took Bus 7 to Marsi (Kalabria) and got off at stop Ekonomiku.
Peja/Peć: Gateway to the Rugova Canyon
I had just arrived in Peja (Peć in Serbian) in Western Kosovo and stumbled into dancing and celebrations as a statue of a war hero was being unveiled. Armando, my Airbnb host, and I also joined the celebrations though I never mastered the dance. Despite not knowing the language or the steps, the beauty of music is that everyone could join in the fun.
Apart from the old Turkish-style bazaar crammed with trinkets and a desolate train station that could have been the movie set for the end of an apocalypse, there’s not much else going on in this town. The real beauty starts once you’ve left Peja and enter the 25km Rugova Canyon. If you’re ever in need of a moment for reflection, make a pitstop at the Patriarchate of Peć. This medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery, which was once the residence and mausoleum of Serbian archbishops, is now guarded by police forces (there have been unfortunate incidents in the past where extremists have tried to vandalise the churches). Adorned with richly coloured frescoes, this crimson church complex set against a backdrop of the Rugova Canyon and the babbling Bistrica River, is the perfect place to clear your head.
Hiking in the Rugova Valley
“People come from all over the world to Peja to go hiking in the beautiful mountains,” Armando told me. “A hiker’s paradise?” I remember thinking. Would hardly have expected that in Kosovo. But Armando wasn’t exaggerating.
As I set out on the 25km road that winds through the Rugova Canyon until it reaches the Montegrin border, I realised what Armando meant. The towering granite cliffs that emerge into view as you turn around a corner make you feel like an ant that can be squashed at any moment. The almost vertical rock faces rise steeply from the ground on either side of the river. The sun glistens on one side of the gorge, while dark shadows remain on the other. All that was missing was a T-Rex and Velociraptor storming out from the forested hillsides and I might as well have been in Jurassic Park.
While you can easily veer off onto numerous hiking trails through pine forests into mountain pastures and glacial lakes, the Jurassic Park theme was a little too wild in my imagination forcing me to stay close to the main road. Since I was alone (hadn’t come across a single other hiker) and because there were no mountain rescue services in Kosovo, I quelled my urge for adventure. The unforgiving drops (as deep as 1000m) with vibrant greens surrounding the waterfalls made for impressive views every step of the way. I was only grateful there wasn’t a sea of fog and thunderclouds – that would have created a whole different atmosphere.
Realising my target of hiking all the way to the village of Kuqishte by the Montegrin border – a journey that would have taken me 6hrs one-way with no stops – was a bit ambitious, I settled on slowing down and leisurely walking through the deliciously unspoiled canyon. Shortly after I turned around to head back towards Peja town, two elderly gentleman in a car stopped to enquire if they could offer me a lift. While we struggled to speak the same language, there’s something universal about human warmth that transcends all language barriers. I cracked open my packet of Hobnobs and tried to explain how delicious these biscuits were, they should have some. I smiled as they chuckled in Albanian, and at the thought of more people appreciating my favourite chocolate biscuits. Moments that I could have never planned for, but ones I would always remember.
There are direct buses to Peja from Pristina Bus Station. Taking roughly 2 hours, there are about 3 departures daily (when I visited departures were at 10:40, 11:20, 12:00) and tickets cost €4 one-way.