A trip through Europe’s newest country
Welcome to Kosovo
There was no exit control for Albania so we went straight into the queue of traffic waiting to cross the frontier into Kosovo. I asked Ramiz about the traffic crossing the border and he told me that it was mostly Kosovars returning home from visiting Albania, especially the beach, and added that very few Albanians visited Kosovo. I looked around and saw that almost every other car around us had Albanian plates, so I wondered if he had that quite right.
The border guard chatted amiably with Ramiz and then, after stamping our passports, made quite an effort to lean forward from his desk to welcome us to Kosovo and wish us a pleasant stay. It was an encouraging start.
We were now entering what was, until 2008, part of Serbia and for most of the 20th Century had been part of Yugoslavia in some form or other. Just over 50% of UN member countries now recognise Kosovo, but some, notably Serbia and Russia, still totally refuse to accept that it is a sovereign state.
Ramiz lightened the mood by explaining that we had left the eagles behind and we had now passed into the land of the blackbird. At least that is what the word Kosovo meant in Serbian.
Almost as soon as we were across the border we exited the motorway and started to drive down into Prizren. As we entered the city, my first impression was that it looked a bit poorer than the Albania we had just left.
If you take the GDP figures (IMF 2018) – Albania with 2.8 million people equates to $5,289 per head whilst Kosovo with 1.8 million is $4,403. The third country on our trip: North Macedonia, has 2.1 million with a per capita income of $6,100.
Without too much trouble Ramiz found our little hotel down a back street not far from the centre of town. We said goodbye to him and, as he set off back towards Tirana, we thanked him with the only Albanian word we could say: “Faleminderit”
Prizren is known as the cultural capital of Kosovo. It is beautifully located: it is nestled in a valley, overlooked by the ruins of a hilltop citadel and has a river (Bistrica) flowing under a series of picturesque bridges right through its centre.
We started exploring at the cobbled Schardervan Square and after admiring the beautiful Sinan Pasha Mosque, crossed a little humpbacked stone bridge to the other side. We then wandered around streets at random; passing various mosques, minarets, beautiful old Ottoman houses and a fair amount of Byzantine architecture.
At first, we were surprised to see that, in addition to the blue and yellow Kosovo flag, there were quite a few Albanian flags around the place; a reminder perhaps that although we had changed countries the majority of the people, 97% in fact, were still ethnically Albanian.
We emerged from the maze of streets at the Prizren League Museum. We paid 2 Euro (Kosovo uses the European common currency) and then toured buildings that told the story of the ethnic Albanian struggle. We learnt that Prizren was where the Albanian national awakening began; the League of Prizren, a political organization for defending the rights of the Albanians, was founded here in 1878.
There was a large map on a wall from the same period and it showed where all the ethnic Albanians lived at that time. It was a plan, perhaps, for a state that never was. Towards the end we learned that the buildings we were visiting were actually replicas. Serb forces had destroyed the 19th century originals in the 1990s.
Later, as we wandered up to the castle for a view of the town below, we saw a little bit of the other side of the conflict: an abandoned Orthodox church and several ruined Serbian houses.
We dined on cevapi (the wonderful little beef sausages we had many times before in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia) in a riverside restaurant called Saya. We drank local Peja beer with our meal and we noticed that, as in Albania, most of the local Muslim population seemed to be relaxed about drinking alcohol.
We wandered along the river and then back again through cobbled streets. There seemed to be a total lack of any national chain restaurants or shops here. Instead, there were lots of places selling nuts and fruit and plenty of little Turkish cafes. We stopped at one for some delicious coffee and honey-drenched desserts.
Before bed we chatted with the hotel owner over drinks in his courtyard. He told us about the large yellow diesel generator next to hotel entrance. He confirmed that despite recent improvements the electricity supply in the town was still quite erratic. The generator had been expensive but it was necessary.
Bus to Pristina
The next morning, the owner volunteered to run us the short distance over to the bus station. As we darted through the narrow streets in his small Volkswagen, he told us that he had only opened the hotel a few months ago. He explained why he thought that now was a particularly good time to start up; business was booming through growing tourists, particularly Turks, and Kosovars who lived abroad were rich and returning to see friends; proximity to the nearby ski resort of Brezovica also meant there was a year-round market.
The little bus station was bustling with life. It offered services to a variety of destinations not only within Kosovo and the Balkans but also to Istanbul and northwest Europe as well.
There was a special bay marked out for Pristina and an empty bus was standing there with the driver sitting at the wheel. He motioned that I should throw the suitcases under the bus myself and smiled as we took our seats behind him. It took about 25 minutes for the bus to fill up with passengers. Most of them, on this early morning weekday trip, were women.
We set off and gently edged our way through Prizren’s narrow streets. The conductor, who had jumped on at the last minute, took our fares. He charged us just a couple of Euros each for the almost 2 hour journey to the capital.
We passed a large NATO monument on the outskirts of the city and then headed out on a long road with warehouses, factories and little retail outlets on either side. We continued on for over an hour passing through little towns and villages. There were Albanian and Kosovo flags everywhere.
There was a TV at the front of the bus above the driver and music videos were being streamed on it constantly. They all seemed to be Turkish and we were treated to lots of swirling dresses, women standing next to swimming pools and muscular men in tuxedos.
After almost two hours we finally headed into Pristina. The bus stopped first at a large shopping centre on the outskirts of the city and then, after almost everyone had got off there, carried on for another five minutes into Pristina bus station. A short taxi ride later, we were in the centre of the town.
The first thing we came across in the city was the 10-foot high 80 foot-long monument that spelt out the words “New Born”. It was unveiled on the day that Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. It is displayed in an ever changing series of different colour schemes. People flock to it in order to have their photograph taken in front of it.
The thing itself is unremarkable but it is the symbolism that matters. Much more than we had in Prizren, we felt the energy of the new country in Pristina. The country itself felt young but the population looked young too; Kosovo has the highest proportion of young people of any European country. There was definitely a “newborn” vibe in Pristina. Although, as we found out later chatting to a man in a bar, youth unemployment is scandalously high here too.
Young or old, the residents of the city were extremely friendly. With hardly any exceptions, everyone smiled at us or gave us the thumbs-up gesture. Rarely have I felt so welcomed in a new city.
The main boulevard in Pristina is named for Mother Teresa, apparently she once lived nearby, and there is a statue of her halfway along. The street is pedestrianised throughout and lined with cafes, restaurants, hotels, and shops. There is another statue of Skanderbeg at one end of it.
Continuing to explore, we passed by the Sultan Mehmet Faith Mosque (1461) and the 18th century clock tower before coming to the “green market”.
There used to be a proper bazaar in the city but it disappeared during the communist era after world war two. Today the little market plays a similar role. There are stalls covered with flimsy tarpaulins and more in the open air outside.
We walked around looking at all the spices, vegetables, ajar, pickles, clothes, toys and tools. We noticed that some of the older men were wearing the traditional plis hats.
There was a little café in the market and we popped in for a Turkish coffee. One of the customers was wearing an England football shirt and we started a conversation about the match between England and Kosovo that was due to take place the following day in the UK. (the final result was 5-3)
It turned emotional at one stage and two of the other customers joined in and started to talk to us about the Kosovo war. The first guy ended up kissing the 3 lions on the shirt as a sign of gratitude for the UK’s help in the campaign and pointed to a calendar and pictures on the wall explaining some of the heroes of the war to us.
As we walked around the town later we noticed there were a lot of statues dedicated to the heroes of the war. It was quite sobering to note that almost all of them had been born after me but had already been dead now for almost twenty years.
There were a lot of other commemorations for the war dotted around the town too, including a memorial to NATO and a memorial to the missing.
Close to the southern end of Mother Teresa Boulevard there was yet another sad reminder of the war: the Church of Christ the Saviour. This Serbian Orthodox church was started before the conflict but because of the war it was never finished. It now stood alone and abandoned, ignored by passersby. Many locals want it torn down.
Close by was the National Library of Kosovo. The building had a boxy style. It is thought by some to symbolise repression. It certainly looked as if the building was being kept prisoner by barbed wire.
Across the road was the impressive Cathedral of Mother Theresa. It was still under construction but was obviously nearing completion. Only 2% of the population is Catholic but, in contrast to its Orthodox equivalent, here was a very cared-for and loved building. We wandered in for a look around and were interested to see the beautiful carved eagles (symbol of Albania) on the new benches.
Bill and Hilary
The cathedral stood at the junction of Bill Clinton Boulevard. A short walk away was a large statue of the former US president himself. Bill is revered by Kosovars for his role in ending the Kosovo war and the creation of the small nation. Just to the left of the statue was a women’s clothes shop which was appropriately named “Hilary”.
Immediately behind Bill’s statue was an ugly array of communist style buildings dating from the 1970s and 80s which were at the time a model housing scheme but today look pretty depressing. They might have found a better place to put him I thought.
Dinner at Tiffanies
In the evening we walked along Fehmi Agani Street. The area was filled with bustling modern bars. Service standards in Pristinia seemed very high. Apparently this is down to the clientele being a mixture of UN and other visiting officials and also due to the experience of returning Kosovars; many of whom have worked in cities like Berlin and London.
We had a beer, a lovely local IPA, at the Beer Garden pub and then we went to a restaurant favoured by locals and visitors alike: Tiffany. The place, which famously doesn’t have a menu, serves village tavern-style cuisine.
The waiter appeared and explained that there was no menu. He then made a single suggestion of what he thought we would like to eat and we just smiled and nodded. We then enjoyed a succession of wonderful salads, bread and ajar (pepper paste) followed by stuffed vine leaves and amazing savoury pies. It was all absolutely delicious. Who needs a menu !
We finished off our evening by eating ice cream and engaged in a bit of people watching back on Mother Theresa Boulevard.
Hope Box Train
By 6:30am the next morning we were standing outside Pristina Station. Close by we found a bakery that had just opened and was doing brisk business with early commuters. We bought a little collection of warm rolls filled with mini-frankfurters and bureks bursting with cheese.
The station itself was an old building covered in graffiti. Our service was due out at 7:10am, but even at 6:50am there was little sign of life and the front door was still locked.
Eventually we managed to walk through a gap in the fence and around onto the platform side of the building. There we found the stationmaster reading in his office. He seemed very surprised to see us, but he smiled and, after he had returned from unlocking the front door, he sold us two tickets to Skopje for a total of 8 Euros.
He didn’t speak much English but he told us that, despite what it said on the schedule on the wall, our 07:10am service, which the timetable suggested was due to arrive at Skopje at 9:52am, had now been truncated and no longer ran all the way. We would, he explained, have to change trains at the border station of Han I Elezit.
Just before 7:00am, and after we had been joined by a few more passengers, a single car diesel train trundled into the platform. It was covered in graffiti and labelled in spray paint: “The Hope Box Train”. It disgorged a fair amount of passengers before the crew of three started preparations to change ends and head back in the direction from which they had come.
We climbed on. Inside it stank of diesel fuel but the seats were relatively comfortable. Four of our five fellow passengers were locals who seemed to know each other; the fifth was a young blonde lad with a giant rucksack who I guessed might just be going to Skopje too.
We left on time at 7:10am.
Train for Life
Pristina is actually located on a branch line and is only served by 3 or 4 trains a day. After less than 20 minutes run, and still in the outskirts of the city, we joined the main North-South line and made a stop at the much larger station of Kosovo Polje.
It was here that the famous UK charity “Train for Life” arrived in 1999. The train was organised by managers in the British rail industry and made the journey all the way from the Britain hauled by 3 elderly class 20 freight locomotives. It brought much needed aid to the local residents at the end of the conflict.
Many more people got on our train at Kosovo Polje and for the next hour or so the service was quite busy as it stopped at little stations dropping people off and picking more passengers up. There may only have been one or two trains a day but the service certainly seemed well used by people to get to work.
By Kacanik, the last station before the border, most people had left the train. As we headed off towards North Macedonia the scenery became much more interesting. There were plenty of trestle bridges and tunnels as the railway threaded a river valley.
Sadly, a new motorway has now been directed through the same valley and the view, although still picturesque, was punctured by the concrete foundations of the flyovers and road bridges.
We were now, save for the lad with the rucksack and a man at the rear of the carriage, who by the look of his luggage was planning a fishing expedition, alone on the train.
The train stopped at Han I Elezit and we alighted. The “fisherman” disappeared out of the exit leaving the backpacker and us looking around for our connecting train. A railway official intercepted us and said “no train, no bus”. He told us the problem, which happened everyday, was caused by the Macedonian authorities; it seems that they cannot be bothered sending a train over the border into Kosovo for just a few passengers.
There were taxis outside the station. We teamed up with the backpacker, who we now learnt was a young German from Leipzig, and climbed into an old Skoda driven by a man who looked remarkably like Ben Kingsley. As we left the station, the German was in the front and we were in the back.
The border installation for the exit from Kosovo came almost immediately. We gave all the passports to the driver but the man at the desk just smiled at all of us and waved us through without even wanting to see our nationalities. Kosovo had impressed me with its friendliness to the last.
The North Macedonian frontier now lay directly ahead of us.
As we were travelling through the short stretch of no-man’s land, our driver spotted a young girl walking on her own on the side of the road. He stopped the car, wound down the window and beckoned her over.
Then she opened the back door and climbed in beside us.