Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Not many people travel to Kosovo. The capital, Pristina, isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when people think of visiting the Balkans. But then again, neither is Sarajevo or Skopje. And certainly not Tirana. Given that my Balkans trip had covered so many unlikely capital cities already, I didn’t hesitate to add Pristina to the list. And so I traveled to Kosovo, the 78th country on my 90 under 30 Travel Project list.
My bus left Skopje at 9am. It took a surprisingly short 25 minutes to get to the border of Macedonia and Kosovo, where the driver accidentally left our passports with the Kosovo border authorities. After turning back to collect them, I recovered from my near heart attack at being bereft of my identity documentation and we continued on our way.
The remaining two hours took us through beautiful forested mountains, flat stretches of farmland, and more large construction plants and home improvement stores than I’ve ever seen. Like Skopje, Kosovo was building and rebuilding.
When I arrived in Kosovo, I met the only other English speaker on the bus. We set off to explore Pristina together for the afternoon. My map was terrible and my new friend’s map was non-existent, so we relied on the locals for directions. That meant meandering through a maze of communist-era apartment blocks and around several new buildings to get to a large street with no signs.
After visiting, we asked for more directions and headed up the busy road. Soon we found ourselves in another market. This one was on a wide pedestrianized street and featured everything from traditional clothing to regional foods. At the end there was an entire section dedicated to honey.
A bit further up the street, we came across a fence full of photos of people that had died in the violence in Kosovo in the late 1990′s. It was a haunting reminder of Pristina’s past, and one of the only signs we saw that day that made us feel like we were in anything but a city that had been at peace for centuries.
Another reminder was the EU vehicles cruising the streets. Bright blue and painted with the signature yellow stars, they could be seen driving up and down the busy roads as we walked by.
Speaking of walking, when we came to the end of the street we were on, we were once again lost. We stopped a passer-by to ask for directions, and ended up having a long conversation with him. He was French, and married to a woman from Kosovo. He had just returned to Pristina after a year’s absence, and he couldn’t get over the fact that we were just visiting the city for fun. Not many people travel to Kosovo for leisure.
The guy was helpful in telling us where we were (apparently we had just walked down Boulevard Nena Tereze, one of the city’s main streets). He suggested that we walk around the nearby historic area and have an espresso macchiato. According to him, even the Italians admit that Kosovo has the best coffee in the world.
We took his advice, and settled into an outdoor table near two historic mosques on Zenel Salihu. The coffee was as good as our unofficial guide had said it would be, and gave us energy to explore another huge fruit and vegetable market in the vicinity. In addition to produce, this market was full of everything from watches to washers and everything in between.
Back on Boulevard Nena Tereze, we took our guide’s advice again and tracked down a bohemian cafe called Tingle Tangle with the help of a mother-daughter team that we asked for directions. The cafe was located on a hidden back street behind the main pedestrian area, and was packed with the artsy crowd.
We took a table outside and ordered raki, a spirit that is a must-try in the region. The server said that he had just gotten a new kind of raki in stock, and brought a shot glass of it to the table. He didn’t know the English word for the fruit that flavored it, but I think it was peach. Either way, it was good.
After enjoying the drinks and atmosphere at Tingle Tangle, we headed down to a street called Bil Klinton. Yes, it was named after the former American president.
In fact, it wasn’t the only thing in Pristina that was named after an American institution. On the way to Bil Klinton, we passed Capitol Cafe, complete with a picture of the American capitol building in Washington, D.C. Elsewhere in Pristina we saw Hotel Victory, with its giant replica of the Statue of Liberty on top. It was nice to know that there was still a place in the world where people liked America.
In fact, they really liked America. Not far from the corner of Nena Tereze and Bil Klinton sat a giant statue of Bill Clinton. It was surreal.
After posing for photos with the former president, my new friend and I walked back to the bus station to catch the 3pm bus from Pristina to Skopje. While our time in Kosovo was short, I was really glad I decided to visit. Not many people travel to Kosovo, but more people should.