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Published: November 16th 2008
In retrospect, I guess it's a good thing that I still haven't learned how to say "no." When Matt asked me to join him for a visa run to the Balkans, my one condition was that we go as far as Kosovo. The time-spent-on-buses to overall-duration-of-trip ratio was ridiculously high - read: 4 nights on buses, 2 nights in actual beds, and no less than six border crossings. Although it was grueling, it turned out to be well worth the effort. The Balkans are a multi-course meal of languages, a buffet of cultures, and a glass of beer full of, well, full of beer. Surprises remain abundant in this quirky corner of the world.
The bus we left İstanbul on progressively emptied as we moved west. Each of us on the bus, who hadn't purchased our own cigarettes at duty free, at the Bulgarian border, was asked by the stewardess to smuggle a carton for her in our bags. Sure, why not.
At this border Matt got his first scolding of the trip for having a stinky passport (his ex-girlfriend poured perfume all over it). I had to jump onto our moving bus as it tried to pull away
This was really all I the sight-seeing that I cared about doing in Priştina. That's probably a good thing as there didn't really seem to be much else there. The "Paris of Southeastern Europe" Priştina is not.
without me. And there were some funky dogs about.
By the time we arrived in dreary Skopje early in the morning, Matt and I were apparently the only ones left heading all the way to Prizren. We were then moved to a minibus, with a driver and a co-pilot. The four of us crossed into Kosovo with no hassles and stopped shortly after for breakfast. Our penta-lingual co-pilot conversed with us in Turkish and graciously refused to let us pay for our bowls of chicken soup. It was a warm welcome to Kosovo on a gray and rainy day.
We passed through Appalachian-looking hills painted an autumn rainbow of colors for another hour or so until we reached Prizren. We walked about ten minutes or so until we reached the pedestrian-friendly, cobblestoned center of Prizren, Şadervan Square. We paused for an espresso, parting with 50 Euro cents each.
We checked into a simple hotel, with a staircase designed from an Escher painting. Rain or no rain, it was time for our exploring to begin. We set out on foot, aiming ourselves at the Kaljaja Fortress on the top of the hill, overlooking the town. On
the way up, we noticed a few American flags hanging along with Albanian flags from people's houses. The city was the home of a notable Kosovar Albanian movement, the League of Prizren.
We passed the ruins of the KFOR-guarded St. George Cathedral on the way up. Sadly, it was attacked and burned in the March riots of 2004. A large area of destroyed (presumably formerly Christian houses) is also fenced off across from the church. A friendly soldier in a KFOR jeep in front of the cathedral told us that we were free to pass through and follow the path on up to the fortress.
The rain was steady as we reached the fortress. The views were more impressive than the ruins themselves, which barely define where walls once were. Prizren stretched out before us in a rainy blur, with hills fading behind us. Prizren, for good reason, looks similar to old Ottoman towns in Turkey.
Behind the fortress we found a well-manicured path through the forest, leading off away from town. Along the way we came across some enormous lizards, and a lot of rain. The road curved down the hill after a while and led
from the castle ruins at the rainy top of the hill
back to town.
We lunched in a restaurant that had a modest duck pond in the middle of it. Like nearly everyone we had come across so far in Prizren, our waiter spoke fluent Turkish and was ethnically Turkish (I heard that 75% of the Prizren population is Turkish, but I'm not positive about that figure). His shift nearly over, he offered to show us more of the city after we finished eating. By this time the sun had come out and the rain had stopped.
Erkan (not his real name - we couldn't agree on what he told us it was...) took us around town for a few hours. We stopped first at the 1573 Gazi Mehmet Paşa Hamam, which is partially under renovation and partially a political art gallery. It's a handsome old building and the gallery was worth a good fifteen minutes or so.
Then we wound our way through some streets, passing a closed Orthodox Church that still radiated some of its former glory. Eventually we reached the center of what (hundreds of years ago) was a massive mosque. The city has been home to a wealth of Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic sacred
buildings over the years, many of which have survived.
As the evening grew late, we grew thirsty, and eager for some lively Balkan music. Our first stop was a bar with a charmingly-weathered interior. Phil Collins was in heavy rotation and it got worse from there. We finished our beers and left. After a fair bit of wandering we found another little bar, again without any Balkan music in the background. One of the bartenders was friendly enough, and curious as to what two Turkish-speaking Yankees were doing in his place on a Wednesday evening. That's a fair question. A football match was on the big screen though, so he was too busy pouring beers to make much conversation. We set out again but were unable to find anything better. After a lot of walking around, we found ourselves back in the Phil Collins bar for a final beer before calling it an early night.
We were out of bed admirably early the next morning. We followed the unimpressive breakfast that our hotel provided with another excellent espresso in Şadervan Square. Our final Prizren activity was drinking from the fountain in the square. According to legend, once you
In case there was any confusion about the shape of the country's borders...
drink this water it is very hard to ever leave Prizren. We both agreed that the town was a superb destination, even if its music scene is a far cry from Sarajevo's. Still, we managed to get ourselves on a bus heading out of town fifteen minutes later.
We passed through some more pretty countryside on the short ride to Priştina. Priştina is to capital cities what the plastic spork is to cutlery, what the clip-on-tie is to fashion, what the TV dinner is to fine dining, and what Home Alone 3 probably was to cinematography. The bus dropped us off on the very edge of what might be considered the city center - it was almost as if the driver couldn't wait to turn around and leave. A street sign informed us that we were on the corner of Mother Theresa Avenue, so I guess it wasn't an awful start. The sun was coming out and a mediocre Statue of Liberty reproduction topped a nearby building.
With a deep breath, we guessed which way to go and started walking. We stopped at a bus stop and asked a young woman for directions. Turkish and English both proved
friendly church - didn't catch the name
A very smiley round little nun came out of the convent next door and enthusiastically let us in to the church. She had lots of great things to say to us, though all of it was in Italian, a language that we don't know. She seemed to believe that we should.
to be completely useless. We might as well have been speaking Burmese and the responses we got could not have been more meaningless to us.
We continued on and stopped in a bookstore, hoping we could at least find a map of the city. No luck with the map, but a woman behind the counter with adorably limited, but enthusiastic English was eager to help us. I asked her where the "NEWBORN" sign was, as it was really the only thing I was sure would be worth seeing in the city. Her eyes lit up, as she knew she could explain this to us. I'm sure it was much funnier in real life than I'll be able to explain here:
"Go right... left... right, right, right..."
(her gestures indicated that this meant "left, right, continue on going straight..." We politely suppressed our laughter until we got outside, trying to be encouraging)
"Priştina Grand Hotel... right... right, right, right... left..."
("Priştina Grand Hotel, left... go straight... right...")
"You spelled 'NEWBORN' wrong" said Matt as we laughed our way down the street. He was right...
right, right, right...
It has a "W" in it. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!
only got lost for ten minutes or so. During this time, we pondered the possibility of Priştina also having a "NEBORN" sign, and of her giving us directions to that instead. Though, with a little backtracking, and some more guessing, we found our way to the real thing. If you read the newspaper on February 18th of this year, the day after independence was declared, you probably saw images of an enormous crowd celebrating around this sign, climbing all over it, covering it with messages, and waving Albanian flags near it. It was a bit more subdued by the time we got there, but still proudly on display. We photographed it, signed it, and sat down at an outdoor restaurant very close to it.
The best pizza I will eat this year was placed in front of me, along with a cold beer. The sun was shining down and it was turning out to be, well, about as fine of an afternoon as we probably could have hoped for in Priştina. Still, we had our fill of the city after three hours, and hopped a cab to the bus station. If I remember correctly, our cab driver spoke a
little bit of Turkish. If not, he nevertheless communicated that he was pleased that we were Americans and he wanted us to know that we should feel very welcomed in his country. We did. Right before we arrived at the bus station, we turned down Bill Clinton Boulevard and saw a massive image of our former president smiling down from the side of a tall building.
We bought our tickets to Skopje after a minimal amount of confusion and sat down to reflect on our experiences. Some moments in Kosovo reminded me of my other experiences in the Balkans four years ago, but at the same time it's definitely got its own thing going on.
There is certainly evidence of war to be seen: buildings that have been blown apart, ubiquitous KFOR vehicles (some of them de-mining trucks), and graffiti that I couldn't understand, but which appeared to be laden with emphatic political messages. Unlike in Sarajevo, I did not see bullet holes all over the place in the sides of buildings, though Prizren and Priştina did not suffer the same type of terrible siege for years and years. I'm sure that Mitrovica and other places in the
north, closer to Serbia, are probably far more scarred with visual reminders of recent violence.
The music scene was a huge disappointment compared to Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Sofya, though I'm sure this was more due to our luck than to a true absence of quality music in Kosovo. The pizza wasn't quite as good as what I found in Sarajevo either (the finest on earth, as far as I can tell).
Like in Sarajevo, I sensed a jubilant spirit in the air. People seem to be (understandably) joyful that the wars are over, even if the recovery process continues. Kosovo is also obviously giddy about its long overdue independence. Its brand new blue flag, with six white stars and a yellow image of its geographical shape (firmly emphasizing those borders), is starting to appear here and there.
A day-and-a-half is far too short a visit to create much more than first impressions. Thankfully, they didn’t come close to resembling the impressions that the past twenty years of news coverage have shaped in my mind.
Kosovo seems to me to be a land with a beautiful countryside, but with a less-than beautiful capital city. Though the weather
the insides of what used to be a massive mosque
A man who apparently stopped going to the dentist long before Tito died gave us an impromptu tour of this site in Turkish. The absence of teeth does not help my understanding of the language. Still, he was as jovial as the nun we met earlier and it's the thought that counts.
was not as warm as I would’ve preferred, the welcome certainly was. Prizren has the type of pedestrian-friendly layout and eye-catching setting that backpackers usually flock to, though it might be a while before youth hostels, internet cafes, and kitsch-filled shops take over the center of town. Although tourist income would probably be a big help to the world’s newest country, it was great to visit it before that happens. Perhaps that is rather selfish of me, but I love having a place all to myself, without a single tout to be found.
I wish Kosovo the best of luck for a peaceful and prosperous future. Hopefully I will be able to return again someday.
So, we set off for Skopje, Macedonia’s capital and the birthplace of Mother Theresa.
At the border there was a bit of confusion as the ink of our entry stamps was so light that it took a long time for anyone to find the stamps. Our bus driver translated from Turkish to (what I assume was) Albanian as we tried to convince the androgynous border official that we hadn’t actually snuck into Kosovo illegally. One after another, everyone working there paged through
our passports until somebody finally discovered the elusive stamps. They apologized for the delay and we were allowed to get back on the bus. As we pulled away, I wondered if all the guards were confused about why their hands suddenly smelled of perfume…
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