What is your dream vacation destination? Beaches? Mountains? Some famous historical structures that we've seen over and over and over again in the movies, series, books, games, pictures, and social media? Well, let me tell you a bit about one of my dream destinations that I've had since my early adulthood.
It's a land of heterogeneity, where cultures on opposites sides meet, clash, and shake hands, it's where one neighbor doesn't speak the same language as the other one or doesn't pray to the same god, or doesn't eat the same food, or all of them and more. At the same time, the land has been deeply scarred by the traumas of war and ethnic conflict, that has been forced to be shaped by its conflicts and, besides all adversities, is growing by its own identity. Let me tell you the story of:
Kosovo, a tale of two ethnicities
Even before the breakup of Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions were slowly brewing under the wraps until General Tito's (the de-facto leader of Yugoslavia from 1953) death in 1980, serving as a spark for small conflicts propping up throughout the entire Balkan region. One of the very first unrests began in Kosovo in 1981 with a series of protests, in which Kosovo Albanians demanded independence and to form their own ethnically Albanian republic, which was followed by a harsh and swift response from the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav parliament.
More unrest followed throughout the 1980s. By the end of the decade, roughly 80% of the population of Kosovo was ethnically Albanian. All the unrest culminated in the 1989 Kosovo miner's protest, which then received the support of Slovenia and Croatia. Initial strikes turned into widespread demonstrations demanding a Kosovan republic. This angered Serbia's leadership which proceeded to use police force, and later even the army was sent to the province by the order of the Serbia-held majority in the Yugoslav Presidency Council.
From there on it was just a downhill ride into total civil war throughout the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia culminating in its breakdown and the creation of the countries that exist today: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and... Kosovo? Well, depends on who you ask.
Kosovo officially declared independence on 17 February 2008. To this day Kosovo is not recognized as a country by Serbia and its allies. That's why you'll see just a dotted line on its border between Serbia on google maps and other services, to this day relations between Kosovo and Serbia are very tense. Now, how is it to travel to a barely-recognized country bordering its archenemy?
Crossing from Serbia to Kosovo
So here are, in Nis, Serbia. Yeah, not Kosovo yet but close enough. Not that many flights arrive in Pristina and we actually wanted to land in Serbia to see what the local Serbians think of the separatist country and check out how is the process of crossing the border from Serbia to Kosovo.
We had just one day in Nis, our flight arrived in the morning and we were due in the evening out to Pristina. We did have enough time to look around and talk to some people.
Nis is an ancient town, been in the crossroads of too many empires to count, extremely rich in culture and history, and don't take this cliche expression lightly, it very much surprised us.
On our single day in Nis, we did visit the famous landmarks of the town such as the Nis Fortress, the Skull Tower, and Mediana. But of course, our trademarked random exploration as well: Just head out in some direction, this time on foot, and check out random parts of the town. This is when we stumbled upon a cozy and desolate Cafe Rodjendaonica Treger. There, we met a group of University friends where we could ask some questions about their troubled controversial neighbor Kosovo.
The reaction was what we expected from a young generation, thankfully, which was that of forgiveness, peace, and "whateeever maan". The young adults seemed very eager, in fact, to forget and forgive, and that their country has struggled against "other people's culture" for too long, and everyone should just let them be. A blue-eyed, tall, blonde young man among them (we are very sorry to not remember any of their names ) did very much warn that this is not a consensus even amongst the younger generation of Serbia, that there is a lot of nationalism, especially up north, strongly believing in Kosovo is still legitimate part of Serbia, that seceded illegally with the assistance of the United States. And we were about to find it out.
The narrow and ancient but heavily used countryside roads through Prokupilje to the border in Merdare made it a pretty slow journey, around 2.5 hours for 90km. Which means we had time to meet someone on the bus and talk to them.
A middle-aged woman sitting right in front of us got pleasantly shocked by the fact that two foreign-looking people speaking English were on a not very well-known bus from Nis to Pristina and tried to reply to our questions after we greeted her. She was the opposite opinions of the young students in the cafe. She didn't share many words (also as she didn't speak much English), but when asked said she did not live in Kosovo, but apparently was visiting someone in Gračanica, a small city with a Serbian-majority population south of Pristina, and was very adamant of "Kosovo is Serbia" as per her own words. Interesting first day of a trip, and we haven't even reached the border.
Colorful, Electric, Friendly, and Artistic Pristina
We arrived around 2 hours later than we were supposed to, mostly because of the Serbian part of the ride, as from the border on to Pristina was surprisingly fast and smooth, the lights of the villages flashed by against the darkness of the night. We slept in the Prishtina Center Hostel, which was just marvelous, it was not only one of the cheapest options, with a nightly stay for €12 per person in a 6-bed dormitory, but the hostel is very clean, neatly decorated (very hipster), and located right on one of the main streets in the core of the city center, what else could you possibly want? One of the best hostels stays in all of my journeys so far.
Christmas spirit in Pristina at night
The next day we spent exploring Pristina, the small compact town center that makes it all easy to reach on food, especially if you're based off the main walk street (Bulevardi Nënë Tereza). The city has a very interesting and very unique contrast of life to it that left us flabbergasted as we walked through the busy roads. You will see abandoned and dilapidated buildings such as the Orthodox Cathedral right on the main square, overlooking the very uniquely designed National Library, together with old buildings built in brutalist architecture such as the Youth and Sports Center and some government buildings, most of which severely need some maintenance and repainting. With these more "depressing" icons of Pristina, you will find right beside them high-level apartment buildings, offices, shopping, and eateries from all different eras bustling with life more than I have seen in many European cities many times the size of Pristina.
The brutalist architecture of the looks-abandoned sports center of Pristina
It was very fascinating to see so much homage to the United States all over the city. it is not uncommon to see the US flag in people's balconies and windows, stickers in the cars, and of course one of the things that draws the most attention is the statue of Bill Clinton right on the main avenue. In fact, not just in Pristina but in towns and villages all over Kosovo, naming a square, street, or building after Bill Clinton is quite common.
Anyone who may think of Kosovo as a poor, third-world country in barely-liveable conditions, as I have heard a few times, could not be more wrong. Pristina is packed with small bars and cafes in every corner, very modern establishments, clean, equipped with fast wifi and very cool decorated interiors, some would be considered "elite" places in many big Western European towns. In fact, it seems to be almost a cultural thing to have such an amount of cafes, serving hot beverages, brunch, and meals during the day, beer and wine at night.
The monument celebrating Kosovo's independence. One of the most famous tourist attractions in the city and fully empty. I hope Kosovo sees more tourists, but, this is the way we like it!
Nighttime is when Pristina stands out. As the sun sets, the small town of 145,000 people just lights up as I've never almost anywhere on a similarly sized town in Central/Northern Europe. It seems as almost everyone comes out into the street, meet with friends, walk, celebrate the night, drink, eat, have fun. We could barely walk in the Bulevardi Nënë Tereza due to the crowds. Keep in mind this was a Thursday night in the winter of December!
Pristina is a majority Albanian city (90%+), so logically all you see everywhere is absolute and unquestionable support for Kosovan independence. A few quick talks with some very fun and energetic young Kosovans in the streets, heading out to the bars and sharing a few drinks, shows this very clearly, they are extremely supportive of their country's sovereignty.
So we wanted to go out of Pristina, remember the lady in the bus was heading to a Serbian town inside Kosovo? Well, as it turns out, even though the majority of the population in the country is Albanian, there is a very sizeable minority of Serbians living within, in many places like Gračanica. We wanted to go to one of these places, specifically, we wanted to go to the city where Kosovo itself is divided in two, where the country itself is split into separatist Kosovo Albanians and unionist Kosovo Serbians: Mitrovica.
In the middle of nowhere of Kosovo
But of course, we'd never just, hop on a bus and head straight to the destination, what's the fun in that? Instead of we use our patented method of aimless directional drifting. We learned that a train heading west to Peje was departing the next day at 07 in the morning, we thought that'd be a good start. We'd head west until some point halfway or earlier than drop off and find our way North somehow.
Kosovo has a tiny GDP compared to other European countries, and government spending for infrastructure and maintenance is lacking. We were honestly very impressed with the cafe/restaurant/bar scene in Pristine, the overall maintenance, and the cleanness of the city in general. But the same cannot be said for much of the countryside, and the infrastructure connecting it. The train station in the center of Pristine is just an old platform with two tracks behind a bakery. There are only three trains per day in total, two heading to Peje and one to the border with Macedonia. Our train to Peje had definitely seen better days. An old, dirty locomotive hauled a couple of secondhand German cars, which I deduced by the fact that most of the stuff written inside the car was still in German.
We and some babushkas boarding our ride to nowhere
We gently rocked through the countryside with a morning winter fog out through the window, the thing I like about taking off the beaten track public transport is the fact that you can see things that would otherwise be hidden. As we are rolling through the countryside we see these small villages on our way, and we were very intrigued by the seemingly high amount of unfinished construction sites everywhere, it's almost like Kosovo had a massive construction boom and then everything suddenly stopped.
Once we checked Google Maps and saw we were somewhere around central Kosovo we dropped off in a tiny village beside the hills of Bjeshka e Kasmaqit.
Walking on the backroads of Kosovo up north, we came upon a random tiny village in the middle of nowhere. These small settlements are everywhere and not far from each other, it is quite strange seeing all these rural villages scattered around, seemingly built without any planning, with just a few km of roads in between. The houses are mostly very nice though, comparable to a random suburban family home in the US.
A random village in the countryside of Kosovo, very clean and tidy, no?
One of these houses had a small Kosovan family by the gates, they immediately noted our presence and started a conversation, only the youngest son spoke English, he was, as many young Kosovans do, studying abroad at the University of Hannover in Germany. He offered to drive us to the nearest highway about a dozen km away, where after saying goodbye the excited young Engineering student left off and we were able to catch a "bus" to Mitrovica, an old Volkswagen bus at least 30 years old, with two old ladies, a teenager and a whole bunch of cargo on the roof.
Mitrovica, the town in two countries within a country
Mitrovica is not one, it is two, a city divided by the Ibar river. We arrive in south Mitrovica, at first glance is a perfectly normal Kosovan city, with a majoritarian ethnically Albanian population with their shared opinion over Kosovan independence, bought a coffee-to-go with euros and continued walking towards the river.
Once we arrived at the river banks though, the reality shifted tremendously. A dozen of police stand by the bridge with abandoned and destroyed buildings on either side. It felt like a border of two regions on war. And indeed it was at the end of the last century, but even after all these years, the tense atmosphere is very notable.
What we see after crossing the bridge
We cross the bridge and suddenly we are taken aback, we are no longer in Kosovo as it seems. Red, white and blue flags featuring the Serbian eagle are everywhere, with no Kosovar flag in sight. No more Albanian language is spoken nor written, suddenly everything is in Cyrillic in Serbian. Even the money! No more Euros, we went to a cafe that caught our attention in the main street and the only accepted currency is... Serbian dinars. The barista was a young Serb-Kosovan girl named Jana. Although young, she was very adamant about Kosovo's status as a part of Serbia, and strongly noted that Kosovo was just "illegally occupied for the time being"
A poster inside the Kosovo-Serbian cafe, mocking the shooting-down of the infamous American F-117 "invisible" nighthawk stealth bomber, in the American campaign against Serbia. It was the first time an F-117 was shot down.
The north part of Mitrovica also features a Spometik, a type of monument from Tito-era Yugoslavia, this one in memory of the miners who stood up to Germany during the invasion in WWII.
The memorial for the fallen miners. Celebrating both Albanian and Serbian miners, an important token of unification and peace
The view from the top of Mitrovica
On the way back south we stopped by an unmarked (in google maps) cafe in the suburbs, a family-owned place with just 3 plastic tables. The very friendly couple running the place were extremely eager to serve us their absolutely delicious Ćevapi. And upon questioning them about the status of Kosovo, they plain on said they don't care, with limited English, the men said: "life is about peace, not flags". Very wise and hopeful words in a climate of division.
The Serbian side of Kosovo is much different then the Albanian south, we couldn't help but notice an increase of abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Here, an unfinished sports hall.
Kosovo fascinated us by being a nation with a very controversial status and story, a country that manages to exist in a world of polarization, with coexisting ethnical groups within. And although it has its wounds not yet fully healed, messages of hope and union are displayed throughout both North and South, and as time passes, maybe it can become a united nation of all people, regardless of their language.
We continue our travel in Kosovo, in the next article, the Western mountains of Peje.