Even as a burgeoning adult, I must admit that silly things sometimes really freak me out. And I’m talking about really silly things. I remember one occasion when I had just eaten and Courtney had come back from class and was really hungry. Being the cute little creature that she is, she started doing something playful. She made fists in front of my belly and pulled them back toward her mouth, one at a time, as if she was eating the food that I had just eaten. It’s cute, I get it, but for me it was really creepy. ‘I’m just trying to get the foods!’ she said. But all I could see was someone I loved eating me without any regard for my well-being, focused only on their own hunger. The notion was terrifying, and I told her so. It was intended to be sweet, and I think it made her a little sad that I didn’t like it, but she’s never done it again because she knows how uncomfortable it made me, and that’s just one of the reasons why I love her. I would like to reiterate that I do in fact recognize that this was silly. I can’t explain just why, but it gave me the heebie jeebies, like big time, even though I knew that it shouldn’t have.
I tell this story to introduce another situation that I was very silly to be nervous about, and that is travel to Kosovo. Yes, just hearing the name calls to mind stories and images of ethnic cleansing, refugees, and fears of another Balkan war that might touch off large-scale violence in the region. Serbia and Albania light up on our mental maps as we try to figure out just where this little, seemingly insignificant area of land fits into geopolitics. I am drafting a post that will talk about some of this in detail, but for now I will briefly say that Kosovo was and is a big deal for Serbia. After much ado about quite a lot, Kosovo finally declared independence in 2008 and was immediately recognized by many European countries and the United States. Serbia maintains that Kosovo is still a part of their sovereign territory, and EU member states like Greece, Romania and Spain, not to mention other entities like Russia and China (hint: they all have significant minorities/independence movements within their own borders!) refuse to recognize its independence. Furthermore, these EU member states have effectively blocked negotiations on Kosovo joining the European Union, and Russia and China have made sure that the United Nations has not been able to recognize the independence of the fledgling republic. That said, there are two sides to every story, and I will discuss that further in my later post.
Because of this continued limbo in which Kosovo as a republic finds itself, it is not listed separately from Serbia on many maps and is neither officially a European country nor does it even appear on the United Nations list of sovereign states (for reasons stated above). This makes travel to the area seem ill-advised, not to mention its legacy as a ‘war-torn region’. Add to that the occasional border skirmishes with Serbia and conflicts in towns with larger Serbian inhabitants (the number of the inhabitants is larger, not the inhabitants themselves…or perhaps I’ve been reading this ‘David and Goliath’ story entirely too metaphorically), and you have a great recipe for an effective tourist repellant. It works even better than nutty visa restrictions, arcane immigration tactics and airline monopolies to keep curious visitors from discovering your largely unknown country (Suriname, I’m looking at you on that one). That, and there’s no beach. Germans will never go there.
So, yes, Kosovo has its challenges to becoming the next hot vacay destination. And although I’m in no hurry to start a stampede of tourists to this undiscovered country (unintentional Star Trek reference), I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few counterpoints to the prevailing notion that Kosovo is best avoided. First of all, and I’ll get this out of the way now since it shouldn’t really matter but of course does, Kosovo is super cheap. I should rephrase that and say that it is inexpensive because nothing about the experience itself is low-quality. The food, although much like the fare on offer elsewhere in the Balkans, is delicious and costs a fraction of the price you will find in neighbouring Serbia or Macedonia (also very inexpensive, high-quality places to go). I’ll get into more about what distinguishes Kosovo cuisine in my next post, but even the foods you’re used to, either from back home or from other Balkan travels, are done well and done for shockingly low prices. Case in point, I had a delicious pizza with lots of cheese and shredded meat that I could barely finish, along with a Coke, for €2. €2! The Coke alone would have cost me that in Ljubljana! And show me another major city where you can find a clean hostel with free breakfast in the middle of the center for only €9 a night. I dare you.
But enough about the low prices. I feel like I’m advertising a bargain basement or a used car lot, fully equipped with the requisite baby seal fit for clubbing if I don’t sell you a car in the next half hour (intentional UHF reference). Let’s focus on the natural wonders of Kosovo: the mountains, rolling hills, waterfalls and caves. In the south, Kosovo offers pristine mountains, capped with snow even in the heat of June (whether this snow remains in the sweltering heat of July and August, of which I heard much while I was there, I cannot say). Great for skiing in winter and hiking in spring, summer and fall, I am already looking forward to returning to Kosovo to explore these mountains that I only saw from a distance on my trip. The hills I became much more familiar with, doing quite a bit of hiking in the southern city of Prizren. Trails fan out all over and provide for hours of fresh air, stimulating exercise and gorgeous views. Depending on the trail you take, you may find yourself on a wide path looking out over the city or at the mountains beyond, or you could be stooping under low-hanging branches as you explore the wooded areas that cover the hills. The waterfalls and caves are Kosovo gems that I, sadly, only read and heard about. They, like the mountains, await my return, just as certainly as they await you, dear reader, and not in the creepy way that I made it sound just now…
But Kosovo has more than just natural beauty. Its cities, towns, mosques and monasteries are wonders in their own right. You can get lost in the maze of Prishtinë’s residential neighbourhoods, only slightly off the beaten path, and once you make your way back into the center, you will find parks, cafés and restaurants ready to help you while away your time. Prishtinë also has its fair share of idiosyncrasies, such as streets named after Bill Clinton and George Bush, a shopping area named after Hillary Clinton, and a large statue of husband, Bill, greeting passersby. Even before you reach the bus station, you will be welcomed by a replica of the Statue of Liberty, standing tall above the Hotel Victory. Yes, Kosovo is kind of a fan of the US. But don’t let me give you the impression that you’ll be hit in the face with kitschy bits of Americana everywhere you go. These are truly limited, and Kosovo has managed to retain its own unique feel, of which the locals seem very proud.
Prishtinë itself is often billed as a capital city without much to see and experience as a tourist. I did not find this to be the case, but then again one of my favourite pastimes in a new city is simply wandering. I found plenty to see and do for the two days that I was there, and the extra time also gave me the oppourtunity to visit Gračanica, a Serb enclave to the south of Prishtinë, where you will find a particularly beautiful monastery. For a true dose of old Kosovo, however, hit up Prizren. There the café culture is thriving, and the old town offers plenty of charming side streets to explore. In warm weather you’ll find the squares filled with people, and everywhere you look the cafés are hopping, locals and travelers alike sitting and chatting over endless cups of tea and coffee. You will even see boys carrying trays of coffee from café patios to local businesses. In Kosovo, as in the rest of the Balkans, coffee is a big deal.
Due to the long-lasting influence of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Kosovo and Albania (along with Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia…) for hundreds of years, Kosovo has a distinctly eastern feel. The call to prayer is heard throughout the town, and the minarets and domes of countless mosques are an ever-present reminder that the faith is predominately Muslim. That said, the city does not grind to a halt for prayer five times a day, not by any means. Every Albanian (for the vast majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians) that I spoke to identified as Muslim but also drank alcohol and had a very relaxed approach to Islam. Even as I sat in a café one afternoon, nursing a beer and writing about desire and narcissism, I noticed that the call to prayer didn’t so much as turn the heads of the locals who sat all around me. In this respect, I found parts of southern Serbia and Skopje decidedly more eastern than Kosovo, despite my expectations to the contrary.
In addition it seems that, where the Cola Wars are concerned, the Non-Aligned Movement has gained considerable ground in Kosovo. Although Coca-Cola and Pepsi were to be seen in large quantities, I haven’t seen so many people drinking RC Cola (outside of Suriname) since the late 80s. Yes, the Royal Crown sits comfortably on Kosovo. As a stalwart fan of Dr. Pepper (which happens to control Royal Crown products within the United States, I was proud to discover!), I am a staunch supporter of the Non-Aligned Movement myself, and I was happy to partake of that spicy-sweet RC Cola a time or two. The fact that I was enjoying my non-aligned beverage in the former Yugoslavia, where the first Non-Aligned conference was held in 1961, was not lost on me. Did Tito himself drink RC Cola just to further drive home the point? Probably, and I say that only because I would like to believe it (and because it fits with the whole non-aligned joke). In reality, Tito seems like he was probably a Coke guy.
All of this brings us to the most important aspect of Kosovo, which is the most important aspect of any country: the people who live there. The kindness and generosity that I was shown in Kosovo was an example of what is truly the greatest bounty that the country has to offer. Late night conversations over home-made wine, open and honest discussions about history and politics, sincere and incredibly useful travel advice and suggestions, warmth, laughter and, above all, patience were in abundance there, and as much as it is my pleasure to do so, I also feel duty-bound to report that Kosovo is alive and well and ready for visitors. It is a beautiful country, full of wonderful people, and talk of danger is either due to old news or lingering fears, neither of which should deter you from having a look at this marvelous place for yourself.
Note: Of course, as with any region that has recently suffered from ethnic conflict and has occasional border flare-ups, keep an eye on travel advisories before you go and avoid going to areas where unresolved issues still at times result in isolated hostilities. The northern part of Mitrovica was singled out on every website I looked at, so I didn’t go there. Easy enough. But the State Department’s warning that some individuals have reported being robbed at gunpoint smacks of scare tactics, in my opinion. Do I want to know if armed robbers might confront me in the streets of Prishtinë? Of course I do. But don’t leave it at that. You know where else people get robbed at gunpoint? Every city in the United States. So as in any city, when darkness falls you should stick to more populated areas, and probably don’t wander down too many back alleys with your laptop out. In the end, though, just use your best judgment and common sense (which, someone once told me after I’d done something particularly stupid, is the least common of the senses). And most of all, have a wonderful time and share your experience with your friends. Kosovo deserves some good publicity 🙂