Three Days in Kosovo

Saturday, May 19, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 53-55:  Skopje, Macedonia to Prizren, Kosovo.

Thursday, 17 May:  Skopje, Macedonia to Pristina, Kosovo.  As we left Macedonia , we had only one more country to visit before we could check off all the countries on the Balkan Peninsula:  Kosovo.  This diminutive nation—about three-fourths the size of Connecticut—also happens to be Europe's newest country, having declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.
Not that Serbia accepted Kosovo's plucky rebellion lying down.  In fact, Serbia still considers the territory its own.  As a result, Kosovo's status continues in dispute despite its having been recognized by 112 countries, including the U.S.  Membership in the UN, however, has been blocked by the opposition and veto power of Russia, Serbia's ally on the Security Council.

And it's not just Serbia that doesn't recognize Kosovo's status as an independent country.  On Google Maps, the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia is indicated with a broken line, not a solid line like other national borders.  If you search for a city or address in Kosovo, Google Maps will return the information with the city name only—no country designation as it does with cities in other nations.

Even our cellular carrier was confused.  Normally when we enter a foreign country, we receive an automatically generated text message from Verizon.  It welcomes us to the new country and advises us about the conditions and cost of using our phone in that country.  When we entered Kosovo, our text messages from Verizon welcomed us to Slovenia (500 miles away) and, a few hours later, to Monaco (700 miles).  Poor little Kosovo just gets no respect.

Kosovo has long been one of the poorest, least-developed regions of the Balkans.  During the second half of the 20th century, when it was part of the republic of Serbia within the greater Yugoslavia, a number of the other republics objected to the federal economic support given to Kosovo.  This controversy ultimately contributed to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991.

Our first stop in Kosovo was its capital city, Pristina (pop. 200,000), just a 60-mile drive from Skopje.  Kosovo's population is about 90% ethnic Albanian, a primary reason behind Serbian repression of the area.  In fact, Pristina is the second-largest Albanian-speaking city in the world, behind only Tirana.  Residents of Kosovo, and particularly Pristina, have a fondness for Bill Clinton because of his role in supporting Kosovo and persuading NATO to intervene in the 1998-99 Kosovo War with Serbia (which was about all that was left of Yugoslavia by then).

Pristina's main thoroughfare through the city is called Boulevard Bill Klinton and features an eleven-foot statue of the former president atop a tiered pedestal in a small square on the street that bears his name.  High above his head is a faded portrait of Kosovo's American hero painted on the side of the high rise Brutalist building behind him.

Just a few dozen feet away from the monument to Bill, a women's clothing shop pays homage to his wife.  Opened shortly after the end of the Kosovo War, the Hillary store features clothing styles favored by America's former secretary of state.  It was no surprise to find an entire room devoted to monochromatic pants suits in many hues—but only those that Hillary herself might choose.  In fact, she visited the store in 2010 and was presented with a navy blue ensemble in the familiar Hillary style.
Apparently the store has been so successful, the owners opened Hillary 2 in a local mall.  Maybe we were not visiting the areas of town where such styles are popular, but we did not see any women attired as Hillary look-alikes around the city.
One of the attractions of the city mentioned often online and in official tourist brochures and maps of Pristina is the NEWBORN monument erected in 2008 to commemorate Kosovo's birth as an independent state.  Unveiled on the day the country declared its independence, the typographic sculpture was initially painted bright yellow.  Later the flags of the countries that have recognized Kosovo's independence decorated the letters.  Each year, a new decorative theme is applied to the monument on the anniversary of its unveiling.  Since 2018 marks the tenth anniversary, the letters B and O were replaced with the numeral 10 for this year.  Currently it is covered with seemingly random graffiti.  Whether this free expression is encouraged or not, it apparently has been tolerated since the first design, perhaps another way to celebrate freedom and independence.
Though we did lots of strolling around the city (had to cover our daily five-mile quota), the only other designated tourist attraction we visited was the National Library of Kosovo, a monument to Brutalist architecture that frequently lands on "World's Ugliest Buildings" lists.  Inside the library, we found few people and lots of areas that seemed to be abandoned.  This pattern of neglect and partial abandonment was something we observed frequently in Kosovo.
A youngster sitting on Pristina's main pedestrian thoroughfare to seek handouts
As we were strolling toward a cemetery to look for a letterbox, a local pedestrian greeted us and—knowing most Kosovars are ethnic Albanians—we were glad to engage in a conversation with him.  When he learned we were Americans, he gushed over how helpful the U.S. and Bill Clinton had been to Kosovo and declared that if he was ever needed by the USA, he would gladly jump in to assist.  After we thanked him for his hospitality and tried to walk away, he began telling us that he had cancer and needed money to pay for treatment.  And this was another pattern we would see often in Kosovo—begging.  Apparently asking for donations to fund nonexistent medical problems is a common strategy.  Unfortunately, having children do the panhandling is another.  But we would see much more of that later in the week.

Friday, 18 May:  Pristina, Kosovo to Peja, Kosovo.  After one night in Pristina, we set out the next morning to drive the sixty miles to Peja, a city of 50,000 located strategically on the river Peć Bistrica.  The city dates back to the first millennium, but it is best known as a medieval religious center and, for most contemporary visitors, as the entrance to Rugova Canyon.
Patriarchate of Peć monastery
Our first stop, between the town and the canyon, was at the Patriarchate of Peć Monastery, a medieval complex built in the 13th century to serve as the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  Through the centuries the monastery was expanded with each of the doors in the photo above serving as entrances to individual churches built in different periods but attached to each other.  Today the monastery is protected as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Rugova Canyon and the Peć Bistrica River
Continuing on the road past the monastery, we entered Rugova Canyon.  Winding through the Accursed Mountains, the 16-mile long gorge is one of Europe's most extensive canyons.  The river Peć Bistrica races through the valley floor alongside the road.  Rugova is popular with hikers, rock climbers and spelunkers.
Apparently the road can be a dangerous place if not navigated carefully.  Along the highway, we saw numerous roadside monuments memorializing persons who had died at various spots.  Unlike the simple wooden crosses we're accustomed to seeing in the U.S., these poignant markers were formal granite memorials of the type seen in cemeteries.  More often than not, they had been recently decorated with flowers, even in cases such as the one pictured above whose victims had died almost 40 years earlier.

After visiting the canyon, we drove back into Peja to check into the Semitronix Hotel.  The name was a bit puzzling (named for the Chinese chip manufacturer?), and we had read that it occupied the top two floors of a mid-rise building in the city.  But it had only positive reviews on TripAdvisor, so we had decided to try it out.  Having seen the sign for the hotel when we passed through the city on our way to the canyon, we slowly approached, looking in vain for a place to park along the street.  Just before we gave up, we saw a young man beckoning us toward the entrance to an underground parking area.
"Hotel?" he asked.  When we agreed, he raised the manually operated gate to allow us to drive down into the dirt-floored underground parking garage.  Immediately we noticed several dust-coated vehicles, some with flat tires, that looked as if they had been there for quite some time.  Wondering whether we'd ever retrieve our rental car again, we headed upstairs to the hotel's reception desk, leaving our bags in the car.  Unfortunately, our experience with the hotel did not live up to those of the reviewers on TripAdvisor, as both the rooms offered to us had strong mildew odors.  We checked out shortly after checking in, and the reception staff were kind enough to allow us to do so without penalty.
Glad to extract our rental car from the dirt pit before it succumbed to whatever misfortunes befell the other cars, we moved over to the lovely Hotel Dukagjini, marveling that we had permitted a few negative reviews to steer us away from this jewel located adjacent to a city park.  As we saw in Sofia and other places, the park boasted an extensive inventory of electrically powered mini cars for children.
Once we got our bags settled into the new hotel, we walked to the nearby old bazaar, a warren of narrow, mostly pedestrian streets lined with shops selling all manner of goods.  Unlike in similar markets in some other cities, the shops there offered ordinary consumer goods—clothing, shoes, housewares—rather than just souvenir and gift items.
We passed numerous formal wear shops in the market with elaborate gowns and ornately decorated period costumes.
Mannequins were in wide use, and many looked as if they had been injured in the Kosovo War, though they were probably just obtained at prices deeply discounted to reflect their wear and tear.
As we had seen in Pristina, panhandlers positioned themselves in pedestrian areas of Peja to solicit donations from passers-by.

Saturday, 19 May:  Peja to Prizren.  Our last stop in Kosovo was Prizren, Kosovo's crown jewel for tourists.  Nestled in a valley between the Šar Mountains and the ruins of Kaljaja Fortress on a hill above the city, Prizren has a history dating back before the year 1000.
On the 65-mile drive from Peja to Prizren, we came across the Terzijski Bridge (aka, Tailors' Bridge) over the River Erenik near the village of Bistražin.  An Ottoman construction from the late 1400s, the bridge once served travelers along a medieval trading route.  Restored in the 1980s, the bridge today is limited to pedestrian use.
Though we often come across these multi-arch bridges from the Ottoman and even Roman eras, what caught our attention with the Tailors' Bridge was the deck surface.  Rather than the typical level flat roadway, this wavy bridge deck follows the shape of the arches.

Because distances between cities in Kosovo are so short, we were able to arrive in each city no later than mid-morning and have almost a full day to check out the city before spending the night there.  And since tourism hasn't yet caught on in the country, we were able to check in to our hotels upon our morning arrival, stash our bags and begin our exploration.
Our sights in Prizren were set on the Kaljaja Fortress set atop a hill high above the city (see photo above).  The walk to the fortress from the city center was not long, but it was quite steep.  With plenty of water and a willingness to pause from time to time to catch our breath, we made it to the top with no problem.
Not only did we find well-preserved ruins to examine, the view of the city from the hilltop was quite stunning.  Returning back down to the city center, we strolled through the pedestrian area along the river and found a restaurant for lunch.

Flowing through the center of the city, the narrow Prizren Bistrica river is spanned by numerous bridges, including many for pedestrians only.  One of these was so loaded with "love locks," we marveled that it had not collapsed under the strain.  These misguided symbols of affection and devotion add tons of weight that bridges weren't designed to carry, especially when attached in this volume.  To make matters worse, a young vendor had set up a stand on the bridge selling locks.
As we had seen in other Kosovo cities, the sight of children panhandling in Prizren was heartbreaking, and Prizren seemed to have more of this activity than Peja or Pristina.  Several children were walking around the pedestrian area and through the tables in sidewalk cafes while we were having lunch, performing on drums to generate donations from patrons.
It was near the end of the school term, so large groups of high school students were visiting the city that day.  Later in the afternoon, we saw a tragic young girl of about eight trying to get the attention of some of the teens.  We had seen her several times earlier in the day, including one period when she was lying facedown on the sidewalk with her hood covering her head, presumably resting.

Though the high schoolers weren't unkind, they weren't paying her much notice.  Then two other drummers—a girl and boy, who looked to be around 10—barged in and started banging rudely on the young girl's drum.  Eventually all the panhandlers wandered off when the teenagers weren't forthcoming with money.  When the younger girl walked away, I approached her and pointed to a nearby gelato stand.  She seemed quite wary but reluctantly followed me over, and I bought her an ice cream cone.  She scooted off to a hidden corner to eat her treat, probably afraid the older drummers would take it from her.

As we walked back toward our hotel, we saw those two ten-year-olds with an adult who appeared to be their handler.  He was playing some type of gambling game with the kids, no doubt "winning" the money they had collected.  The man and the young boy were both smoking cigarettes.

According to reports by international organizations which have studied the problem of child beggars in the Balkans, most street beggars are from the Roma and Egyptian communities.  These children, who do not attend school and live in dire poverty, are often forced into begging by parents or criminal handlers.

Having migrated to the eastern European area more than 1,000 years ago from India and/or Egypt, depending on which history you accept, the Roma/Egyptian people continue to face ethnic discrimination of monumental proportions in eastern Europe.  Unemployment in Kosovo's general population hovers around 30%, making life difficult for many citizens.  But widespread unwillingness to hire these dark-skinned minorities pushes them into a precarious existence with an unemployment rate estimated above 70%.  In some Balkan cities, including Shkoder, Albania, Roma families live in makeshift tents within garbage dumps, where they conduct rudimentary recycling by going through the trash.  

Though we never felt unsafe in Kosovo, as some friends and family expected, all is not well in Europe's newest country.  Kosovo's gloomy economic outlook has tainted the celebration of the country's tenth anniversary of independence for all its people, but for these marginalized minorities, the future seems especially bleak.

Three-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Skopje, Macedonia
    •  Ended in:  Prizren, Kosovo
    •  Miles driven:  170
    •  Miles walked: 18.79
    •  Weather:  52° to 73°,sunny to partly cloudy
    •  Albanian flags on display:  785
    •  Kosovar flags on display:  114
    •  People smoking:  50%
    •  Potholes:  14,278
    •  Google Maps estimate for 42-mile trip:  1 hr, 45 min (road quality & speed limits)
    •  Tractors driving on road:  29

Loved:  The fact that peace seems to have gained a stronghold in Kosovo.

Where do we begin?  An impoverished area struck out on its own and declared independence, so now it's an impoverished country.  Unfortunately, this condition and the rampant discrimination against certain ethnic groups continues to have a devastating and disproportionate effect on children, who are not being educated or protected, so the cycle goes on.

Learned:  Throughout our travels in recent years, we have used our cellular carrier's travel feature which allows us to use our smart phone as we would at home by paying a daily fee.  This option was not available in Kosovo because Verizon lacks a partner there.  We learned that we could indeed survive three days of travel without cell phone service.

When we decided we wanted to visit all the Balkan countries on this trip, we had no idea how complicated the logistics of traveling between these countries would be.  In most cases, the only flights to and from major cities of the area go to other parts of Europe—Zurich, Vienna, Istanbul.  Direct flights within the Balkans are rare.  Moreover, train service in most countries is either antiquated or absent.  International trains between countries do not exist because of historical gauge differences.  Buses are available widely but often are independently operated marshrutkas which operate on informal, unpublished "schedules."  
Since the countries are about the size of U.S. states, a road trip seemed the logical solution.  However, finding a rental company that was willing to allow its vehicles to be driven from one country to another was quite a challenge.  After many, many hours of research, we discovered that Sixt would permit its cars rented in Sarajevo to be driven to most other Balkan countries—except Kosovo.  More digging uncovered the free-wheeling Macedonian Sixt policy—drive their cars anywhere in Europe, even in Kosovo.  So, on our last day in Skopje, we turned in the car we picked up in Sarajevo three weeks before and picked up another car which we could drive into Kosovo and return in Tirana.

More Photos
Before leaving Skopje, we looked for a letterbox at an ancient aqueduct.
And another at a cemetery.  With a funeral that day, floral vendors were selling cut flowers for the service.
Typical of the beautiful scenery between Skopje and Pristina
A letterbox was said to be somewhere amid the chest-high grass in this Pristina cemetery.  We had to pass. 
Oddly war-like eagles decorated the pews in Pristina's Mother Teresa Catholic cathedral.
We saw the Albanian flag more often than the national flag of Kosovo, as at this monument.
Restoration projects prevented visits to historic Prizren churches.  Razor wire enforced "Closed" signs.
No underground wiring in Prizren
Charming yarn bombing display in Prizren
Wildflowers in bloom atop Kaljaja's hill