KosovoA Curious Mix, The Balkans Very Own De Facto Independent Country
The Bill Clinton Statue on Bill Clinton Boulevard, Pristina, Kosovo. April 22, 2017.
“It’s affordable, gritty, youthful, ambitious & friendly, a very new country dealing with a troubled past while looking towards a brighter future.”
A curious place is Kosovo, the central Balkans very own disputed territory and de facto independent country. It’s officially secular, yet religion is everywhere, has a long-standing tradition here and has shaped the country we see today. It uses the Euro, but isn’t in the EU. It’s affordable, gritty, youthful, ambitious & friendly, a very new country dealing with a troubled past while looking towards a brighter future. Here and now Kosovo also has bears, UNESCO-listed monuments and a likable capital city boasting 200,000+ hospitable locals, a not-so-old Old Quarter, a bizarre man crush on a former US president, life-size lettering (always good for a photo op), great street scenes, and some standout architecture, including what must surely be a contender for the ugliest building on earth. It’s a curious mix alright, but one that somehow works, so much so that in 2016 Rough Guides named it one of the 12 underrated destinations you absolutely have to visit.
So yes, Kosovo will win hearts.
It did mine.
dMb Country Overview - (Republic of) Kosovo
Region – Southeastern Europe/The Balkans (dMb tag: The Balkans). Capital – Pristina. Population – 2.1+ million Kosovars. Official Languages – Albanian, Serbian. Currency – Euro (€). GDP (nominal) per capita – US$4,000+. Political System – Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic. EU Member? – No. UN Member? – No (the Russians are having none of that). G20 Member? – No. Size – 10,900 km² (Europe’s 11th smallest country is approximately half the size of Slovenia & about the same size as the 2 smallest US states of Delaware & Rhode Island combined). Topography – Landlocked & with a largely mountainous perimeter enclosing 2 major plains. Climate – Continental with both Mediterranean and alpine influences – cold winters, hot summers. Brief History & Today – Part of the Ottoman Empire for over half a century (from 1389 until 1912), like most of the present-day Balkans, Kosovo was part of the old Yugoslavia from 1943 until 1992, and part of the then Union of Serbia and Montenegro (formed as a result of the 1992 breakup of Yugoslavia) until its peaceful dissolution in 2006. Although it declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, after a rather protracted & often violent struggle, Kosovo is still today officially disputed, although the country’s legitimacy is backed by the US and most industrialised nations – 113 of the 193 UN member states (as of September 2019), 24 of the 28 NATO states & 23 of the 38 EU member states, Spain being the only major Western European country not to recognise Kosovo (to do so could be seen as lending legitimacy to Catalonia’s cause, northeastern Spain’s very own wannabe independent region). Suffice it to say, Serbia still considers the country an upstart southern province as opposed to a separate sovereign state, while Russia, Serbia’s ally, will continue to use its veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to ensure Kosovo doesn’t become a member of the UN any day soon. UNESCO World Heritage sites – 1 (1 listing, 4 different sites). Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – None that I could find. Famous For – Being disputed; being Europe’s newest country; beautiful women (Kosovo is one of the most successful entrants into the Miss Universe pageant). Highlights – Pristina, hiking & UNESCO-listed 13th-century monasteries. Kosovo Titbits – Over 90% of Kosovo’s population are ethnic Albanians with 95% of the population speaking Albanian as their first language; with a long history of conflicting Islamic & Orthodox Christianity influences and while today officially secular, over 95% of Kosovars are Muslim (according to the 2014 Freedom of Thought reports issued by the IHEU, Kosovo ranked first in the Southern Europe and ninth in the world as Free and equal for tolerance towards religion and atheism); Europe’s youngest country really is its youngest county – 70% of the population is under the age of 35.
Visits – April 2017.
– Lonely Planet
It was an early Kosovo start, the overnight bus ending its slow 300 kilometre journey across the snow-clogged passes of Prokletije (which roughly translates to ‘cursed mountains’ and which is otherwise known as the Albanian Alps) from the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica in the west depositing me into Kosovo bus station at 4 a.m. There wasn’t a whole lot stirring at that ungodly hour, so I didn’t either, opting to pass a few hours in a smoky bus station cafe, one bereft of coffee, before orientating myself and navigating my way into central Pristina.
There’s an unmistakable youthful exuberance in Pristina, a consequence of the young populous – 70% of Kosovo’s 2.1+ million population are under the age of 35. This creates a dynamic, fashionable and entrepreneurial culture, not to mention a vibrant cafe & buzzing nightlife scene. OK so the streets of the city can be a little unkempt, in places the infrastructure is struggling, and some of the Modernist architecture can be repetitive & thoroughly uninspiring, but a stroll around the compact city will invariably reward. It’s a fun city. Curious surprises aplenty.
– Bill Clinton, November 1 2009. Pristina, Kosovo.
Kosovo is petite. Not tiny mind, just under 11,000 km² small. Distances are short, and even though it’s still a 30-minute bus ride out of the city (& a 30 minute brisk uphill walk from where the bus drops you off by the side of the M25-2), the Kosovo Bear Sanctuary still amends the word ‘Prishtina’ (written the Albanian way, with a ‘h’) to its name. I left the city for the afternoon to visit the sanctuary and the nearby UNESCO-listed monastery in Gracanica, logistically doable even via slow public transport given the short distances involved.
With a long-standing tradition of Christianity in Kosovo, there remains today many Orthodox monuments of importance throughout the country (& in the wider region). However, it’s the country’s four Serbian Orthodox church complexes – three monasteries in the towns of Gracanica, Peja and Decani, & the Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš in the city of Prizren – that get most of the attention, especially given their collective UNESCO World Heritage-listed status as the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo.
– UNESCO commenting on the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo
Day 2 in Kosovo was a wet affair, the sunny skies of the previous day nowhere to be seen. I took shelter where I could find it, mostly in Pristina’s Ethnological Museum and under the tarps covering the lanes of its atmospheric Green Market, both located in the city’s not-so-old Old Quarter.