Admit it you know very little about it. It’s OK- very few people do. Some may remember a serious conflict in the 90s but in these times with so many wars such battles fade away easily. I’ll admit I knew very little about Kosovo. Before I visited I tried to do a little research- but even then there was little information to find. The busy travel forums like Trip Advisor which have thousands of topics on major countries had tumbleweeds drifting across the Kosovo forums. Even more backpacker focused forums offered little information. And so when I decided to visit Kosovo I knew very little about this country- about its history, its towns, its language or even how to get there.
And now, just a few days later I feel I have immersed myself into one of the best countries I have visited. The friendliest people I have met- a proud, determined but always smiling people. Kosovo is an undiscovered gem that deserves to be visited and recognized. And hopefully by reading this it may make it onto your Travel Bucket List.
I was joined on this trip by my semi regular travelling companion, Yonatan. Traveling with someone is often challenging and friendships can be tested. Luckily Yonatan has a similar travel philosophy to me. Adventurous, attracted to off the beaten path locations and most importantly always keen to engage with the locals wherever possible. In other words- a Globetalker. And as we soon found out Kosovars were keen to engage with us.etting into Kosovo
Getting into Kosovo
Entering the country was a challenge. We had no idea how to get there from the small town we set off from in Serbia and asking 5 different people gave 5 different answers. Buses were semi regular, every other day or hadn’t run since the 90s, depending on who you asked and had us questioning if we had made the right decision to visit Kosovo.
Eventually we flagged down a driver that was willing to take us from Serbia across the border into Kosovo. Many would be reluctant to get in a car with three burly guys with shaved heads unable to speak English and into a region that is most often described as “war torn” but such is the nature of travel in the these countries. Many people use the term undeveloped. I prefer to use the term undiscovered. After a combination of buses, walking and hitchhiking we were in the capital- Pristina.
At first appearance it was dirty and uninviting. We were on the outskirts of town and had no idea how to get to our hotel. But we shouldn’t have worried as a friendly local soon approached us and offered to help us find our hotel. This was our first introduction to both the locals and also some of the history. This lady had worked with the UN and Americans when the country was saved from Serbia in 1999. It was her that explained the love and affection for the US. A statue of Bill Clinton in the city center. A George Bush Street. US flags everywhere- they even celebrated July 4. Listening to her personal tale of living during the conflict was both educational and informative.
Our first mistake was assuming that as Kosovo was formerly claimed by Serbia the culture, language and religion would be closely tied to Serbia. This could not be further from the truth. The main language was Albanian, 90% of the population was Muslim and many identified themselves as Albanian. If we inadvertedly mentioned Serbia there was a look of disdain and disgust – this conflict was recent and very real and they still feel pain at what Serbia has done to their country.
Our new friend Yll
There are very few tourists in this country and we obviously don’t look like locals so it is easy to attract attention and curiosity. And so on a local bus to our hotel we found ourselves talking to Yll (somehow this is pronounced as Ooh-lay) and his friend – students in Pristina. Their first question (and this was oft repeated over the next few days) was “Why are you in Kosovo?” When we replied to travel and see the country they were amazed. They immediately asked if they could show us around their city- an offer we took up. And so we spent our first day in Kosovo being shown the capital by two students. Our walking tour again offered much insight into the culture and psyche of these people.
These are people without recognition. The UN doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a country though 103 countries do. They are unable to travel easily. They can’t participate in global events like the World Cup or even Eurovision. This is a very foreign concept to me. I am fortunate enough to have been born in the “lucky country” but these people are born in a country that isn’t even a country. A proud history that is often a footnote to other stories in this region.
The city of Pristina itself is ugly and offers little to see and do. However seeing it through the eyes of a local and hearing their stories was an amazing experience. One nice touch was the lack of technology – whilst the IPhone 6 was launched the week I was in Kosovo, the locals were carrying Nokias from the last century. This meant they weren’t spending all day on Social Media and texting but living and interacting (well unless they wanted to play Snake). The American influence shone through in the way Yll spoke. His English was very good but learnt primarily through movies and rap videos and thus he spoke live he lived on the streets of Compton in LA.
Our new friend (2) Ishmael
The next day provided a mirror image yet complimentary story. We headed to the former capital Prizren. This was a beautiful town- a UNESCO city that if it was in Western Europe would be overrun by tourists, McDonalds and large buses. Today our guide was another local- Ishmael, a retired school teacher whom we met whilst walking. Ishmael, spoke German as many people moved to Switzerland and Germany in the 90s. Often when we couldn’t communicate to the locals in English we would try German with mild success.
His tour of Prizren was accompanied by his view of Kosovo before and after the conflict. Ishmael’s views differed slightly to the students we had met the day before but the common link he had was overwhelming pride in his country and the want for the world to see it. His knowledge was enough to be a professional tour guide and we learnt a lot.
Our last day in Kosovo was spent accompanied by another two locals. Qendrem and Osgaus- two students who lived in a town about 90 minutes from Prizren. Qendrem actually had met Yonatan at university in Israel and when he saw on Facebook (love the connections of Social Media) that we were in Kosovo he said he had to show us his country. The day was spent touring the countryside- passing beautiful lakes, mountains and other vistas that would be overrun with IPhone wielding tourists anywhere else in Europe. These guys were as proud as the others we had met and when I said I was going to write about our experiences, beamed with pride and asked to be sent my writings when I finished (Well here it is guys- I even included a photo).
I couldn’t have been more impressed with Kosovo. The people were all ambassadors for the country. They asked as many questions of us as we did of them. American culture was prevalent- not only in the love for the US but being informally educated by US celebrity- be it through music or movies. We met one female whose goal was to marry Eminem and many others who dreamed of one day visiting the US. That dream may be far away – both for financial and political reasons- so in the meantime- don’t wait for people from Kosovo to visit you- do yourself a favour and visit them. Especially before Starbucks gets there.