Into Kosovo, from North Macedonia, on my group tour of Old Yugoslavia.
The capital city of Kosovo, Pristina, doesn’t look too pristine. There are the ubiquitous roadworks and much of the city is a huge building site. Since the war, in 1999, the city has changed dramatically. Many older buildings have been cleared to provide open spaces, gardens and squares. The predominantly young (70% under 35) Albanian-speaking population faces further challenges. Poverty is prevalent. It's reported that there are severe water shortages and the supply is limited at times. We don’t stop, and sightseeing consists of squinting out of the bus window.
Friends, Andrea and Andy, go even further. 'Pristina is an even bigger dump than Luton Airport'. What could be more damning? They continue:
' Pristina is a city of statues; Skanderbeg, a medieval Albanian hero, Mother Theresa (she was local enough to get a statue, cathedral, highway and square), Bill Clinton (Clinton and Tony Blair are heroes in Kosovo because of the intervention in the Kosovan War – Bill got a statue, Tony got a who load of boys named after him with Tonibler being a quite popular first name in the early 2000s) and a slightly odd “Newborn” statue which changes each year. Add to that, what is probably the world’s ugliest building, in the public library, and that is Pristina.'
The surrounding mountains and waterfalls are more rewarding. Prizren is prettily located with a mountain backdrop, on the border of Albania and Kosovo. It is the best-preserved old town in Kosovo, so earning its alternative name, ‘The Museum under the Open Sky’. It is divided by the Lumbardhi River, criss-crossed by numerous elegant bridges. On one side of the valley are the Sharr Mountains, on the other, the ruins of a hilltop citadel.
This is a very culturally diverse town, with mosques sitting next to Orthodox churches and monasteries. Though Albanian flags proliferate - it's clear where most loyalties lie. It's an interesting wander through the old town and alongside the water. There are stalls piled high, and modern shops blending with small craft boutiques, delis, barbecues, bakeries and sweet shops. The old domed hammam has been closed, and is covered in scaffolding
After passing tantalisingly close to Albania (they won’t let me pop over the border), we pass by a wiggly Ottoman bridge at Gjakova. We visit a Serbian Orthodox monastery at Decani, described by UNESCO as "an irreplaceable treasure, a place where traditions of Romanesque architecture meet artistic patterns of the Byzantine world." We overnight in the city of Peć, surrounded by more dramatic mountains. In medieval times the city, was the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Patriarchal Monastery of Peć is another UNESCO World Heritage Site - part of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo. Black robed nuns and monks play good cop, bad cop. The nuns are really helpful and informative, the monks eye us watchfully to make sure we meet the expected standards of behaviour and attire.
Next stop Montenegro.
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