Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Kosovo: A Warm Welcome from a Newborn Country

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I’m on the bus from Skopje to Prizren, typing madly on my computer as I work on a freelance assignment. My only breaks are cursory glances out the water-stained window: the scenery has been growing greener and more mountainous as we edge closer to the border.

It’s my first time in Kosovo, and I don’t know what to expect. Just the mention of “Kosovo” in America brings to mind an image of war, of death, of ethnic cleansing, of bombs. Even though this took place more than a decade ago, I’m wondering just what kinds of scars the country will bear.

We pull up to the border crossing and, in typical fashion, hand over our passports to the bus driver’s assistant. I hand my navy blue passport (still soaked and foul two years after the shipwreck), and that’s when the welcome brigade arrives.

“I love this country,” says the man, gesturing to my passport. “I LOVE this flag.”

“Thank you!” I reply, delighted at his response.

“Why do you come to Kosovo?”

“Tourism,” I say.

“Tourism!”

“Yes. Kosovo looks like a beautiful country.”

“Welcome,” the man says, beaming. “Welcome to you, America!”

This is only the beginning. The man sitting across the aisle from me doesn’t speak a word of English — other than saying “America!” and grinning — but we have a full body-language conversation. He’s married with four kids; he’s surprised to hear that at 28, I have a ring on my finger but no offspring.

He asks me for my phone number, the first of several times that men ask for it during my stay in Kosovo. It’s not pervy or irksome — they are genuinely concerned about my well-being and want to make sure that I’ll be okay during my stay in their country. It just makes me smile that most of the time I’m asked for it by men who don’t even speak English!

People in Prizren

For the rest of my visit to Kosovo, I am welcomed in the warmest way possible — huge smiles and heartfelt thanks for coming.

It’s not hard to see why — when the Serbs were enacting ethnic cleansing on the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, the U.S. came to Kosovo’s aid, stopping the Serbs and supporting Kosovans through to the end of the grisly war of the 1990s. Bill Clinton is a hero here.

Kosovo eventually declared independence from Serbia in 2008; Serbia chose to reject this declaration. Countries including the US, Japan, Australia, and most of the European Union (bizarrely, every EU country but Spain) sided with Kosovo, acknowledging its independence; many countries, including China and Russia, did not. See the full list here.

To this day, Serbia considers Kosovo to be part of Serbia — and that causes implications for travelers. If you enter Kosovo via an international border, as I did from Macedonia, you can’t exit through a non-Kosovo Serbian border. If you do so, Serbia will declare that you entered Serbia illegally.

If you want to visit both Serbia and Kosovo, I recommend to do either of two things: 1) Arrive in Serbia, travel to Kosovo (there is no border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo), then return to Serbia and exit Serbia. 2) Arrive in Serbia, travel to Kosovo, and exit via Kosovo.

Though I can’t definitively confirm this, I’ve  heard rumblings that Serbia will not be happy if you arrive with a Kosovo stamp in your passport, so consider taking option 1 if you want to visit Serbia again on the same passport.

Prizren, Kosovo

Prizren

Arriving at a bus stop with taxi drivers who don’t speak a word of English, I’m suddenly stuck. The language spoken here isn’t Serbo-Croatian — it’s Albanian.

That makes sense. Kosovo is a nation of ethnic Albanians — of course they speak Albanian!

Albanian pride is on display here, the double-headed eagle on a blood-red background filling signs and banners in the streets. There are far more Albanian flags here than Kosovan flags — you even see Albanian flag sellers walking up and down the thoroughfares.

Sitting in a cafe beside the faint river, I think to myself that my waiter reminds me of Tony Dovolani from Dancing with the Stars – and then remember that he’s Albanian. And that’s not all — a quick Google search tells me that not only is Tony Albanian, he was born in Kosovo.

UNESCO-listed Prizren Church

Kosovo has one UNESCO World Heritage Site — Medieval Monuments in Kosovo — and one of them is in Prizren: the Church of the Virgin of Leviša. My Lonely Planet chapter described the entrance as “unwelcoming”; turns out that “unwelcoming” is a euphemism for “closed and topped with barbed wire.”

Well, at least I got pictures. Does that count as visiting the site? We’ll see.

Prizren, Kosovo

Prizren is nice — charming, as one might say — but there’s not a lot to do here, and though I love to climb to the highest point in every town, there’s no way I’m climbing to that fortress in 98-degree weather (37 C). It’s good to visit for a few hours and doable as a day trip from either Skopje or Pristina.

After half the afternoon in Prizren, I’m ready to hit up the big city.

Prishtina Architecture

Pristina

The bus ride from Prizren to Pristina is one of the stranger ones I’ve taken — the driver seems to pick up everyone we drive past, then drop them off after a mile or two. No payment necessary.

Pristina is Kosovo’s capital and it’s the largest city in Kosovo, complete with all the big city amenities: some great cafes and delicious food, not to mention a pretty cool hostel. And on top of that, the prices in Kosovo are nearly as cheap as Macedonia.

But for me, the greatest attraction in Pristina is this:

Bill Clinton Statue

The Bill Clinton statue, just off Avenida Bil Klinton. It’s apparently a rite of passage for every American Kosovo traveler to get a shot with Bill — not that I saw another American visitor during the duration of my visit — and of course I joined in.

Me and Bill Clinton in Prishtina

The shop next door cracked me up:

Hillary Store

The architecture in Pristina is pretty interesting as well — among your typical Eastern European blocks, you find a few buildings that make you wonder whether the architect was doing LSD. This is the library.

Prishtina Library

Pristina has the potential to become a spot on the ever-trod Balkan backpacking trail — but for now, I found only a few other backpackers in this city and this country. Pristina is not an obvious kind of destination. You don’t come here to check tourist attractions off on a list — you come here to feel the atmosphere and get to know it on a micro level.

After being so warmly welcomed by everyone I met, the greatest pleasure of Kosovo lies in getting to know the people. That’s the single greatest part of visiting Kosovo, and one that I hope to experience again.

 

Comments

50 Responses to “Kosovo: A Warm Welcome from a Newborn Country”
  1. DebbZie says:

    I’ve just got back from a trip to Balkan countries and loved it there.
    Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia are on my list now, looks like a beautiful places to visit. Thanks for sharing, Kate :)

  2. Kerry says:

    HOLY CRAP, THAT IS A GIANT STATUE OF BILL CLINTON

    WHAT

    I HAVE TO GO THERE

  3. Laura says:

    Beautiful post – your description of the welcome you received and the warmness of the people is lovely; Kosovo was never really on my travel radar before, but now it definitely is!

  4. Bradley says:

    The Bill statue next to the Hillary store is one of the funnier things Ive seen in a while. I really enjoy your posts and have become a regular on your site. It looks like a beautiful country and the kindness of the people just might make it a trip I’ll have to make.

  5. Had no idea about entering Serbia after Kosovo being a no no… thanks for the heads up!

    Also, pretty sure as an American I NEED to go and get a picture with that Bill Clinton statue. So funny!

  6. kami says:

    I’m planning to visit Kosovo in November and reading after your awesome experience there I’m getting pretty excited. I was actually planning to stop only in Prizren but I might consider visiting Pristina too. I just need to figure out the whole passport thing so I won’t have too many problems (but then I’ve heard so many versions of what’s the best way to travel there that I don’t know anymore)

  7. Stefania says:

    I found that admiration and fascination for everything American among Albanians as well. I haven’t been there yet, but I had several flatmates from Albania.

    There are a lot of people from Kosovo in Italy, and in my home village in northern Italy. They are indeed warm people.

    PS: that library is so cool!

  8. Stacy A says:

    Hi Kate! I really enjoyed your post about Kosovo as with so many of your travel adventures. I can give you two reasons why Spain has not and most likely won’t support Kosovo’s independence: Cataluña and Basque Country! Those two regions in Spain have separatist movements and the Spanish government would look highly hypocritical if it supported Kosovo. Not that bizarre after all!

  9. Leyla Giray says:

    Really interesting piece on Kosovo. I dipped into the country for an hour – the easiest road between northern and southern Albania is via Kosovo so there’s a brand new road designed just for that purpose. I wasn’t that welcomed – at least not by the other passengers on my minibus, who rightly worried our border crossing would be slowed down by the presence of foreigners. They were right.

    One thing that struck me as soon as I crossed the border from Albania was the abundance of graveyards everywhere, thousands of graves, all neatly ordered, a sad reminder of that awful war. Reading your piece I’m tempted to return and spend a bit of time in Kosovo rather than zipping through as I did…

  10. Györgyi says:

    I felt the same friendly welcome in Albania last year. We spent a night at a nice camping in Barbullush, North Albania and there was a bachelor party next door. We were invited to join and the homeowners shared their food, their wine, their joy with us. Everybody was dancing and celebrating, even the oldest lady from the family danced with the young. The next morning we woke up with a little hangover from the wine and little sleep, and while stretching in front of the camping’s entrance we saw the same old lady sitting on her cart leading her donkey on the way. She greeted us with a fresh, broad smile when passing by. That was the moment when we really felt we should get ourselves together. :)
    The friendliness of the people was the best thing in Albania, at least for me. :)

  11. I found Montenegro to be quite similar – my friend and I were invited to beers and raki, greeted with pats on the back and told how wonderful the States is. Considering that Montenegro is about as young, if not younger, it was pretty sweet to watch a country just coming to grips with their history and looking ahead.

  12. Tyler says:

    Loving your recent series on these Balkan countries. We hadn’t planned on visiting when we went to Europe, but your posts have me rethinking that strategy…

  13. Emily says:

    I’ve always wanted to get to Kosovo! So happy to hear about the good experiences you’ve had there.

  14. Lindsey says:

    Really interesting post, Kate. I hadn’t heard of the Kosovo/Serbia entrance issues – a good thing to keep in mind!

  15. I love meeting such warm and friendly locals! Also yes, it totally counts as visiting the site. We won’t tell anyone ;) Great post.

    Happy travels!

  16. Liz says:

    Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania are next up on my travel list. Did you feel safe in Kosovo? I heard a rumor (of course its a rumor) that taking busses there is not the best idea as they sometimes get robbed. Did you hear any stories like this? It could be from several years ago and I’m not sure how seriously to take the warning.

  17. Robert says:

    Wow, we never thought of Kosovo as a destination, but it sounds interesting. Hopefully some day we’ll make it.

  18. Dafina says:

    Dear Katie,

    Im glad you had a good experience in Kosovo. And, you shared it. I was impressed when I returned to Kosovo from USA and saw Bill Clinton’s statue -but we Love him :).

  19. Christine says:

    Wow! Cool. To be honest, Kosovo is somewhere I’d never have considered to backpack through, but hearing how hospitable everyone makes me change my mind! Thanks for the info, super interesting.

  20. I would love to see what Kosovo is like now. Being a post-war country probably doesn’t help much with tourism, so I hope that more tourists will go there in the future to help with its recovery.

  21. That has to be one of the best welcomes ever! Kosovo is not one of the places I’ve thought about visiting (which is true of a lot of the interesting places you’re posting about recently) but it might be worth it just for the friendliness. I could pretend to be American :o)

  22. stephanie says:

    Kosovo looks like such a beautiful country! I love travelling places that are less developed like Northern Laos and parts of Sri Lanka. They have a beautiful innocence to them and you get to see what a country is really like!

    I love the statue of Bill Clinton!

  23. I’m gutted I didn’t have the time to visit Kosovo and Macedonia when I was in Serbia…. I heard similar stories of warmth and hospitality.

    Regarding the passport thing, I’ve been told that if you rock up to Serbia with a Kosovo stamp they simply ignore it or cross it out and restamp it/stamp over it with a Serbian entry stamp of the same date…

  24. Vanja says:

    Dear Kate,
    with my deepest regret, I must say that I am withdrawing from your fan page. It has been wonderful reading about your journeys, but this article calls it offs for me. Unfortunately, I found it biased, one-sided, and insulting. I was 18 and in Belgrade when Serbian CITIZENS were bombed uninterruptedly for 78 days by stealth planes. I was 6 when my family was forced by the Albanians to leave Kosovo, just like many other Serbian families.

    By no means do I expect from you to get involved in the local conflict, but at least spare the readers like me poorly informed and biased journalism.

    Thank you,
    Vanja Bokun

  25. Sam says:

    I love that you were able to glean from the guy opposite you on the bus that he had four kids and that he was surprised you didn’t have any despite being engaged just through body language communication. Those are the moments that my faith in humanity is restored!

  26. Arianwen says:

    I can’t believe some border control agents are so weird about how you entered the country. Ok, so they might have issues with Kosovo’s independence, but surely they can see when a traveller has innocently crossed a border on an extended trip through Europe!

  27. Jennifer says:

    What a wonderful glimpse into a unique country! I want to explore Eastern Europe so badly. So many quirks and rich histories.

    Random question: Where did you get your sunglasses?! They are lovely!

  28. Kirstie says:

    On my recent Balkans trip, I chose to circumvent Kosovo because I had heard of passport control issues and was mistakenly under the impression that it still isn’t entirely safe. I can’t tell you how many backpackers I met on the trip who had been to and absolutely loved Kosovo! I don’t know when I’ll make it to the Balkans next, but Kosovo, as well as Sarajevo and Novi Sad, are high on my bucket list. I LOVED the Balkans and can’t wait for an opportunity to return.

  29. That library is TRIPPY. Thanks for sharing your photos and experience!

  30. Kosovo, what an interesting place to visit. seems so classic and friendly to me.

  31. Teuta says:

    Glad that u liked Kosova. I wish everyone a wonderful stay here. Tell u the truth i never noticed the Hillary store, and that is real funny lol.

  32. Jetmir says:

    This is a pretty cool artical. Kosova is where I was born. And I’m going there this July. It’s pretty interesting that some Americans actually like to visit Kosova. I find it kinda a boring lol. Although I hope to see some Americans in my flight lol.

  33. Eric says:

    I must agree with Vanja – this article though interesting from a travel perspective, was highly biased against Serbia. You should do more research than simply parroting words such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and just taking the western and NATO spin at their word. I’m an American who travels throughout the world, in Belgrade now, and it sickens me to think about what the US and NATO were doing to the beautiful city and it’s people only 15 years ago over something that was none of their business; a civil war in essence that resulted from over 600 years of history involving the Serbs, the Ottoman, and then the Albanians who became majority in Kosovo during Ottoman control, and seemed to do their fair share of damage once returned to Serbia in the early 20th Century. I don’t care to take sides, but I get quite annoyed with Americans who know little and just repeat what the govt and media tells. At least you’re out there traveling and trying to be aware, but do more research.

  34. Nelvino says:

    Visited Kosovo this summer, I can assure still the same…peeps r very welcoming
    :)

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