One day of life in the capital of the world’s second newest country.
The Argentinian is checking out today. Good – I can’t wait to get rid of him. He is taking offense for every little thing I do and say, and as hard as I’m trying to take distance, he keeps getting closer like some kind of a masochist. I wanted to do the free walking tour yesterday but since the hostel people gave us the wrong starting point, we missed it, and somehow I ended up spending the whole day with him. As we sat on the steps of Pristina’s brutalist library – often called the ugliest building of the world – he asked me how many people I had slept with. When I refused to answer, he told me that he had slept with over 200.
Look, I’m not calling bullshit – but that piece of information is as likely to be untrue as it was unnecessary.
Luckily, the next day I managed to pry away from him and escape to the National Theatre, this time the right starting point for the free walking tour. A mismatched group of backpackers had already gathered on the steps.
As Balkans gain popularity as a backpacker destination, Kosovo still remains largely unnoticed. In 2018, about 192,000 foreigners visited this small country just south of Serbia, a number that Paris can beat in two days. Mostly this must be due to safety concerns: while the Kosovan war with Serbia ended two decades ago, the country still remains in a strange political limbo after declaring independence in 2008. Still only 115 UN countries recognise its sovereignty. As I posted photos of my trip on Instagram, multiple Serbians – who were not following me – left me comments. I had to use Google Translate to understand the message: “Kosovo is a part of Serbia.”
Nevertheless, Kosovo is a safe destination for tourists looking to get off the beaten path on their European adventure. As word spreads, more and more travellers are arriving in the country, and as the Pristina airport has started servicing flights from many Eastern European capitals, tourist numbers went up by almost 16% last year.
Pristina is a delightful chaos to an adventure-seeker like me. As we steer through the dense crowd at the bazaar, we have to stop and wait for the tail of the group to catch up. One of the Australians looks at us wide-eyed and laughs.
‘Dude, they were selling tasers for five US dollars back there!’
After the tour, I walk over to see one of the stranger attractions in Pristina: a 3-metre statue of the former US president Bill Clinton standing by an avenue named after himself, an arm outstretched to greet the passing Kosovans. This might be the only country in the world where USA is viewed with such admiration: Americans troops played an important part in the war for independence against Serbia, Clinton considered by many to be responsible for the NATO bombing campaign that ended the conflict twenty years ago.
Later I’d visit the National Museum of Kosovo, which is free to see and for a good reason. Most of the treasures were confiscated by Serbia during the war, and the remaining collection is small and badly labelled.
The conflict colours every aspect of life in Kosovo, or so I assume. They are unable to join international unions or travel widely since their passport is not recognised by many countries, and not having full control over their economy – as well as corruption – keeps salaries and the standard of living low by European standards. However, it almost seems like people are not thinking about it. I had asked my Kosovan friend, Lavdi, about this when we had sat at a café the day prior.
‘In Bosnia, it seemed like everyone was only talking about politics. Why is it not the same here?’
‘I think people just want to move on’, she replied. ‘Most of us grew up in the middle of conflicts but we don’t remember it that well. We are just trying to make the best out of the situation and look to the future.’
It makes sense. Kosovo is a demographically young country – half of its population is under 25 years old, and the average age is 29. But while its populace might be ready to move on from its country’s past, there aren’t many the opportunities to effectively do so. Unemployment rates in Kosovo are estimated to be up to 60-70%.
‘Of course, the real number is never that high’, Lavdi reminds me. ‘Many people work under the counter, so they’re not registered in those stats.’
Read more on Kosovo on Lavdi’s blog at Kosovo Girl Travels.
The walk back to the centre is long, and Kosovan traffic enough to drive anyone crazy. It’s time to re-energize. I pick the coffee shop purely by its decorations, drawn in by the cage of small birds by the front door and delicate pink decorations that frame the front window. Inside, tens of sweet treats are stacked in the show case, each looking more mouth-watering than the last.
Did I also mention that Kosovo is one of the cheapest countries in Europe? I pick two cakes and an ice latte; my total comes to 3,5 euros. Another bright side to visiting this strange little country: no mental mathematics needed as long as you’re used to travelling in Europe since the country uses euros – although it is not allowed to mint its own.
If you’re looking for a city with an unrivalled café culture, Pristina should be on top of your list. For most of the day, the small tables lining the streets of the centre are filled with people, sometimes lingering for hours on end with one half-empty cup in hand. Partly this is because of the culture; in the other hand, they do have the time for leisure due to large unemployment rates.
The girl working at the café comes to the table to chat with me. Like most young Kosovans I’ve met so far, her English is perfect; but, as it turns out as I ask her about her tattoos, she has studied in New York where she’s also got her ink done. She also compliments mine. Maybe the reason she dared to approach was because she saw my body art, but in general Kosovans have shown me nothing but great hospitality and friendliness, and I imagine I would have had the same conversation with her even if I had been the one to start it.
All hopped up on sugar and caffeine I wander back on the streets of Pristina when I hear the sound of music down the street. Curious, I follow it to a small square where a gaggle of brightly-dressed children and teenagers in traditional Albanian costumes are settling in lines, their parents and friends making last-minute fix-ups to their costumes. (Most Kosovans are ethnically Albanian; hence the borrowed traditional dress.) Finally everything is ready. The loud music starts again, this time with all of the instruments joining in, and the kids start marching down the main street.
I’m following the parade when I run into some guys from the walking tour earlier. We trail after the parade to a large stage set up in the central square where many Kosovans are already settled on hard concrete steps to face the stage. Carlos goes to buy popcorn and comes back long enough to leave us with the gigantic container, then disappears into the crowd. We sit there for an hour, watching as group after group performs.
Girls in flowing dresses and solemn boys jump, swing, swoon and dance. The music gets louder and louder; I can barely hear Jonathan when he leans in to tell me something.
‘I said we’re going. Do you want to come with?’
As we’re looking for dinner, we come across another parade, this one more modern and significantly different from the one we’d just witnessed. Masses of young men dressed in light blue and white are heading towards the stadium, scarves tied around their necks despite the summer heat and flags adorned with the logo of the local football club raised in the air.
A shady young boy offers to sell us tickets to the game, but it seems like he doesn’t know where he’s going. Negotiating on the step of a small shop, he’s offering a price that seems way too inflated. Later we’d wander back to the stadium and buy ticket at the door for two euros apiece.
Balkan football culture is legendary in its passion. Stadiums fill up easily with fans singing their club’s songs, and at the height of the game, it’s not unusual to see red flares lit up even on the bleachers. I witnessed this first-hand in Croatia which played its best World Cup in twenty years as I was there, coming in second after being beaten by France. As we arrive at the stadium, we are greeted by rows of empty seats. Rumoured to be a boring game – and later proven to be true – not many Pristinians have bothered to show up, but those that have, never let the lack of crowds let them down.
For the next two and half hours we sit behind a group of young men dressed head to toe in pale blue and white, jumping, chanting and singing. Kosovan football fans have a good reason to celebrate even the smallest games: even though football has a decades-long tradition in the country, its national team has not been recognised by international football organisations until recently.
The first competitive match that the Kosovan football team played, a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, actually took place in my homeland Finland in 2016, where local newspapers wondered if the Kosovan-born Finnish player Perparim Hetemaj would struggle to play against his own country. (A common occurrence for the Kosovan team, I’d imagine, since the war has scattered Kosovans all over Europe and the world.) Meanwhile, the Kosovo team had their own concerns: hours before the game, they still didn’t have a full team.
Just five hours before the game started, they finally received FIFA’s permission to field some players that had previously played for other countries. The team’s first real match ended in a 1-1 tie – a score that surely felt like victory for the previously unrecognised national team. Just four months earlier, the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) had been accepted to become a member of both UEFA and FIFA.
The game ends rather anti-climatically in zero goals. No flares might go off tonight, but cheap Kosovan beer has got to our heads. It’s time to see what Pristina nightlife has to offer.
We link back up with Alyssa and Carlos in Miqt Pub and begrudgingly pay two full euros for a pint of beer. Earlier during the match, we had traded shiny one-euro coins for plastic cups of beer through the metal fence surrounding the stadium. Apparently a rule prohibits the sale of alcohol in the stadium – but not the consumption of it – so we had enjoyed plenty of cheap, unglamorous drinks from the other side of the fence. The pub is cozy, dimly lit, but I can tell people are starting to tire of paying double for their drinks. You know you’ve been in the Balkans for two long when two euros for a pint seems excessive.
It doesn’t take long for Jonathan to suggest we’d walk to M Club. ‘Trust me, it’s the most legendary club in the city’, he assures.
On the outside, M looks as unassuming as any regular house on the block. A few people sit around in the front garden without paying much attention to us as we make our way to the white door protruding from the side of the house. Normally you’d pay an entrance fee, but tonight young Kosovo is asleep; only a handful of party-goers mill inside, and presumably the bouncer has got bored of waiting for new customers and, pardon the pun, bounced.
Walking in feels like walking into a house party but one that has been raving for weeks without stopping. The first floor is undecorated and almost clinical, like it had indeed been someone’s home robbed by party guests, but comfortable couches and arm chairs line the walls and crevices of the living room. This indeed used to be a regular home. After standing empty for two years, it was finally refurbished as a club and an event and music venue.
I follow my new friends upstairs, up the wooden steps where paint has chipped away and into an open room where loud rock music plays and a few people are bobbing their bodies to the beat.
The upstairs bar is set in the corner by a blocked-off spiral staircase, and the young man behind the bar is very much the image of a (rather overgrown) teenager arranging his first house party and dealing out booze from his parents’ liquor cabinet.
We exchange a few words; I can’t remember what is being said. But when I ask for a beer, he gives me one and refuses payment. ‘Hope you’re having fun in Kosovo’, he smirks.
We don’t stay long. It’s a quiet night following a long day, and each one of us is feeling exhaustion weighting on our bones. The others are staying in the hostel next door so I say goodbye to them and climb up the four floors to get to mine. The place is quiet. Only the girl in night shift is sitting on the balcony, smoking weed as always.
I crawl into bed and close the curtain. It is undoubtedly one of the most modern, most comfortable hostels I have ever stayed at. The lacking quality of its facilities are a stark contrast to its brand new interiors; a fact I would come to witness again in the morning as both water and wifi would be cut off.
But that’s just Pristina: modern and shiny, emerging from the struggles of its past rubble, eager and enthusiastic but a little disoriented, a little chaotic, but ever so passionate, so optimistic, so innovative, ready to welcome its future – and foreign tourists – with open arms.
Have you visited Kosovo or would you like to?