Travelling Light

Prizren, Kosovo, August 22, 2014: Kosovans Are The Nicest People In The World

The bus from Podgorica to Pristina arrived an hour and a half earlier than scheduled. This would explain why we were being flung around so much on the winding mountain roads while we were trying to sleep – the driver was trying to beat his personal best.

We would have enjoyed this bonus time more if it hadn’t been the hour and a half between 4am and 5.30am, during which Pristina offered very limited entertainment options.

The bus station cafe is open 24/7, but at 4am the only option on offer for a hot drink was a coffee. After some discussion in mutually incomprehensible languages, a second waiter was summoned, who understood the Serbian words for “hot chocolate”.

It is not entirely clear what happened in the communication, but we were served two cappuccinos. Jenny took them back inside the cafe and had a conversation with the barista in hand-waving, mime, pointing, and imitating milk-frothing noises, which miraculously succeeded in communicating to him that we crazy foreigners just wanted chocolate topping in hot frothy milk.

Fortified by warm milk, Tom inflated his travel pillow and lay on the floor to get a bit more sleep, while Jenny used the bus terminal WiFi to upload photos and write another note.

Once dawn had broken, Jenny enquired around the bus station and discovered that (unlike every other bus station we have been in so far in Europe) this one had no tourist information point. A helpful worker in one of the transit booths told us that the “must see” places in Pristina were the independence monument, a theatre, a museum, and a park.

Given that it was now pouring with rain, we decided that maybe we would give the Pristina city tour a miss, and move right along to the former capital of Kosovo, Prizren, which was reportedly much prettier and had retained more of its historic buildings. We had one rain-smeared last look at the Pristina bus station, and then settled in for the short ride to Prizren.

A helpful Albanian-speaking gentleman (well, more a  chap, really, in jeans and a T-shirt, with a huge smile) told the bus driver which stop we wanted, so we could get off the bus in the centre of Prizren, rather than riding out to wherever the final bus terminus was.

The first thing we saw when we got off the bus was a wall of meat. As in Serbia and Montenegro, when you ask what is traditional, local food, the answer is always – meat.

A young man came out of the butcher shop and welcomed us to Kosovo. After we had chatted for a few minutes, he gave us some amazing smoked beef Scotch fillet slices.  Then he gave us his phone number and said he would show us around the city. The people here are just lovely.

We walked to the nearby hotel he recommended, but it was full. There was a very famous film festival in progress, and people had come from all around to enjoy the vibe. We bought hot chocolates at the hotel so we could use their WiFi, and booked a room a few kilometres out of town.

While we were catching up with our correspondence, Harbin (the young man from the butcher’s shop) wandered by. We showed him where we were staying, and he told us to have the hotel staff call him when we were ready to go, and he would drive us to our hotel. The people here are amazing.

Harbin drove us to our hotel (despite being only three km from the town centre, it is surrounded by farmland), stopping on the way to buy us Cokes and a block of hazelnut chocolate. He spoke to the proprietor (who didn’t speak English), and told him to treat us like VIPs. We ended up with a huge first-floor room with a balcony, air conditioning, and an ensuite.

After dropping the bags (and pulling out a present for Harbin – some boomerang-shaped fridge magnets we carry for just such occasions) we went back downstairs, and Harbin drive us into town. He was really surprised and pleased to receive a gift – hospitality seems to be a one-way thing, and he considered us his guests at this point.

We parked near the river, and walked around the Old Town. The river walls and the bridge are lovely old stone construction, and there are many mosques and mediaeval buildings in great condition. Apparently walking up and down along the river in the Old Town is the thing to do if you are young and single in Prizren. Dating requires negotiation between two sets of parents, so the only way for young people to check each other out is to “accidentally” pass close to each other in a public place.

The largest mosque in town was open for visitors when we walked past, so we went in for a look. Jenny had to cover her head and shoulders, but Tom’s bare head and exposed knees were no problem.

The mosque is carpeted, with the rows in the carpet pattern showing people where to kneel to form orderly rows for prayer. There was someone vacuuming the carpet, because the 2pm prayer session had just finished.

There is very detailed painting on the ceiling, which looks like Arabic lettering. Another alphabet for us to learn!

The Old Town is full of beautiful, spreading trees, so it is a cool and leafy place to wander – unlike the narrow streets of Kotor and Dubrovnik, which are almost totally devoid of green.

Every street is lined with outdoor areas for bars and restaurants. As busy as it was when we were there, Harbin told us that it gets much busier at night.

We came across some of the UN peacekeeping force, enjoying the view from one of the outsoor seating areas. They were from Ireland, Italy and Austria. Apparently, they have been sent to Prizren from their normal base in Pristina because of the film festival. Whether it is to deter any possible trouble, or just as a PR exercise for the tourists, we were glad to see them looking so relaxed. You always wonder, when you head into a country that has so recently been in chaos and uproar.

Kosovo was war-torn at the turn of the century, as Albania and Serbia contested the right to rule it, and UN peacekeepers entered in 2001, when Kosovo was recognised as an independent country by the UN. There was also a “Kosovo Unrest” period in 2004, during which many Serbian homes, businesses and churches were destroyed.

Even today, the Serbian population of Prizren has not returned. The Serbian orthodox church now has a congregation of approximately 20 people, and the ruined houses in the Serbian quarter are gradually being replaced by tourist accommodation, presumably Albanian-owned tourist accommodation. (The majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians.)

When we have travelled to so many of the Balkan countries, and made friends with people of all nationalities, it is heart-breaking to think of them committing acts of violence against one another. By all reports, the Serbs have been somewhat aggressive toward other groups (for example, the Kosovan independence movement was fuelled by a systematic program of excluding Albanians from government jobs, university
teaching positions, and so on), especially under Slobodan Milošević. However, the Serbs living in Prizren weren’t him, or his army. If only each person could be a person, instead of a colour, a nationality, an ethnicity, a socio-economic status, and a gender.

In the central square of Prizren’s old town is a drinking fountain. Legend has it that if you drink from this fountain, you will definitely return to Prizren. We drank!

From the central square, we visited the Serbian Orthodox church. When it was built in the 1850s, they ran out of money, so they never built the planned balcony terrace, and the pillars that were going to support it w
ere left off at half height.
The wooden shade roof was a compromise.

The church was gutted by fire in 2004, and with a tiny congregation, money for restoration is non-existent. The UN has provided some funds, which has returned the church to working order, but inside, it is the plainest Orthodox church we have ever seen.

Harbin insisted on buying us lunch, because we were his guests. He took us to a restaurant in the old town, where the meat is supplied by his family’s butcher shop. This is traditional chevapis and mixed salads (we thoroughly approve of the tradition of putting shredded cheese on salad). The restaurant had WiFi, so we could show each other pictures and become friends on Facebook.

After lunch, we put on our Tough Guy Pants and climbed the mountain to the Ottoman fortress, which looks down on the old town. They have recently installed a paved pathway to the fortress – Harbin tells us that he and his friends used to scale the mountainside to reach it. The path is slightly more meandering, but never steeper than about a 40 degree angle.

From the fortress, you can have a bird’s eye view of the city, and all the historic buildings. There is evidence that they are renovating the fortress – one corner has been rebuilt, and they are currently rebuilding one of the buildings that was inside the walls. In a few years, this will be a stunning reconstruction.

There is something nice about the gentle, grassy mounds of the unreconstructed fortress, though. They give more of a sense of the passage of time since the fortress was built.

Apparently, the fortress is also a great place to take your wedding photos. Although we arrived on a Friday, there was a wedding shoot in progress. Jenny caught this shot of the bride and groom posing for the photographer.

That’s right – there is no hint of a safety fence on the top of that fortress wall!

We met some German tourists on the fortress wall, who confirmed for us that we had made the right choice in bypassing Pristina. One of them is living in Pristina, and he said that if you know a local, they can show you some hidden gems of bars and cafes that the tourists don’t know about, but to just wander around and look at the city is not really worth it, compared with other places like Prizren.

We had some iced tea at a small stall at the fortress. We suspect it may only have been there because there is a temporary stage set up for seeing films beside the fortress wall. There is a permanent cafe partway down the path, which will do a roaring trade in drinks and ice creams during the summer months!

Finally, Harbin insisted on driving us back to our hotel, even though he lives in the city centre himself. He enjoyed the day as much as we did, because he finds it difficult to find people with whom to practice his English. We cannot say enough how lovely the people are here in Kosovo!

The neighbours around our hotel still use horses and carts to get about. We have seen them in the city, making deliveries to the market, and along the roads out to our hotel. There was one horse and cart in the old town centre, but it was clearly a tourist attraction, not a real working horse and cart.

It’s an interesting mix, because along this road, about half the farms are being converted to tourist accommodation or rows of mansions on small blocks of land, while the others remain stubbornly agricultural. Although it’s a bit out of town, we really enjoy being able to sleep without earplugs!