War zone? No. Bustling and anything other than a down and out- yes.
If you were expecting a war-torn country full of half-destroyed buildings and refugees in mourning, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Kosovo’s capital is as full of domestic life as any Paris, Perth or Prague – just without the hordes of tourists that come with. Expect instead, plenty of well-dressed and put-together Kosovans sunning themselves in the town square, chatting energetically over a coffee on a cafe terrace, or simply going about their daily life.
The air of ambition and energy in Kosovo is as startling as it is inspiring. That alone was enough to put my mother’s mind at rest (the sound of “you are NOT going to Kosovo”, still ringing in my ears”). Despite the fact my relationship with the world’s youngest country getting off to a rocky start – watching Google Maps as the little blue blip whizzed off in the opposite direction I needed to be headed got the old 6am juices flowing. Until I realised my map was upside down – I can safely say, this will be one of your highlights of the Balkans.
Kosovo may be an excellent place the tourism industry has yet to invade, but it’s, to this day, not without its challenges.
First up, you’re going to need to know exactly how to get into and out of the country. Note: Do not attempt to exit Kosovo and travel into Serbia. Due to a fair amount of political instability (namely, Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as an independent country, and considers it still part of their territory), you’ll likely be refused entry into Serbia if you’re bold enough to try it. The Serbian border guards will tell you you’ve entered Serbia illegally (because you won’t have a Serbian entry stamp, just a Kosovan one) and will send you back the way you came to get one.
However, there have been rogue reports of people getting through so don’t take this as gospel – if you’ve got the time and wherewithal to take a punt, by all means try your luck. Exiting Serbia into Kosovo doesn’t seem to be a problem.
It seems the most common way of getting into Kosovo is via Macedonia. We took a return bus ticket from Skopje to Pristina bus terminal, which takes about an hour and a half one way. It’s slightly cheaper to buy a return ticket, rather than pay for two one way tickets – and the return journey timing is pretty flexible.
The Newborn-sign, obviously.
By far the most Instagrammed-locale of Prishtina, the Newborn sign is as gimmicky as it is poignant. It was unveiled on 17 February 2008: the same day Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. While it was once painted bright yellow when it was first unveiled, it’s now taken on the flags of the states that recognize Kosovo as a country.
Four Paws Bear Sanctuary
If you’re up for some Kosovan countryside, and keen to get on personal terms with some brown bears, you’re in luck: the Four Paws bear sanctuary might just be the most magical place in the whole country. The wonderful humans here have spent the last seven years, since the ban on keeping bears came into force, rescuing caged and mistreated bears.
The fuzzy giants, dubbed “restaurant bears”, had mostly been kept in miserable conditions – and are now living the life of luxury in the wide open plains just outside the city. For the measly sum of $1.50, you get 16-acres of bear territory and surrounding views which we’re sure they enjoy almost as much as we did.
You can get any Gjilan-bound bus, which leave fairly often from the main Pristina bus station, and ask to be let off by the Delfina gas station near Mramor – or just say you’re going to Four Paws like we did, it’s fairly well-known now.
Follow the road back past the lakeside, and keep going as it veers off to the right. It’s a pleasant walk through some lovely countryside – which would be more lovely were it not for the masses of rubbish dumped across its radius. Just ignore that.
This little gem is a great insight into how life was, before Kosovo became trendy and the streets adorned by swanky cafes. This house, once owned by the family of Emin Gjikolli, dates back to the Ottoman Kosovo period – with plenty of tools, lifestyle items and traditional costumes on display. You’ll get a hugely entertaining guide to walk you through the wooden halls, full with interesting tidbits and anecdotes. Best of all, there’s no admission fee – so best to leave a little something in the tip jar on your way out.
Just when you thought Pristina couldn’t get any more bustling and chaotic – you stumble into the rambling alleyways of the bazaar. This was once the core place for trade in Old Pristina, dating back to the 15th century when it was built.
With everything from cheap Chinese goods, to souvenirs, to fresh fruit and produce – you’ll find a happy mix of tourists (of which there are admittedly very few) and locals ambling the gangways here. If you’re lucky, you might even get a very heartfelt marriage proposal like we did.
Guesthouse Valenia: Also known as Guesthouse Professor for the emphatic elderly man who runs it, this tidy guesthouse is set on (a rather steep) hill about ten minutes walk from the city centre. The rooms are decent and cheap – nine euros will get you a separate room with a shared bathroom, and you’ll pay about 5 euro more for your own.
Top tip: Stay there in low season in a shared bathroom situation and you’ll get your own bathroom anyway. Top tip #2: don’t leave food in the fridge. We haven’t quite got over the devastation of an unknown bandit making off with our chocolate horde.
Taverna Tirona: This eclectic hipster cafe embodies everything that Pristina is all about: young, bustling energy, a creative atmosphere, and interactions with a smile. The Pljieskavica we had here is up there with the best meal we had on all our travels – and we turned a single trip into “we’re eating here every single day we’re here”. A full plate of deliciously-spiced beef or lamb, with chips, will set you back the princely sum of $2.50.