Pristina, Kosovo

From Skopje the capital of Kosovo was just over two hours away by bus. We walked to the central bus station mid-morning and found a minibus scheduled to leave for Pristina in just fifteen minutes. Our trip turned into one of the more entertaining ones of our travels. A couple of border guards were headed to work, and we stopped to pick up a standing snack order that soon filled the small vehicle with delicious smells. As the driver jumped out to deliver the meals to various guards, our passports were examined and stamped. Kosovo’s mountainous terrain is beautiful, even dressed in winter’s drab colors. A bold highway project is currently in the construction phase, towering above valley villages and aiming to make access to Macedonia easier.

About halfway from the border to Pristina, our bus gave a rattle. By the time we pulled off on to the roadside the engine had quit. A nearby repair shop was not yet open, but our driver hurriedly flagged down another, larger bus, explained the situation and got the driver to agree to take us the rest of the way. Even with this hiccup, we were dropped in Pristina a few minutes earlier than expected.

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The National Library of Kosovo

Pristina isn’t a very large city, and the downtown is especially compact. We began our walking tour with a statue honoring Bill Clinton, who happened to President when NATO intervened during Kosovo’s War for Independence. Next door to the statue a shop called Hillary sells womenswear. During our short trip to Pristina, we noticed more US flags than we’ve seen in years.

Not far down the same street is Kosovo’s National Library. Built in the 1980s, it resembles a Faraday cage or a futuristic prison. It is a distinctly memorable structure. In a sweep of land next to the Library, an abandoned Serbian Orthodox church sits, barred shut and crumbling. Just one of many in the country deserted after the war, there is a lot of division surrounding the future of such structures.

 

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10th anniversary of independence monument, memorial to women victims of war and ethnic cleansing, the Uni’s Chemistry department

We had coffees and a snack at one of the city’s cafes. The coffees – heavily chocolated – were possibly the best we’d had in a region known for its love of the drink. Unemployment is still quite high in Kosovo, and relaxing in a cafe is a common way to pass the day with friends.

Fueled up for more walking, we strolled through a market and eventually to the NewBorn monument constructed to celebrate the young nation, and now sporting a ’10’ in the center to commemorate the 10th anniversary of independence.

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Abandoned Serbian Orthodox church, monument to Bill Clinton, smiley graffiti 

We’d stopped by the National Museum earlier in the day only to be told an event was taking place and they’d be open at one. Heading back we found a crowd watching a dance performance by a troupe dressed in traditional garb. Once that finished, most people dispersed and we shrugged and went inside. No one stopped us, although it was clear some sort of celebration was going on – a string quartet played and hors d’oeuvres covered a table.

The exhibits covered Neolithic to modern times, with objects as diverse as a lead coffin, stylized carvings, and Madeleine Albright’s cowboy hat. As we left, there were cars waiting for ambassadors from several nations. We later learned that these events apparently marked the museum’s grand reopening and that most of it had been closed off for several years prior to this.

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National Museum exhibits, a ceremony marking their reopening

While I think we would have enjoyed a longer stay in Pristina, a day let us cover all the major sights. Almost twenty years after war threatened to destroy the region and ten years after the independence declaration, the city is still making itself into a European capital.

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Skopje, Macedonia

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Skopje from by the river and on Vodno

After five weeks on sun-warmed Malta, we headed to Skopje, Macedonia. Though the weather was relatively mild when we arrived, during the last ten days snow covered the city. Our initial Airbnb booking didn’t work out due to excessive noise and a pervasive moldy smell (a first in 2+ years of travel via Airbnb), but we contacted their support and within a couple of hours we found a different place. Even paying a bit extra to transfer to a new apartment, we think we got a much better deal. The new space had a view overlooking much of the city, and it was nestled on Vodno Mountain’s lower slopes, near the start of hiking trails. A small fireplace kept us cozy on the coldest nights.

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The largest of many Alexander the Great statues

Skopje, the capital of a country that didn’t gain independence until 1991, has been on something of a building streak. In the early 2010s, the party in power put grand monuments and buildings at the top of its agenda. They want to foster a national identity stretching back to Alexander the Great. The airport and highways were named after him, and his likeness graced many of the new statues across the city. Other memorials to poets, writers, religious leaders, and ancient rulers appeared on bridges, in plazas, atop buildings. Picturesque from some angles, the overall effect was a bit jarring. The downtown center is full of Romanesque architecture but the rest of the city (and country) is still struggling. Many Macedonian citizens were angered by this waste of hundreds of millions of dollars, especially when it could have been spent on education or infrastructure.

This construction rush ties into a dispute over the name of the entire country. Since breaking with Serbia, Macedonia’s official name is actually The Former¬†Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Aside from the tongue-twister length, no one likes it. But standing in the way of simply calling themselves Macedonia or the Republic of Macedonia is Greece. Greece insists that because Macedonia is the name of a region within their borders, it cannot also be the name of the nation next door. In fact, both countries share descent from the ‘original’ Macedonians and it is all a bit silly. But to try to reclaim some of that history, the likeness of Alexander, the greatest Macedonian, was sent to grace key points around the nation and serve as bargaining chips. During our stay, the airport and a major highway had ‘Alexander’ removed from their names and there was some hope that the naming fight might be over soon.

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View from and into the Kale Fortress

On one of the few clear-ish days, we walked to the Kale Fortress. The walls are visible from any points around the city, and have been kept in good repair. But the inside wasn’t so lucky. We strolled along the walls, greeted by a handful of friendly stray dogs. A couple of abandoned half-finished constructions dotted the grounds – it looked like botched attempts at a visitor’s center or cafe. Barbed wire blocked access to a old excavation that now held quite a few plastic bottles and chip bags. But the views were among the best in the Old Town and it was one of our few opportunities to see the distant mountains.

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The Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid

Across town, the Church of St. Clement was probably the grandest in the city. From the outside, its multiple domes and arches look incredibly futuristic. In contract, the inside is all traditional – images of saints ring the lower level and a depiction of Jesus fills the largest dome. Several points around the city honor Mother Teresa, who was born and baptized in Skopje.

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Though the main TV stations still go off the air daily, we had no trouble getting our fill of the Olympics or the Superbowl

This month was marked by great sporting events around the world, and Macedonia’s main TV station delivered. Even though they still shut down for several hours each night, they don’t slack on the coverage. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the PyeongChang Olympics ran uninterrupted by commercials or fluff pieces, as did the events that were shown. Two hours of uninterrupted biathlon are no problem! A cable network picked up the Superbowl, broadcasting it to the Balkans, so we watched enough of it to get our American football fill.

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Sporting snacks

Of course, no sports binge is complete without snacking. Like the rest of ex-Yugoslav countries peanut crisps and ajvar (a pepper and eggplant spread), could be bought everywhere. Doritos are making inroads as well, though the flavors were new to us. We had plenty of cevapi and even some trout as well.

In general, food was cheap, and the wine followed suit. Macedonian wine is exported all over Europe as an affordable table wine. At about $2-3 per bottle, we had our choice of reds or whites. My favorite of the month was a bit pricier than that, but still very affordable by US standards – a late harvest Vranec (a traditional grape in the region), was sweet and rich. Clearly, Macedonia knows their wines.

We’ll be following the news in the coming months to see if they settle on a new name, and hopefully can return in a warmer season when the hiking trails open up in the mountains. Everyone we spoke to mentioned Lake Ohrid’s beauty and gorgeous mountain vistas that were too snow-covered for us to visit. Next time!