(10th January) Kosovo does not spring up on the usual lists of the world’s desirable destinations, nor is it a conventional place that people would first think of. Just mention this landlocked disputed territory, war-torn images of tragic death, fatal bombs, dilapidated buildings and bullet holes overshadowed our mind, not to mention poverty and desperation. Only some inquisitive ones, like us, dare to leave footprints and reveal the mysterious veil of this Balkans place.
The road to Pristina stretched towards the far invisible horizon. Our bus continued trundling southwards, running over the black tarmac so fast that the endless passing of greenery became a hazy blur. “Please be safe. Don’t go wandering around.”, “I will light a candle for you every evening and hope that you are safely sheltered.” Impressive email messages from my friends blinked through my mind when a yesterday’s protest erupted in the capital where protesters threw petrol bombs .to government headquarters. I took a deep breath, gust of cold air chilled my heavy heart that was mixed with anxiety and excitement. What was it to be as a daring pioneer to explore this unknown place, the youngest country in Europe when the others deem it dangerous?
The bus finally stopped, and dropped us on the main centre of Pristina where few historical buildings or monuments are concentrated there, and walkable within half an hour. During Yugoslavia’s Communist regime, Pristina’s old town was heavily modified to build a model city by destroying the olds, thus leaving few major sights nowadays. The Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque, dated back to the 15th century, is currently under restoration. The statue of Ibrahim Rugova, who is the father of the nation that lobbied for western support during the Kosovo War, glued near the main square. In the meantime, a bit further down the street, we came across the statue of Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero who resisted the Ottomans in 15th century. Today, the Kosovo Assembly and government headquarters are located adjacent to the statue of Skanderbeg, with a fence full of photos of perished victims during the Kosovo War.
It was like a haunting reminder of Kosovo’s past, and reminded us how hollowing the scars the country is bearing after more than a decade. As we followed our Albanian guide to walk to the other sides of the city, we saw each varying stall lining with wooden boarder of Albanian tars, fresh fruits, daily grocery and bulky electronics. There also stood outdoor markets of moccasin shoes, saddlers and curriers, among which were from tanning to leather dyeing and belt making. I spot the occasional procession of people wandered in one direction, weaving a little, chatting as they meandered in relaxation despite the turbulent past of their country. Some shoppers headed down to the stall goods, lost in thought and were figuring out what to buy; while cars were trying to squeeze on the narrow road in the midday. Several Kosovar men were standing around, kept staring to us of a young group of Asians in great interest and seemed a bit surprised as we came nearby, asking the euro price of half-dozen of apples.
Back on the main road, to our right, a widely gray pathway leads to the Nena Tereza Boulevard, the main pedestrian drag that stretches for miles, with trendy cafes and clubs that squeezed next to each other. In every few feet away, there would be another food stand where sellers extended a friendly hand of aromatic popcorns and drinks. To grasp a sense of the pace of life, the place deserved much more time to sit back in the outdoor seating area or have a stroll along the boulevard, to feel the energetic vibe of the entire city. At each intersection we were greeted by welcoming sight of waving hands, cordial smile and overwhelming greetings like “Hello, how are you?” in thick English accents. The Kosovars, we found, are more than gracious, and make us feel like a mini-celebrity. Some youngsters in their twenties, looking genuinely interested in us, continued to follow our group by asking where we are from, requesting to take photos with us, exchanging Facebook account and trying to invite us for a coffee.
Despite less photogenic than other European states, we took pleasure in each little discovery in Pristina, and observing small facets of the daily life of Kosovars. Forget the pessimistic comments you have heard and the never-ending associations with war – Pristina is arguably a pleasant place for exploring and feeling the pulse of life in Kosovo. Once you get into conversation, you will soon realise the incredible hospitality by the Kosovars. You are the guest, and you have to be treated as one. ♦
More photos of Pristina, Kosovo:
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