As we made our way through the Balkans on our 4 month trip around Eastern Europe this year the country we knew least what to expect from was the newest: Kosovo. A country whose name brings about images of war, refugees and suffering, even the county itself is still a controversial concept across the region. Not too many people sit on the fence here with regards their in limbo independence. What we found in this “Newborn” country was a culture combination we never expected, from a modern capital to Ottoman culture and Albanian identity and Yugoslavian memories. Kosovo took us my surprise on many levels.
Visiting the modern capital
We were unsure what to expect of the capital Pristina, would it be the broken and bombed out place the name suggests, or would it be a place of tradition and history. What we found was a strange city in many respects, the most accurate way to describe it would be an unremarkable and yet infinitely fascinating. It is much more modern that we expected it to be, much more forward and youthful.
Observing everyday life
Being a new country, only declaring independence in 2008 it lives up to its young age in the capital. There is a real vibrance and soul here, if not many “sights” to see. There is a real wonder in everyday life in this buzzing capital. Yet there is still history to be found, the overall character is of a modern, progressive and open minded city.
Everyday life here is simple, local and warm. People come together, they make things work and they get on with it. They work together to create life that is just like anywhere else, but in its uniqueness is a truly authentic experience to wander around.
Kosovo might not have the block buster sights, but its everyday trumps the tourist traps of more popular nations in its honestly and approachability.
Heading down south for a taste of traditional Kosovo
Kosovo might be a young country in terms of official independence, but these lands have been inhabited for thousands of years by a multitude of different people. Journeying down to the beautiful city of Prizen in the south of the country this history really comes alive.
Crumbling old Ottoman houses line the stone bridged river as it flows through the city in the shadow of a stunning mountain range. Here traditions sing as loudly as the call to prayer from the beautifully mosaiced 17th century mosque which dominates it centre.
A coming together of cultures
Kosovo is in a unique mixing pot of culture and history. On the surface it appears almost identical to Albania as you breeze through the rural landscape (minus the bunkers!). But look a little closer and the history of the formation of this country shows its face. Churches and Mosques stand side by side, Albanian flags fly just as high as the Kosovan colours.
What makes Kosovo really special is how Albanian and Yugoslavian culture has been combined here. Where Albania was cut off from the rest of the world Kosovo benefitted from the progression of the powerful Yugoslavian nation it as part of. But at the same time it has had to fight and fight for independence, to be recognised on its own and is fiercely proud of that too. That fight and hunger remains in a brave honesty. But the Albania culture and identity is still a huge part of what makes a Kosovan.
Speaking to the young Kosovans in our hostel about the Albanian red that dominates the country. They tell us with pride that they are ethnic Albanians, they share a language, culture and history. But yet they also know they are different, have suffered different battles, wars and persecutions. They have been occupied, denied their identity and independence.
At times you could be forgiven for thinking you are in Albania in Kosovo, but never Serbia. Kosovo still retains an air of a former Yugoslavian nation however. Where Albania still feels somewhat cut off from the rest of the world Kosovo feels like a modern cosmopolitan nation. Like many Yugoslavian’s a lot of Kosovan’s look back on this time with rose tinted nostalgia. Reflecting on their freedom of movement, plentiful jobs and the sharing of cultures with a nation of nation.
True heart and warmth
The real overriding impression that Kosovo leaves you with is an openness and warmth. For a country so victimised the people have retained that very Albanian trait of friendliness and approachability. We were able to speak to so many people over here, from chatting all night with the staff in the hostel to deep conversations on buses and fun chance encounters in the park.
The people of Kosovo love to know who you are and why you are in their tiny and misunderstood country. They speak openly of their suffering, of their identity and continuing struggles but of their overwhelming pride! There are so many things to do in Kosovo it is well worth making the extra effort to visit this often over looked country.