Marc Perry is a British expat living in Kosovo who has been captivated by its landscapes, where flat plains meet soaring mountains, the kind hospitality of the people, and a fascinating history of the land.
First, forget all images of war… Gone? Good. Kosovo is a vibrant and friendly state full of rewarding experiences for independent travellers. Here are nine things you need to know about Kosovo.
Kosovo’s history has been constantly written and rewritten by major empires with competing territorial claims on the region. The 1998-99 conflict, communism, and Ottoman, medieval Serbian, Byzantine and Roman periods have left the place with plenty to engage with, including a number of UNESCO world heritage sites – the Gračanica and Decani monasteries are an essential visit. Those wishing to travel back in time should explore Janjeva. Nestled in hills 20km south of Pristina, its winding cobbled streets and decaying architecture hint at a history of former glory going back to at least the 12th century. Go now, and you’ll be one of the first.
The population is an exciting mix of Albanians, Turks, Roma, Ashkali and Serbs, and you can walk along the river taking in a variety of influences, from Ottoman mosques, to old Orthodox and Catholic churches via numerous bustling bars and cafés. The annual Docufest, a celebration of short films and documentaries, is one of the highlights of the year, but there are festivals and live street performances throughout the season.
Locals, the vast majority of which are Kosovo-Albanian, go out of their way (literally) to help you. If you ask someone directions you’ll inevitably be taken to your destination and should they not know the way they’ll phone a friend who does. Once, asking a local directions to the bus station transpired into a home-cooked family meal, a bed for the night and then, finally, a lift to the station for me. The service, from taxis to bartenders, is exceptional and honest.
Not only is this remarkable republic only six years old but also 70% of the population is under 35. This makes for a dynamic, fashionable and entrepreneurial culture of businesses, bars, cafés and trendy restaurants. Nightlife varies from sophisticated lounge bars and dance clubs to serene jazz joints and raucous rock bars. Classical music connoisseurs might be fortunate enough to find the Kosovo Philharmonic in town. And don’t miss the most photographed object in the country: the inspired “Newborn” monument, a sculpture symbolising a new beginnings.
Kosovo is a fertile plain surrounded by high mountains with a central spine of rolling hills cutting the flat lands in two. With 50 peaks over 2000m there are plenty of opportunities for hikes, winter skiing on the snowy tops, horseback riding and swimming in natural pools like those at Mirusha waterfalls.
There are streets and children named after them, not to mention a Clinton statue. So if you’re looking for a different view on the world, Kosovo will spin new perspectives. The NATO support in the liberation of the Albanian population from the oppressive regime of Slobodan Milošević was regarded as the most successful example of western intervention in recent history. This means Brits, Americans and others are welcomed with open armed gratitude. Be prepared; it’s highly likely you’ll be thanked personally.
A cup of coffee costs between fifty cents to one euro depending on the café. A traditional meal can be had for as little as €1.50, while a bottle of beer is around €1.
The most popular connections are with Macedonia's capital Skopje, Albania, and Belgrade. Highways are free of congestion and flights from low cost carriers to the region are incredibly inexpensive if booked in advance. There are also two scenic train lines crossing the country connecting Skopje to Pristina then out west to Peja, a city set at the entrance of the Rugova valley gorge. Hostels in Pristina and Prizren are friendly, fun places to stay for around 10 euros per night but there are also rural homestays and plenty of plush hotels in the cities.
There's an enormous amount of products vying for space in your suitcase: wine from the vineyards of the south, exceptionally durable leather goods (including wallets and hiking boots), beer brewed from mountain waters, homemade honey and cheeses, and a sweet homemade brandy. Find local producers and you'll be guaranteed quality.