Balkans                                          2016

Balkans 2016 Albania Kosovo Macedonia

Balkans - Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia - 2016


Bright sunshine and clear, blue skies at 6:30am were sufficient reasons for Di and I to take a pre-breakfast walk up to the top of Prizren Fortress before breakfast this morning.  For some reason, the steep gradient seemed even steeper in the early morning that it had been two days earlier, but we made it to the summit in just under 20 minutes after leaving the door of our hotel room.

The morning light over Prizren was sensational, highlighting the orange terracotta roofs and the pastel colours of the walls against the green foliage on the surrounding hills, the azure blue sky above and even some white patches of snow on some distant mountaintops.

Taking an early morning walk meant that we left Prizren a little later than planned, but we weren’t worried as our planned drive for the day to Kosovo’s capital city, Priština, was only 84 kilometres, and estimated to take less than an hour and a half.

We took the more scenic drive to Priština through the town of Shtime, arriving on the outskirts of the city at a little before midday.  Rather than driving right into Priština, we decided to call in to the peripheral town of Graçanicë (also known as Gračanica), 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of Priština.  Unlike most of Kosovo, which has been dominated by
ethnic Albanians since independence from Serbia, Graçanicë is primarily a town of Serbian people.  Initially a guarded enclave for Serbs, the village is now open and relaxed.

The reason for calling in to Graçanicë was to visit the monastery with its well preserved 14th century frescoes.  The present monastery building was completed in 1322, and is a mix of Gothic and Byzantine architectural styles.  Although the frescoes have obviously faded a little during the 700 years since they were painted, and despite the interior’s darkness, the frescoes still appeared clear and colourful, covering the walls right up to and including the high domed ceiling overhead.  It was easy to understand why our guidebook described Graçanicë as “a must-do”, probably the most impressive sight in Priština.

In fact, the guidebook didn’t give Priština (or Prishtina as it is also known) a particularly good write-up overall.  It began its chapter on the city: “Prishtina is not a city you fall in love with at first sight.  It is messy, with centuries-old Ottoman heritage competing with Communist designs and recently built architectural monstrosities.”

I certainly didn’t fall in love with Priština the last time I visited, which was in 1987.  Then an outer regional city within Yugoslavia, Priština struck me as a frontier town, with menacing recent migrants acting in a hostile manner to visitors.  It was colourless and dusty, although there were some new large-scale constructions underway using designs that might be called ‘ambitious’ if one were searching for a polite term.  We didn’t stay overnight in Priština in 1987; it was simply a place we had to pass through.  I remember getting some photos as quickly as I could, usually without getting out of the car because I didn’t want to attract unwelcome attention when travelling with three young children, and I drive onwards as quickly as I could.

Priština today is a very different place.  It is now a relaxed, colourful city, with a friendly, welcoming population and a sense of affluence that was markedly absent in 1987.  To be fair, it is also a living, breathing, outdoor museum of Communist urban planning with high rise housing blocks and, in places, crumbling concrete and iron infrastructure.  Among the
interesting signs of change, Vladimir Lenin Street has now been re-named Bill Klinton Boulevard, which intersects with Xhorxh Bush Boulevard (named after “W”, not “41”).
We checked into our hotel, the Garden Hotel on the southern outskirts of the city.  Even being on the southern outskirts placed us just a three kilometre walk from the city centre, and as Di and I both like walking and the weather looked good, we decided to avoid parking problems by walking into the city and back again.

This was a good decision, as it enabled us to see the detail of local sights, such as vegetable gardening in between housing estates, local shops and schools, and less appealing aspects of the city like its street-side rubbish disposal system and its dusty construction sites.

Our first destination was the Newborn Monument, a new landmark in Priština that was unveiled at the time of Kosovo’s independence in front of the Youth and Sports Palace.  This is a popular place for photographs in Priština, which has comparatively few landmarks, and as we found today, is also a popular place for children to climb.  The monument is covered with graffiti, which are officially expressions of appreciation by the masses, but which seemed more personally affectionate from the examples I saw surrounded by love-hearts.

A walk through some parkland brought us to Christ the Saviour Cathedral.  The construction of this Serbian Orthodox cathedral commenced in 1995, but it is sitting unfinished and abandoned as a result of the war of 1998-99.  Like most Serbian things in Kosovo at the moment, the cathedral is definitely ‘out of fashion’.

Beside the unfinished cathedral is one of Priština’s more interesting new buildings, the National Library.  Ranked number 19 in ‘The Telegraph’s list of ‘the world’s 30 ugliest buildings’, it was designed by the Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic and opened in late 1982.  The design, which is meant to be a modern blend of Byzantine and Islamic architectural forms wrapped up in a metal fishing net, is very controversial because its layout is said to connect the 99 translucent domes with symbolic representations of traditional Albanian hats, thus causing great offense to Serbs.

Less controversial (I think) is the new Mother Teresa Cathedral (officially the Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa in Priština), under construction on the corner of Bill Klinton and Xhorxh Bush Boulevards.  Construction of this huge Catholic Cathedral began in 2007, and it was opened in 2010 even though it was still under construction.  As it commemorates the life of an
ethnic Albanian, the project seems to be supported by the majority of the population.

One of the things that has puzzled me throughout our travels through Kosovo is the large number of Albanian flags visible — vastly outnumbering Kosovo’s own national flag.  I understand that the Albanian ethnic group has adopted the Albanian national flag as its own, and of course I understand that the ethnic Albanians defeated the Serbs in the war of independence on 1998-99 with extensive NATO support.  To me, it just seems a bit ambiguous when an ethnic adopts the flag of another nation to the extent that it is flown far more widely than the country’s own national flag.


Day 6 - Prizren to Priština, Kosovo

Saturday 4 June 2016