Guest Blogger and my good friend John Seale bring us a four part series on his recent journeys, beginning with a brief layover in Vienna and continuing today in Prishtina, Kosovo. John is one of my frequent travel partners, from across Texas to the other side of the world (2 trips to Kenya). From Texas to Beyond is excited to bring you his unique perspectives on travel, along with some fascinating locations in Kosovo and Albania.
Europe is a small continent where numerous ethnic groups are smashed together in close proximity. The Balkans are the same way, but on an even smaller scale. The sheer number of countries that Yugoslavia broke into (7) tells you how diverse the region is. My wife and I had the opportunity to visit Kosovo and Albania in 2015, as my sister has lived there for a number of years. Kosovo is ethnically and linguistically Albanian, but for several years it was yoked with Serbia, with whom they share almost nothing except mutual dislike. Since their independence, Kosovo is now a nearly unknown destination for tourists.
I won’t lie – the fact that my sister speaks fluent Albanian was an enormous plus on this trip. Getting around in Kosovo is a piece of cake with a car and a guide. Be wary of simply renting a car, because although signage is improving rapidly, you are still guaranteed to miss plenty of turns. A quick online search reveals very affordable buses and taxis available between cities and in the capital, Prishtina. However, the ease of getting to tourist destinations would require much more research, which may be limited in availability or accuracy online. English is also not prevalent, but it’s growing, especially among the younger generation.
That aside, however, Kosovo is a very inexpensive place to visit with beautiful and enjoyable destinations and incredible culture. When in Kosovo, you can’t miss having a delicious macchiato in one of the numerous cafés. Locals will tell you they are better than in Italy. If you are fortunate enough to be invited into somebody’s home, you’ll probably enjoy coffee or tea in the Turkish style, owing to the Ottoman influence on the region. Kosovar hospitality and the formality of a visit to someone’s home may rival any other culture I’ve been in. They generously serve you food and drink (pro tip: until you take your spoon out of your tea glass) and make you feel welcome. Alcohol is even reasonably prevalent (for a primarily Muslim nation) in beer and locally brewed rakia, a strong fruit liquor.
Prishtina, the capital, is where you’ll begin your journey. It’s a large city with a generous downtown that you should visit. Look for a store selling filigree, a tarnished silver, which should be your go-to souvenir of the trip. Because Kosovo is an EU protectorate, they use the Euro. This has helped to stabilize the country a great deal. Credit cards are decently widely accepted, and ATMs are easily found. I felt that something was odd in Prishtina until it hit me – almost every building you see is a residential one. Where are the offices, where are the industries? They are scant. Unemployment is high, and construction seems like the primary viable industry. Although communism wasn’t pretty, when the Iron Curtain fell, this region suffered the closure of all the factories. Now they are all crumbling.
Stop by Bill Clinton Avenue, where you’ll find a statue to the man who brought the US into the war to liberate Kosovo. Because of him, Kosovo may be about the only country other than the USA that celebrates American Independence Day. Near downtown, the popular place for selfies is called Newborn, which is giant letters of the word that serves as a gathering spot for Kosovars. Also look for statues to Mother Teresa, who was Albanian, and Skenderbeu, the legendary Albanian warrior who held the Ottomans at bay for his entire lifetime.
Unfortunately, the Yugoslav government worked to destroy much of the history in and around Prishtina. There aren’t a lot of Ottoman-era buildings remaining, which leaves Prishtina feeling new and polished. The city feels young, which it is – one 2013 study showed that 23% of the population was aged 16-27. You’ll find them out about when you visit the parks. There are two – City Park near the city center, and the much larger Gërmia Park on the outskirts.
We didn’t get to visit because it was closed, but near downtown Prishtina you’ll find the Ethnographic Museum. This is a worthwhile stop to learn more about Kosovo and its history. There’s also a Kosovo Museum. There’s good food to be had in Prishtina as well. Try pite, a vegetable-filled pastry made from phyllo dough. Also look for a doner, which is a sandwich made from lamb or beef cooked on a vertical rotisserie. A burek is a tasty meat pie that can have all sorts of different fillings. Albanian cuisine has delicious options for meats, breads, and vegetables, and emphasizes fruit for dessert. For a fine dining experience, I recommend Restaurant Rron, on the edge of town.
Don’t end your vacation in Kosovo in Prishtina – venture out to the smaller cities! In our next post we’ll explore the rest of Kosovo.
About The Author: John Seale might be called a “xenophile” – he loves geography, cultures, and people groups all over the world. He’s traveled through Central and South America, the Balkans, and East Africa with ministries that he volunteers with. He and his wife Katie live in Dallas, where he is the Director of Operations for LINC North Texas, a community ministry. He has a personal blog called Every New Day.