Pristina, Kosovo day tour from Skopje

After our Skopje tour, Alex, Bobby and Ann met our driver organized through the Marriott Skopje hotel in the lobby for our afternoon trip to Pristina, Kosovo. The day before we got to work getting in touch with a Kosovo guide contact, Bekim, that Nida had, and also started figuring out with the larger group who might be interested in joining, and the logistics of how we would get there. Half the group was interested initially, but interest waned rapidly so it ended up just being us 5, which made the transportation part easier since we wouldn’t need a bus after all. The hotel concierge arranged the driver for several hundred Euros, and we settled on a price with the guide of about the same, who would give us a 2 hour private tour of Pristina. The cost ended up being about $80pp, pretty reasonable for a last minute endeavor.

The driver was hilarious and entertained us with limited English but lots of smiles and laughs to the North Macedonian border with Kosovo, and then onwards to the capital city Pristina. The border crossing took about 15 minutes and was pretty seamless. Alex was tempted to test out some alternate identification card that he heard was valid in Kosovo – the driver asked the border agent about it and learned it wasn’t possible – all for the best, we didn’t need to introduce any chaos into the trip. The drive in total was about 2 hours one way, and we marveled on the way in on all the suburban construction, development, and hence money pouring in to the country. No doubt thanks to the US’s interest and investment after the war. With all this growth also came gridlock – both getting in and out of Pristina we spent nearly 30 minutes crawling along.

We met Bekim, our guide, at the Newborn monument, created to reflect the new country born in Feb 2008 when Kosovo formally declared its independence from Serbia. In 2023, the letters were rearranged to “NoNewBR”, standing in solidarity with Ukraine and representing “No New Broken Republic”. Those were the letters we arrived to, and in fact, there were many yellow and blue flags and motifs throughout the city. Kosovo was extremely pro-Western and felt kinship with Ukraine, given its own plight battling Russian and Yugoslavian influence.

Bekim unfolded the history as we walked around the city center, which consisted of a large pedestrian mall surrounded by several important economic areas, historic religious buildings, and the university. Across the pedestrian area there was a lot of interesting street art, and the city felt very young and vibrant. There was also a good deal of Americana kitsch and references to US culture smattered about.

Kosovo had been at the crossroads of civilizations for millennia, much like it’s neighbors. Occupied and accultured by the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, Pristina feel in the province called Bulgaria, and traded back and forth with being part of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Byzantine rule ushered in Christianity until the Ottoman Empire rolled in during the 14th/15th century when Byzantine rule weakened, and a shift of population to Albanian Muslim began. As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble, as in neighboring countries, Kosovo was claimed by both neighboring Albania (Muslim) on the West and Serbia (Orthodox) to the north. In the lead up to World War I, as part of the First Balkan War in 1912, Serbian forces took Pristina, leading to a significant massacre of ethnic Albanians and an attempt to reshape the region’s culture via ethnic genocide (read about the Massacres of Albanians in the Balkan Wars on Wikipedia) – Christians and Turks in the region were generally safe while ethnic Albanians were targeted (the price of the fez drastically increased). Then, in 1915 Bulgaria eventually occupied Kosovo in 1915 and took Pristina.

As a reminder, here’s a summary from Gemini GenAI around the Balkan Wars and their linkage to World War I:

“The First Balkan War (1912–1913) was one of a series of conflicts that contributed to the start of World War I. The war was fought between four Balkan states and Turkey over the redistribution of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories. The war increased tensions in the Balkans and led to a complex network of alliances between European nations that would eventually contribute to the escalation of the conflict into World War I. “

In 1918, Kosovo was “liberated” by the French and essentially returned to Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia surrendered to the Axis in World War II, Mussolini declared a “greater Albania” then ethnic Albanian culture began to resurge, also driving out and eradicating the Jewish population. The pendulum also swung back here around against ethnic Serbs, many of which were killed or exiled. In the aftermath of WWII, Kosovo and Pristina were returned to Yugoslavia, and continued oppression of the ethnic Albanians gained a foothold once more.

The back and forth over the centuries all wove the tapestry underpinning the further flashpoint in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia unraveled. As we all may remember, Yugoslavia again began purging ethnic Albanians from the region, which brought Pristina into the fighting in 1999. Most Albanians fled, and a NATO presence was established. At the end of the war, Serbs were persecuted by groups of ethnic Albanians extremists, and most Serbs fled. The pendulum swung back.

We learned from Bekim that he had been a child fleeing Kosovo during the Kosovo War, and remembered they were only able to make it out because they had a little means, enough to not get noticed by the Serbians. Others weren’t so lucky, and Serbians were also collecting passports, deeds, valuables on their way out. He was part of the 500,000 Kosovar refugees who were displaced from their homeland during that time.

Being in Kosovo allowed us to see how everything we had learned came together, with forces clashing time and time again in the small but mighty country. We were grateful for the opportunity to do the side tour and were surprised that Gate 1 hadn’t formally found a way to weave it into its itinerary. While we would not likely return, we were inspired by the rapid growth and economic development, and appreciated its solidarity with Ukraine and the West. Over the years since the war, and with the help of the EU and NATO, Kosovo has started working on the plan that leads to joining the EU. The roads and the development is just the start. While the rest of former Yugoslavia may need to join together to form a stronger path to the EU, Kosovo, given its unique circumstances and direct support, may have a faster and independent path. It applied for membership in 2022.

Since the 1990s Balkan War and the Kosovo War, foreign investment has poured into Kosovo, largely rebuilding it and making it an attractive place to live and do business in the region. Pristina’s International Airport opened a new terminal in 2013, which connected it more to the world. Then, the Albania-Kosovo motorway, and the motorway connecting Pristina to Skopje was completed. This was the very road we traveled on, and the road was shiny, new, and huge. This is also the time period that luxury hotel brands and businesses began pouring in, with many statues to Western leaders responsible for the Kosovo War intervention and the economic redevelopment, were erected. We saw the Clinton statue on the way in, as well as a Margaret Thatcher status, while a boulevard was named after Bush.

Our first stop was the very provoking Heroinat Memorial, which depicts an Albanian woman using 20,000 pins. Each pin represents a woman raped during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999. The memorial did its job and thoroughly moved us.

Bekim the brought us by the main church in Pristina, the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa, which was recently build as Kosovo also leaned in to the claim on Mother Teresa. The construction of this Catholic church was a little controversial, in that a minority of citizens are actually Catholic.

Then, we glimpsed the oldest mosque in Pristina, the Imperial Mosque, built in 1461 by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. It was badly damaged from World War II and the earthquake in 1955, and is slowly being restored as it is viewed as an important cultural site.

The National Library of Kosovo took the cake from an architectural perspective, and is considered one of the ugliest buildings in the world. We really enjoyed it because of how it encapsulated Ottoman, Byzantine, and Albanian (domes that looked like the Albanian plisi hats) cultural elements.

Our tour ended back on the main promenade, where we saw a few more statues, and then back to the Newborn monument where our driver was already waiting, early.

We used the restrooms (luckily Bekim had local coin, but there ended up being no attendant to charge us), before getting back in the car. Very happy with the experience and the fact that it all came together at the last minute, netting us each another country unexpectedly, the car ride home was mostly nodding off to glimpses of rivers and hills on the gloriously kept road from Pristina to Skopje (other than the small piece under construction still in North Macedonia).

And we were back once again in Skopje 2 hours later, delayed a little due to the heavy traffic in Pristina.

That night, we finally got to enjoy a meal on our own, eating cuisine that offered some variety to the regional fare we were definitely sick of at this point – Mexican! The Amigos restaurant offered a great change of pace, and hilariously, the next day we found out that many other Gate 1 travelers in our group also ended up there for the same reasons. It felt good to celebrate another successful day, with an element of adventure of arranging the Kosovo tour on the fly. Another day, another country!


About therestlessroad

The tar in the street starts to melt from the heat And the sweats runnin’ down from my hair I walked 20 miles and I’m dragging my feet And I’ll walk 20 more I don’t care And I’ll wander this world, wander this world Wander this world, wander this world all alone I’m like a ghost some people can’t see Others drive by and stare A shadow that drifts by the side of the road It’s like I’m not even there And I’ll wander this world, wander this world Wander this world, wander this world all alone Well I’ve never been part of the game The life that I live is my own All that I know is that I was born To wander this world all alone, all alone Some people are born with their lives all laid out And all their success is assured Some people work hard all their lives for nothin’ They take it and don’t say a word They don’t say a word Sometimes it’s like I don’t even exist Even God has lost track of my soul Why else would he leave me out here like this To wander this world all alone And I’ll wander this world, wander this world Wander this world, wander this world all alone –Jonny Lang, “Wander This World”

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