What do an eccentric library building, a statue of Bill Clinton with disproportionately large hands, and an enormous outdoor pool have in common? They’re all things you will see in Kosovo’s capital city Pristina, one of the oddest and most intriguing places I have ever visited. Back in 2017, I spent three days in Pristina as part of a bigger trip around the Balkans. Read along as I attempt to convey the enriching and memorable experience in words and photos!
Disclaimer: Kosovo’s independence is disputed. 97 out of 193 UN Member States recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state. In this blog, we will refer to Kosovo as a country and Pristina as its capital, but please do not take any offense to the use of these terms.
A bit of background on Kosovo’s political situation
When I mentioned I was going to visit Kosovo, most people either didn’t know what or where it was, or thought I would be heading straight into an ongoing war. And yes, Kosovo was briefly at war in 1998 and 1999, and has pretty much always been a topic of political dispute between the Albanian majority that inhabits it and the Serbs that claim it as part of Serbia. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, and has since been recognised as a sovereign state by just about half of the UN Member States. Where it happens more often that states are partially recognised (eg. South Korea isn’t recognised by North Korea), such a divided opinion on sovereignty is unique. Over recent years, the political ties between Serbia and Kosovo seem to have calmed, but the political situation still means you’ll have to take border crossings in a certain order. Entering Serbia from Kosovo is difficult, as the Serbian border guards may tell you that you were already – and thus illegally – inside Serbia… At least, so I heard and read around my visit.
Fun fact: as Kosovo is a young state, it has chosen to use the stable Euro as its currency. This means you won’t have to mess around with awkward conversion of local currency!
Arrival in Pristina
I have to be honest and say that the main reason I went to Pristina was a cheap flight from Budapest. With little or no research, I booked the flight and got on a plane in the heat of the Balkan summer.
As there was no public transport from the airport to the city at the time, I arranged a taxi pickup through the hostel that I booked at. The kind driver from Taxi Ramadan showed up in the rustiest, oldest seventh-hand car and took me to the doorstep of my hostel. With three words of English, I was handed a ‘business card’ for if I ever needed a taxi.
Tip: the airport website tells me an airport to city bus connection has started operations, and can take you to the city for €3.
I stayed at Buffalo Backpackers Hostel for what could not have been more than €10 per night. Unfortunately, the hostel has since closed down and has been replaced by a German language school. Another odd choice of market if you ask me, but oh well…
An enormous outdoor pool and stories of war
When I got to the hostel around lunch time, a group was just about to leave for ‘the pool’. Of course I didn’t hesitate to join them right away, with temperatures well over 30 degrees and a sweaty flight and taxi ride behind me.
As it turned out, ‘the pool’ is the most massive outdoor swimming pool I have ever seen, that Kosovans from all over come and visit. We paid 40 cents for a bus ride and €2 to enter the pool, and spent a long afternoon there. As local residents were not used to hearing English and seeing tourists, a few men called Frankie and Gani reached out to us asking where we were from, and we got to talking about their lives in Kosovo. Hearing stories of how they had to abandon their homes and lived in the forest during the war less than 20 years before was terrifying and mesmerizing. The kindness and openness of the men was my first true experience of the hospitality that exists in the Balkan culture, and is something I will never forget.
The pool is called Pishina e Gërmisë. There is little information on when it’s open, but once you get to Pristina, you shouldn’t have trouble finding out.
After a long afternoon at the pool, Gani – one of the men we spent time talking to – joined our group from the hostel to eat at a vegetarian restaurant called Babaghanoush Meze, where €5 per person got us a table full of delicious food. The restaurant still exists and has earned a spot on our map of hidden gems!
Babaghanoush Meze is located at 1000 Johan V. Hahn.
Day 2 & 3: Pristina’s surprising and odd tourist highlights
After a surprising first day in Pristina, days two and three were reserved for seeing the sights the city has to offer. And again, they are a little different from what you might expect to fall into the highlight category. Pristina’s loaded political history has had its effects on what the city is like. The best way I can describe it is a mix of Arabic and European culture. The majority of the dominant ethnically Albanian population is Islamic, which is definitely noticeable in the cityscape and culture. Meanwhile, the newest generation seems to form a counter-movement to the war-rich history, with a fast-growing influence of art and culture. This contrast is visible everywhere. As an example, the NEWBORN monument – referring to the independence of Kosovo, stands in front of a 1977 Soviet bunker-like sports stadium, which is in turn lined with modern advertisements for foreign products.
Many of Pristina’s tourist highlights refer to the war or the political situation in the city, as does the Memoriali Heroinat. It’s located across the street from the NEWBORN monument. The Heroinat Monument is an impressive memorial from far away, but even more so from up close, as it is made up of exactly 20.145 tiny medals. The medals honor each of the ethnically Albanian women that contributed to or suffered from the war in the late ‘90s.
Pristina’s most famous, most beautiful and ugliest building all in one, has to be the National Library. The building is surrounded by controversy for how it looks and what it may or may not depict. Whether you like it or not, you will see it in every picture of Pristina!
In the intro, I promised you a Bill Clinton statue, so here it is! In the late 90’s, Bill Clinton played an important role in ending the war and supported the Albanian population. As a sign of eternal gratitude, Kosovo placed a 3 meter tall statue of Bill Clinton in the city and named the street it stands on the Bill Clinton Boulevard. The city also has a street named after George W. Bush, for similar reasons.
One final strange experience
On my second night in Pristina, the hostel’s owner recommended a backyard club. With the same group that took me to the pool on day 1, we went out to an inconspicuous house just outside the city center that had been converted into a club. Both inside and in the backyard, music was playing. In the backyard, I ran into the crew of a national travel show from The Netherlands (3 op Reis), who were interviewing the owner of the club for an episode on Kosovo. Just another strange experience that fits in perfectly with the rest, right?
The backyard club was called M House according to my notes from back then. I can’t seem to find any information on it now, but if this sounds like something you’d like to visit, ask around when you’re there!
So, should you visit Pristina?
100% and without a doubt, YES. Pristina and the culture of Kosovo are unlike anything else I have ever experienced, and it is a city that is largely overlooked by tourists. The kind of place that welcomes you with open arms and manages to surprise and intrigue you with its history and surprisingly modern youth. I’ve done my best to describe what it’s like, but this won’t come close to spending some time in Pristina for yourself.
So, reading this, do you think you’ll ever visit Pristina as well?