On display at the Ethnographic Museum in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina is a lady’s wooden shoe with a sole covered with intricate carvings and rich inlays of mother-of-pearl. It dates from the 18th century, but any woman would be proud to wear it, then or now.
The museum, which is in a former 18th-century manor house that once belonged to a wealthy Albanian family during Ottoman rule, also exhibits sumptuous textiles, jewelry and furniture, and includes a birthing room as well as a death room. If the enthusiastic volunteer guides are in the mood, they’ll play you a wistful ballad on a lute as you take in the cornucopia here that thankfully survived the war, heightening the impression that before there was violence in Kosovo, there was civility, not to mention elegance.
This was just one lesson I learned when I visited Kosovo in September. Like many Americans, I had barely paid attention to the war; I also knew little about the peace accord in place since 1999 and still thought of the country as possibly dangerous. The Republic of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, though Serbia still claims the land as its own. Of 193 U.N. member states, 110 (including the United States) have recognized Kosovo as a legitimate nation. It’s also the first in the Balkans to have elected a female president.
Before my visit, I read a brief history of the territory and the war, but it wasn’t until I got there that I felt simply impressed at how the peace has held.
I say this with reference to the country’s demographics and structure: 92 percent Albanian, with Serbs, along with other ethnic minorities, accounting for the remaining 8 percent. I discovered that there’s no wall like there used to be in Berlin, no demilitarized zone like what separates the Koreas. There are Serb towns, or enclaves, but there are also century-old mosques and churches alongside one another.
I found a normalcy I wasn’t expecting, such as dozens of shops selling elaborate formalwear, and a thriving cafe culture. Some say the best macchiatos in Europe can be had in Pristina, at intimate cafes such as Soma Book Station, where I spent one pleasant afternoon admiring the handsome bookshelves (and baristas). I also saw scores of new homes, financed largely by remittances from families living abroad, and I met Albanians and Serbs who had fled Kosovo during the war but had since returned to rebuild their lives.
And perhaps most encouraging in Europe’s newest nation of just 1.8 million is a large and energetic youth population, a curious phenomenon in light of the recent war’s chaos and devastation. Half of the country’s population is under age 35, and unemployment among them is high — I think I saw most of them sipping those macchiatos at outdoor cafes during my visit.
Recent news reports illustrate a growing fear that Muslim youth in the country, as well as throughout the Balkans, have become easy targets for recruiting by the Islamic State and other terrorist outfits in the Mideast. About 5,000 NATO peacekeeping troops — including some 700 U.S. soldiers — are still part of the national fabric; I saw them strolling along Mother Teresa Boulevard in Pristina and milling about a Turkish festival in Prizren, as well as their Humvees and bases, as I traveled across the country.
I quickly saw, too, how very far my money stretched in Kosovo, buying me generous and flavorful four-course meals for the equivalent of a few dollars at places such as Pishat, a shaded and appealing bistro in Pristina. A cross-country bus ticket cost me about $2; a room at a clean and simple guesthouse in Pristina run by a friendly retired professor and his wife, about $15 per night. Kosovo is still struggling mightily to put its economy in order and to persuade tourists that the country is safe and open for business. But it also struck me that now may just be the ideal time to visit Kosovo, before mass tourism takes root, before too much development makes it less edgy and exotic.
On my first day in Kosovo, I caught a bus from Pristina to Prizren, which I’d heard is home to fortress ruins straddling the Sar Mountains and overlooking a picturesque plaza and the Lumbardhi River. It being September, I’d unfortunately just missed DokuFest, the international film festival that takes place in Prizren every August, drawing thousands of local and international visitors.
I got off the bus a short walk from the plaza and strolled along a tree-lined boulevard where every other shop seemed to be selling extravagant evening gowns, stiletto heels and richly embroidered vests. The child mannequins wore fancy feathered caps and carried swords, and some wore masks. I’d seen this in Pristina, too, and wondered if they were part of preparations for some upcoming national holiday, but later learned that they are mostly for weddings — yet another sign that the deprivations of war are long gone.
After passing the Mahmet Pasha Hamam, a public bath under restoration, I reached the Ottoman Bridge spanning the Lumbardhi and looked across and upward for a pretty vista of the fortress and a cascade of tiled roofs and vibrant building facades enclosing the small plaza. A tall statue of a soldier commemorates the Kosovo Liberation Army at the plaza entrance here, but there’s otherwise no reference to the war. I walked to one of the riverside restaurants and sat outside after ordering a plate of kebab (spelled qebab) and a shepherd’s salad of tomatoes, cucumber and feta cheese. Meanwhile, I watched the comings and goings of Kosovo’s ever-present youth, lazily crossing the Ottoman Bridge, and couples hand in hand overlooking the Lumbardhi’s meager flow.
After lunch, despite the blazing sun, I scaled the rocky path leading to the 11th-century fortress of Kalaja, stopping to splash my face and arms at a fountain in the courtyard of a small ice cream shop overlooking the city. The ruins are not much, but the panorama from the ramparts is wonderful, particularly because of the bird’s-eye view of church spires and minarets intermingling across the skyline.
Once back in town, I stood on the steps of the Sinan Pasha Mosque. A wooden sandwich board blocked the entrance, with photos indicating no cellphones or shoes — or, of course, strapless mini-dresses, as one picture showed — were allowed inside. I had a head scarf and was dressed appropriately, yet I hung back, uncertain.
But within minutes, a man approached and beckoned me inside. Upon entering, I looked up to see the domed ceiling covered in baroque displays of flowers and lovely borders around windows, with Arabic script encircling the crown.
I later crossed the plaza to the Orthodox Church of the Virgin of Levisa, and while the gate to the courtyard was open, two police officers sitting outside a watch house next to it told me that the church itself was closed. They turned friendly when they learned I’m American. I asked if it would be possible to enter the church still, and they replied no; but one then gestured outside the gates and across the street to a stone chapel. I followed him there.
He unlocked a gate surrounding the chapel and then its heavy doors, and I entered a dank interior to see neglected and darkened but nonetheless noble frescoes covering the single nave, and a collection of small, exquisite icons on a makeshift altar. The guard said the chapel, named the Church of St. Nicholas, had originally belonged to a wealthy family. I later learned it was constructed in 1331 and since 1990 has been included on Serbia’s list of Monuments of Culture and Exceptional Importance. It was vandalized in 2004, the officer noted, leaving me pensive about Kosovo’s peace, and future.
I had the same feeling the next day in Gracanica. On the way into town, road signs and lettering on shop windows were suddenly in Cyrillic. Gracanica is considered the cultural hub for ethnic Serbs, and the focal point is a multi-roofed and well-preserved 14th-century monastery, which, in 2006, was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list.
I entered the compound through a heavy wooden gate and saw nuns walking about the spacious lawn surrounding the monastery. After buying a brochure in the gift shop at the entrance, I walked inside the monastery, marveling at the newly restored, intricate Byzantine depictions tucked into the cornices and covering pillars, liturgical and melancholy images and allegorical scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
From there, I headed out along a bucolic, meandering country road, toward what I’d heard was an upstart hotel worth checking out, though I already had a room reserved in Pristina. I ended up at a no-nonsense whitewashed building, with no visible sign indicating that it was in fact a hotel, and reportedly one of the country’s best. After passing through the stylishly minimalist reception area, I wandered to the back yard to find an inviting, pristine swimming pool and a patio with guests perched on lounge chairs overlooking a horizon of gentle hills and cornfields.
Back inside, I chatted with the owner, Andreas Wormser. A former social worker from Bern, Switzerland, Wormser opened his 15-room, three-star Hotel Gracanica’s doors in April 2013. It was a utopian venture, a chance to offer jobs to Roma, Albanians and Serbs like those in Switzerland he’d once counseled, and to enrich the local economy. But Wormser, who, when he built his hotel, was intent on offering guests impeccable Swiss design, comfort and hospitality, was circumspect as we talked and he watched an employee prepare a tray of olives and hummus for guests.
“I can’t say now whether revenue from summer visits are enough to carry me through the winter months,” he said, and I was instantly regretful I hadn’t booked my stay in this oasis. He later told me that he is considering building an ice rink to attract winter guests.
Another day, I veered from the tourist route, to Ferizaj. I’d heard of a notable distinction there: a mosque and church next door to one another, a rare symbol of religious tolerance between Muslim Albanians and Orthodox Serbs — and one of endurance, too, as, incredibly, neither house of worship was destroyed during Kosovo’s war. No Serbs live in Ferizaj, I later learned — they all fled during the war. Their church had been ransacked in 2004 and remains shuttered. But still, I was curious about this juxtaposition of architecture.
It was dusk already but still warm when I arrived, and everyone seemed to be out for a stroll as I approached the Big Mosque of Mulla Veseli. I waited outside, watching as men filed in, and then, as had happened in Prizren, a few invited me to follow. I started to remove my shoes, but stopped for a moment to look up at the tower of the neighboring St. Uros Orthodox Cathedral, its warm yellow hue almost translucent in the evening twilight. And, now more than ever, together with the minaret and the mournful call to prayer, the idea of a call to arms in this nascent nation felt suddenly, profoundly absurd.
Zach is a fellow at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.
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Rr Qamil Hoxha 11, Pristina
Shaded and appealing bistro serving traditional Albanian cuisine, including meatballs, stuffed peppers and homemade bread. Main courses $5-$15.
Soma Book Station
St. Fazli Grajqevci, Pristina
Cozy cafe with an extensive English-language library, serving organic teas and noted for its macchiatos and cocktails. Small food platters available from $2-$8. Closed Sundays.
Sinan Pasha Mosque
Mimar Sinani, Prizren
Mosque is welcoming, but guests must be appropriately dressed, including a head scarf for women. Interior is recently painted, with the crown particularly impressive. No entry fee.
Situated above Prizren’s main plaza. The road leading to it is paved only part of the way and turns steep near the top. In warm weather, climb to the Kalaja Fortress for a panoramic city view or just stroll the cobblestone streets of the old town. No entry fee.
Located on main road into Gracanica, about three miles southeast of Pristina and enclosed in a tall wooden fence.
The monastery’s architecture is considered one of the best examples in Kosovo of Serbian influence during the Byzantine era. Open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. No photos allowed. Free entry.
Rr Iliaz Agushi, Pristina
The museum has preserved an impressive collection in light of the recent war, including handicrafts, traditional clothing and tapestries. English-speaking guides. Free entry, recommended donation.
Balkan Insight, balkaninsight.com
U.N. Mission in Kosovo, unmikonline.org