Skopje to Pristina (and back)

Wednesday, August 31, 2022 - 16:45

Today we did a day trip from Skopje in North Macedonia to the capital of Kosovo, Pristina. We did it as a return day trip since even though we are going to Serbia next, if you enter Serbia from Kosovo you cannot get a Serbian entry stamp since Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as an independent country, but considers it a province of Serbia. Kosovo of course do not issue Serbian entry stamps since they consider themselves independent. This would be fine if we then left Serbia via Kosovo again, but we plan to leave Serbia to the north into Hungary, which means we would in theory be leaving Serbia illegally since we wouldn't have an entry stamp to prove when we entered the country - a headache we can do without! Instead, we are going to enter Serbia via a 'normal' route from North Macedonia tomorrow, and only cross fully internationally recognised borders between North Macedonia/Kosovo and then North Macedonia/Serbia, despite the slight backtracking involved.

Luckily considering the above, the border crossing today was the easiest yet between non-EU countries. Firstly because it wasn't very busy, despite being a week day, and secondly because the officials were giving no one a hard time and clearly wanted this border to operate as quickly as possible. On the North Macedonian side they barely looked at the passports, and we then drove to the Kosovan side where they were given a quick scan but no stamp was given. The lack of stamp is presumably to prevent you having any trouble later on if you decide to go to Serbia, a bit like how the Israelis don't stamp your passport in case you need to travel to a country which doesn't recognise Israel later. The only slight delay was that we had to buy Green Card insurance for the car in Kosovo, which involved parking up and walking over to a separate building where an official printed out a certificate within a couple of minutes and for the reasonable price of €15 for 15 days (much better than the North Macedonian price of €53 for the same!).

Once in Kosovo we were pleasantly surprised to drive straight onto a brand new motorway which wound its way around the mountains and had some very impressive raised areas over valleys. I'm not sure where they got the funding to build this road, since it was better than anything else we have seen in the Balkans, but my guess is from the EU. There were areas reserved for service stations and toll plazas but none of them were built yet, meaning we luckily didn't have to pay anything, but unluckily couldn't stop for a quick comfort break. After about 30 minutes we arrived in the outskirts of Pristina and could immediately see what I had read prior: the city isn't much to look at. After a bit of confusion with one-way road signs, we found parking close to where our walking tour was starting by the National Theatre area and met up with the tour group just in time.

Luckily the tour group today was our smallest yet on one of the free walking tours, and it gave me a chance to ask the guide more questions than I normally would. Even though Pristina isn't much to look at, there is still some interesting history here, along with the recent history of the country itself, like how they are the second newest country in the world, only gaining independence in 2008. Despite considering themselves fully independent and acting as such, they are still only recognised by just over half of the world's countries, and cannot get a seat at the United Nations due to Russia's veto. One thing that really surprised us about the country is that the people are actually 90% Albanian, with 5% Serb and 5% others. This means the primary language is Albanian, and there were Albanian flags all over the place. Apparently many wanted the flag of Kosovo to be something like the Albanian flag just slightly different dimensions. This reminded us of when we did a tour in Tirana, Albania, and the guide told us how they consider Kosovo a long lost part of their country. This led to the inevitable question from someone in the group of "why don't you just join with Albania then?", to which the guide gave a good answer about how the world is moving away from monoethnic countries, they can easily travel to Albania anyway, and it would almost definitely lead to yet another Balkan war which no one has the stomach for, especially when Kosovans are just starting to find their own identity.

As for the city Pristina, it was a fairly underwhelming capital, though with a few interesting facts about it. For example, there used to be two rivers running through the city but they have now been covered over, and how the clock tower's clock mechanism was stolen some years back and the French donated a shiny new electric one, but power cuts mean the time is still almost always wrong. The oldest building is an Ottoman-era mosque which is nearly 600 years old, and in theory serves the 90%+ of the population who are Muslim, though in reality they are secular like the majority of the Muslims in Albania and Bosnia. Probably my favourite fact was about the 'illegal church' which stands in the middle of the university campus where we finished our tour. The church was partially constructed by Serbs during one of their occupations of the city in the 1990s when they had cleared all the students out of the campus. However they didn't get to finish it before being expelled again, but because they had time to put a gold cross on top of the unfinished structure, it is considered an active church to Orthodox Serbs. This means it can't be knocked down lest the Kosovan Serbs get upset, and sits there abandoned and boarded up. Suggestions such as turning it into a cultural centre or even a nightclub are under consideration, but nothing has been done yet.

Overall we are glad we made the effort to come to Pristina as it was certainly worth a day trip to find out more about this small country people back home don't seem to know much about, including ourselves before today. The drive back to Skopje was just as easy as the outbound, with the border only taking about 10 minutes in total. Once we got back to Skopje about 4.30pm we still had unfinished business given the torrential rain which meant we couldn't go on the Skopje walking tour yesterday evening. We couldn't face another 3 hour tour with a guide starting at 5pm, and it certainly wouldn't have been fair on Lucy. Instead, we rested up and then went out to do our own little family walking tour with Google Maps and Wikipedia articles in the early evening. This means I don't have any interesting local knowledge to type here, but can say we were both very pleasantly surprised by Skopje city centre including the number of statues and how grand the buildings are. The primary seat of government building and surrounding administration buildings reminded us a lot of Buckingham Palace in terms of architecture, and the main square with the Alexander the Great statue had similar buildings under construction. It was strange to see brand new buildings going up in this older style!

We also got to admire the sheer number of statues there are around the city, giving it the nickname 'the city of statues'. There are statues everywhere you look, from the bridges, to the sides of the buildings, to the parks, and even outside bars and restaurants. We didn't recognise the people, but there are themes in different areas, for example a bridge with statues of famous Macedonians who have contributed to the Arts, and another for famous Macedonian women. There are also a number of places in the city dedicated to Mother Theresa who was born and spent her childhood here, including a plaza, inscriptions with her quotes on plaques on buildings, and a statue of her near a large church.

After we were done walking around the newer parts of town we headed to the bazaar for a short walk there before dinner. The bazaar had a couple of mosques and the national museum in additional to the obligatory shops, but unfortunately didn't have much atmosphere, and was nothing like what we've seen in Sarajevo or Istanbul on the trip. Most activity was going on in the southern part, which is here we had dinner in a restaurant which served local food, which was basically the same as Albanian food. This seemed to be a common impression we are getting from our short time in North Macedonia: that they don't seem to have much of their own identity since they weren't a country historically, but are heavily influenced by their neighbours who occupied this area at various times: Greece (historical Macedonia), Bulgaria, Albania, and Turkey (the Ottomans).

It was a busy but fun and interesting day today, where we learnt a lot in Kosovo, and found Skopje city centre to be the nicest capital city centre we have seen in the Balkans so far. With Pristina and Skopje done, there are just Belgrade and Podgorica yet to visit. We chose to skip Podgorica earlier in the trip since we had read there isn't much there and Montenegro is about bays and beaches, but tomorrow we finally make it to Serbia and Belgrade the capital (and old capital of Yugoslavia).

Dog Notes: 

The customs officials at the border today barely cared about us let alone Summer. None of them asked us to open the car doors and therefore didn't even see her.

While we were in Pristina a very friendly stray dog a similar size to Summer, and actually quite cute, befriended her and followed us around for the last part of the walking tour and afterwards while we had lunch. They had a play in the park on the University campus, and she waited nearby while we had lunch in a cafe, seemingly knowing she wasn't welcome near us in the cafe since she was a stray and Summer is a pet!

Electric Vehicle EV Notes: 

We aren't having much luck with the free ProCredit Bank chargers lately. We had a great plan today to park at one in central Pristina while we did the walking tour, but when we arrived the chargers were there but not switched on. Instead we had to do the return trip without a top up and charge back at our apartment overnight again.

Miles Driven: 
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I see what you mean about Buckingham Palace. The buildings look really nice. There was a huge earthquake in Skopje some years back and a lot of buildings disappeared. Seems they are now restored

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