After the unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has become the newest country in Europe. Still not recognised as an independent country by many nations, this landlocked territory is off the radar for most international visitors.
During my last visit to neighbouring North Macedonia, I decided to take a day trip to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Although the city lacks in historical sites, a visit to Europe’s youngest capital with its numerous cafes and welcoming people is still a must. I even was lucky enough to spot former President Bill Clinton, who was in town to celebrate the 20th anniversary since the NATO drove out the Serbian forces and put this former province on the path to independence!
How to get to Pristina
Just like I did, you’ll most likely reach Pristina from Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Both cities are only 90km apart and the journey generally takes 2h30m each way, including the time spent at the border. The distances are not too big, which is perfect for a one-day visit.
Buses from Skopje start at 6 am and leave every hour or two hours maximum, so the options are endless. Similar schedules apply to the way back. It’s always better to double-check the times directly at the station, as they may vary.
I bought my ticket at Skopje’s bus station when I arrived from Thessaloniki, however, I could only purchase a one-way ticket, the return ticket needs to be bought directly in Pristina. The journey only costs 350 Macedonian denar / €5 each way.
I bought tickets for the 10:10 am bus, which was actually a minivan, and it took only 30 minutes to reach the border. I was extremely surprised when saw Albanian flags all over the border, I actually felt for a moment that I was going to Albania instead of Kosovo! This is normal though, as most Kosovars are ethnic Albanians and feel very close to this country.
Crossing the border between North Macedonia and Kosovo was much easier than I thought, we didn’t even need to get off the bus! The driver took everyone’s passport, handed them to the immigration officials, and 10 minutes later we were in Kosovo!
History of Kosovo & Pristina
The history of Kosovo has always been strongly linked with its neighbouring countries, as the region has constantly changed hands along the centuries. The first records of what is known today as Kosovo date back to Dardania, a region which formed part of the Roman province of Moesia.
During the Middle Ages, Kosovo was part o the Bulgarian Empire, followed by the Byzantine Empire and the Serbian Medieval states before the region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. It wasn't until 1913, during the First Balkan War, that Kosovo joined the Kingdom of Serbia, which would then become Yugoslavia in 1918.
At the end of World War II, Kosovo became an autonomous province of Serbia, however, after multiple riots by Kosovo Albanians who wanted a full Republic status, the region lost its autonomy in 1989 when Slobodan Milošević reached the power helped by the Serbian minority in Kosovo.
Kosovo Albanians started a peaceful resistance movement, but due to the lack of results, they became an armed group and created the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1997. They aimed to obtain the full independence of Kosovo. In response, Milošević carried out a brutal police and military intervention in 1998 against the KLA and the civilians.
After 78 days of bombing in 1999, Milošević capitulated and the UN Security Council suspended the Serbian governance over Kosovo, placing the region under the administration of the United Nations.
After years of conflict, Kosovo declared its unilateral independence form Serbia on February 17, 2008. The United States was the first country to recognise its independence only one day later, followed by the majority of European countries. Today, 111 nations recognise Kosovo as an independent country.
Pristina, also spelt Prishtina, became the capital of Kosovo after its independence in 2008, however, the city already had big relevance back in the 13th century, when it was the capital city of the Kingdom of Serbia. The city was severely destroyed in 1999 during the Kosovo War, when many of the ethnic Albanians that lived in the city were forced to flee. Today, Pristina is a lively city trying to become a modern European metropolis in spite of its recent past.
As soon as I arrived in Pristina, I headed to the city centre by foot. The bus station is located only 10 minutes outside the city, so I decided not to get a taxi as it wouldn’t take me too long to reach the first tourist attraction.
My first impressions of Pristina were that I had travelled 50 years back in time. The buildings surrounding the station were the traditional communist constructions that I had previously seen in Poland or Russia, which gave the Kosovar capital a very old-fashion look.
Some of these buildings can only be found in the outskirts of Skopje in North Macedonia, but they seemed to be absolutely everywhere in Pristina, including the city centre! A big contrast with the modern, neo-classical constructions in downtown Skopje.
When I first started researching about Pristina, one of the first tourist attractions that came up was the statue of Bill Clinton, which I found incredibly amusing. After learning more about Kosovo’s history, the statue certainly made more sense, so that was my first stop of the day.
The statue, located right next to Bill Clinton Boulevard, was erected in 2009 to thank former US President Bill Clinton for his key role in the independence of the country.
During my visit, the statue was surrounded by a red carpet and quite a lot of police were putting up fences. I really had no clue what was going on, so I started walking around and taking photos until a very rude policeman stopped me and started asked for my documentation.
He let me go after a few minutes, but he informed me that I had to leave the area. They were setting up a microphone, so I imagined that they would be giving some kind of speech next to the statue, but I would only discover later what was really going on!
It was almost midday and I was starving, so I stopped at one of the many lovely cafes on Bill Clinton Boulevard. I ordered rice with vegetables and chicken that only costed €5.10, including two bottles of water. Prices are considerably low in Kosovo, but make sure to bring some euros in cash with you: credit cards are not accepted almost anywhere, and I was charged a €5 fee to withdraw money!
Towards the end of Bill Clinton Boulevard you will spot the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa on the left-hand side. This Roman Catholic Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Teressa of Calcutta, who is highly venerated in the country due to her Albanian ascendence.
The Cathedral was inaugurated only in 2010, before the construction was completed, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birthday. The building is one of the tallest in Pristina, and its construction sparked some controversy as the area where it was built has a Muslim majority. The cathedral was considered to be oversized considering the small Catholic population in the area.
Both the exterior and the interior of the cathedral are very modern and new, the stained glass windows even depict Pope Benedict XVI! I found the site to lack any historical interest, but as one of the most relevant religious sites of the country, a visit is still recommended. Entrance is free of charge.
One of the most attractive sites of Pristina is the National Library of Kosovo, both for its importance and its unique design. The library has as a mission to collect and preserve the documentary and intellectual heritage of the country, including exhibitions an important archive of national newspapers.
The building, designed in 1982 by the Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjaković, has a total of 99 domes of different sizes and is completely covered in a metal fishing net.
There's been some controversy around the design of the building. According to the architect, it is meant to represent the Byzantine and Islamic art, however, it has also been said that the doms represent the traditional Albanian hat known as ‘plisi’, which wasn’t welcomed by the Serbian politicians when the building was first presented.
The library is surrounded by beautiful gardens where you will also find the Christ the Saviour Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.
Its construction started in 1992 on the campus of what used to be the University of Pristina, however, the construction was interrupted by the Kosovo War and it was never finished.
After Kosovo lost its autonomous status in 1989 by Serbian president Milošević, this cathedral was seen as a symbol of Serbian nationalism and Milošević’s power and was vandalised on multiple occasions. In spite of some public discussions around the future fo this building, it is very unlikely that it will ever be finished or even restored.
One of the most iconic symbols of Pristina and I’d even say the entire country of Kosovo is the Newborn Monument.
It was unveiled on February 17th, 2008, the exact same day that Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. The monument is formed by the word ‘newborn’ and it was originally painted in yellow, but it has been repainted every year to commemorate the anniversary of Kosovo’s independence.
The monument has a dimension of 3 metres by 24 metres. It was the first public monument that commemorated Kosovo's independence, and it was created and installed in only 10 days. The word 'newborn' describe of course the birth of this new country, the youngest in Europe, and the word was chosen to represent this positive, contemporary new country.
I soon realised that the area around the Newborn Monument was pretty crowded, with locals gathering around a police cord that was being set up. The area was filled with American and Albanian flags, and many signs thanking former President Clinton for what he had done to the country.
I stopped at one of the countless cafes in Pristina and order a delicious ice coffee, which costed only €1.50, and that’s when I noticed that Pristina was on the local news. I don’t speak a word of Albanian, but I could understand some written words that were quite similar to English, including Pristina, anniversary, NATO, Bill Clinton and visit.
I couldn’t really believe it at first, but yes, Bill Clinton was in Pristina that same day to celebrate the 20th anniversary since the NATO drove out the Serbian forces from the country! You can read more about his visit on this article.
After waiting for a few minutes, there he was! I really couldn’t believe that I had come across with Bill Clinton all the way in Kosovo. With all the excitement I couldn’t really get any decent pictures of Bill Clinton, but I swear that he was there!
I stayed for a few minutes before walking back to the bus station. The day was so hot, well above the 35 degrees, that I didn’t manage to stay outside for much longer! On the way back, dozens of police cars were coming in the same direction, heading to Clinton’s statue. When I made it to the statue, Bill Clinton was giving a speech with the Kosovar Primer Minister.
I arrived at the station aiming for a 4pm bus, but unfortunately there was no time at the time. I bought my tickets for the next bus at 5 pm and after waiting for almost one hour, I was on my way back to North Macedonia.
Pristina is clearly not the typical European capital full of grandiose constructions and beautiful buildings. The truth is that it doesn’t really have much to offer to tourists. However, Kosovo’s recent history is fascinating, and a visit to Pristina is the best way to experience it first hand.
I found Kosovars to be extremely welcoming people, and they will certainly make you feel at home when they discover that you’re an international visitor. If you’re spending a few days in Skopje, you won’t regret heading to Pristina for a one-day visit!
All opinions are my own.