From Belgrade to Kosovo
Trip Start Jun 29, 2012
8Trip End Ongoing
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Cat set out on her hunt for her "birthday dress". After over a month of travelling in these climates without one, she decided that the time was ripe. We must have explored every shop in Belgrade only to find the same things replicated everywhere at varying prices. I’m not much of a shopper myself, but I do find it interesting to see the style in each place we travel to. The way people express themselves (or don’t) and the variety of clothing hints to something deeper about a city and those who live within it. Other than the way that you actually use your body, the clothes that you dress it with are the first point of contact between the outside world, and you. It’s something that lets you immediately tell a lot of things about someone. It’s always changed, sometimes been replicated in a different ages, but always it has been important. The paradox in Belgrade was that although we saw so many people with great different styles, we have no idea where they were shopping. Empty-handed but content that we’d explored Belgrade all the way from the fashion to the smells and the smog, we headed back to the hostel.
That was the night before Cat’s birthday and we decided to head to a bar/club in the castle to celebrate the turning of midnight. The guy at our hostel must have been some sort of secret stylist because when Cat complained about her dress situation, he offered her an air force blue shirt, which was massive. With the arms tied either in front like a bow or behind, he transformed it into some sort of miracle strapless party dress. Content, we headed out triumphantly without our I.D.s only to be I.D’ed for the first time on this trip on the night of Cat’s birthday. After a futile discussion with the bouncer we headed back home to get it. Once we were finally in (do we really look seventeen?!) we found a cool venue, set in a massive castle, with fantastic live music, only… no one was dancing, and they tried to overcharge us for our drinks. We’d liked the city for a reason we couldn’t explain, but we were losing patience and weren’t having such a great impression of Serbia. We had a dance anyway, and looked kind of ridiculous. Once we felt we’d had our dance, or maybe that too many people were looking, we headed to the next bar, which would have had any British health and safety fanatic up in arms. Essentially set on the wall of the castle, with music and alcohol there were drops and falls everywhere. Perhaps the Serbians are more responsible than the British, but with the amount of good clubs and music, I kind of think they are not. We did find a more agreeable atmosphere though and managed to finish our dance with a lovely view over the lights of Belgrade, and across the never ending romance between the Danube and the Sara rivers, as they crash into each other making a huge dark river slicing through Belgrade.
After a slightly late start, we lounged around on the internet as Cat checked her birthday messages and spoke to mum and dad. We eventually wandered into the centre of town to find a nice place to eat, which we did quite successfully. In a restaurant called “?” we ordered the most delicious cabbage and beef stew, along with other things, and we were surprised to have it remind us so much of being at home and the smells coming from mum’s kitchen as we would lie curled up hungry and impatient on the sofa in front of cartoons. About an hour reminiscing over a lovely glass of red, we headed back to the hostel for the start of a long night.
It turned out to be the birthday of the hostel too, so there was a free BBQ and beer for everyone. We decided that we’d all head out together to one of the many party boats which line the river. Belgrade is famed for its nightclubs and so we thought we’d check it out. A short taxi ride shared with four Dutch guys, some Dutch girls and a wonderful American we found ourselves in front of a deep dark river, which was lit irregularly by the flashing lights of the boats. With walkways down from the banks of the river and the fašade covered in panels and lights, I felt we were entering more of a spaceship than a boat.
It was huge and completely packed, with some fairly commercial music but danceable all the same. For the first hour we all danced in a huge group, all happy that we’d made it to Belgrade to spend a night in good company, on a boat.
The next day was understandably slow, a complete write-off. We essentially did nothing all day until the evening when we ate an overpriced but delicious melon salad. We had left aside a day to do nothing, in the knowledge that we would have celebrated Cat’s 21st in style. Mission accomplished. We were supposed to leave the next day, but as so often is the case in big cities with nice people and heavy backpacks, we didn’t make it. Mission definitely not accomplished. So we stayed another day to explore the city a little more. We took an evening dive in the swimming pool and walked through the heat up to the castle and into the war museum, which although not much of it was translated into English, was interesting all the same. Finally in the evening, as the air became breathable we packed our bags and said our goodbyes to the Dutch boys that we’d shared our Belgrade moment with. Another night bus called, this time taking us to Kosovo. We jumped on at about nine o’clock in the evening, to Prishtina. We tried sleeping but as we approached the border the road got bumpier and bumpier. Finally we arrived at passport control. Being as sleepy as I was I forgot to pay proper attention as to who was administering these controversial and de facto borders. Along with two Americans on the bus, our passports got checked front to back and then we were asked what was in our bags. “Erm, a bottle, a top, random bits of paper…”, he didn’t ask to look, which was fairly surprising, but perhaps he was just bored.
Arriving at four in the morning, we sat at the bus station drinking a coffee, debating what to do with ourselves. We’d looked at whether there were campsites, and it seemed there were none. We’d started running out of time in Belgrade, and we didn’t want to miss another bus so we jumped on the bus without knowing what we’d do once we arrived in Kosovo. We knew we’d be in daylight though, and with the traveler’s stories coming out of Kosovo, it sounded like we wouldn’t have too much to worry about. Being the recipients of some good advice, we headed to the only hostel in Prishtina, which has been open for one month.
Actually, this was the case all over Prishtina, the country could at first appear to be a building site, unless you get out of the capital and find the fantastic castles, architecture, mosques, churches and monasteries that grace this land. In Prishtina we tried to go to the museum, but it was under renovation, the art gallery also. The park was also being renovated along with countless other buildings and sites all over this de facto capital. The roads were lined with JCBs and men in high-vis, all working together to build a country. I checked the license plates of all the big flashy cars I saw, all Europeans, the odd American and sometimes diplomatic EU license plates or UN marked. The main attractions are a big “Newborn” sign, written in giant yellow metal letters, which make a fantastic drumming sound. A strange looking national library and an even more strange “Bill Clinton avenue” complete with a statue. With it being as late as it is right now, I’m not even going to venture into talking politics, although I can’t promise that I’m not going to address this question at some point.
After a day in Prishtina we took a bus down to Prizren, which we were told is the most beautiful city in Kosovo and one of the last remaining Ottoman cities in the Balkans. Prizren is my kind of city. It’s beautiful, but scarred and sad, a mixture of old and new. With these things constantly juxtaposed against each other, you feel you can really learn more from this constant comparison and reminder. It’s got a great castle, old mosques, an Ottoman bridge, an old Hammam, old Serb Orthodox churches (which have been burned down), some good places to sit and people watch as well as fantastic shops and lovely people.
Hiking up to the castle we passed burned out and dilapidated houses, as well as a roofless 17th century Orthodox church. We wondered why this area, close to the city and just below a major attraction was in such state of disarray. If you hike up to the castle you’re rewarded by stunning views over the cities and the mountains that surround this plateau. You can also see back down onto the old houses. If you stand up there for long enough, for a moment the city fades away, and you imagine yourself watching out for invading armies, clutching your bow and arrow. You can see far into the distance and you imagine the fires lit by the approaching enemy, and the fear this must instill deep somewhere in your stomach. As I watched back a video I had taken on my phone I heard the car horns in the video and the roar of the traffic. Stood up on the castle with such a view, I thought I was stood in silence, but the video snapped me back to reality and back to the twenty-first century. Later on that day we found out that these houses had been burned down in the violence which swept through Kosovo in 2004, they had been Serbian houses. Over thirty Orthodox churches and other structures were also burned.
So much of Prizren is like that. You find yourself hurtled between centuries, between struggles. It’s wonderful, exhilarating and exhausting and once again, it appears difficult to leave.