Like so many of Rich’s truly brilliant ideas, I thought it was totally insane when he first proposed it.
Five days earlier, we’d left the warm hospitality of Greece and headed to the more bracing atmosphere of Skopje, the capital of what’s now known as North Macedonia. Skopje turned out to have a marvelous Old Bazaar, a Bohemian district bristling with hip eateries, and a just-completed plan to reinvent itself by filling the city center with fake baroque buildings, pseudo-classical statues, and decorative elements covered in gold spray paint. When he first caught sight of it, Rich said, “Call Las Vegas, see if anything is missing.”
All in all, Skopje had good entertainment value, and we enjoyed our five days there despite temperatures soaring into the nineties. Shortly afterwards, we’d arranged to go to a rural guest house in the cooler climate of North Macedonia’s mountains, but there remained a two-day gap. And that’s when Rich came up with his idea: a luggage-free overnight trip to Kosovo.
“It’s just a two hour bus ride to Pristina, the capital,” he pointed out. “We can bring our toothbrushes and passports and be there by lunchtime.” As my regular readers know, we’ve traveled in France and California without any suitcases, just a few bare necessities carried on our persons. Afterwards I’m always barraged with emails, mostly about hygiene, so let me just assure you that on these occasions I wear fast-drying shirts and undergarments and launder them in the hotel sink every night. Reasonable standards can be maintained just about anywhere. Including, of course, Kosovo.
“It’s a whole new country that we’ve never visited,” Rich added persuasively.
“But why go luggage-free?” I objected. I’m a fairly minimalist packer, but I do like a few creature comforts.
“It’ll just be for one night. Why drag the suitcases along?”
Why indeed? So before cooler heads could prevail, I threw my toothbrush, sunscreen, and nightdress into my purse, Rich and I abandoned our bags to the tender mercies of the bus station's left luggage department, and we headed to the departure platform.
And here was our first surprise. When they told us there was a bus to Pristina, somehow — call me crazy — I expected an actual bus. But apparently the Skopje-Kosovo run isn’t in high demand (go figure) so we discovered we’d be riding in a crowded van, ringing with Albanian pop music, air conditioned via the simple expedient of opening the side door for brief periods of time. It was a wonderful ride, through Skopje's teaming Albanian street market, over winding mountain roads, across two efficient and courteous border checkpoints, past broad green fields and villages with red tiled roofs, and finally into the heart of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.
Even those who love it best admit that Pristina is not a city with storybook charm. Nor does it contain a wealth of breathtaking monuments, unless you count the public library built in such a ferocious brutalist style that I suspect it will cause me nightmares for years to come.
And yet, there’s plenty to love about Pristina. For one thing, there are all the tiny storefronts where people make their living providing such old-fashioned services as sewing clothes, mending shoes, even — and when was the last time you saw this? — repairing vacuum cleaners. Sure, there are supermarkets, but plenty of people shop at little fruit stands and in the marvelously labyrinthine farmers’ market, where next to the egg stalls you can see half a dozen hens pecking in the dirt or sitting on nests to hatch more inventory.
Another surprise was America’s enormous popularity among the citizenry of Pristina. I saw a replica of the Statue of Liberty presiding over the freeway. The stars and stripes were on display in the lobby of our hotel, offered for sale at the farmers’ market, and displayed in the public library’s “American Corner,” a long-standing education and outreach program of the US Embassy. But the biggest red-white-and-blue love fest is reserved for Bill Clinton.
It began during the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of Balkan conflicts (does anyone?), but as near as I can make out, after Yugoslavia broke up in 1992, two of its larger states, Serbia and Montenegro, got together, called themselves the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and sought to control Kosovo, in part by ethnic cleansing. They were opposed by the Kosovo Albanian rebel group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Still with me? OK, then, here’s the part where Bill Clinton comes in; the locals give him credit for getting the US and NATO involved, bringing in the air support that turned the tide. As one shop owner told me, “If it wasn’t for Bill Clinton, we would still be fighting the war.” Bill was in town just last week to mark the 20th anniversary of the conflict’s end. No doubt he thoroughly enjoyed his ride down the Bulevardi Bill Klinton to view his life-sized statue waving at his Kosovo fans.
But the most stunning surprise in Kosovo was the fabulous food. Blogger Jackie Nourse wrote, “Looking back at my 9-month trip around the world, I can honestly say that besides Italy (obviously), Kosovo cuisine was my favorite.” Why is this little corner of the world so blessed? As one cab driver explained, “This is where the Mediterranean meets the Orient.” It’s a match made in foodie heaven.
Our first taste of this extraordinary gastronomy was the Albanian classic tavë kosi, baked lamb in yogurt sauce, ordered at the wonderfully atmospheric Liburnia restaurant. The lamb fell apart under my fork and melted in my mouth, perfectly complemented by the hot, creamy yogurt sauce and a crisp salad. Complimentary glasses of rakia (fruit brandy) appeared on the table.
“For the digestion,” murmured our waiter.
“Oh, well, if it’s medicinal…” said Rich.
[See recipe for tavë kosi here.]
The next day we popped into Furra Labi to sample some classic breakfast pastries. We ordered a spinach byrek, the Balkans’ favorite grab-and-go pie, and a slice of flia, think layers of pastry and cream. "And two coffees," I said. But here we hit a snag; the woman behind the counter explained they didn't serve coffee. Her boss, Leonard, saved the day. "No problem," he said. "I will go get you coffee. Macchiato?"
“Of course,” I replied, having read this is what everyone in Kosovo drinks. The pastries were delicious, and when Leonard returned, it took just one sip to understand why Kosovo’s macchiato is considered a hot contender for best on the planet.
When it was time to catch the van back to North Macedonia, we were sorry to leave Kosovo, which we’d found hospitable, entertaining, inexpensive, and delightfully free of tourists. It doesn’t have the gorgeous monuments we'd visited in Greece, or the architectural lunacy of its neighbor Skopje, but Pristina is a city brimming with energy, fueled on marvelous food and endless cups of macchiato. With or without luggage, I hope to visit Kosovo again soon, and often.
61 Days on the Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
Yes, we've spent two months indulging in some of the world's favorite foods and finding out about local cuisine and culture. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it! Our culinary adventures have taken us to Greece, North Macedonia, and Kosovo (so far). For details, recipes, and videos:
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour
Heraklion, Crete: It's All About the Kindness of Strangers
Holy Snail Day
The Best Worst Town in Greece
The Marvels of Lesbos Island
Greece's Island of Longevity
Breaking Bread with Strangers in Athens
Greek Coffee: Freddos, Frappés & Fortunetelling
Mysteries of Moussaka, Revealed
We're now in the mountains of North Macedonia, in a tiny village called Dihovo, which along with the nearby town of Bitola is the epicenter of the nation's slow food movement.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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