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Kosovo: cultural ghetto?

There’s a piece in today’s English-language version of Deutsche Welle which examines the challenges faced by Kosovan artists in promoting their work internationally.  Rather provocatively, the piece describes Kosovo as “Europe’s cultural ghetto“.

While it is true that many young Kosovars working in the creative industries are currently struggling to participate in international film festivals and art exhibitions as a result of the fact a significant number of countries including Russia, China and Brazil do not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence and will not issue visas to those living in the country.  In the case of those countries that do recognise Kosovo (including the United States, UK, France and Germany), the visa regime for Kosovar nationals is complex and inaccessible.  While all other states in South East Europe now enjoy visa-free travel to countries in the Schengen Area, Kosovars remain isolated from the rest of Europe.

So, until Kosovo’s culture can come to us, I’d urge you to go to Kosovo.

As anyone who has visited will tell you, Kosovo is a country of contrasts; from the chaos of Pristina’s central market and their soundtrack of Turkish Europop to the quiet solemnity of rural Istok and historic Prizren.  While the pluri-religious nature of Kosovo has taken a serious knock in the years following the late 90s conflict, the influence of both the Serbian Orthodox Church and Sunni Islam lives on; most notably in the southern city of Uroševac where an imposing church stands only a stone’s throw from a mosque.

Give Kosovo a go.

Annoyingly, British Airways has cancelled its direct flight from London to Pristina as a result of a fuel dispute with the airport’s Turkish owners – but flights routed through Zagreb and Budapest continue to be cheap at roughly £250 return and take less than five hours, including changes.  Direct flights remain in place from Brussels, Geneva and most large German cities and cost no more than £150.

Accommodation in Pristina can be expensive but I find the Hotel Begolli close to the main market to be an affordable, comfortable and immaculately clean alternative to the Tito-era monstrosity that is the Grand Hotel, which was once the hang-out of Serbian war criminal Arkan who rather perplexingly served as one of Kosovo’s Members of Parliament in the 1990s.

Anyone considering a visit to the country should start by reading the excellent WikiTravel article on Pristina which contains some excellent tips on things to do when in town.  My number one piece of advice, however, is just to grab a map of the city and go for a wander.  You’ll get lost in the city’s winding streets but you’ll never be unsafe at any time of the day or night, with the city’s residents being amongst the friendliest of any on earth.

From a “tourist” perspective, you can see Pristina in a day or two, taking in famous sites such as the golden statue of Bill Clinton and mosques on Nazim Gafurri Street while sampling the city’s excellent coffee shops and surprisingly good restaurants (Pi Shat on Qamil Hoxha Street is a must if you want to try some traditional Albanian food).

Pristina is undoubtedly an interesting city, buzzling with life and populated by permanently-smiling people – but it’s not a beautiful one.  If you want to sample the best in Kosovan architecture, then take the bus from Pristina two hours south to Prizren where you can visit scores of historic mosques, a historic castle and the town’s impressive main piazza.  At the top of the hill you can visit the remains of the Serbian quarter, most of which was sadly destroyed in the 2004 uprising against Serbs.

Around an hour north of Pristina is the town of Mitrovica, a place often described by the press as “Europe’s most dangerous city“.  While most of the rest of Kosovo is almost-entirely populated by Albanians, Mitrovica remains ethnically divided with Albanians living the southern part of the city and Serbs in the north, the two communities divided a bridge over the River Ibar.

While occasional violence flares up between Serbs and Albanians (often sparked by cross-bridge taunting about each other’s sporting defeats), both areas are safe for foreigners to visit.  Those living in the south of Mitrovica will tell you the north is too dangerous to visit – but feel free to ignore they warnings.

Travelling from Pristina’s main bus station, you’ll be able to take a bus to the Mitrovica’s main square and will then have to walk across the bridge, passing a mass of Serbian flags and graffiti of the ultra-nationalist variety.  You can also take a taxi right up to the bridge (just ask for “Mitrovica mosh’t” and the driver will understand where you’re after) for about €25.  After a few days in Pristina, you’ll immediately feel as if you are in an different country in terms of language, music and  architecture. (On a political level, I’ve long argued that the northern parts of Kosovo should be partitioned and transferred to Serbia).

If, as is likely, your time in North Mitrovica is limited, simply follow the road up to the imposing Orthodox church on the hill for some of the best views of the Albanian and Serb parts of the city.  If you have time to stop for food, you’ll find a range of excellent restaurants serving a range of Serbian and Western food and scores of friendly bars and coffee shops.  Do spend a few moments speaking to local people you come across, most of whom speak excellent English.  They have a very different take on political issues to those living south of the Ibar but are endlessly courteous and welcoming of foreigners.

Kosovo isn’t a typical tourist destination – but it is a fascinating and rewarding one.  And it’s not a cultural ghetto.

Correction – Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister has been in touch to say; “Brazil and China do issue visas to Kosovars as they have recently recognised Kosovo passports. Indeed, a young Kosovo film director Arzan Kraja just participated in a festival in Rio, supported by joint project supported by British Council Kosovo and Kosovo’s MFA. One can also travel with a tourist visa to China with Kosovo passport (ironically, its easier for Kosovars to travel to Beijing nowadays then Bruxelles).”