Libraries of Lego
I arrived in Pristina from Belgrade in the early evening and set out for a quick amble around some of the easiest to reach sites. I walked a long way down Bill Clinton Boulevard to find the statue of the man himself. It turned out to be smaller than I had expected (as it is often boasted about to be the largest in the world which I realised in hindsight was simply a generous way of saying that if any other statues of Bill exist, they must be very small indeed). After underwhelming myself with my first sight, I next set off to the university to catch a glimpse of the library which has the unfortunate honour of making it into the list of the top ten ugliest buildings of the world (as decided by..?). It was indeed hideous (although I have seen worse) and my map’s description of a “lego brick construction wrapped in circular wire” was accurate. I always enjoy hanging around universities though (perhaps it is the wholesome atmosphere of learning, or more likely it is my refusal to let go of my youth with any type of grace) so I stayed there for a while and tried to enjoy a traditional snack of corn on the cob. Unfortunately I had made a bad vendor choice as this piece was rather burnt and dry and it was with cracked teeth and most likely a heathy dose of charcoal poisoning that I watched the colourful sunset that was taking place behind the Mother Teresa Cathedral that sat opposite.
Buskers and Bazaars
Once it was too dark to feel that sitting alone in a quiet university park was a good idea, I continued towards the centre and was pleasantly surprised by the pedestrianised square that formed the heart of the city. It was as nice as many Eastern European squares (although not including those with the stunning old architecture as this was conspicuously lacking here) and it was wide, bustling and clean, with many cafes around it. Very few places to eat though and when I did find one it was deserted. The next day I noticed that the restaurants got a bit busier during the day but were still few in comparison to the cafes that sold only drinks- evidence to the fact that despite people’s clean and new clothes and the busy social vibe that resonates throughout the city, this is still the poorest country in Europe and people cannot afford to eat out. To further confirm this, there were many young children walking around with small guitars and bongo drums busking, women beggars with tiny babies, and a man playing an accordion around the outside of cafes whilst his small daughter weaved her way amongst the tables with a box held out for tips.
The next day, I began my explorations anew and, fortified by more of the coffee that is just as good as the excellent standard to which I have become accustomed to in the Balkans, set off for the bazaar. The bazaar seemed to sell the usual vegetables, watches and wallets typical of similar markets and it was a nice place to stroll. I then went to see the iconic NEWBORN sign which is a large set of letters spelling this word and is repainted each year on Kosovo’s Independence Day. This year the letters were painted by the city’s children but the E was painted black to symbolise the people’s disappointment in the local economy.
That afternoon I went out to the nearby “national park” which was essentially a big forest with walking paths. It was good to do some hiking (especially after several days of dining and drinking like a king and still spending less than a fiver to do so) but it didn’t feel very different to walking in the woods at home. Still, the weather was good at a comfortable twenty degrees and I enjoyed the exercise, gentle as it was.
Football and Flames
Later on I joined a few people from the hostel (including the staff who were all American, as were a much larger proportion of backpackers here than I had ever met travelling before) for dinner. The food was fairly average (yet more meat!) but amazingly priced at under five euros for an enormous meal (even by my greedy standards) and a litre of beer. The highlight of the night was watching the Albania vs Portugal football game on the large open air screen in the “stadium” which was a large sunken area just off the main square and in which I had seen kids skateboarding in earlier in the day. The crowd was fun and not at all aggressive (as is often the way at English football matches). A few red flames (red for Albania) were being waved about merrily in support which definitely would not have been a good idea at a British sporting event.
The energy was fantastic with everyone cheering and breaking into song throughout, but unfortunately Albania lost to Portugal (who scored a winning goal thirty tense seconds before the end of the match) and the crowd quickly dispersed in disappointment. A small bunch of pre-adolescent boys started throwing bottles into the arena which was a bit worrisome but they too gave up quickly and went on their way. I would have loved it if Albania had won- the Kosovan population is largely Albanian and the cheers and excitement that arose when Albania came close to scoring were immense. I would have loved to have experienced the exuberance of the celebrations if they had won although it was sadly not to be this time.