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  • Writer's pictureGregory T. Wilkins

Serbia & Kosovo 2023

May 14, 2023 My bus from Skojpe, Macedonia to Belgrade, Serbia leaves at 7:45 a.m. and will arrive approximately 8 hours later not including border crossing and security. It's going to be a long journey. Let the adventure continue. The modern bus beat some of the chicken busses I have traveled throughout Central and South America. The space was clean and comfortable. While leg room was limited, at least I was able to sit on the aisle so that if I needed to stretch my legs I would not have to climb over another passenger. The bus stopped periodically along the way to pick up passengers. It was filled mostly with locals. There was one other couple from the West, a man and woman from Australia. He is working in Croatia for an AUS tour company, and she is visiting him. They are going to get off at Nis. (In WWI, this city was the war capital before it was taken over and ceded to Bulgaria. It is the third largest city in Serbia.) Most of the passengers got off here, and we took on many more, almost to capacity. I was able to not have anyone sit to next to me in the front of the bus. It stopped another hour and half down the road for a 10-minute break. I quickly went to the bathroom and picked up a sandwich for lunch. The breaks are a blessing because of my neck and spine. I am unable to get totally comfortable in my seat and feel like I squirm too much. It is probably good that no one is sitting next to me. What you learn on long journeys and traveling just about anywhere is when there is a bathroom it's always best to try and go. You never know when there will be another one. I remember traveling in South America and having to go badly and not finding one anywhere. Restaurants were closed, and everything for kilometers was boarded up. I ended up finding a small opening in the side of a building to take a pee. I felt awful doing it, but what is a person to do? At least it is not like Bangladesh where men just go off the side of the street with their backs turned and traffic fills the congested lanes. I always pity the women there because expectations that are placed before them are so much more limiting. *****************

Belgrade, Serbia

My first impression of Belgrade is it is a city on the move. New office buildings, new apartments, and shopping centers are being built. It has a fast-paced energy about itself. Squished between the new are old Art Nouveau structures that I can only hope manage survive the upswing of all things shiny and new. The new buildings are flashy with glass and steel in comparison to the classical lines of the turn of the 19th and 20th century. While promising, I hope the beauty of sculptural lines of plaster and brick don't disappear to the cold steel and glass modernity. I immediately took a beeline for the bus ticket office after I got off the bus and picked up my luggage. I was able to get a ticket to Pristina, Kosovo for May 18. The only surprise was they were unable to sell me one by credit card. (Skopje is not as up to par with technology, and they were able to sell me one without a problem.) It makes me wonder how advanced Belgrade is at first glance after this occurrence. I went to the ATM around the corner to get Dinar. The one blessing is that it is in multiple languages. The bad things is I took out way too much. I thought I was taking out $40 USD, but no, I took out $400 USD! EGADS!! First World conversion problems. It didn't help that there was a line of people behind me impatiently waiting. Oh well, I will figure something out.


Hostel Fair & Square

Hostel Fair and Square I walked 5 kilometers to Hostel Fair and Square from the bus station. It was considerably longer than I would have imagined, particularly with baggage in tow. Going uphill didn't help. At least my bag is on wheels, though one of the wheels has been damaged and barely staying together with another one about to go belly up. It is rather comical as it reminds me of a grocery cart that has seen better days as it thumps, bumps, and grinds its way down the aisle. Sadly, the sidewalks are in disrepair making for the journey to be an awkward climb. Half of the sidewalk is filled with potholes, and the other half is poorly patched. I kept thinking it is a good thing I am not in a wheelchair because it would be impossible to maneuver the walkway because of telephones stuck in the middle of the sidewalk, very thin passageways, and no ramps of any kind.


Hostel Fair and Square Finally arriving 45 minutes later, I was greeted at the door by two dogs and heavily tatted man from Italy named Matteo who had a deep accent, loud voice, and friendly smile. He was aware of my challenges of getting a room and the border crossing via the emails I had been sending back and forth when I was in Skopje. He wanted to make sure I was okay with paying for a private because there was a bunkroom available, I assured him all was well; it would be nice to have a private space to recharge.


Hotel Fair & Square - Private Room

Hotel Fair & Square - Private Bathroom He had bunk space as well as a private room open. I opted for the private room as a splurge which is twice the cost of a bunk. Since I have lived in bunk spaces for the last 2 weeks and having to dodge snorers, I figured I would do it. Besides, I was originally in a private room with a shared room whish was approx. $80 for 4 nights. After they helped me so much, I figured I would upgrade with a private room and bath as a thank you. Getting settled by 5:00 p.m., I decided to stay close to the hostel and not wander out. There is nothing much in the neighborhood. It would be good to decompress after a long day on the road, get an early night sleep, and be rested for tomorrow.

There are many reasons to stay at a hostel -- local information, good value, shared living space, ideas of what to explore, information on ATM/grocery/transportation. Each hostel is unique. This one in particular is striking because of all the street art in the space. There are surprises everywhere you turn.


Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

Hostel Fair and Square - art

The shared spaces are also a good way to meet other travelers, global nomads, and tech entrepreneurs. The communal space here has a reception desk, living room, dining room, and shared kitchen. It is a great way to connect should you want to meet others or a place to chillout and listen to some great music.


Hostel Fair and Square

Hostel Fair and Square

Hostel Fair and Square COSTS in Dinar: $1 US = $108 Dinar $350 sandwich at a rest stop $1800 bus ticket to Prishtina, Kosovo $126,000 four nights at Hostel Fair & Square in a private room with private bath

Museum of Contemporary Art - Belgrade, Serbia May 15, 2023 I can only imagine how many miles I walked today. The Museum of Contemporary Art is on the other side of the river which is more than 5 kilometers from Hostel Fair and Square. Dashing in and out rain drops with an umbrella in one hand and a GPS in the other, I managed to find where I was going. The GPS is relatively perfect, but it sometimes takes you a little out of your way versus the quickest walking route. All the same. I arrived in one piece and more or less dry. Plus, I am thankful for modern technology being a foreigner to a new city as it is a tremendous help. The museum first opened as a Contemporary Gallery in 1958 and later became a museum in 1965. The collection holds more than 35,000 works of art. Sitting on the confluence of the Sava and Danube, the museum is within a larger park. Some locals claim it as an architectural jewel; I would not make this statement though I appreciate its architectural lines. I arrived at 10:30 a.m. and was the first guest of the day. I had the place to myself. Slowly, as the day progressed more people came. I saw everything within an hour and half.


Hotel Moscow Returning back to the city center, I was able to admire some of the Art Deco buildings in the city, in particular Hotel Mosco. It is one of the oldest running hotels in Belgrade, originally opening in 1908. Located in the center of downtown, it stands magnificent in comparison to the other bland buildings that surround it.


Hotel Moscow

In spring 1941, with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia being invaded and quickly conquered by Nazi Germany before getting carved up into several Nazi client states, the Gestapo moved into Hotel Moskva, transforming it into its headquarters. Not liking its references to Russia, they also renamed it Hotel Velika Srbija, after the original inn.


Hotel Moscow And like many grand things, the hostel has survived wars, renovations, political strife, and new ownership. Let's hope she will continue to reign supreme. ****************************************************

Sveti Sava Cathedral Walking from the hostel to the city center, it's best to see what you can while I am down here. I had read online and in my travel book about Sveti Sava Cathedral, the second largest Orthodox church on Earth. And impressive it was indeed! Saint Save is the patron saint of the Serbian Orthodox church. Some say the church is built on the gravesite of Sava. This church was to replicate the Haga Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Now, the Haga Sophia is grand with magnificent acoustics, Sveti Sava has bling and grandeur on a modern scale.


Sveti Sava Cathedral Building began in 1935. With the occupation in 1941, building halted. It became a space occupied by the Germans. The church asked for permission to continue to build by the Communist government after the war, and it was not granted until 1985. (Talk about patience of a saint!) While still under Communism rule, this was a turning point. 100,000 came out of the liturgy to recognize it. In 1989 the dome weighing 4,000 tons was lifted into place.


Sveti Sava Cathedral

Sveti Sava Cathedral Mosaics and a massive chandelier radiate in the space. Color reigns supreme! With the Haga Sophia being returned to the Muslims to become a mosque a few years ago, they say this church is now considered the new Hagia Sophia.


COSTS in Dinar: $1604 cheese, chocolate $95 Coke $1000 bus card ($500, plus $500 for rides = 6 rides) FREE Contemporary Art Museum w/ Univ. ID = $600 w/o FREE Sveti Sava Cathedral

May 16, 2023 Yesterday, I learned that there was a bus card for $500 Dinar. I got one and loaded it with another $500. I tried using it when I entered the bus, but the driver waved me on. I looked at others entering, and the same process occurred. How in the world is the city to make money and upkeep the busses and trams if no one pays to use them? At least it saved me an hour of walking in either direction.

I arrived 45 minutes before the doors were to open at the art museum. So, I walked around the city admiring architecture. Lucky me, in doing so, I discovered the Ethnography Museum. (It is not even listed in Lonely Planet.)


Ethnography Museum


The Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade was founded in 1901, when the Ethnographic Department separated from the National Museum. The inauguration of the first permanent exhibition of the museum was organized in 1904, during the centennial of the First Serbian Uprising.



Ethnography Museum


In WWI, a large number of museum items were destroyed, as well as the documentation and the library. The museum library was re-established in 1920. Today, its holdings contain about 60,000 publications: 33,000 books and about 27,000 journals. During WWII, museum objects were packed and removed from the building. The museum collections currently contain approximately 200,000 items, 56,000 of which are ethnographic objects.


Moschino


What caught my eye from the street were what appeared to be Russian fine objects -- porcelain, silver, etc. Peering through the window, I saw high fashion garments. Looking up the website, I was fortunate to discover there was an Italian couture exhibition. And so, who am I not to say hello to great fiber and handcrafted goods. And or $300 Dinar? Watchout!


Gucci

COSTS in Dinar: $300 Ethnographic Museum $200 magnet from Ethnography Museum FREE admission to National Museum of Belgrade - usually $300 $300 Coke and two chips at museum $170 sandwich $600 laundry $520 handmade x-stitched dishtowel from Ethnography Museum for Maria

May 17, 2023 Last night and early morning were not pleasant. Somewhere along the way I got a stomach bug and had diarrhea. Wet and runny with no end in sight, I begged for my bowel to heal. The last time it was this bad was when I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The blessing this time around was that at least I did not have it coming out both sides. No sooner had I returned to bed was I getting up again to take a shit. I recalled placing Imodium in my bag (something I never travel without internationally) and took a couple of pills. Three hours later, I took a third and another one around lunch. I asked Matteo if there was a pharmacy in the area, and fortunately there is one very close to the hostel. Down the street and around the corner I wobbled in and prayed that what I was looking for made sense. To be on the safe side, I brought the old package with me. Handing the package to the female pharmacist, she looked back at me with sadness and empathy. At least I was not having to play a game of charades with her. She spoke very little English but understood immediately what I was seeking. She helped me out, and I was out the door in record time just in case another explosion was about to occur. Even if I don't need it, I would much rather have a new stash in case then not, particularly knowing I still have 6 weeks of global travel. I brought my computer to the shared work space so that I didn't have to wallow in my misery alone. That did not last long because someone began frying eggs. I thought I was going to puke. I quickly packed up my computer, hard drive, headphone, etc. and returned to my room. At least I have a private room and not have to share with others my unfortunate circumstance. It's time for sleep and rest plus rehydration. The bummer is today I was planning to go to Novi Sad, Serbia. I guess there is one more reason to return to Serbia in my future.

COSTS in Dinar: $232 Lopermid tablets for diarrhea May 18, 2023 My bus from Belgrade, Serbia to Pristina, Kosvo is at noon. It is going to be 6+ hours long which includes time at the border crossing. Here's to an adventure! I arrived at Pristina around 6:30 p.m., and the bus unloaded us right outside the bus station terminal. I was blessed with my Minnesota State University, Mankato contacts because an alum, Shkelqim Daci, completed his masters degree in 2012. We met in my role as the Associate Director of the Centennial Student Union and Student Activities. He had seen my post on Facebook with the border concerns between Kosovo and Serbia. He said he would be glad to meet me at the bus station to get me to my hostel. WINNING!


Shkelqim Daci and me Amazing thing technology. We have not been in contact with each other since he left the USA and now reconnect after all these years. He has three grown children -- 16, 12, and 9 -- 2 girls and the boy is the youngest. He was there promptly and full of smiles and hugs. It always warms my heart to see a familiar face. Even before I had arrived there in Pristina, I had questions about arriving to Croatia. There was no information online, and he was able to find me an overnight bus to get me to Zagreb. He said he was also going to help me convert Dinar to Euros after my zero escapade when I was planning to get $40 and instead got $400. It pays to network! He drove me to the Bus Station Hostel which is around the corner from the bus station. It was nice to not have to think about navigating the streets. He knew the area well because he lives in the neighborhood by a couple of blocks. He dropped me off, and we made plans to have dinner with his family tomorrow night. What a host! I settled in for the evening and made ready for another day of adventure.


National Library at the University of Prishtina

May 19, 2023 Pristina (Prishtina), Serbia is the capital of Kosovo and the largest city of roughly 200,000 people. The former capital was in Prizren, but it was the Communists that moved it in 1947. When the Communists came in, they destroyed centuries of history -- mosques, Turkish bazaar, churches, and Ottoman houses. The exodus of Albanian families began. In fact, to this day, there are more Albanians living in Turkey than in Albania. Even in the 1960s, roads were still unpaved, cholera was rampant, and many homes did not have running water. (Mark Constantine, my supervisor at MSU, Mankato is from Albania, and his family left the country during all the strife.)


Apartment Block Then, the Kosovo War took its toll. In 1989, an extremely repressive regime was imposed throughout Kosovo by the Yugoslav government with Albanians largely being purged from state industries and institutions. Unemployment was rampant. The Kosovo Liberation Army began to fight back in the mid-1990s. Clear lines were drawn between the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians. There were grave concerns around the globe about the potential of this war escalating to ethnic cleansing.


Handcrafts

Homemade Pickled Veggies


Handcrafts

Traditional Clothes Widespread violence broke out in Prishtina. Serbian and Yugoslav forces shelled several districts and, in conjunction with paramilitaries, conducted large-scale expulsions of ethnic Albanians accompanied by widespread looting and destruction of Albanian properties. Many of those expelled were directed onto trains apparently brought to Pristina's main station for the express purpose of deporting them to the border of North Macedonia where they were forced into exile. Many Albanians fled Prishtina to escape Serb forces.


Apartments were occupied illegally, and the Roma quarters behind the city park was torched. Several strategic targets in Prishtina were attacked by NATO during the war, but serious physical damage appears to have largely been restricted to a few specific neighborhoods shelled by Yugoslav security forces. To be shelled and gunned down by allies and foes definitively leaves you behind a rock and hard place. At the end of the war, Serbs became victims of violence committed by Kosovo Albanian extremists -- the shoe was now on the other foot. On numerous occasions, Serbs were killed by mobs of Kosovo Albanian extremists for merely speaking Serbian in public or being identified as a Serb. Violence reached its pinnacle in 2004 when Kosovo Albanian extremists were moving from apartment block to apartment block attacking and destroying residences of any remaining Serbs. A majority of the city's 45,000 Serb inhabitants fled from Kosovo.

Kosovo Military

Even today, the relationship is contentious. Kosovo claims itself as a country, while Serbia refuses to recognize it. There continues to be disputes about policy, procedure, and staking claim. The exciting thing is Kosovo persevered and appears to be thriving. There is an energy of new buildings going up and infrastructure taking hold. The future looks bright. (Shkelqim is working with the Swiss government on infrastructure -- particularly clean water.)


Kosovo Military

I was particularly impressed when I heard the Kosovo president is a woman. And while Islam is the predominant religion, Christians live alongside their neighbors without hostility, woman are encouraged to be educated and become entrepreneurs, and the majority of woman can dress as they chose. I am told though that a conservative Islamic movement is stirring, and I have observed more woman wearing the hijab and some in burka. At the same time, a more liberal view presence is dominant.


Wall of Cigarettes in Street Market The USA landed on the side of Kosovo; hence, I know why now Serbs are not the friendliest to Americans. They understand though it is not the people but governments that created strife and negotiations. I did not have any bad experiences but was also told to not wave my passport around and to be silent on the topic should it arise. It is also obvious how much Kosovo appreciates the United States' involvement in the war because there are flags on buildings, apartments, and in town squares as well as streets named after Americans and a statue of Bill Clinton. **************************


National Library

The National Library of Kosovo is the largest library in the country and on the campus of the University of Pristina. Built in 1982, its striking facade is the emblem of the campus and the city at large. It is made with zenith windows, with a total 99 domes of different sizes and is entirely covered in a metal fish net. It reminds me of a Mad Max film. Sadly, like so many buildings and public spaces across developing nations, if you were in a wheelchair or had special needs this space would be a nightmare. It is nearly impossible to get inside (though it does have a ramp but is at a bad an angle, no lip or railing so you don't fall off a small cliff, and the end of the ramp goes to stairs. And with all the stairs inside, it would be nearly impossible to maneuver.


National Library Rotunda Floor

What I learned is that the books in the collection cannot be taken home. Everything must be read in the library. There are several reading rooms scattered across the building, and one of the spaces is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. When I went to visit the embasssy supported space, the students were very friendly and welcoming. In 1989, when Kosovo's status as an autonomous region of Serbia was revoked, tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians working in the public sector lost their jobs. This also resulted in Albanian students being prohibited from taking courses in their native language. For public and private libraries in Kosovo, many library collections were burned and destroyed. (And to think in the USA, the GOP doesn't see their behavior as concerning.)


National Library Staircase


National Library Staircase


The library was subsequently used to house a large number of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia who had fled their countries due to the Yugoslav Wars. After NATO's occupation of Kosovo in June 1999, it was revealed that the Yugoslav Army used the library as a command-and-control center. The materials inside had been stolen, reading room furniture smashed, and the card catalogue had been dumped in the basement. The library workers were kept out of the building for a week while peacekeeping troops scoured the building for hidden explosives.


National Library Staircase


According to national and international organizations, about 100,000 Albanian language books were sent to the paper mill for pulping and destroyed. Among those books were collections of national heritage, which explained the nation's origins and history. (And my own government in some states are afraid of Critical Race Theory. I wish they would open their eyes to the harms they have/are causing.)

****************


Mother Theresa Cathedral

Mother Theresa Cathedral was approved in 2007 to be built. The building itself is done, but the grounds surrounding are still being refined. It was inaugurated on September 5, 2017, twenty years after Mother Teresa's death. With so few Catholics in the city, some felt it was overpowering when it was built, partly because it is also the one of the tallest buildings in the city. I am told that some of the biggest Christmas masses occur at the cathedral, and local Muslims join their fellow Catholic citizens in solidarity to celebrate the holiday season. This is impressive because I don't see that happen often even in developed countries.


Mother Theresa Cathedral Interior


Very clean and white with modern stained glass windows surrounding the space, Mother Theresa is honored in several of them as well as the Pope. The pews have the eagle carved on the side, and the pulpit has modern touches with its sculptural form. It is a tasteful space and not overly "done".


Mother Theresa Cathedral Ceiling

It is conveniently located across the street from the University of Prishtina.


Mother Theresa Cathedral Pews

**********

Ethnography Museum Entrance

Ethnography Museum is housed in an Ottoman house that is more than 300 years old. When the Albanians were being persecuted, the family (Emin Gjikolli) left the house intact and fled to safety in Turkey. It is now stated owned and managed by 5 curators. It is located in the Emin Gjiku Complex, a monument of culture from the 18th century.


Ethnography Museum

Ethnography Museum

Ethnography Museum The family were originally farmers and had had livestock. The front of the complex are barns and courtyard. The main part of the complex is the old house and outer buildings. The older house is particularly interesting because it retains its historical influence of family living space, kitchen, and guest/traveler room with cupboards, living room/bedroom, and hammam.


Ethnography Museum Door Detail


Ethnography Museum \Wood Detail

Ethnography Museum - Family Kitchen

Ethnography Museum - Guest Quarters Wardrobe Detail

Ethnography Museum - Guest Quarters

Ethnography Museum - Family Kitchen ******** Museum of Kosovo was a disappointment There are some old coins, vessels, and artifacts, but overall, it lacks impact. It is a pass-through space in a grand building built in 1889. I can only hope the curatorial team will develop this collection and showcase its rich history. It is an opportunity for the right person to take this collection to a new level.

Museum of Kosovo **************** Cafe culture is strong in the Balkans. Tea/coffee with pastries are abundant. For a few dollars one can have a coffee and snack while catching up with the friends and neighbors. The squares are filled with people. I love it! The one thing I am not a fan of though is how many people smoke cigarettes -- women, men, and young people. I wonder what their cancer rates are in this country? Even with warnings on the package and scary pictures of disease and blackened lungs, it does not deter people from smoking. I find smoking disgusting.

COSTS in EURO: $2.55 cookies, apple, chocolate bar $5.40 chicken filet, veggies, potatoes, 2 Cokes $60 Four night stay at Bus Station Hostel private room with shared bath May 20, 2023 Prizren was the former capital of Kosovo. It was moved when the Communists took hold of the country to Prishtina. Located on the banks of the Prizren river, the center of the town is lovely with classical architecture, mosques, cafes, stores, and churches. Approximately 175,000+ people live here, when you include the surrounding countryside.


Old Town Prizren A fortress stands mighty in the hills and was in use since the Bronze Age. The views from its ramparts are spectacular and worth a climb up the hill -- a 20-minute walk from the center. The town has seen its fair share of bloodshed, poverty, and hunger -- usually at the hands of foreign forces, Christians (Serb Orthodox and Bulgarian Orthodox) and conflicts between Serbs and Albanians. WWI had its impact when it was invaded by Austro-Hungarian forces and when the Nazis and Fascists of Italy invaded in WWII. The Kosovo War also took its toll when Albanians were forced out of their homes only to have many of them return in 1999 after the war. The city is now Albanian majority. Serb neighborhoods were looted, burned, and people killed.


Former Prizren Hammam

COSTS in EURO: 5 Euro bus to Prizren 7 Euro beer, salad, meat with stuffed cheese inside, fresh loaf of bread 5 Euro return to Prishtina by bus 1.28 Euro beer and ice cream bar from grocery


May 21, 2023 I spent the majority of the day enjoying the weather and walking through the City Center. There was a festival in the square and American Armed Forces were there playing music. I even had a chance encounter with the Kosovo president when she walked by me when I was filming. Crazy!


Mural


Mural at University of Prishtina


Free Ukraine!


The city is in transition. You can feel it! Cranes and new apartment buildings are going up, while other parts of the city remain in the past with Communist housing blocks. This is evident as you walk the streets. Juxtapose a National Theatre that is crumbling with a football stadium that appears to be new. It is a delicate balance of the old and new. I wonder how many years it is going to take to bring this city to standard?


National Theatre

COSTS in Euro: 5.50 Euro omelet with prosciutto, mushrooms and cheese, salad, crostini and bread plus iced coffee 1.30 Euro ice cream

May 22, 2023 I am going to spend the day close to the hostel. Check-out was at 11 a.m., and I was told I could leave my luggage in the kitchen. My concern though is that there is nowhere to lock it down. Anyone could come in and take it. The last thing I want to do is not have my computer, camera, etc. I am going to chillout for as long as I am able and then may take a side trip to the grocery. I will eat the rest of the food Shkelqim's family made when I arrived, and wait. He is going to pick me up at 8:20 p.m. to get me to the bus station, get my ticket, and load me on the bus for the overnight trip to Zagreb, Croatia.


Bus Station Hostel


Bus Station Hostel


Bus Station Hostel - My Room COSTS in Euro: $40 overnight bus ticket from Prishtina, Kosovo to Zagreb, Croatia $5.73 six granola snack bars, ice cream bar, chocolate, one beer COSTS in Dinar: $370 sandwich at rest stop

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