“Chai! Chai! Garam chai!”
The cadenced plea echoes across the railway platform, jolting me from a restless slumber. I forget I’m on the top bunk and sit up too quickly, smacking my head into the ceiling above me. It’s not the first time I’ve done that.
I was welcomed to Kosovo in the warmest possible way. First, after arriving via furgon from Albania, I was dropped off on a street corner in a dusty, nondescript town. At a loss of how to begin the last leg of my journey toward Prizren and badly in need of coffee, I dumbly sat down on the curb with my backpack at my feet and adopted the persona of a wounded bird while I mulled my options. Hitchhike? Sure, but I wanted to arrive in Prizren before sunset and it was already mid-afternoon. I finally moseyed over to a nearby park where a bundle of teens simultaneously flirted and updated their social statuses. Behold, they all spoke perfect English! After the obligatory introductions and routine “why did you travel to Kosovo” question and answer session, my heroes not only guided me to the bus stop several blocks away but they also waited with me and then climbed aboard to make sure that the non-English speaking bus driver knew where to let me off. I gave the kids a package of Werther’s Original candies as a send-off and promised to friend them on Facebook.
When I arrived in Prizren’s city center, I was lost again. Since Kosovo was a last minute decision, I didn’t have a map or travel guide with me. But I knew that I needed to walk to the City Hostel where I at least had the common sense to make a reservation. I wandered for a while. I looked at the street names. I asked a few people if they knew where the hostel was located. They didn’t know so they called up their friend or their aunt who also didn’t know, but did I want to come over for dinner perhaps? Or come stay at their house instead?
I eventually wandered into a travel agency along the main boulevard. The owner knew where I needed to go, but as it was almost 800 meters away of course, I needed to stay for a cup of coffee and a chat. We talked for well over an hour. He then asked if he and his wife could show me around town the following day and also invited me to have dinner with them.
I soon learned that these types of friendly overtures and overt attention was common in Kosovo. Everyone was genuinely concerned about my well-being and wanted to make sure that I enjoyed my stay in their country. Wherever I went, whether buying baklava from the local bakery or encountering a random hiker on my running path, everyone wanted to express their profound gratitude to the United States as well as to me for making the journey to their country. Hospitality, like everywhere in the Balkans, is a serious matter in Kosovo.
A bit about Kosovo’s history: During the grisly war of the 1990s, the Serbs were enacting ethnic cleansing on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians (the majority of their population). After years of discrimination and ethnic cleansing, the U.S., led by Bill Clinton, came to Kosovo’s aid and stopped the Serbs. This NATO-backed war of liberation of the Albanian population from the Serb’s oppressive regime was regarded as the most successful example of western intervention in recent history.
In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and, not very keen to this decision, Serbia rejected this declaration. The United States, Japan, Australia, and most of the European Union sided with Kosovo, acknowledging its independence. Other countries, such as China, Spain and Russia, did not. This means that Brits, Ozzies, Americans and other nationalities are welcomed with warmth and gratitude. Statues have been erected of both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and streets and children are named after these western heroes.
I spent several days cooling my heels in Prizren’s City Hostel. Though not the cleanest hostel and seriously lacking a supply of toilet paper, the kindness of Mr. G, the owner, made up for any lack in general hygiene. Galdhim was always willing to crack open a beer, whip up an espresso or share local knowledge.
I used these few free days to simply relax, photograph Prizren’s gorgeous countryside, explore the city’s nooks and crannies and spend quality time with many of the locals that graciously offered coffee and conversation.
Prizren is a lovely city with an intoxicating blend of Albanians, Turks, Roma and Serbs. Ottoman houses dot the hillsides while spire-tipped mosques and Orthodox and Catholic churches crowd the squares, existing in absolute harmony. The Shadervan piazza, or the heart of Prizren’s old town, boasts ice cream parlors, cafe’s and an iconic stone bridge spanning the Bistrica River. The bridge was busy during the twilight hours, swollen with the likes of lovers, daydreamers and fisherman.
Hiking to the Kalaja Fortress – My running path in Prizren took me up to the top of Kalaja Fortress, a structure that dates from the time of the Osman Imperial time. The path from the city center is quickest, a mere fifteen minute hike to the top. However, leading behind the city along the river and into the hills is the longer 3 – 4 mile path. It is here that I made my daily (sometimes twice daily) runs.
In the evenings, the whole valley was alight with fire. It’s was a great spot both for sunsets and for listening to the calls of prayer echoing from Prizren’s beautiful mosques
I didn’t run into many other backpackers in this city. The hostel was quiet and was mostly frequented by school groups and the occasional local traveling on business. I would gladly return in a heartbeat for it was the locals, not the locale, that touched my heart in Prizren.