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Of Bears, Buildings and Bazaars

Kosovo’s independence is as recent as 2008, which makes it the youngest state in Europe. Its youth is palpable in the country’s wild capital Pristina: while not exactly picturesque, the city is a lively and pulsating place, which makes a weekend getaway to Pristina far more intriguing than most might expect. Nora Mahrer, flight attendant for Edelweiss, gave it a try.

Nora Mahrer’s reason for visiting Pristina was not exactly typical for a city trip: “I wanted to surprise my boyfriend on his birthday. He is very involved in animal welfare, including in Kosovo. The animal welfare organisation ‘Vier Pfoten’ has an animal shelter just outside Pristina. Former dancing bears and bears previously living under species-inappropriate conditions are looked after there. So we went there to visit the bears.” The “Bear Sanctuary Prishtina” is open to visitors all year round, but is not to be compared with a zoo. Its main purpose is to provide the bears with the peaceful environment they were deprived of for so many years. Many of them were kept in tiny cages in front of restaurants, to attract guests. Given that they have been around people from a young age, they show very little shyness. “We were lucky,” Nora reports, “as we saw almost all of the bears in the shelter and were even given a guided tour. It is nice to see that the animals can enjoy a better life now.”

Photos: Nora Mahrer

From the forest to the city

Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, is just twenty minutes from the Bear Sanctuary. The contrast between pure nature and this up-and-coming city could not be greater. While not exactly picturesque, Pristina is all the more interesting. “There are contrasting opinions about the National Library of Kosovo. I, too, consider it to be more of a gloomy building than an architectural masterpiece; but it is definitely eye-catching.” Whereas the library is by far the city’s most conspicuous building, it is by no means the only architectural curiosity. The Palace of Youth and Sports and the unfinished Church of Christ the Saviour are also interesting sights (and worth taking a snapshot). Most of the buildings were built after the Kosovo War and are thus fairly new – yet many nonetheless look dated and old-fashioned. It is as if time is lagging behind here. The Ethnographic Museum is one of the city’s nicest buildings: tucked away and within a lovely garden, a visit inside the museum is something history fans will not want to miss.

Loud and buzzing

Home to pleasant shopping streets and numerous busy cafés, Pristina is loud and buzzing with life. The city’s youthful atmosphere is palpable, by day and by night. The one absent feature: crowds of tourists. Those out and about are either locals or relatives visiting family. Almost two thirds of the population are under thirty years of age. And well over ninety per cent are Albanian. “It is fun to watch the hustle and bustle. But, personally, I think it would be a bit too noisy for me on an everyday basis,” Nora explains. Her recommendation for those who prefer something a little more tranquil and want a bite to eat: “Liburnia”. Situated in a side street, the restaurant scores with a nicely decorated, plant-filled courtyard - a small oasis that offers Kosovan dishes from a wood-fired oven. The menu is rich in garlic, vegetables and herbs, so vegetarians are also well catered to (the same applies to many other restaurants in Pristina). That being said, there is also plenty to satisfy the palate of fish dish lovers and fresh bread fans. Incidentally, restaurant visits are generally very affordable in Pristina. A main dish in a regular restaurant costs less than ten Swiss francs, and even the more upmarket places are inexpensive by Swiss standards.

Luxury and tradition

Nora took advantage of the cheap prices for some personal pampering: “I went to the star hairdresser’s shop ‘Altin Hair Salon’, which is really expensive by local standards. However, compared to Switzerland, the price for top-notch treatment and service was moderate - a small luxury I could not spontaneously splurge on back home.” Next on Nora‘s agenda was a visit to Pristina‘s green retreat: “We spent a few relaxing hours in Germia Park. The park boasts some charming cafés to stop for a drink, lush green spaces, lovely fountains and even an outdoor swimming pool in summer.”

The bazaar in the city centre, where anything from fresh vegetables to clothing and souvenirs can be purchased, is in stark contrast to the lovely park and the luxurious hairdresser’s shop. The customers are of all ages, and there is plenty of bargaining involved. Boxes and crates are piled up at the sides; it is all a bit chaotic. These contrasts are precisely what Nora found so intriguing about Pristina: “I came to Pristina without any expectations, and was all the more intrigued by the contrasts I observed in this city. In some places, such as the market for instance, the traditional atmosphere is still really palpable; but when you look around, you see so many young people seated in hip cafés in the city centre.”

Like one big family

Situated in a quiet side street, the hotel where Nora and her boyfriend stayed was nonetheless very central: “We stayed at the Begolli Hotel. It was an excellent choice. The rooms are nice and clean, and the staff incredibly friendly – basically like everyone in Pristina. Guests are treated in a familial and personal way, and not like a room number in a vast hotel complex.”

Visitors on a short getaway in Kosovo, and particularly in Pristina, can get by with a mix of English and Swiss-German. Nora explains: “It seemed like every Kosovan we met has relatives in Switzerland, or has just been there on a visit. Many of them can speak a few words of Swiss-German, which was really nice.” A prevalent trait of the Kosovans is their friendly nature; politeness and helpfulness are very important to them. Given that Switzerland was one of the first countries to officially recognise Kosovo as an independent country, there is a particularly strong liking.

Visiting the heartland

Nora’s final recommendation is a short trip to the south: “We travelled by local bus to Prizren.” Purely in visual terms, Kosovo’s second-largest city has several aces up its sleeve. “The lovely Prizren Fortress, the canal that cuts through the city and the view of the mountains are really quite something.” Indeed, whereas Prizren represents the picturesque part of Kosovo worthy of printing on a postcard, Pristina, by contrast, convinces with its very special charm.

Text: Malin Mueller