A story of successes in the Balkans. That iis how our author, Rudolf Sárdi describes the past and present of this small country in the Western Balkans in this article published in the May issue of Diplomacy & Trade.
Kosovo has played an instrumental role in shaping the history of the Balkans, though, it has remained a somewhat mysterious and little known country in the eyes of foreigners. Having stood in the limelight of political attention until just recently, Kosovo has been successfully jockeying for the designation of being considered a viable tourist destination, a colorful and multifaceted land with a multitude of attractions.
Situated in the Western Balkans, Kosovo is a land steeped in tradition, handicrafts and architecture, and in the amicability of its people. Kosovo was, for a long time, according to a journalistic cliché, considered the lost heart of the Balkans. Just like other sweeping statements, the idea of the hypothesized lost heart has been as fatuous and invalid as it has indicated some kind of truth – and a very significant one at that. Ill-timed political factors played a crucial role in keeping Kosovo out of sight as a tourist destination until today. During the period of Ottoman rule and the Yugoslav era, disorder, rebellions and repressions of all sorts contributed to the plight of the peoples of a nation, which has since become a ‘curio’ among world travelers, who have been singing the praises of the newly discovered land. No longer inaccessible, yet geographically somewhat less privileged than other European countries, Kosovo has many secrets in store and is ready to unfold them.
The country’s history – very rich, long and complex – is impossible to survey in this article, but a few, less commonly acknowledged facts might leave readers struck with awe. Pre-historic ‘footprints’ have given Kosovo a place among regions inhabited by Illyrian tribes, predecessors of which are present-day Albanians. Later in history, Kosovo formed part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th until the 20th century, during which rule, Islam was introduced to the population. Ottoman rulers built mosques and tekkes (lodges for dervishes, ascetic Muslim monks, who still perform religious dances in spring) and, after 450 years, have left their imprint on the country’s food, music, dance, artisanal handicrafts and local culture – all of these have given Kosovo a magical flair that combines the East and, due to its geographical endowment, a bit of the Mediterranean. Folk music and dance festivals are regularly held around the country, and the turmoil of the recent past seems to have left no mark at all on the radiant faces that constitute Kosovo’s human landscape. Phenomenal is the fact that both men and women take pride in wearing their unique Kosovar Podgur attire and playing their single-stringed Lahuta while singing folk music.
It must not go unnoticed that Kosovo’s beauty, spellbinding mountain-peaks, Ottoman-era buildings, stone houses, medieval fresco paintings, churches and mosques makes the country a sight for sore eyes – all these having been kept a secret from the world of tourists, and open, for many years, only for the few select, who completed diplomatic assignments in Pristina, the capital city. Kosovo was the last state to emerge from the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, thus ending a chapter of instability and friction in the region and opening the path for democracy and prosperity. In 2008, when Kosovo gained its independence, majuscule letters spelling ‘NEWBORN’ were featured on the pavement of Pristina. Kosovo has stood on its feet, and visible progress has been accomplished over the past five years. All that is worth visiting is just a stone’s throw away from the capital: mountain-backed towns such as Prizren and Peja, hiking opportunities and expressive cultural and religious heritage sites which date back to Illyrian times, such as the ancient city of Ulpiana and the Novoberdo castle.
In addition to enjoying a trekking experience in the mighty Gjeravica and Sharri mountains, one will be surprised to run into several engangered species, including lynxes, brown bears and buzzards. “Unspoiled nature is definitely not the only appeal that has contributed to the steadily growing numbers of tourists to Kosovo from Europe and other parts of the world, including Hungary,” explains Delfin Pllana, Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo in Hungary. He adds that “Kosovo’s veritable lure is not only attributable to its scenic beauty, but also to the fact that Kosovo has a mixture of Mediterranean and Continental climate, allowing visitors to enjoy nature at its most verdant. Kosovo boasts many lakes and rivers for mild weather enjoyment as well as excellent skiing possibilities at Brezovica and Bogaj resorts.” Kosovo is proud to have integrated many foreign elements into its culture: for example, a main boulevard of the country’s capital is named after Bill Clinton, as the majority of the Kosovars owe a debt of gratitude to the former US President who supported the people of Kosovo in their struggle for independence in 1999. So immense is the popularity the US has achieved that the Star Spangled Banner is flown in all corners of the country and the 4th of July is a festivity celebrated in the streets in deference to America. The speed of change in the country is incredible; the euro is being used as Kosovo’s functional currency, and the country, owing to its central position at the center of the Balkan Peninsula, remains an important crossroads for travelers; immense efforts are given to the improvement of infrastructure, and the construction of modern highways is a token of these efforts. DCM Pllana comments that “Kosovo’s religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity is unique with multiethnic cultures juxtaposed to one another and enjoying a peaceful co-existence.”
The best words to describe Pristina, the capital city, are energy, dynamism, and multiculturalism. Visitors are not particularly riveted by its beauty, but driving along Bill Clinton Boulevard (with the stately statue of the celebrated statesman), entering some burnt-out buildings (mementoes of a now bygone era), and drinking a cup of anise-flavored raki) make the town all the more unforgettable. DCM Pllana concludes that “Pristina happily accommodates a mix of cultures and traditions, and this fact is also justified by the variety of foods, consisting of excellent stews served in tavas, lip smacking lamb and beef dishes, stuffed peppers, and home-brewed raki. Our gastronomy is famous, and so is our hospitality: one will meet, on almost every corner, curious and welcoming faces, most of whom speak foreign languages, and are more than likely to invite visitors into their homes to offer them some coffee or even a full meal. Kosovar people are proud of their traditions, families, excellent cuisine, and the pulse of life now observable all over the capital.” He concludes that “several Kosovar and international travel agencies and tour operators – some of which are located in Budapest – are now offering organized trips to Kosovo, including mountain hiking trips, adventure tours, authentic home-stays, often guiding tourists off the beaten track to reveal Kosovo’s hidden treasures, its turbulent past, and the glorious future it is facing. Kosovo’s potential as a tourist destination is enormous, assuring satisfaction and making tourists and travelers acknowledge the value of their journey. Kosovo, once struggling for peace and democracy, today represents the soaring potential of a country with its economy on the rise, forward-looking and continuously in flight. We have written history, and the story we have told is a story of successes: independence, stability and tolerance.”