There’s some confusion where to cross the border into Kosovo. “Google maps and Apple Maps both show a route that would take me southeast to Skopje in Macedonia and then back north into Kosovo to Pristina. This makes no sense to me. There is a border crossing in Merdare, but locals here in Nis don’t know if it’s open or if it is just a military border. The helpful staff at the ArtLoft Hotel make several calls to the police and government offices, and nobody has any information. The receptionist believes there must be a reason that Google is routing me to Macedonia first.
I’m unconvinced. The phone rings at reception, somebody called the border crossing and confirm it is open. So I’m good to go. I must trick my GPS into guiding me there by entering another town near Merdare. To be sure, I’m feeling sad that I must leave Nis and Serbia today. Since crossing the border from Croatia over two weeks ago, the rich experience and warm hospitality have been overwhelming. But this is always the case, isn’t it? Goodbyes are the hardest part. Though I look forward to the welcomes whenever I arrive at a new destination.
Once out of the city, the drive to the border is tranquil and with little traffic. I pass a Yugo and note that it has the honor of being the worse automobile every manufactured in the world. Yet I’ve seen many on the road still running—slow! I pass the Yugo and get through the border with no pain. Welcome to Kosovo.
Once part of Yugoslavia, Kosovo is a territory that crazy man and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic tried to hold as part of greater Serbia. Milosevic invaded Kosovo in 1999. This triggered the 1999 US-led Nato bombing campaign. The bombing crippled Serbia’s major cities by taking out key bridges and infrastructure. This led to the freedom and independence of Kosovo a predominantly Muslim Albanian population. Though there are medieval churches, monasteries, and still Christian Serbs living there. Not every country in the world recognizes Kosovo’s sovereignty, Russia, China, Iran, Israel, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Spain, and other countries who have similar claims on separatist territories.
I get a weird feeling once cleared of customs and immigration. The roadsides are littered with business selling construction products. There’s a strange sense of incompletion and disarray. Dust blows across the highway often as cars careen off the road onto the shoulder. There are stacks and piles of bricks, drywall, and fenced in yards littered with rebar, concrete blocks, and more.
After forty minutes of this, I roll into Prishtina, the capital and primary city of Kosovo. The traffic is heavy, and the main road is lined with retail shops. When I get to my hotel, I’m happy there is secure underground parking, but displeased with the high cost for my room and the manager’s refusal to negotiate an even slightly better price. I swallow and accept it knowing I’m only here for a couple nights. It’s winding down, this journey of mine. I’ll be back in Athens in less than a week.
As night falls on the city, I go about the job of organizing my kit—all the stuff on my motorcycle. Because of the generosity of so many people I’ve met over the past few months, I’m carrying about a case of wine. Yeah, I know this is crazy. I found a six-bottle wine box, but the cardboard is weakening, and the straps I use to secure it to the bike are cutting through the box. So before dark, I set out to find a small and cheap duffel to hold it together. After about a mile of walking around town and seeing the same products in every store selling luggage or bags. At my last stop before returning to the hotel, I find the perfect bag, at the ideal price; about ten dollars.
Instead of wandering Kosovo at night, I dine at the top floor restaurant of my hotel because I’ve got work to do to organize my packing, download digital files, review videos and coordinate my route south. I’m surprised that there is only one bottle of Kosovo wine on the list at my hotel. It’s too expensive. Yet they do have a more reasonably priced Kallmet from Albania, so I chose this. I know there are passionate producers of good wine in Kosovo. But will I have a chance to explore them? I think about my project and at that moment, realize that I do not have enough time to coordinate and visit any Kosovo wine producers. This is something I must return to do.
The next morning I stroll up and down the wide pedestrian promenade that stretches a mile from a complex of government buildings to a traffic circle where just beyond I take an elevator to the top of the clock tower of the Mother of Theresa Cathedral where I can commanding views of downtown. I gaze down at the uber funky modern National Library of Kosovo at the University of Prishtina, and the controversial, abandoned and unfished Sveti Spas (Christ the Saviour) Church.
Later I wander around the church, explore the library, and head back down the promenade where I find a local barber shop and get a clean haircut. My barber in his late twenties tells me his father and his uncle are both barbers. He has been cutting hair for money since he was eleven years old.
As I cruise around Prishtina, I’m taken by the mix of architectural styles of the buildings, and the odd collection of monuments and statues. Soon I find myself in Skanderbeg Square, which is dominated by a large sculpture of the Albanian hero and Ottoman slayer Skanderbeg. And relics from Yugoslavia’s past such as the massive Palace of Youth and Sport and the Brotherhood and Unity Monument. The sports complex built in 1977 only serves as a shopping center today—and there are a lot of shopping areas in Prishtina, and they erected the monument to Brotherhood and Unity in 1961.
The strangest monument is the ten-foot statue of former US-president Bill Clinton. Sitting proudly on the corner of Bill Clinton Boulevard, the president is waving at cars as they drive by. And American flag towers above the president. The Kosovo Albanians wanted to recognize the former president who helped in their struggle to gain independence. There is also a street named after other former US presidents George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson.
There is a fascination with America in Prishtina, and I assume elsewhere. Retail shops tout American quality goods, another shop sells Major League Baseball products, and most people speak English.
I try my hand at playing a çifteli, a wild double-stringed instrument. The man selling them on the promenade makes them in his home outside of the city and sells them here while hanging out with his friends.
While there are plenty of other oddities I’d like to explore in Kosovo, I have my last supper at a local restaurant just off the pedestrian promenade and in the morning pack up Doc and make my way to Macedonia.
On the way out of town, I noticed standing tall on one of the city’s taller buildings is a copy of the Statue of Liberty—another nod to American liberty in Prishtina. The ride out of town is another strange experience. Further, from the city, there is more new construction. Several homes look like palaces, but they are so out of place some sitting next to junkyards or huge yards with household appliances, bicycles, cars, and more. It seems like Vegas.
Soon my GPS guides me onto a spanking new highway. The road is cleaned, signs are massive, and guard rails sparkle in the sun. It looks like a major highway in the United States. However, after about five miles, I come to the end of that new road. For the next forty or so kilometers, I ride a narrow two-lane road through the mountains and then follow a river into a canyon. All along my route, I’m shadowed by a new highway towering above me. It’s a massive project, like a floating highway. I’m confused about why and where it’s going. I”m heading toward Skopje in North Macedonia. But Macedonia in one country that chooses not to recognize Kosovo’s independence as a state, due to its own dispute with Greece.
So why would Kosovo build a road to a country that refuses to recognize it? I’m impressed by the construction and engineering so much that I must stop and take photos. I learn that once finished the bridge towering above me will be the longest (5.7km) in this part of Europe Signage shows that EU funding or loans may have jump-started this project. But why?
At the border of Macedonia, I’m stopped by immigration officers who insist I must purchase insurance before entering. I share with them my Green Card insurance, but they don’t accept it because MK is crossed off. They want to sell me a policy that lasts two weeks. I’m in transit, I try to explain. That I will spend only one or two nights in Macedonia and that the fifty euro price is unfair. They cannot sell me a shorter term policy. What do I do? I have to suck it in and cough up the fifty Euros. Welcome to Macedonia—oh that’s right, now it’s North Macedonia.
But even more amazing is my ride to the border of North Macedonia. Check out this video: