Pristina Sonder

Pristina Sonder

Bill Clinton just got served

 

sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

While the group headed out in the morning to check out the nearby waterfalls in Radavc, I slept in and got a much needed study session in. This is what I missed out on:

 

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The group returned to Hostel Sarac at 4pm via hitchiking (too impatient to wait for the bus), after which we booked cabs to the bus station to catch the every-20 minute 1 hour bus to Pristina for 3 euros per person. Once we arrived at the station a bus driver immediately asked if we were going to Pristina as his empty bus was pulling away. That was convenient!

We arrived into the capital city of Pristina at 4pm turning down the 5 euros per cab to take us to our hostel and instead opting to walk 30 minutes north to Hostel Han.

 

 

From the bus station we looped around the southern part of Ilaz Kodra road up northwest to the famous Bill Clinton Statue, who was credited for leading NATO into bombing Serbia and preventing any worsening of the Kosovo refugee crisis.

 

 

We then walked up Bill Clinton Boulevard to Mother Teresa Cathedral:

 

 

The church was still under renovation when we visited, but the elevator was broken when we tried to go up the bell tower for the views.

 

 

Then we crossed the adjacent park into a university campus, where we got shots of the enigmatic National Library of Kosovo, controversial for its design that looks like a chain of armored eggs.

 

 

By it is an abandoned church that was unmarked on my maps.

 

 

Then we crossed over west into the pedestrian mall of Boulevard Mother Teresa. . . .

 

 

. . . and checked into our hostel just in time for a balcony sunset.

 

 

After getting changed, we kidnapped a fellow Dutch traveller named Selma staying at our hostel and enjoyed a boozy dinner at café Soma. One must understand here that Pristina is primarily café culture; cafés are ubiquitous and nearly all of them are packed with fashionably-dressed young folk who pay a euro a day to keep themselves occupied due to the high unemployment rate and the country’s abundance of youth.

After dinner, we went out to party at the only club open on a Tuesday night: Duplex.

 

 

Don’t expect a lot of dancing as the space is littered with tables and men standing around, girls dancing in the periphery.

Some fared better than others.

 

 

It was not until we left the club at 2:30am where something poignant happened. A group of Albanian 20-somethings originally from Kosovo, who took refuge and grew up in the UK during the war, approached us in the parking lot and asked where we were coming from as we were walking out of Duplex. When they found out we were mostly US citizens/Americans, they became extremely surprised at what could bring a bunch of travelers/tourists to a place like Kosovo.

We would soon find out that these youth to which we were speaking had lost close family members during the mass genocide/ethnic cleansing led by Serbian Nationalists in the 1990s. So as they dived into Balkan politics and tried to get us to hate the Serbians as much as they did, they would soon discover that the person they were speaking to, Mihaela — who had joined our group just in time yesterday in Peja —  was a mix of Serb-Bosnian-Montenegrin but that more importantly, she was born in Serbia.

 

 

A mixture of dismay, disgust, and yet meaningful attempts at mutual respect unfolded over the next hour in 50F temperatures as the rest of the group stood in awe at this mini battle of intellectual wits ensued between the groups. We would learn so much from this exchange; you can see the cognitive dissonance unfold among these Albanians as they tried to explain undying pride in the “red and black” flag of Albania over the meaningless “Blue and Gold” Kosovo flag that represented their homeland, while also unable to forgive the betrayal by the actual government of Albania-proper during the war. Simultaneously we could see them being respectful to Mihaela as a human being while also unable to hold back their venomous hatred towards all Serbian nationalists (not that Mihaela counted herself as a nationalist, but she became sort of an inadvertent conduit for their rage). Very real statements were said: “if someone found out you were Serbian, they would’ve killed you in that club right then and there.” There was not a drop of malice in those words, but rather genuine concern and yet disbelief that standing before them in Kosovo was a person that they saw as having Serbian roots.

The conversation was both harrowing and unbelievable to watch. Although we left them with hugs and cordiality when we parted at 3:30am, Mihaela remarked that as much as she learned from this dialogue, it was overwhelming to still know that enough hatred remains in these parts of the world, that the youth even today still desires systematic vengeance against another group of people to the point of extreme violence. And this is how history repeats itself: People still suck.

And yet we must remember that as the unemployment rate remains high in Kosovo and 53% of the population here is under 25, everyone here you observe here in Kosovo are likely going through some kind of existential life transition, navigating a future while holding onto their youth as the tumultuousness of the world they know continues to change around and without them.

Once you appreciate this very reality, then perhaps the generalizing can take a pause and realize the people whom you thought were just locals hanging out at a parking lot in a nightclub are actually real human beings with experiences as vivid and real as yours. And I hope that the ones we met today would feel the same way about Mihaela.

The next morning we woke up at around 10am intellectually and physiologically hungover, and took a leisurely morning stroll up north of the hostel past the Skanderbeg Monument, dedicated to the Albanian hero who resisted the Ottomans.

 

Skanderbeg Monument
Unity and Brotherhood Monument

 

We then checked out both Jashar Pasha Mosque and the Imperial Mosque.

 

 

As we continued up Ibrahim Luftiu, I grabbed a Skenda Burger for 1 euro at the recommendation of my friend Lauretta who hails from here.

 

 

And up a hill a few streets over along Shkodra, we visited Saint Nicolas Church, another Serbian Orthodox church that has been renovated over and over since tensions between the local Albanians and Serbians had led to constant vandalizing.

 

 

After a few minutes here, we headed back to the hostel and took our cabs to Gracanica, another Serbian Orthodox enclave under heavy security from the majority Albanian population around it:

 

 

And after a few minutes here we took our cabs back to the Pristina Bus Station for our 2 hour bus ride to Skopje.

 

- At time of posting in Pristina, Kosovo, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 35% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Pretty As Peja

Pretty As Peja

This photo I found 2 years ago on Google is the reason why I came to Peja:

 

 

And today, I get to do my version:

 

 

Just like how a photo of Halong Bay would get me to start my first monsoon, the former photo that I found on Google Images can lead to a whole journey just to see it for myself. And I’m glad I did.

After a lazy afternoon in Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica, we boarded the 9:30pm Barileva Turista bus to Prishtina, which included a stop at Peja at 4am. It can be a miserable bus ride, but I still was able to get in a few hours of sleep on the way there despite being woken up a few times for rest stops and twice for the border crossing from Montenegro to Kosovo at around 2am.

 

 

Luckily, both Montenegrin and Kosovo border guards will come onto the bus to collect and return your passports instead of making you get out (unlike the overnight ordeal getting from Costa Rica to Panama). I would pass out again, only to be woken up by bus staff at 4am telling us to get out: we had just arrived in Peja.

 

 

Although taxi drivers at the bus station were charging our group 10 euros per car to take us to our hostel that was a 4 minute drive away, we opted instead to do the serene 20 minute walk through a completely deserted city. As bad as it can sound, I enjoyed the calmness of having an entire city all to yourself. We ended up finding Hostel Sarac which left its doors open for us and we all snuck in, crashing on their living room couches.

At around 8:30am we then were woken up again to make way for breakfast and we decided to take this time to explore what Peja had to offer during the daytime. Where the nighttime showed us a dead city, the daytime was bustling with traffic. Luckily the surrounding Rugova Valley made a good distraction.

 

 

We then escaped into the Turkish-style Bazaar, first visiting Carshi Xhanmija in the center, one of the most important and sacred buildings in Peja built in the second half of the 15th century during the Ottoman rule.

 

 

Afterwards we hiked up north 20 minutes along Mbretresha Teute towards Patriakana e Pejes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Serbian-Orthodox monastery built sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries.

 

 

Due to tensions between the local Kosovo/Albanian population that felt oppressed by Serbian aggression under Milosevic during the 1990s, the Serbian-run monastery was placed under the protection of the UN KFOR (UN Kosovo Forces). It remains under watch by the Kosovo Police and you have to submit/register your passport here to visit inside.

 

 

Inside the Patriakana e Pejes complex is a calm oasis overlooked by Rugova Valley. The valley summer breeze was made this a perfect setting to relax for once on this trip.

 

 

No photos are allowed inside, so I got this one by accident?

 

 

The nun inside charges you 2 euros per person to visit, which includes a thorough audio guide. She also will offer you free monastery-aged 110 proof raki to drink as a blessing!

 

 

Afterwards we headed back into the city, grabbing some lunch and checking into our rooms at the hostel. There’s not really any other “sights” to see here, but rather a beautiful town in which to rest your weary legs, something which our group may have needed at this point.

But nevertheless, that thought wouldn’t last long as FOMO kicked in and the group decided to take 3 cabs to visit the Visoki Decan Monastery about 20km south of Peja.

 

 

Unfortunately our cab drivers got lost, taking us as far as Gjakova before I checked google maps and made him turn around. To add insult to injury, by the time we arrived at the monastery at 6pm, the UN KFOR troops heavily guarding the monastery informed us that the monastery had just closed at 5:30pm.

 

 

This is the best I could get with my telephoto lens:

 

 

…and of the UN KFOR troops, which isn’t allowed. Whoops. At this point, I needed a consolation prize:

 

 

When we returned to the hostel we made a beeline to the Semitronix Hotel Rooftop Bar for the best views of Peja.

 

 

Then it was dinner at local favorite Art Design before some of us turned in for an early night while others went to get shisha at Shisha Lounge.

 

 

2 years in the making and now I’m finally here. 

 

- At time of posting in Peja, Kosovo, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 34km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

A Lazy Afternoon In Podgorica

A Lazy Afternoon In Podgorica

To be honest, our morning day trip to Mount Ostrog Monastery was way more worthwhile and interesting than our subsequent afternoon wandering around what probably is the least happening capital cities in Europe. Nevertheless, I do appreciate having some kind of sane respite after a whirlwind week through 10 cities and 5 countries.

Our first stop after leaving the Podgorica Bus Station was a 15 minute walk northeast to Church of the Holy Heart of Jesus, the only Roman Catholic Church that was built in 1969 to replace the original church that was destroyed during World War II. It is remarkable for being a unique example of brutalist architecture, made to resemble Noah’s Ark.

 

 

Its facade remains unfinished.

 

 

As we snuck around, we realized we were the only people here. 

 

 

After exiting through the backdoor offices behind the chapel (which was also completely deserted and with nothing locked), we headed into downtown Podgorica, which was nearly as deserted. Even the European-style pedestrian mall along Hercegovačka was a ghost town:

 

 

Rumor has it though (aka according to Calvin Hom and Ujas who went out last night), downtown Podgorica was packed with drinkers at night:

 

Photo Credit: Ujas Shah

 

If you need sights to mark off, Independence Square marks the center of downtown Podgorica:

 

 

And further in is the Municipal assembly of Podgorica:

 

 

That’s…it! The group then took the rest of the afternoon chilling in an equally abandoned street-side bar.

 

 

From here I headed back to our hostel located in Old Town, passing by the Monument To King Nikola:

 

 

… which serves as an entrance to Sastavci Park. Don’t miss their own very Stari Most here; although it’s no Mostar, you have this Stari Most all to yourself.

 

 

As I pack up for our upcoming 9pm overnight bus from Podgorica to Peja via Barileva Turistica, I mustn’t forget to mention that last night our group of 15 celebrated the end of week 1 (sadly without Sidian as he was the most recent casualty of this “Game of Thrones/Groans” GI virus that has been spreading around the group) with a dinner at Pod Volat located on the edge of Old Town.

 

Walking through Old Town

 

With a toast and a cheers, we mark the beginning of Week 2 of the Balkans itinerary.

We’ll miss you Beverly, Rucha, Belinda, Lei, Maria, and Sidian!

 

 

- At time of posting in Podgorica, it was 33 °C - Humidity: 27% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

The Pilgrimage To Mount Ostrog Monastery

The Pilgrimage To Mount Ostrog Monastery

As 6 of us head back home after completing week 1 together, the 10 of us remaining headed out at 8am for a 4 hour pilgrimage to Mount Ostrog Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox Church dedicated to Saint Basil of Ostrog (Sveti Vasilije Ostroški), and that has been built within the Ostroška Greda rock formation.

 

Mount Ostrog Monastery just got served

 

Had we more of a choice, we would’ve left a bit earlier at 7am to avoid the potential 4 hour wait times that can occur later in the day (up to 100,000 people a year visit the monastery), but our group struggled to wake up in time. Understandable, given that our current body count of sick folk is now 7 people. . . . but don’t worry — we’re all still very much alive and most of us are now in recovery mode!

At 8am the 10 of us walked 15 minutes over from our hostel (Montenegro Hostel Podgorica) to the bus terminal, where we got 9am bus tickets to Niksic for 3 euros per person.

 

 

While waiting for our bus, we decided to spelunk some abandoned buildings by the bus station.

 

 

Easily bored by what was around, we then headed back to board our bus to Niksic.

 

 

We arrived in Niksic Bus Station exactly an hour later at 10am, from where we hailed 2 cab drivers waiting outside for 20 euros each for the long drive up to Mount Ostrog Monastery.

 

 

There was an obscene amount of traffic and crowd control by the local monastery staff on the drive up. You can instead opt to hike up the 12km to prove the strength of your religious fervor, but that would’ve taken all of us 3 grueling hours.

 

 

Our cabs, slow but sure, finally arrived at the monastery’s Lower Church at around 10:45am. Make sure you drink from the monastery fountains right outside for a quick blessing!

 

 

As our cab drivers waited for us in the parking lot, we got into line and waited about another 45 minutes to get inside the Upper Monastery. You can take this time to walk around Lower Church and take photos of the frescoes here, or make some blessings by buying some candles at the line to your left.

 

 

We finally were able to enter the Upper Church at around 12pm.

 

 

The first stop once at the Upper Monastery is a small tiny room where you pay your respects to Saint Basil’s pile of bones wrapped in cloth.

 

 

Then you will walk through another blessings room on your left…

 

 

….and up 5 flights of stairs to get great views of the Bjelopavlići plain. Notice the vines growing out of the rock as people believe it is a miracle that anything can grow out of sheer rock face.

 

 

Take your group photos in front of the rock wall frescoes:

 

 

And by 12:30pm we were done and back down at the lower monasteries, taking our cabs back to the Niksic Bus Station for the 1:34pm bus back to Podgorica.

 

 

- At time of posting in Niksic, Montenegro, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 37% | Wind Speed: 21km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

From Kotor To Podgorica: Montenegro In A  Day

From Kotor To Podgorica: Montenegro In A Day

 

Photo Credit: Taylan Stulting

 

The road from Kotor to Podgorica can take you through all of Montenegro’s history in a day. What normally is a 2 hour bus ride, we opted instead for a hostel to hostel transfer arranged by Montenegro Hostel where it would take us to all the historical sights in the country in 5 hours.

Because Alfred started to feel nauseous and needed time to recover, we pushed back the bus from the original time of 11:30am a half an hour later, leading the bus to almost get driven away by the police given the awful traffic jams around Kotor’s old town. We ended up doing a mad scramble looking for the bus as it was looking for us — while running into people we had partied with back in Dubrovnik — eventually leaving at around 12:30pm.

We started off riding up the precarious switchbacks up the mountains to an elevated 1,000m above sea level to get this view of Boka Bay, which has been considered as the southernmost fjord in Europe (it’s actually a drowned river canyon):

 

 

We then pressed onwards into Lovćen National Park where we paid 3 euros to hike up 460 steps to the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, 1660m above sea level.

 

 

Don’t forget to take in the views here:

 

 

The mausoleum inters Petar II Petrović Njegoš, who was a philosopher, a poet, and the beloved Prince-Bishop of Montenegro. When Njegoš died in 1851, the original chapel in which he was buried was nearly destroyed during a war so his body was decidedly moved by then Yugoslavian President Tito.

It now resides ontop of one of Mount Lovćen’s two peaks.

 

 

Inside the mausoleum is a large statue of Njegoš, a lower crypt that contains his tomb, and a few viewpoints.

 

 

After about an hour here climbing up, taking in the views, and climbing back down, we drove an hour more to Centije, the old royal and historic capital of Montenegro.

We were first dropped off at the still active Cetinje Monastery:

 

 

Across from it is Vlaška Church, where the 17th-century military commander Bajo Pivljanin and his wife are buried beneath.

 

 

We then took a one hour stroll through town, visiting a few former embassies-turned-museums and the current residence of the President of Montenegro.

 

 

Finally, wedrove to our last stop at Lake Skadar, first seeing the river that feeds into the lake.

 

 

But this is Lake Skadar itself, which looks vaguely like a greener version of Horseshoe Canyon in Page, Arizona:

 

 

And from there we finished our tour by arriving in Podgorica, the current capital of Montenegro, at 5:30pm.

 

- At time of posting in Centije, Montenegro, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 48% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Kounting On Kotor

Kounting On Kotor

 

Reeling from last night’s epic outing at Club Revel in Dubrovnik, the group didn’t let shame and a polite hangover from exploring their city on their own while I stuck behind at the hostel catching up on some studying (still in residency y’know).

 

Photo Credit: Belinda Li

 

At around 2:30pm we returned to our hostel and hailed 4 cabs back to the bus station to catch the 3:30pm Blue Line Bus from Dubrovnik to Kotor. We reached the Croatia/Montenegro border at around 4:30pm.

 

 

The crossing itself took awhile as they made us get out of the bus one by one to be stamped out of Croatia, and then repeating the process again to be stamped into Montenegro.

Hilariously (at least to us), Ujas almost slept through the entire bus crossing while we were being stamped into Montenegro, leading him to almost missing getting his entry stamp (he even contemplated getting back on the bus without his stamp!). Our bus driver and another traveler admonished him how he could’ve gotten arrested, which just added to our stereotype that Americans may not always be the most savvy travelers.

 

 

The best part of the ride was when our giant coach bus boarded an actual ferry at around 6pm and sailed us across the Bay of Kotor.

 

We eventually arrived into Kotor Bus Station at 7:30pm, walking up north 10 minutes from there to enter its Old Town through the Puerta Principal:

 

 

After checking into our hostel at Montenegro Hostel, located in the heart of Old Town, we then headed out to briefly explore old town itself, which took no more than 20 minutes to first get lost in nearly every little alleyway (of which there are around 9 total, believe or not when you’re here) and end up back where we were.

But what a memorable 20 minutes it was. . .

 

 

Cathedral of Saint Tryphon:

 

Saint Nicholas Church:

 

The main boulevard:

 

 

We then walked a bit farther out from old town to eat at Tanjga Family Restaurant, the universally (TripAdvisor, Google, locals, etc.) recommended place to eat in Kotor for quality, affordable local food.

 

 

Afterwards we bought wine and champagne at the grocery store across the street and walked about 10 minutes south on the opposite bay, coming upon the docks for a great view of Kotor at night.

The lit up fortress literally makes it look like the hills are on fire.

 

Photo Credit: Lei Zhao
Photo Credit: Lei Zhao

 

We stayed out for about an hour over good wine and conversations before returning to our hostel via the southern gate.

 

 

The next morning we woke up at 7am for the obligatory morning hike up Kotor’s fortifications that were built during the Venetian period. 1.2km long and 400m high, its 1,360 steps couldn’t stop us from getting these sick views from Kotor Fortress located at the very top:

 

 

Just go early as they start charging you to hike up as early as 7:30am until 8pm. And the crowds starts getting ridiculous at around 8:30am. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the very top.

 

The Bay Of Kotor just got served
The entire old town of Kotor

 

At around 9:15am we hired a speedboat driver for 15 euros per person to take us to Our Lady Of The Rocks, an artificial islet off the coast of Perast in Bay of Kotor, created by sinking old ships loaded with rocks.

 

 

On it is The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rocks:

 

 

Legend has it that the islet was built over the centuries by local seamen who kept an ancient oath after finding the icon of Madonna and Child on the rock in the sea on July 22, 1452. Upon returning from each successful voyage, they laid a rock in the Bay. Over time the islet gradually emerged from the sea and the custom of throwing rocks into the sea on every sunset of July 22 continues, where local residents take their boats and throw rocks into the sea, widening the surface of the island.

 

 

However, what otherwise has been a successful morning of sightseeing, bartering, speedboating and hiking, a few people in our group have been afflicted with seemed like a gastrointestinal virus characterized by symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. The body count is up to 4 at the moment and we’re all worried who will be the next to fall in these Game of Groans (and if we’re in a pun mood, Game of Thrones works too, if you think long and porcelain about it…).

We’re now about to find our private 11:30am bus to Podgorica that was arranged by our hostel. Today we’re going through Lovcen National Park by the old Austria Hungarian road, Boka Bay, the Mausoleum on Lovcen, the Royal Capital City of Cetinjue, and Lake Skadar before finally arriving in Podgorica this evening to meet up with 2 other monsooners who had arrived the night before.

See you then and wish us luck.

 

- At time of posting in Kotor, Montenegro, it was 20 °C - Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny