Saturday, 31 August 2013

Young Countries, Ancient History

Crossing the much disputed Serbia-Kosovo border - sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with elderly nuns, observing the antiquated rural lifestyle from the dusty window - it began to feel like I was diverting from the beaten path; the only tourist aboard the bus, venturing down the road less traveled.

From the window, Kosovo looked peaceful. And the pace of life seemed about as slow as my progress. It was hard to imagine the atrocities that plagued the area so recently.

The Kosovo War happened at around the time I began taking an interest in the world. In 1999 - following Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo region's Albanian majority - NATO intervened. They bombed Belgrade for 79 days until what was Yugoslavia reluctantly surrendered. I remember paying a lot of attention to the news at the time; not quite understanding the sensitive political situation, but being alarmed all the same.

The UN took care of the region, nursing it back to relative health, until the fully independent Republic of Kosovo was formed in 2008. Today, Kosovo is a young nation trying to find its way. For a capital city, Pristina is somewhat charmless. But, despite the crippling underemployment its population are as optimistic as they are youthful. 

In fact, Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe with a median age of just 26, almost 15 years less than the UK. As a 27 year-old it's the only European country I can go to and be older than most people. This is not something I was fond of dwelling on. On the plus side, thanks to the abundance of 20-somethings, there is a thriving bar scene.

Day time exploration was severely limited due to rain. Pristina is stark and grey, and the overcast skies leaking relentless drizzle complimented its charmlessness. It was perfect weather for visiting what was once voted the ugliest building in the world: the national library. Built in 1982 and used briefly as the Serbian Army's headquarters in the late 90's, the library (minus a whole bunch of Albanian literature destroyed by Milosevic) is a sort of architectural vision of the future one hopes is too distant to witness.

Ugly? Interesting? Kosovo's National Library

Traveling onto Ohrid, a small lakeside city in the west of Macedonia (who themselves broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991) required a bus change in Skopje, the capital city. It's a good thing I don't mind long-distance travel. Armed with enough crisps to open a tuck shop, I look out of the window for anything from two minutes to two hours, until the scenery isn't interesting anymore or the sun goes down. Sometimes, just occasionally, I fall asleep.

Whilst traveling through Montenegro a couple of years ago (not a million miles from where I am now) I was enchanted by the wonders of Kotor; a town located on the bay of the same name. I had in my mind that Ohrid would be like Kotor minus the crowds, naively assuming that because Ohrid isn't on cruise ship itineraries (logistically tricky given its lakeside location) it wouldn't be holiday-maker radars. 

I was forgetting of course that Macedonians and Albanians might like a holiday from time to time. In other words, Ohrid wasn't quite the peaceful retreat I had visualised, instead bustling with local-ish families seeking sun-kissed memories and ice cream.

Lake Ohrid © Ryan Chapman

Don't get me wrong, Ohrid is beautiful, and I spent some happy afternoons getting lost in the old town; stopping frequently for coffee at quaint little cafes overlooking the mountain-flanked lake. I also took an interest in churches, which is not something I usually deem worthy of my time. I mean, I appreciate that they're generally quite lovely to look at from the outside, but I seldom venture inside unless it's to get up a tower to take in a view. 

Given the huge historic significance of Ohrid's religious sites I was motivated to explore them. There is archaeological evidence that suggests Ohrid is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and the city was home to the continent's very first university, opened here in the 10th century. There's a strong sense of times gone by. Ohrid is also where the Cyrillic alphabet was created; in use today across 13 countries, baffling users of the Latin script for over a thousand years.

On my last full day in Ohrid I planned to hike a fair distance around the lake, but slept deep into the afternoon and woke up with a hangover that stank of tequila and consequently, I managed only a stroll. I stopped for lunch, accidentally ordered an olive-heavy salad with a sparkling water, and decided that the day could only get better from here. 

Later, down at what can only be described as a grass verge, but what is sign-posted as a 'beach', I sat myself next to a speaker vibrating with the bass of commercial dance music and somehow managed to fall asleep; dreaming of travel in a less developed land, without the hoards. Somewhere like, I don't know, Albania for example. I'll let you know how that goes...