Cold. And wet. That’s what we were, when we arrived at our host’s address in Pristina on Friday evening.
We rolled into the small, unpaved street where half-done new developments, with debris all around them, surrounded smaller old houses. We were looking for number 18.
There was no 18, but we found number 20, and next to it: a red iron gate, hanging half open, garbage spilling out of it. Behind, we got a good look at the house as well, with it’s walls crumbling, the roof falling in.
No, no, no, no, please. I can’t do this again, I thought, and I was about to start crying. It wouldn’t have made a difference, my whole face was wet because the rain, and the wind reddened my eyes hours ago.
But let’s just jump back six hours, to see where it all went wrong.
We spent the last night in Kursumlija, Serbia and planned a mid-length day for Friday: 72 kilometres to Pristina. The first part will be hilly, but the end is a long descent, all the way to the capital.
We had a lazy start and after breakfast (our daily burek intake has doubled in the past week) we left Kursumlija at almost 11. We expected a cloudy, rainy day and it was, indeed, drizzling a bit. But cycling uphill with 40+ kg bikes is hard work and we didn’t feel the cold or the drizzle.
After 20 kilometres it started raining, a bit. We were too lazy to stop to change clothes and it was just a bit of rain, so we thought:
We’ll tough it out.
Another 20 kilometres later we were quite wet, but at that point there was, again, no reason for putting on our waterproofs, as whatever we would wear under it was already wet.
We reached the
border checkpoint, whatever you have when crossing to Kosovo, where the sweet Kosovar officer, after hearing we are from Hungary, pointed up at the sky and said:
Sok víz. (Much water.)
He hit the nail right on the head.
We waved goodbye and rolled a few kilometres further to a cafe. Here we warmed up a bit, and had the chance to change into dry clothes – which we didn’t do. Out clothes almost dried on us, and it was nicer to sit with a coffee in hand, than to go outside in the rain, digging up the dry clothes.
When we left the cafe, the rain really started to fall, so we put on the rain jacket over almost dry clothes and put our head down for the last 30 kilometres. It was mostly downhill and I enjoyed speeding down the good asphalt with 35-37 km/h average speed, splashing through puddles.
There is a very good thing about cycling in the rain: all of a sudden everyone gets friendly. All the people by the road and in cars cheered us on, with honks and yells and thumbs-ups.
A not so good thing is that every time a car crosses a puddle next to you, it splashes muddy water on you from head to toe. I got two of these, and they didn’t feel as good as funny it looks.
We were just a few kilometres outside of Pristina when we reached the 1000 km mark on our journey and we stopped to make a picture of the bike computer. Only then we realised, that all of our clothes were soaked through. As we stepped on the ground, we felt our feet sloshing in water – in our shoes.
Our waterproofs were still lying comfortably at the bottom of our bags.
With shoes soaked through we run out of options, we just needed to make a run for it and get to our destination as quickly as possible. While pedalling furiously, I made a mental note that fancy gore-tex shoes worth nothing if you don’t cover your legs and have water streaming into them from your ankle.
Half an hour and one ridiculously steep climb later we arrived to number 18. And we were cold. And wet. And I was about to cry.
As our bell ringing went unanswered, Zsolt suggested we warm ourselves up in a nearby cafe.
We popped into the first place we saw. Dripping on their floor, teeth chattering, we asked whether we could pay with Serbian Dinars, as we didn’t yet have Euros. Our suggestion wasn’t taken well, the two young Albanian waiters’ faces went dark for a second, but then softened up eventually, and they ushered us in, saying it’s okay, whatever we have is on the house. So that’s how bad we look, I thought.
We asked for tea and started warming up in a corner. A few minutes later one of the customers stepped to our table and handed us a chocolate.
Welcome to Kosovo.
In two minutes the chocolate disappeared and we even got a call from our host. No, not number 18, it’s 13, just across the road.
Does she sound okay? Is she nice?
– I asked Zsolt, still thinking I couldn’t handle a difficult host tonight. He confirmed she does sound nice, so we said our thankyous (not yet knowing falemnderit, the Albanian equivalent) and made our way in pouring rain to the house.
And boy, it was nice!
Not to mention Elisa, our Milanese host, who, seeing the state we were in, ushered us straight up to the bathroom. After one steaming shower, two nice-smelling fresh towels and a set of dry clothes later, we’ve been planted on the couch with blankets, cups of tea, and two purring ginger cats: Ćevap and Lalo – while Elisa cooked us dinner.
This girl is golden!
We spent the evening chatting over a delicious veggie-meal, that was a real treat after our three-week meat diet in Serbia.
Saturday we have mostly spent inside, as our only shoes were still wet inside.
I only did a little walk to the nearby market, in borrowed shoes, where Elisa helped me collect the groceries we needed for cooking. In one shop the owner was so amused by our charades/pantomime (breadcrumbs was the answer), he looked for something to give us, and not finding anything better nearby, he pushed a couple of Nescafe sachets into our hands. We came out laughing. (We only made a 0.4 EUR purchase.)
The day was spent with sitting on the couch, scratching cat bellies, reading, writing. We truly enjoyed our host’s company, who knew that one doesn’t have to talk continuously to have a good time together. We welcomed these peaceful hours.
In the evening Zsolt made green-bean soup with tarragon, and I put together another batch of túrógombóc (sweet cottage cheese dumplings). We also had Elisa’s friend, Angela, joining us for dinner, a young teacher from Argentina who always wanted to work in Kosovo. Yes, that raised a few eyebrows and questions for us, so we spent the next hours in animated conversation over the dinner table.
By Sunday, the rain-clouds disappeared.
Our shoes dry, we’ve spent the day exploring Pristina. Our guide was the well practiced Elisa, who show us all the key features of the place.
If I had to summarise it in one word, it would be mismatched.
Newly developed apartment buildings all around, with one-floor rundown shacks between them. There isn’t one boring street.
The feel of the city is very modern. European-style chic cafes are very popular and always full, and Western chain stores share the shopfronts with local brands. This mixture of west and east is present throughout the city in every detail, and impossible to miss.
The American present is also very strong. We have took short walk on George Bush boulevard, only to reach the new Bill Clinton statue (with the women’s clothes shop, Hillary on the corner). We also happened on a street, where all the people we met were Americans of all age. Ironically, the only eatery nearby was
McDonalds McDöner. There’s also an american high school in the city.
We went to see the Newborn sign, which represents very well this construction of a state, with it’s controversiality and ever changing design. This time it was covered in children’s drawings overlaid with graffitis.
We also wandered around the largest sport centre, that looked uninhabited, with it’s unwelcoming architecture, and the enormous portrait of Adem Jashari, a local hero, one of the founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army. But it was everything but uninhabited; as we sneaked inside, we were surprised to see the Youth Karate championship taking place. It was great seeing these sporty youngsters (probably not yet smoking). Thinking back, we haven’t seen many overweight children during our time in the Balkans.
In the evening, our remaining ingredients from the day before have been transformed into zöldbabfőzelék (green-been stew) and császármorzsa (the Hungarian style schmarren – now you know, right?). For this, Zsolt was required to whip the egg whites by hand, third time in a row. He’s becoming quite a pro in this task.
Here I must note, that though we enjoyed having a large and well equipped kitchen, the ingredients available were quite disappointing. The quality of the food products available were much lower than what we’ve got used to in the past three weeks.
Kosovo doesn’t produce many local goodies, nor do the neighbouring countries, and of course, they don’t import from Serbia. To our biggest surprise, you can only buy long-life milk in the shops, and like this, most other products are from Central and Western Europe. We were also surprised to find loads of Hungarian products on the shelves, including brands I have never even heard of. I guess they are made for export only.
After dinner, we placed Settlers of Catan on the table, and enjoyed two rounds of battle, with a bottle of nice red wine. What else can you wish for on a Sunday evening?!
But too soon Monday came and it was time to leave. Even though we missed riding, we would have been happy to stay in this house for another few days. Our bags packed, we rolled out the gates at 9, saying goodbye to a sleepy Elisa and the two ginger cats. We’ll miss them.
After the mandatory burek-stop we headed south, towards Macedonia.
Our first stop was just a few kilometres outside of Pristina, Graçanica, to visit a famous monastery. Graçanica is a Serbian city, and it was a nice, familiar feeling rolling in and seeing the same signs we’ve seen in the rest of Serbia.
In Graçanica we stopped at the Community Centre (Dom Kulture) to have a look at the MISSING sign, which was built as a sad reflection of the NEWBORN. As we were looking at the faces of all the missing soldiers on the letters, Igor came out from the centre to see what our bikes were all about, and after hearing our route plan, he invited us in for coffee. He didn’t speak much English (or rather, we didn’t speak much Serbian) and, as we later learned, he thought we were coming from New Zealand. He found our Budapest-Gracanica route less impressive, but the offer for coffee still stood and we enjoyed it. We made use of our Bosnian Magic Letter for the second time, and after he read it, we were rewarded with a few pats on the back and nice smiles from all the people in the centre.
After taking a look at their gallery and lovely theatre space, they walked out with us to wave us goodbye.
We made our way to monastery, which was indeed gorgeous. It was built in 1321, on the ruins of a 6th century basilica, and one of the most important Orthodox Churches. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was only be able to snap a picture of the outside, as photographing inside is forbidden, but believe me, it has worth the visit; all the walls are covered with beautiful ancient frescos.
From Graçanica we targeted the Macedone border, but the trip down wasn’t as easy as we hoped.
First we bumped into multiple floods that made us take a detour as we couldn’t cross the streaming water. Then we rode on the main road between Prishtina and Ferizaj, which that was no fun either, with the side wind blowing us towards the constant stream of trucks and speeding cars. And lastly, this part wasn’t pleasant looking. This area is industrial, with cheap crumbling motels and the endless row of wholesale shops by the road. For 10 kilometres before Ferizaj, we only saw furniture shops – we still don’t know why.
It was only an hour after Ferizaj when the scenery got better. We climbed up among mountains, crossed our first tunnels (thank god they were there!) and enjoyed the lack of traffic and the fresh air.
Then, not long before the Macedon boarder, it started raining.
I signalled Zsolt that we’re stopping. We are putting on the waterproofs.
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