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Peace & quiet: Kosovo Macedonia and Albania

A jaunt through Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania reveals how the once war-torn regions are putting the past behind them. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

On reflection, buying a ticket to Kosovo at the Belgrade bus station, in Serbia, isn't the smartest thing I've ever done. After a brutal conflict that saw both Serb and Kosovo Albanian forces accused of heinous war crimes, perhaps it's not surprising that staff gave me bemused, "why do you want to go there?" stares.

I'm grudgingly directed to the Pristina bus stand by a sour-faced clerk. Still, better to have his hollow shout of "safe journey" ringing in my ears than gunfire. In 1999, snipers, landmines and roadside bombs would have ensured the journey was anything but safe.

Pristina doesn't see many tourists. Foreigners in the Kosovan capital tend to be NGO employees, aid workers or political-science students. Sightseeing hasn't quite caught on yet. Mind you, it's a long way to come to see a few giant letters and a statue.

The Newborn monument was unveiled during the euphoria-fuelled days that marked independence in 2008. The typographic sculpture is decorated with the flags of all 99 countries that recognise Kosovo and, at three metres tall, the letters are the same height as Pristina's other attraction.

Bill Clinton is revered as a hero by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority for launching a Nato bombing campaign against Yugoslavia that hastened the end of the war and led to the birth of Europe's youngest country. A bronze statue of the former American president stands in a nondescript neighbourhood next to a boulevard that bears his name. It's a pretty good likeness, although he appears to be waving rather inauspiciously at a kebab shop in the distance.

Kosovan gratitude is also extended to ordinary Americans. Mike is a well-travelled civil engineer from Nebraska working on a reconstruction project near my hotel. He grins and shakes his head.

"I've never been anyplace where Americans are so popular. I might never leave."

Despite Mike's enthusiasm, staff at the tiny national tourist office acknowledge the challenges involved in attracting holidaymakers to Kosovo. Hiking in the heavily landmined hills around Pristina seems unlikely to catch on and, in summer, it's too hot for anything more strenuous than a swim - assuming you can find a pool.

I know just the place for a dip but it means another international bus ride.

 

WHEN I FIRST VISITED Lake Ohrid, in 1986, Macedonia was still part of communist Yugoslavia. In those days, the proletariat masses arrived for their annual workers' holidays aboard clapped-out buses and set up camp in threadbare tents on the water's edge. Times have changed.

Summer dance anthems boom out of giant sound systems positioned along the beach and alpha Macedonians carve past in glitzy speedboats. Designer boutiques have replaced drab socialist stores and the 9th-century Church of St Panteleimon has Wi-fi. Reminders of a less polished era remain, however.

At Ohrid bus station I'm approached by a man with a room to let. A good rule of thumb in these situations is to go by appearances. If the owner is clean and smart, the room probably will be, too. My landlord-to-be is unshaven, has food stains on his T-shirt and has overpowering body odour. His home is similarly unkempt but I pay through the nose. I have little choice.

Today (August 2) is Republic Day and Macedonia's version of Monte Carlo is as busy as you would expect a large body of crystal-clear water in a landlocked country to be. They're cheek by jowl on the narrow gravel beaches but, with a hired bicycle and a little effort, it's easy to leave the crowds behind.

In a region of charming churches, Sveti Jovan stands out. Literally. Perched on a cliff overlooking the lake, the Byzantine building is the most photographed in Macedonia. The red brick contrasts with a deep blue backdrop and, on the horizon, my next destination shimmers mysteriously in the heat haze.

 

ALBANIAN DRIVERS LEAVE a lot to be desired - but so do Albanian roads. The Balkan republic of three million people is awakening from a Rip Van Winkle time warp that left the nation's infrastructure in tatters. Stalinist control freak Enver Hoxha ruled with an iron fist for 40 years, a period that saw the isolated state become Europe's poorest and most paranoid.

Situated high above the Drino valley, gorgeous Gjirokaster is on the cusp of being discovered. Like an awkward teenager, the hilltop village is unsure of its place in the world. Locals sense that opportunities are around the corner but they're unsure how to grasp them.

There's no tourist office here yet but the helpful girls at Alma Souvenirs have assumed the role. On hearing that I can't find a money changer, they lend me the bus fare to a nearby town, where I'm able to convert my British pounds into lek. Try asking a trader in Tsim Sha Tsui if you can borrow a few dollars for a bus fare and see what happens.

Given the soft mountain light and bohemian atmosphere, you would expect the old bazaar area to be full of artists. Instead, disoriented day trippers from the Greek holiday island of Corfu arrive on whirlwind tours. As a result, "Gjiro" may get a British pub before it gets an art gallery.

Albania aspires to join the European Union, evidently unperturbed by Greece's experience. Alex, who set up a snack shop with cash he saved while washing dishes in Ireland, sees no reason why his country shouldn't be allowed in.

"They say Brussels is concerned about corruption, political instability and organised crime. It seemed to work for Italy, though. Weren't they one of the founding members?"

It's an hour by taxi to Saranda, a beach city overflowing with Albanian sun worshippers and piles of refuse. Live power cables fizz menacingly in the rain and uncovered manholes silently await preoccupied pedestrians. The Dutchman I'm sharing the taxi with says Albania reminds him of Greece in the 1970s.

"Or in another five years," he half jokes.

It's only a couple of kilometres across the Ionian Sea to Corfu. During Hoxha's reign, scores of desperate Albanians attempted to swim to freedom. Gunboats and powerful searchlights ensured that although a lucky few made it, many more perished.

If the Greek economy gets any worse, they'll soon be swimming the other way.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, from where the airline links to Belgrade, Serbia, three times a week.

 

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