Our valiant Dacia Logan near Brod, southern Kosovo.
This is Part 7 of our Eastern Europe epic trip with the Dacia Logan. You can also read Part 1: Romania, Part 2: Serbia, Part 3: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Part 4: Montenegro, Part 5: Albania and Part 6: North Macedonia. Given we are now at Day #7 of this adventure, we now have roughly 24 hours to spend in each country over the next 4 days to make it 10 countries in 10 days. The next and 7th country on the list is the Republic of Kosovo, although as we’ll see further down not everyone agrees that this is a country… Please note if you are planning to travel to Kosovo, at time of publication it is not advised to travel to the northern part of the country past Mitrovica nor to travel between Kosovo and Serbia at the northern Kosovo border crossings of Jarinje and Brnjak.
Flag of KosovoOur itinerary in Kosovo
Given time constraints, as per North Macedonia we will focus on one location and here too on what some tourist guides say is the #1 attraction here: the old town of Prizren at the very south, also given the travel warnings above which were already in place last year. If for North Macedonia up until last year there was controversy around the country’s name, in the case of Kosovo its very existence is challenged. Home to just under 2 million inhabitants – estimates are 88% of Muslim Albanians and 7% of Orthodox Serbs – over 10,908 km2, Kosovo is often dubbed “Europe’s newest country”, having unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. It has since gained diplomatic recognition by 102 out of 193 (53%) UN member states, including the USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy and all its immediate neighbours except Serbia which accepted its institutions in 2013 but does not recognise it as a separate nation (alongside Spain, Russia and China notably), citing Kosovo as the “heart” of Serbia. Time for a quick history lesson!
100 km/h speed limit for a military tank seems a tad generous?
Roughly corresponding to the Roman province of Dardania, the area was ruled by the Roman (168 BC), Byzantine (476) and Bulgarian (850) empires, becoming part of the Orthodox world in 1054. While Serbs settled in the Balkans around 610, they did not continuously control Kosovo until 1183. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Kosovo was a political, cultural and religious centre of the Serbian Kingdom, including during the Serbian Empire (1346-1371) – this is where the “heart” of Serbia claim initiates from. After encroaching Serbian rule at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Ottoman empire took control of Kosovo from 1455 to 1912 and introduced Islam to the population. In 1918 Kosovo was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929, then in 1945 it became an Autonomous Province in communist Yugoslavia with its own parliament and government, in 1968 securing voting rights equivalent to Serbia as one of the federal system’s eight units – seven of which having now become countries, all except Vojvodina in north Serbia. In 1990, the dissolution of Yugoslavia had Kosovo returned to its Serbian province status and its autonomy revoked which ultimately triggered the Kosovo War (1998-1999) resulting in a temporary UN administration and the 2008 declaration of independence.
Top: Albanian flag in Prizren, Middle: Lada Niva with Albanian flags near Brod in Kosovo, Bottom: size comparison of Albanian (left) and Kosovar flag (right) at the Kosovo border with North Macedonia.
Recent instability in Kosovo has been linked to its ethnic and religious mix, with tensions between muslim Kosovo-Albanians and orthodox Kosovo-Serbs simmering and occasionally erupting into outright violence and war ever since the rise of nationalism in the Balkans during the 19th century. Claimed identity in Kosovo seems to be Albanian origin first and foremost, and Kosovo nationality a distant second, as you can verify above and below with the much larger Albanian flag vs. Kosovo flag at the border post. Throughout Kosovo we would consistently spot Albanian flags whereas the Kosovo flag was rare. In terms of demographic chronology, Serbs likely formed a majority in Kosovo from the 8th to the mid-19th century while Albanians have formed a majority since. By 1912 and Serbian annexation, Albanians represented 70% of the Kosovo population vs. 25% Serbs, up to 77% vs. 13% in 1981 due to a higher birth rate and 88% vs. 7% today as many Serbs fled during the Kosovo War in 1999. This is compared to an estimated 83% of Albanians in Albania itself.
(Top) Our valiant Dacia Logan catching her breath after a pretty intense strip search at the Kosovo border when leaving the country. (Bottom) Wondering whether military tank speed limits are aimed at her…
The first thing to know when planning to drive into Kosovo is that you cannot enter Serbia from Kosovo unless you initially entered Kosovo from Serbia, meaning we couldn’t have continued our trip north into Serbia because we would then be attempting to enter Serbia from an “unrecognised territory”. This is one of the reasons this section looks like a “hook” on the itinerary map above: we entered from and returned to North Macedonia, leaving Serbia alone given we’ve already crossed it off the list. Secondly, you need Kosovo-specific car insurance to enter. I naively thought this was because driving in violence-prone (?) Kosovo was particularly dangerous. Not so. In fact, there’s a less worrying and more boringly administrative reason: as a disputed country, Kosovo cannot currently become a member of the United Nations and therefore cannot join the Council of the Green Card Bureau which in turn means Green Card Insurance valid all across Europe doesn’t apply here. Not to worry: the procedure happens in a separate office at the border crossing, is packed up in minutes and costs just 15€ for 2 weeks coverage.
Stop! Not so much to enjoy life but by the border police to get the car meticulously dog-sniffed when leaving Kosovo…
Now to keep the best Kosovo border story for last, I’ll fast forward to the next day when we drove back into North Macedonia. The combination of only having spent 24 hours in Kosovo and our short stay in Albania a few days prior triggered Code Marijuana blaring alarm bells with the portly Kosovo border police that promptly and tersely – but also, somewhat worryingly, very excitedly – ordered us to drive the car away to a dedicated bridge under the heavy and concerned looks of the dozens other cars queuing to get in and out. In came sniffing dogs who immediately started squirming and scratching below one of the back seats. My co-driver and I exchanged muted looks… Is this where the trip ends? Did someone plant drugs under the car when in Tirana? While removing some of the seat covers, the police wanted to know exactly where we parked, not in Kosovo but when we visited Tirana in Albania. Once they found nothing and understood we left the car in a supervised underground parking the whole time, their excitement dropped a notch, their relaxed attitude progressively returned, we started taking about the 10 countries in 10 days challenge, I showed them BSCB on their smartphone and they ended up begging me to send them the link of this Kosovo article when published, sensing this could well be their 15 minutes of fame. The frown had been turned upside down and we could cheerily continue on. The toughest border crossing so far, and by far!
It’s now time to explore the city of Prizren which was the capital of the Serbian Empire in the 14th century, the cultural and intellectual centre of Kosovo during the Ottoman period, and now the 2nd largest city in the country below the capital Pristina. Similarly to Bosnia, just mentioning Kosovo triggers visions of past ethnic cleansing and expectations of remnants-of-war landscapes. In fact it’s now the total opposite and there’s a definite relaxed vibe, a bonhomie, a sort of student-like eagerness that transpires in our hotel welcome. The soothing sound of the Bistrica mountain stream reverberates through a stunningly beautiful town awash with mosques and churches, there’s sheep bleating near the hotel right in the middle of the city and although the population is mostly muslim there’s no restrictive clothing, only summer tee-shirts, shorts and smiles. The waiter at our restaurant responds “Enjoy” every time we say thank you and as a matter of fact we are, enjoying this country for the short period we are here. Very handily, Kosovo’s official currency is the Euro even though the country isn’t part of the European Union (same situation as in Montenegro) which enables us to replenish our stack of Euro cash before continuing on our adventure.
Selection of VW Golf in Prizren, Kosovo
In a similar way to Bosnia, the VW Golf dominates the Kosovo car park with numerous 1983 and 1991 models but also a handful of current generation ones, even though the nameplate doesn’t appear in the 2017 Top 10. Rather logically given the country’s recent history, there are very little Zastava and Yugo models but somewhat surprisingly, following a complete absence of them for the first hour driving into Kosovo, I spotted quite a few cars with Serbian license plates in Prizren. And this brings me to the rather complicated situation of Kosovo license plates. Since 2010, Kosovo cars have license plates starting with a blue strip (mimicking EU plates) with the letters “RKS” for Republic of Kosovo, a two-digit number corresponding to districts (among them 01 for Pristina and 04 for Prizren), a three-digit number and two letters. So far, so good but there’s a trick: since 2012, previous Serbian plates with Kosovan district codes are illegal in Kosovo, and in turn new RKS plates are illegal in Serbia. So Kosovo citizens needing to cross into Serbia are issued KS plates, the same as the ones issued between 1999 and 2010 by the UN Interim Administration of Kosovo (UNMIK). They consist of a three-digit number, a two-letter abbreviation KS, which stands for ‘Kosovo’ (no Republic here), and another three-digit number. An example is on the Ford Fiesta in the picture below.
The Mitsubishi L200 is the most popular pickup in Prizren.
Being located in the Šara National Park in mountainous valleys, Prizren’s surroundings are rural and therefore the ratio of pickup trucks is relatively high in town. One nameplate stands out head and shoulders: the Mitsubishi L200 across a few generations.
Skoda Rapid and Kia Sportage taxis in Prizren
2017 Kosovo new car sales data has the Skoda Rapid at #1, and indeed I did spot quite a few of them in Prizren. Another popular new car in town is the Kia Sportage, mainly as a taxi which is relatively rare for an SUV.
Russian and Slovenian influence in the car park of Prizren and its surroundings.
Finally, there’s still a definite Russian influence in the car park of Prizren and its rural surroundings, with a few Lada Zhiguli streaming through town, as well as a multitude of mysterious trucks that turned out to be of the TAM brand from Slovenia (Tovarna avtomobilov Maribor), many thanks to our reader Blaž for this tip. On this observation I will conclude this Kosovo episode, the next country on the list is Bulgaria. Stay tuned!