It’s funny to think back sometimes on your preconceptions of a place before you ever visited, and compare what you expected it would be to what you actually found when you finally made it there. Back when I first visited Kosovo in 2012, the divided city of Mitrovica was on my list of things to see in Europe’s youngest country, but I never got around to it thanks to Pristina’s banging party scene and my decision to spend more time getting to know Prizren. I’d also be lying if I didn’t mention that I was also a little nervous at the prospect after hearing tales of aggressive policemen seizing tourists’ cameras, the occasional violent protest, and locals with a general disdain for foreigners coming in and making an attraction out of their city’s unfortunate circumstances. Basically it sounded kind of scary and I was having fun, so I decided to pass on it.
Jump to 2014 – my busiest, craziest year of Balkan travel to date – and I finally get the opportunity to have a coffee there for about an hour on the south side one cold, November day, which left much to be desired. It did, however, squash any hesitations I might have had before to venture back solo as it appeared to be just as normal from the outside as every other city I had visited in Kosovo and not intimidating in the slightest.
No aggressive policemen. No dirty looks from locals. No brawls in the streets or massive barricades erected (at least not that day). Just a lone, armored peacekeeping vehicle parked on the infamous New Bridge with Italian soldiers chilling inside. All seemed pretty calm and it was then that I decided this was a place I really needed to come back and explore more of which ultimately panned out this past fall during my first few months as a resident of Kosovo.
From Pristina buses are leaving the main station every 20 minutes or so for Mitrovica, cost less than 2 euros, and drop you off on the south (predominantly Albanian) side. Or if you are coming from Serbia, they will drop you off on the north (predominantly Serbian) side. Regardless of where you end up, just head towards the Ibar River to begin your adventure through one of the few ethnically divided cities left in Europe.
As I was coming from Pristina, I found myself starting again back on the south side and headed straight towards the beautiful, new Bajram Pasa Mosque – now the largest mosque in Kosovo – I had driven by on my last visit. It was early September rather than late November, so the trees were still dressed in their leaves giving more color to this side of town and reinventing my previous opinion of it being somewhat of a drab place. It was actually quite a lovely stroll where my legs were taking me along Mbreteresha Teutë Street in the direction of the New Bridge, the epicenter and symbol of Mitrovica.
Per usual, the cafes were bustling with youth sucking down macchiatos, smoking cigarettes, and gossiping – a few of this country’s favorite pastimes. I decided to follow suit, minus the gossiping and plus one glass of wine for 2.50 euros.
Once I finished my adventure apéritif, I decided it was finally time to break on through to the other side and past the controversial “Peace Park.” Crossing over the bridge, I could see St. Demetrius Orthodox Church on top of the hill and a Socialist spomenik staring back at me. Though it wasn’t entirely clear how I would make it up there, I was confident my sense of direction and willingness to partake in a little backcountry walking if necessary wouldn’t lead me (too far) astray.
Passing kafana after kafana, pljeskavica joint after pljeskavica joint, and all the heavy, political street art and Serbian flags one could ask for, it was very apparent I had stepped over into somewhat of a parallel universe to where I had been less than two minutes before. Or more specifically, Serbia.
Passing katana after kafana, pljeskavica joint after pljeskavica joint, and all the heavy, political street art and Serbian flags one could ask for, it was very apparent I had stepped over into somewhat of a parallel universe to where I had been less than two minutes before. Or more specifically, Serbia.
Like the little pockets of Mexico that can be found where I come from in Southern California, to me that is the best way to describe these so-called “Serbian enclaves” of Kosovo, but just a hell of a lot more…patriotic. I could have easily been in some neighborhood of Belgrade (minus the surrounding hills) walking north along the main leafy boulevard which was a pleasant throwback to one of my favorite Balkan capitals I had been missing. Stopping for a quick, second glass of wine only added to this nostalgia when in the end I was presented with a bill for 250 dinars.
Luckily, euros were also accepted and with that, I was on my merry way in the general direction towards the hill I was eyeing earlier. Stairs leading up to St. Demetrius Church can be found a little ways up from the river after hooking a left at the red building that says “EULEX GO HOME."
From up there, you have a great view of the city, and the church grounds are a nice place to stroll around for a little while, but honestly I was more intrigued by that sexy spomenik sitting a little higher up. A bit more rugged to get to (some backcountry walking was required), it’s about a 5-7 minute climb from the church, and in my opinion, the best thing to visit while in Mitrovica.
Contrary to my initial belief that it was meant to represent a concrete trough for Communist farm animals to drink out of, the Miner’s Monument designed by Bogdan Bogdanović (rad) is in fact a tribute to the citizens of Mitrovica – Serbians AND Albanians – who lost their lives fighting during World War II. As most of them were miners at the nearby Trepça mines, the design is supposed to resemble a mine cart on top of two columns. I guess I can see that…
Mitrovica totally surprised me in the end. Though it’s not the most beautiful place in the world and there isn’t enough to do there to justify staying a few days – or even staying for more than a few hours – it is one of the most unique towns I have ever visited and nothing like I had originally anticipated. I’m certainly not trying to downplay the seriousness of Mitrovica’s division and the implications it has on the citizens living there, but I also don’t want to paint the same depressing picture as every other article written on the internet about it because there is another side if you choose to go there in search of lemonade, not lemons.
Not once did I feel unsafe or unwelcome, but the reality is that the political situation there is changing frequently so it’s hard to say for sure whether the climate will be as mellow for the next traveler as both visits were for me. Seems like things have been slowly improving according to some news reports, but I think the general consensus on the streets is that there is no real end in sight to this division. As with many complicated things in life, though, only time will tell.