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Road less traveled leads to Kosovo

Samuel Benshoof climbed the hill for a panoramic view of Prizren, a small town outside Pristina, Kosovo. Benshoof took a vacation from Macedonia where he currently lives to the new small country. Submitted Photo

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference

-- Robert Frost

When you think of the top tourist destinations in Eastern Europe, Kosovo likely does not come to mind.

In fact, there are probably many people who do not know anything at all about Kosovo - after all, it just became a fully independent country early last year (though it is still not recognized as such universally). But that was exactly why, earlier this month, I set off on a bus from Bitola, Macedonia, where I am staying for the next seven months, to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo - to take the time to see a country that you will not find at the top of any Eastern European Travel Guides.

Because it is not such a popular destination, Pristina has only one hostel (which is a little rare for typical European big cities). And, unfortunately, the hostel is a little bit out of the way - perhaps a 20-minute walk from downtown. When I arrived at the Pristina bus station, the sun was starting to set and it was starting to rain, so I decided that I would take a taxi to the hostel. Once I was checked in and settled, I set out to find and explore Pristina's downtown.

Unfortunately, the directions that the hostel owner gave me were a little vague. He told me that I should leave the hostel, go down the hill, and turn right, and I would be downtown. However, he did not mention to me that there were two hills, and, unfortunately, I took the wrong one. After a walk of about 15 minutes in the wrong direction in increasingly hard rain, I finally decided that it would be best to take another taxi. And so, after a bit of a detour, I finally made it to Pristina's center.

For being a capital, Pristina is fairly small, with a population of about 500,000 people. There is not much public transportation, as most of the city is walkable, and taxis are cheap. Pristina certainly does not have the beauty of some of the more well-known cities in Eastern Europe - there is really not much to Pristina's center, which is overshadowed a little bit by the various office buildings that have sprung up in the area. But despite this, as an example of a new country and a new capital trying to find a new identity, Pristina is fascinating. A yellow "Newborn" statue, placed after Kosovo achieved independence from Serbia in 2008, reminds the visitor of the country's and the capital's newness.

The "Newborn" statue is certainly celebrating Kosovo's present and future, but at the same time there is no escaping the city's sad past. Lining posts on the north end of town are photos of people who went missing during the conflict with Serbia in 1999, where several thousand people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. The sight of these photos, perhaps several hundred in number, many faded from exposure to weather over the past 10 years, is a sobering one.

And then there is Bulevar Bill Clinton, one of Pristina's most interesting features. For helping defend Kosovo from Serbia in 1999, Clinton is a bit of a hero around the country. And unfortunately, I just missed seeing him in person - he had visited Pristina earlier in the week to attend an unveiling of a new 11-foot statue of himself along the street that bears his name. Bulevar Bill Clinton seems to be doing its best to emulate a street you might find in big-city America - fast food restaurants and American-themed diners are found on both sides. Contrast this with the Turkish part of town, where large mosques compete with office buildings for prominence over the Pristina skyline, and you start to get a sense of the city's developing identity. It is there, even if you have to search for it a little bit.

Because Kosovo is such a small country, any trip is not complete without a daytrip to smaller cities outside of Pristina, some of which are real hidden gems. So, on my second day in Kosovo, I took a trip from Pristina to a city named Prizren, two hours away. Prizren is smaller and much more compact that Pristina, and offered much more natural beauty than did the capital. Pressed up against hills, the highlight of Prizren is the remains of a fortress atop a hill that offers spectacular views of the city below. The climb up is pretty steep, though.

Prizren also offered a reminder as to the still-precarious situation of Kosovo - several beautiful churches and mosques in the city are protected by barbed-wire to dissuade would-be vandals, who still, 10 years later, might seek to act out against what they feel to be the illegitimacy of Kosovo's independence. It is up to KFOR - short for Kosovo Force, a NATO-led peacekeeping force still in Kosovo - to protect these relics.

After a stop at Prizren's "Corner Bar" - I just had to stop because of the name - I spent some time wandering around Prizren's downtown, which is punctuated by a beautiful stone bridge in the center of town. There, I saw four KFOR Americans in front of me. (I could tell by their military uniforms). I stopped them, we got to talking, and it turned out than one of them was from Fargo. His last name was Benton, I believe, and he was on his way home in only a few days. Incidents like these continue to show me just how small a world it is.

When I told them that I was in Kosovo simply as a tourist, they seemed surprised, and asked me how it was that I had come to Kosovo.

"We don't usually see many American tourists around here," one of them explained.

As I rode the bus back from Pristina to Macedonia, that idea remained in my mind. I had really taken a chance to see a part of Europe that not many people would think to visit, and the result was a very satisfying and interesting trip. Sometimes, it is good to step off onto the road less traveled; you might just be surprised at what you find.