Kosovo: general information

    Travel essentials

    An alphabetical listing of seemingly random useful facts for the traveller.

    Body language & Sounds
    Like Bulgarians, Turks, Indians and a handful of others, the locals here shake (or perhaps: wobble) their heads to mean ‘yes’ and nod (or rather jerk the head backwards while emitting a bold cluck) to mean ‘no’. Every time you see it done, it’s a pleasant little culture shock.

    Crime & Safety
    The well-being of honoured guests (you) is a major source of concern and pride for the locals, and rather than being mugged, you’re more likely to be overwhelmed with hospitality. Despite the locals' friendly attitude, it's important to stay alert for petty crime such as bag-snatching and hotel room or house burglaries. Lock up your valuables in the safe or leave them at home, and don’t wander around unlit alleys at night. Pedestrians should be aware of holes in or bits of metal sticking out of the pavement, missing sewer lids and surprisingly deep puddles. Outside Pristina, if you don't know the area, don't leave asphalt or well trodden paths as there still are some mines.

    Disabled travellers
    In Pristina we're all equal and are all forced to dodge speeding cars splashing through puddles, cross streets with malfunctioning traffic lights, stumble across broken pavements, jump over missing manhole covers and wiggle down ankle-twisting uneven steps. If you’re in a wheelchair, forget it. Officially, all state buildings have ‘made arrangements’ for wheelchair users. What this actually means is anyone’s guess.

    Electricity is the ubiquitous energy product that powers the whole of Europe with the exception of Kosovo, where they’ve chosen the rather novel approach of switching it off for large periods of the day and night. When it works, electrical current is 220 Volts and is distributed by Kosovo's KEK electricity company via standard European plugs. There are daily power cuts, effectively caused by nobody bothering to pay their electricity bills, and nobody really willing to do anything about it. Electricity in Kosovo is divided into three categories, namely A, B and C. Categories are assigned according to how good individual areas of each municipality are at paying their electricity bills. Under normal circumstances category A means an uninterrupted flow of the stuff. Category B is on for five hours then off for one, and category C entitles you to four on and two off. Under so-called extraordinary circumstances category A becomes B, B becomes C, and C has to suffer power cuts for fifty percent of the time. This makes living (and socialising) a bit of an adventure to say the least. The daily ritual of revving up the smelly little home generator outside all restaurants and shops is the defining and deafening sound of Pristina. In short, bring a torch. In winter, it’s important to ask if your room heater runs on electricity, and if the hotel has a back-up generators. If you're living here, keep in mind that if there's no electricity you'll probably also lose water pressure, so it's a good idea to keep a few buckets of water handy just in case Pristina goes Stone Age just when you're shaving.

    Embassies & Consulates abroad
    In early 2009, Kosovo announced the opening of embassies in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, United States.

    Pristina can get very dusty when the wind from the west brings in dust pumped out of the electricity plant near town – don't wear your white suit. Although the locals say the water is safe to drink, it’s probably best to stick to bottled water, which is readily available. Support the fledgling local economy and buy the local Ola and Bonita brands.

    Albanian is Kosovo's main language – though you'll find English and Serbian translations on all official signs in Kosovo. German and sometimes English is widely spoken by the many refugees who returned to Kosovo after a few years in western Europe. The names of cities in Kosovo as well as all other Albanian nouns have two different endings. One is definite (Pejë), the other indefinite (Peja, or 'the Peje'). Even when the names appear in English text, translators don’t agree on which version to use. Add a dash of Serbian (Peć), and such ordinary pursuits as driving from a to b all of sudden become confusing to say the least. The word Kosovo incidentally is the English spelling. Locals use Kosova (and of course Kosovë).

    The euro (€, divided in 100 cents) is the official currency of Kosovo, though Serbian dinars are also used in some Serb-majority areas. Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500, and can look pretty crummy as they're not replaced as often as in eurozone countries. The coins, whose design depends on in which country they were minted in, come in denominations of €0.01,  €0.02, €0.05, €0.10, €0.20, €0.50, €1 and €2. Cash is still king in Kosovo, and carrying some around with you will make life much easier as credit and debit cards are still only really being accepted by the more exclusive hotels and restaurants as well as in the larger supermarkets. If you do use your credit card, be very wary of card fraud, and do not ever lose your card out of sight – walk behind the bar with the waiter if you have to. Although you can change cash in banks and exchange offices and with grinning men in black leather jackets, ATMs are really the best way to get cash.

    Good online resources for Pristina and Kosovo.
    www.invest-ks.org – business information
    www.mtcowgirl.us – an informative blog by an international working in Pristina.
    www.kosovothanksyou.com – A list of the countries now recognising Kosovo.
    www.kosovotwopointzero.com – interesting English-language online magazine
    www.visitkosova.org – Kosovo's official tourism website.

    Public holidays
    1-2 Jan  New Year
    7 Jan 2012   Orthodox Christmas
    17 Feb   Independence Day
    28 March 2011   Catholic and Orthodox Easter
    9 Apr   Constitution Day
    1 May   Labour Day
    9 May   Europe Day
    29 Aug 2011 Eid Al-Fitr (Ramadan)
    5 Nov 2011   Eid Al-Adha
    28 Nov National flag day
    25 Dec   Catholic Christmas

    Most Kosovan Albanians are officially Muslims, although an unwitting traveller would hardly notice in urban areas. Kosovo, like Albania, is quite secular and can not be compared with more religious places like Turkey or countries in the Middle East. Although pork is not readily available, drinking and smoking are practiced with enthusiasm, headscarves are generally not worn by women, and mosque attendance is insignificant compared to the aforementioned countries. Showing deep affection in public is not done. Kosovan Serbs are mainly Orthodox Christians, a religion that has been around here since early medieval times, witness the many magnificent monasteries.

    Smoking is forbidden in all public institutions, educational institutions and healthcare institutions unless there's a designated smoking area. Most bars and cafés have some kind of non-smoking area. And since early 2011, authorities are actually enforcing the law.

    Street names
    Pristina has street names, with 'rruga' meaning street and 'sheshi' meaning square, but most locals prefer not to use them. Indeed, many hotels, shops and restaurants have no idea of the street name, let alone the number they're at. The reasoning is that you can simply ask around when you get lost, though this does make getting around town a little challenging for foreigners. Staying true to ancient Balkan habits, people just refer to places by mentioning nearby landmarks just like they did in the days they lived in the village. So, if you're looking for Rruga Luan Haradinaj, ask for 'police avenue', and if you get directions to a place 'opposite the police station' you'll need to be on Rruga Rexhep Luci. Until 1999, most streets in Pristina had communist-inspired or Yugoslav names written in Serbo-Croat. In 2001 the municipality decided on new names for some 500 streets and squares, some named after famous Kosovans and Albanians, some after people we all know. Out went Moskovska, Beogradska, Proleterska and Partizanska. Kralja Petra I Oslobodioca became Boulevard Bill Clinton, Marsal Tito became Nëna Tereza (Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian), Beogradska became Fehmi Agani, and 'Kosovo Film street' became Rruga Toni Bler. Other foreigners with their own streets here include Gustav Meyer, Henri Dynan, Holger Pedersen, Jukup Ferri, Goethe, Johan Hahn, 'Lord Bajron', Miss Edit Durham, William Shakespeare and Viktor Hygo. Even the great Croatian-born inventor Nikola Tesla got a street during the reforms. Despite all this, most locals don't have a clue about the new or even the former names, and sticking to nearby landmarks like hotels or restaurants is your best bet of finding anything.

    There are no public toilets in Pristina – your best bet is to walk into any hotel, café or restaurant and ask if nature calls. You can't count on sufficient toilet paper so it's a good idea to carry an emergency supply just in case. Be aware that restaurant toilets can be unheated in winter – be quick.

    Visas & Borders
    Citizens of the EU, the USA and Canada and can stay in Kosovo for 90 days without further paperwork. After this period, extensions can be requested from the Pristina's main police office on Rr. Luan Haradinaj. Arrival formalities at the borders and airport are dealt with by Kosovo police staff wearing large 1955 NYPD hats. As Serbia does not acknowledge Kosovo's independence, it considers it illegal for anyone to be there without a valid Serbian entry stamp, but as long as you enter and leave from a third country, there's not much they can do about it. When travelling from Kosovo to Serbia note that you won't be able to leave Serbia any other way than back via Kosovo. Entering Serbia from another country with a Kosovo border stamp in your passport may result in petty harassment and a cool but otherwise meaningless 'annulled' stamp firmly placed on top of it, but little else. It's not a problem to travel through Serbia to Kosovo and then leave to a third country.

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