It may sound strange, but I had never pictured Kosovo in colour. The BBC reports that introduced me to this elusive patch of Europe gave the impression that life here takes place in the enormous grey chasm between black and white. But flying over snow-capped mountains and endless lush green fields made it hard to tell that this land had been torn by war. Soon after landing I was reminded that it had been. While queuing at Prishtina Airport to get an UNMIK stamp in my passport, I overheard the expat behind me sardonically grumble to the returning soldier next to him: 'Welcome to Paradise.'
Driving along Bill Clinton Boulevard, a towering statue of the man himself smiles his reminder of how recent history here is. This is a town that plays host to a cosmopolitan cast of international stakeholders all getting on with the business of helping Kosovo take its first steps. Giant letters stand shoulder to shoulder like defiant soldiers, spelling ‘NEWBORN’. They are so covered in graffiti now that it is clear that for some, independence is already old news.
Though not as raw as they once were, some scars are still showing. Out of Pristina, burnt-out buildings evoke a brutal past. Ongoing tensions in Serbian enclaves serve as a reminder that violence is not just something that happened, but is something that can happen again, and medieval Serbian monuments are still on UNESCO’s danger list. But on the other hand, the task of guarding Orthodox monasteries and monuments has in many places been passed from Kosovo Force soldiers to local police - a sign that a newborn country is standing on its own. New buildings are rising up where the earth was once razed. And desecrated buildings have been renovated, wiping away the stains of deep ethnic tension to reveal and revive a rich cultural heritage.
When it was my turn to step forward for my UNMIK stamp, the Kosovo-Albanian at the customs desk, looking down at my battered passport, asked me whether I was working in Kosovo. 'No', I said, 'just travelling'. He jerked his head up, baffled. And then with a glint of pride in his eyes, he smiled and said, 'Welcome to Kosovo.'
Where to go and what to see
Prishtina makes for a good base for day trips, and is home to restaurants that could hold their own anywhere in Europe, boasting multicultural menus and multi-lingual waiters. Hotels are also competing with genuine gusto, increasing the range and standard of accommodation available. Gračanica Monastery, one of the finest Serbian Byzantine monasteries in the country, is an easy excursion from Prishtina.
For some quiet contrast to the capital, the southern town of Prizren offers some resplendent views from up high. Here, visitors will find an energetic mix of Balkan bazaars, Ottoman architecture and a quaint centre filled with the chatter of cafe conversation. Prizren and surrounds are also home to several churches and Ottoman-era mosques.
The Lumbardhi river rushes through the western town of Peja, with a Turkish bazaar bustling at its heart. From here you can visit the tranquil Dečani monastery in the lush border region near Montenegro and Albania.
The great outdoors are not yet as great as they one day will be. Brezovica has not yet fulfilled its destiny of becoming a thriving ski resort, and only some travel agents and tour companies offer organised mountain hiking trips and other activity tours. The potential is clear though: watch this space.
Visiting Kosovo is easier than you might think. There are regular flights to Prishtina from several European cities, and buses travel to and from cities including Belgrade in Serbia, Sarajevo in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Podgorica in Montenegro, Skopje and Tetovo in Macedonia and Tirana in Albania.
Getting around Kosovo is a breeze; the railway system is still not great but nothing is more than a few hours from Prishtina by buses, which are regularly and reliable.
Take your passport with you when you are sightseeing; you may need to show it to guards to gain entry to some Orthodox churches and monasteries.
Always check travel advisories to find out the latest security situation before travelling to and around Kosovo.