In these times of financial hardship, affordability is paramount when it comes to a city break. When you pack as many tours and meals as you can, costs can quickly skyrocket, especially at classic European favorites like Venice, Paris and Athens. So last week, I went completely off-road in search of the ultimate bargain.
According to Numbeo, which ranks destinations by cost of living, taking into account everything from drinks in pubs to bus fares, the cheapest country in Europe – and the sixth cheapest on the planet, behind Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, India and Algeria. – is Kosovo. What could be better for a mini cost-of-living crisis break? I booked the first available Wizz Air flight to Pristina – for just £43 – and put it to the test.
Of course, Kosovo is not best known for its tourist offer. British awareness of this probably equates to memories of guerrilla warfare and fiery NATO bombing. The country was established in 2008 – only South Sudan is newer – although Serbia still refuses to recognize its sovereignty. Albanians make up the ethnic majority, with the double-headed eagle being a more prominent flag in the country than that of Kosovo.
Still, the place was undeniably affordable. I was staying at the Garden Downtown Hotel, which was beautifully decorated with green painted windows and bright orange blankets – and cost just £45 a night. Best of all, breakfast was included, so I fortified myself for a day of sightseeing with scrambled eggs, avocado and llokumaa fried dough served with a red pepper dip.
My first morning was spent wandering Pristina, which seemed oddly quiet for a capital. Searching for the city’s Ethnological Museum – rated the number one attraction on TripAdvisor and free to enter – I quickly lost my way. But it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with the locals as I strolled past car dealerships, hardware stores, cafes – where waiters rushed through doors with trays of one-euro coffees – and a market that seemed to mainly sell cigarettes and jars of pickles.
Eventually, I rounded a corner and wandered into an imposing courtyard, flanked by two wood-panelled buildings. The Ethnological Museum is essentially an 18th-century mansion outfitted with tiny wooden chairs, large metal kitchen utensils, and rug-covered sofas. A visit was unplanned, so I explored the creaky hallways myself, stopping to look at the displays of folk and traditional dresses qeleshe Hats. It’s an interesting introduction to the city, but at the National Museum (a much grander proposition, and also with free entry), Kosovo’s complex history becomes clearer.
Alone in the vast dark galleries, I gazed at remarkable collections of Ottoman coins, Roman busts and a rather frail 3rd century coffin. Most moving were the tiny terracotta Hyjnesha Në Fron (enthroned goddess) statues, each at least 6,000 years old. Lined up in formation and varying in size, the deities looked like a small army of aliens. They are deeply revered in Pristina and are a symbol of the city. Obviously, curators assume that visitors already know all of this, as there is in fact no information available about them in the museum itself.
After being quieted down by the Neolithic congregation, the second floor focused on Kosovo’s most disturbing recent history. The walls are lined with weapons: here a taped sniper rifle, across the room, a rocket launcher; there are, somewhat incongruously, American flags, a cowboy hat and a trophy awarded to Madeleine Allbright – all clustered in a cabinet; local hero (and Kosovar separatist) Adem Jashari is depicted in wood cuttings and gold busts. It speaks to residual tension – or, perhaps, a desire to see guns instead of antique action figures – that this floor was considerably more popular than the one below.
After my sprint through 6,000 years of history, lunch was in order. I ate at Soma, a café during the day, a bar in the evening and a perpetual bookstore. It was filled with groups browsing shelves, planning projects and meeting friends. As I browsed through a variety of hot olives, potatoes, feta and bread (all for around £4), I spoke to Donjeta, an organizer of the Manifesta 14 project, an arts programme, performances and workshops. It was launched this year, culminating in a discussion on heritage buildings in Pristina: should these spaces be commemorated or reimagined? The answer seems to be an uneasy, yet optimistic hybrid of the two.
Leaving Donjeta, I spent the afternoon looking for the Monument to Brotherhood and Unity. This strange Yugoslav spomenik pops up from a town center roundabout, but was disappointed to find it hidden by scaffolding waiting to be renovated.
Dinner time, then, at Liburnia’s, which looked like a grandmother’s front room, if a bit stippled, decorating her Christmas tree with vegetables. I had a dish of baked rice followed by a baklava, accompanied by two glasses of appallingly strong raki, for a total of 9.30. The waiter was mildly curious to hear about my travel plans, but even more thrilled by my revelation that I was living in London – consoling myself, uninvited, on the wilderness that is the UK rental market . He gave me another glass of raki in compensation.
Impressed by the literature-loving crowds in Soma, the next morning I walked through Pristina’s university campus to see its most infamous building. The imposing National Library of Kosovo is an intimidating, brutalist fortress with 99 domes and covered in what appears to be oversized barbed wire. Not exactly a romantic replica of Alexandria, but a serious statement nonetheless.
Lunch was eaten at Babaganoush, where a bowl of falafel, carrots, cabbage and tahini was gratefully wolfed down. I took a quick tour around Lambdalambdalambda, a multi-syllabic modern art gallery that hosts local painters and sculptors, before rushing down Mother Teresa Boulevard (there’s also a cathedral and a statue dedicated to the most famous nun in the world).
Here there were other signs of bibliophilia: a festive market, where evidently the most popular stalls were those selling all sorts of books, including the autobiography of Malala Yousufzai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Pakistan, a retrospective of Zaha Hadid and the complete works of the German spiritual professor, Eckhart Tolle, as well as titles on the Kosovo war of 1998-99.
In a quieter part of the boulevard, I found a marble sculpture of a brain, on which rested a book. It was accompanied by text quoting Kosovar researchers, ending with the statement that reading leads to “better psychological well-being” and better emotional intelligence.
It was all the encouragement I needed, and for my last hours in Pristina, I headed to the Dit ‘E Nat’ cafe with a novel under my arm, where I found crowds of locals and pleasantly inexpensive coffee. Adding up my holiday spending, I discovered that not only had I ticked off one of Europe’s most intriguing and lesser-known capital cities, but I still had change from £200. Satisfied with my work, I reflected that a good deal can be just as important for happiness as a good book.
The cost of a city break in Kosovo
Return flights from London Luton to Pristina International Airport cost £43 with Wizz Air; the Garden Downtown Hotel offers rooms for £45 a night including breakfast. The total cost for Sophie’s weekend came to £194.