A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
12 November 2013
When you picture Kosovo, what do you see? Well, probably not endless streams of traffic and neon lights in every conceivable colour, spanning out across a vast and varied cityscape. That’s what I saw though, when I had the opportunity to get high above the streets of Pristina – and take a rooftop view of the Kosovar capital.
Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa
During my visit to Pristina, I had a few chances to take in a view of the city streets from above. The first came on the night of the Kosovo elections: when I found my way – (almost) by complete accident – onto the rooftop of the Pristina Grand Hotel, just in time for the fireworks.
Even before that though, I’d been eyeing up the spire of the city’s unfinished cathedral. When I later heard that visitors were permitted to take a trip up the tower between the hours of 4-6pm each day, I was up there like a shot.
This large, unfinished cathedral stands just south of Pristina city centre, on the junction of George Bush and Bill Clinton Boulevards. Dedicated to the Albanian-born missionary and general do-gooder Mother Teresa, the building is set to serve as a place of worship for the city’s small catholic community.
The population of Pristina is estimated at roughly 97% Albanian, and a large proportion of those muslim; the 2007 plan to build a prominent catholic cathedral then, its tower already one of the highest peaks on the city skyline, speaks volumes. In fact, the ceremonial foundation stone of the ‘Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa’ was laid by the former Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova, himself a muslim.
The bells were chiming as I stepped out from the elevator; passing, as I did, two muslim girls in headscarves who had just finished taking in the view. The balcony that surrounds the bell tower offered a 360-degree panorama, encompassing the entire southern portion of the Kosovar capital. From the intersection far below, illuminated highways branched off in all directions.
Eqrem Çabej leads up the hill to the east, towards Pristina university; this street taking its name from a revered Albanian historian and scholar. The Faculty of Arts and the National Library of Kosovo stand in a park just off the main boulevard, and behind that the faint silhouette of Pristina’s unfinished Serbian cathedral. One of the campus buildings along Eqrem Çabej Street bears a quote by John F. Kennedy, printed both in English and Albanian:
“Liberty without learning is always in peril,
and learning without liberty is always in vain.”
To the south, Bulevardi i Dëshmorëve wound its way out of the city in the direction of Skopje, capital of Macedonia – or to give the city its Albanian name, ‘Shkup’.
Bulevardi Bill Klinton, meanwhile, left the intersection to wind down the hill towards the west; at its far end, marked by a large bronze statue of the president himself.
I felt like a sniper as I set up my tripod in the dark, high on the windblown bell tower. I spent a while just playing with time, speeding it up, slowing it down; catching pedestrians in mid-stride as they crossed the intersection so far below… transforming hundreds of queued cars into one great, golden snake, that writhed and twisted over and beyond the distant horizon.
The Grand Hotel
Due north of the cathedral runs George Bush Street, stretching past the university, past the bizarre sci-fi library complex, before reaching the pedestrianised heart of the city and the coloured fountains of Mother Teresa Square. Here two hotels rise up on either side of the open space; the ‘Swiss Diamond Hotel’ on the east side, formerly the Yugoslav ‘Hotel Iliria’. Towering over the square however, rising in the west, stands the ‘Grand Hotel Prishtina’.
At sixteen storeys the Grand Hotel is one of the tallest buildings in the city, and under the Yugoslav government this iconic hotel had been the pride of Pristina. Though now the exterior has faded – the veneer lost its shine – the hotel’s prominent location means it remains a focal point for the city.
When I first laid eyes on the building, exploring the capital in the run-up to election day, I had seen the hotel from the street beneath. It was dark and the faded, flickering lights labelled this a two-star “ho.”
In my last post I wrote about my experiences in Pristina, up to and including the 2013 Kosovo elections. That evening, the city went mad – supporters took to the streets hours before the results had been called, a churning turmoil of cars and bikes, flags, banners and capes. There had been talk all day of a press gathering at the Grand Hotel… and it seemed as good an excuse as any to get a look inside this grandiose communist construction.
Outside the hotel, a film crew were just packing up their gear into large plastic trunks; stashing them into the back of a van branded with the logo of a cable TV station. The hotel doorman didn’t speak English – but when we asked if we could head on up to take photos, he just nodded enthusiastically and gestured towards the elevator.
There were three of us, all staying at the same hostel, and we’d heard the press conference was taking place on the top floor of the hotel. I jabbed the lift button labelled ’16’ but nothing happened. Instead we ended up taking it to the fourteenth floor, stepping out of the elevator into a large corridor – unfinished walls, sparse, minimalist furnishings. There was nobody about as we wandered through the quiet hallways, so we hit the stairs and continued on up.
When the plain staircase terminated we came out into a service floor: all bare concrete and crates, gears, cables and oily rags. At the far end of the dreary space, double glass doors swung open onto a balcony. We stepped out into the night – to find ourselves positioned directly beneath and between the illuminated words “Hotel” and “Prishtina”; sixteen floors high over the throngs of revellers pouring through Mother Teresa Square.
We were now on the highest floor of the hotel… but a ladder set into a wall behind us led higher still. I climbed on up, stepping from the first ladder onto a narrow ledge positioned immediately beneath the glowing, white letters. From here I edged across to another ladder, which in turn led up and onto the flat roof itself.
The Yugoslav-built Grand Hotel is a historic symbol of power and authority, now a stark contrast against the largely rebuilt skyline of Kosovo – and here we were riding in its crown.
Just then, without warning, the first fireworks erupted… firing from a source somewhere just beyond the stylised Palace of Culture and Sports.
All around us the clamour of cars and voices drifted up into the night sky – a euphoric chaos which mingled with the acrid scent of gunpowder – as down below the people celebrated an election… but more than that, this felt like a newborn nation celebrating the right to an election; after just five years of independence, five years of democracy. We stayed to watch history unfold, from high amongst the neon battlements.