Intriguing Buildings: National Library of Kosovo

It is probably fair to say that Pristina is not one of Europe’s most aesthetically pleasing capital cities. This is not, in fairness, the fault of the city or its people, but more of a legacy of the drastic and dangerous times it, and its inhabitants, have lived through over many years.

There is, however, one building that stands out. Whether it stands out in a good way is open to question and indeed, it appears that the National Library of Kosovo is either loved or loathed, at least in an architectural sense.

One thing that surprises many people is that the building is not particularly new. While it has the appearance of something space-age, it was actually started in the 1970s and completed in 1982. The architect was a Croatian, Andrija Mutnjaković, who envisaged a style combining Byzantine and Islamic elements. The result is an extraordinary structure that somehow, despite its futuristic look, manages to display these very styles.

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Can I have my ball back?

It is the domes that stand out. In fact, they do a bit more than merely standing out. They shout at you from a great distance and make sure that you take notice of them. The overall appearance suggests that some giant has acquired a job lot of large footballs and crammed them into the roof of the building.

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Because you can’t have enough domes

There is, however, a practical side to these domes. They help to provide natural lighting to the reading rooms and other work spaces of the library.

Even during the relatively short span of its existence, the library has been through turbulent times. During the many conflicts in the Balkans during the 1990s, the building was occupied by the Serbian army, serving as its headquarters in the region. Indeed, there is still one large and obvious piece of evidence of Serbian occupation in the large and rather unprepossessing form of the Orthodox Church that sits forlornly in the opposite corner of the park in which the library is situated.

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That church

Unsurprisingly, many items were destroyed during the conflict, but the library still contains around two million individual units, including valuable rare books and Albanian manuscripts. There are also maps, photographs and a great many other items of historical and cultural interest. The library is open to the public, though all viewing must be done within the library.

The National Library of Kosovo is one of those buildings that features regularly in lists of the world’s ugliest buildings. A personal view is that while it may not sit alongside some of the outstanding Neo-Classical and Baroque architecture that tends to be ranked among the best, the library is far from ugly. Yes, it is different, but it has a certain character and style that set it apart. Kosovo, through no fault of its own, had few buildings of great interest and we should celebrate, rather than denigrate, this particular edifice.

Pristina – Terrible Beauty is Torn

Sunset in Pristina

Sunset in Pristina

Even its most ardent enthusiasts would not mark Pristina down as one of Europe’s more photogenic cities. Grey, concrete and shapeless, perhaps. A place to watch out for your ankles as you try to avoid potholes. A place to puzzle over where you are because the street you’re walking along has no sign. And yet…

A short city break is just fine, especially if you’re on the road to other places. It’s only a couple of hours on the (ridiculously cheap) bus to Skopje from here, but there’s no reason to overlook Pristina completely. It’s a city of great significance and does not deserve to be ignored. There are many cities that do not have immediate aesthetic appeal, but as with most of them, there is plenty of interest for the inquisitive traveller.

It doesn’t help that the two rivers were covered over in the 1950s and with neither a river nor main square, the city lacks a focal point. There is a central area (Qendra), which is comprised largely of shops, cafes and restaurants. This is perhaps the best place to use as a point for orientation, as street signs are a rarity. The city is, however, not so large that you’re likely to become hopelessly lost.

Something that can’t be missed – in any sense – is the University of Pristina library. This bizarre construction looks like it has been assembled from a combined Meccano and Lego set of giant proportions before being wrapped in a huge fishing net and having oversized, deflated footballs embedded in its roof. It’s precisely because of its oddness that it stands out so markedly from the drab concrete tower blocks in the surrounding area.

 University library


University library

Near the library is the folly that is the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, a huge and incomplete Serbian Orthodox edifice. Started in 1995, it remained unfinished because of the war and sits brooding behind barbed wire and weeds, its future uncertain.

There are reminders of Pristina’s Albanian heritage in statues of Skanderbeg and Mother Teresa. Indeed, there are times when you might be strolling around Tirana, though the latter’s architecture tends more towards Chinese Communist. Tirana also retains a little more of its Ottoman past.

The Kosovo Museum is low on exhibits, but strong on emotion. Many of the archaeological artifacts that were housed in the museum were taken to Belgrade in 1998. The part of the museum dedicated to more recent times naturally focuses on the war, told largely through a vast collection of international newspapers. It is not an uplifting experience and nor is it meant to be. This is strictly uneasy viewing. A deep breath and a cup of strong coffee is required.

A more cheering hour can be passed at the Ethnological Museum, which is housed in a small complex of delightful 18th-century houses. The museum shows how traditional houses were laid out and decorated and part of its appeal is finding something of beauty in a city where grey concrete is the norm.

Ethnological museum

Ethnological museum

Pristina has a decent array of restaurants and a pleasant one, right in the centre, is ‘Home’, which displays an encouraging sign that nothing is pre-cooked. The service is very good and very friendly and you can have a good meal and a few beers for ten euros. You may well get a complimentary glass of that staple Balkan drink, rakija, too. The local beer is Peja, a Pilsener-style affair that is quite light at 4.2% ABV and is decidedly refreshing on a hot day. Wine is produced locally and the industry is now resurgent after the war, with exports increasing. There is a greater diversity of restaurants than might be expected and it’s possible to sample Italian, Chinese, Indian and Mexico food as well as the more local dishes.

Walking around the city should guarantee that you bump into Bill Clinton. Well, you probably won’t, but you are likely to see a statue of him. The man himself was present at the unveiling of the statue in 2009. The way to Bill Clinton Boulevard is guided by the large, red-brick Nënë Tereza (Mother Teresa) Cathedral, opened during the following year.

Here's Bill

Here’s Bill

Pristina probably has the smallest railway station of any European capital city. The entire place could probably be covered by a medium-sized tablecloth and looks rather like a crumbling and disused rural station. There are only two services: one running to Pejë, home of the brewery, to the west and the other to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, to the south-east. Buses are quicker, but those with an enthusiasm for railways (and plenty of time) might prefer to experience the train journey.

One surprise was finding that it is possible to buy postcards. Pristina, you’d imagine, does not do a huge trade in tourists or tourist items. Curiously, the postcards come with envelopes, which poses an obvious question. Hopefully, the answer is not in any way sinister. It may not be the loveliest city, but there is a strange underlying charm to Pristina, helped by the friendly and accommodating nature of its people, that makes it a place worth visiting.