Paris, London, Berlin. All well-known capitals in Europe. Others are not so well known but probably should be. Many tourists never explore three of these forgotten capitals because they do not venture far enough east. Three forgotten capitals of Europe can be reached in a row.
Start with Europe’s newest country, Kosovo, and enter its capital Pristina. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized as sovereign by most countries except Serbia. Consequently, you would be wise not to travel from Kosovo to Serbia. Start in Servia if you want to also travel to Kosovo. Kosovo measures 4,203 square miles and has the largest population of ethnic Albanians outside Albania.
Many empires from the 4th century forward ruled what is now Kosovo. The country sits in the center of the Balkan Peninsula and its capital Pristina is a major crossroad to any travel in the Balkans. The city was the capital of the Serbian state in the 14th century and is now a capital again in its own country.
At first glance, Pristina appears to have nothing to offer. Its old style architecture, reminiscent of Russian occupation, is heavy and unattractive.
One of its newest buildings, the National Library, has gained a lot of attention for its architecture. Consider it beautiful or ugly—the choice is yours.
A popular site is the Newborn Monument, a political statement in 10-foot high letters celebrating Kosovo’s liberation from Serbia, similar to the city name monuments found in Central and South American countries. It was unveiled in bright yellow letters on the day of independence 2008. The plan is to repaint it in some fashion each anniversary date. It has been painted with the flags of countries which have recognized the independence of Kosovo. Another year it was painted with barbed wires indicating the difficulty Kosovans were having getting visas to other countries. Another year the decoration was clouds. People have also written their names or messages all over the monument, and the graffiti artists have had their say.
Another popular attraction is the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa, honoring the saint who born in Skopje, the former capital of the Kosovo. Pristina also has named a street in her honor.
Kosovans love the United States for supporting its independence when other countries turned their backs. In particular, they love Bill Clinton and have immortalized him with a statue and huge portrait on a tower wall. There is even a Hillary clothing store.
You need not spend a long time in Pristina, but you should not skip the newest European capital.
Travel south and you will come to the small country of Montenegro. Its capital city is Podgorica, traceable to the Stone Age. The city has experienced control by empires and desecrated by wars. In 2008, Montenegro declared its independence and Podgorica, given its size (containing 30% of the country’s population) and location away from the Adriatic Sea (reachable by tunnel) was made its capital city. Montenegro measures 5,333 square miles.
Many cultural institutions call Podgorica home. These include the Montenegrin National Theatre and the City Theatre, the latter including children’s and puppet theaters. Four major museums reside in the city alongside the former king’s castle and chapel which have been turned into an art gallery.
Podgorica is alive with many sports stadiums for football, basketball, in addition to soccer fields. Some of the city’s most notable citizens have been football players. The varied architecture of the city exemplifies its history, from the Ottoman Empire days to contemporary times. Podgorica was bombed 80 times in World War II, destroying much of the city. Today, recovery includes a wave of new building projects, giving the capital a newer face.
A focal point for tourists has proven to be the Millennium Bridge spanning the Morača River. It was designed locally by a professor of engineering and has become the city’s most prominent landmark. It opened in 2005 on Montenegro’s National Day at the cost of seven million euros. The bridge carries two lanes of traffic and walkways on each side.
The second most popular attraction is the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. Construction of the Cathedral began in 1993 and took 20 years to complete. The tower holds 17 bells, the heaviest weighing 11 tons. You should not miss this Orthodox Cathedral with its elaborately decorated interior.
Montenegro is small, with the Adriatic on one side and mountains on the other. You can cross from one to the other in an afternoon. Where else can you experience such diversity in one or two hours?
One more stop as you head toward the Mediterranean is Albania and its capital Tirana. Albania is the largest of these three countries, measuring 11,100 square miles. It sits on both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas with the Albanian Alps and other mountain ranges crisscrossing the country.
Like its counterparts to the north, Albania has survived competing empires and declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. After World War II, Albania became a satellite state of Russia, which consequently dissolved and the country became the secular state it is known to be today, though freedom of religion is guaranteed.
The capital city, Tirana, sits in the middle of the country, surrounded by mountains. The city was founded in 1614, though the area has been inhabited since the Iron Age. It has seen power movements from the Serbians and Russians since its independence. Following the collapse of the communists, Tirana has gone through political unrest, explosions, earthquakes, and rebuilding. Tirana and Albania seem always to be on the edge.
The center of Tirana is Skanderbeg Square which houses on its sides most of the important buildings of Albania. A clock tower in Italianate style and the only mosque remaining of the eight built during the 18th and 19th centuries sideline the Square. Not the largest monument but the most important is the statue of Skanderbeg, the commander who ousted the Ottoman Empire. The Square is the major cultural center of the city.
Prior to World War II, Albania had been under Communist rule with Enver Hoxha as Prime Minister. Because of Hoxha’s paranoia, he populated the country with bunkers against would-be invaders at 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometer. Today, some of these bunkers has been turned into museums, hostels, and other housing. The largest of these is the Bunk’art, built to hide the full government forces and is now an art museum.
Tirana, and Albania, had been closed to the world until the end of World War II, making it an isolated country. The consequences are that the country is very welcoming to tourists, wanting to catch up with the rest of the world.
Tirana reveres its cultural arts: music (especially singing), storytelling and literature, embroidery and lace making, woodworking and furniture making.
Today, Tirana is a vibrant city with a youthful influence. There are major Albanian cities to the north and south of Tirana, but this capital city should be on the itinerary of all Eastern European travelers.
Traveling in Eastern Europe should not be overlooked. The Balkan countries offer lower cost food and accommodations from Western Europe. The Balkan countries have beautiful, varied terrains at every turn in addition to many cultural opportunities. You won’t do wrong to put these capitals on your next itinerary.
Fact: Balkan is a Turkish word for mountains
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