The second most popular question that I get asked about my travel work is whether x or y location is safe for children/a woman travelling on her own. (The first most popular question, as a matter of record, is “What were you doing *there*??”)
I’ve finally got around to starting a series of articles with my take on the relative safety of various locations.
It ought to go without saying that this is purely my opinion, is grounded in the good fortune of largely pleasant first hand experiences, and is no replacement for fetishing the FCO travel advisory website
like I do.
To begin by stating the offensively obvious, it’s more important to think through accommodation when you’re with children. The Khao San Road hostel that seemed cute 15 years ago loses its shine when you’ve got kids screaming in terror at each passing mosquito or cockroach and being woken up hourly through the night by any revelry/flushing toilet/nightmare about being made to stay in a rubbish hostel.
Pristina has patchy hotel quality and the star system sometimes fails to map against Western European measures. Consequently, we splurged at the Swiss Diamond Hotel
, which is excellent by any international standards and, at the top of Mother Teresa Boulevard, near most of the sights that you would wish to walk to and see in the capital city. In a city with slightly unpredictable weather and limited green space, the lavish subterranean pool was a godsend.
Although the expensive restaurants inside the hotel were a very helpful fallback, Mother Teresa Boulevard and the surrounding streets have plenty of other great places to go.
Some of the better restaurants for kid include Le Siam Thai on Fehmi Agani and Caffe Pizzeria Papillon. Our four year old Electra was going through a particularly diva-ish phase and every restaurant staff member who dealt with her cringe-making antics did so with a charm and aplomb that some British servers could learn from. The Pristina folk museum is a particularly safe and fun place to take the kids, with several traditional houses in the Old Town converted into a museum full of treasures, from ancient costumes to a fabulously creepy room laying out traditional grave goods.
Although unrelated to safety with children, I have to give a gratuitous shout-out to the excellent quality of the unbelievably good value Chinese and Thai massage establishments in Pristina – one of several unexpected and brilliant surprises that this city has to offer.
Apparently Kosovans have a propensity for nostalgically bringing out the hardware that they’ve still got lying around after the war and releasing it at weddings and other ceremonies. We saw several beautiful weddings with no evidence of this, but a couple of local news sites warned in all seriousness to avoid such gatherings because live ammo gets fired out of sheer exuberance and jubilation. Though I relate this story lightly, Kosovo undeniably retains the frontier frisson of the Wild West, and it’s ultimately for you to judge how much your kids would be down with that.
That said, the most important point for me to make as a complacent and privileged UK/US national is that Kosovo has been a tragically unsafe place for its own children in the past. I took my eight year old daughter Estella to the National Museum of Kosovo and we toured the prehistoric ground floor with interest, enjoying a crash course in the surprisingly rich remnants of early man in the area.
When I motioned for us to continue to the other, first floor of the museum Estella simply wouldn’t come in. She didn’t have any rationale for not wanting to go and got a bit tearful in her refusal which is very unusual. I ended up rather crossly returning her all the way to the hotel and then trudging back to see that floor of the museum alone.
The first floor, far from more Neolithic pottery, detailed Kosovo’s recent history. It included many graphic images of murdered children and would have been an unbearably horrible thing to subject my daughter to. I regretted my inability to realise that some instinct had made Estella resist the darkness on the threshold of that first floor, but resistance or escape wasn’t an option for those Kosovan children, and we must never forget that.
On a far brighter but related note, these days, with tourism and business travel in its infancy in Kosovo, British and Americans get a very warm welcome. Bill Clinton is revered and idolised, to the extent of having a gaudy and fabulous statue of him downtown.
Highly recommend for a short trip, if you observe all necessary precautions.
Three Biggest Everyday Hazards or Annoyances:
1) Road safety. Pristina is traffic-choked, with confusing and limited safe crossing spots. Don’t let go of your little ones’ hands and be prepared to run fast whilst making imploring eye contact with truck and van drivers. Roundabouts are mesmerizingly horrible in their driving standards demos. Outside the capital, the one road that leads from Pristina to the border with Macedonia is still severely damaged in places from tanks rolling over it, and cattle can wander back and forth over it. The nature of over-taking on this road is such that the driver seems to be screwing his eyes shut and hoping for the best as often as you are.
2) Food poisoning: a dodgy approximation of fish and chips in an Irish pub made both Electra and my husband Jonathan violently ill for 24 hours. Electra was sick eleven times in one night. It can happen anywhere and it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed by breadsticks and a day watching Wreck It Ralph
on repeat, but it was still the only place she got sick on a month-long tour of Europe.
3) Passive smoking. It’s theoretically banned to smoke in public places. Pretty much everyone in Kosovo smokes though. If you’d lived through the war in Kosovo then you’d smoke too. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid to see a toddler or a cow taking a long drag on a cigarette by the end of our time in Kosovo.