Curious ... birds fly by the abandoned Orthodox Church in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo: Alamy
KOSOVO'S capital Pristina does not have tourist attractions so much as curiosities, and few of them are made for happy snaps. A cluster-bombed police bunker, some austere statues, hundreds of faded photographs of missing people on the gate of the parliament building - vestiges of the 1998-1999 war. Even the National Museum is a bleak affair, with much of its collection involuntarily "on loan" to Serbia since before that conflict began.
So when my taxi driver says he has never heard of the Ethnographic Museum, I'm surprised. In such a small city, surely national institutions would be on every cabbie's radar. He phones one friend for directions, then another. Even when we eventually get there, we almost miss it. The place is marked merely by a couple of flimsy signs tacked on to power poles, similar to the ones that advertise fad diets and dubious ways to make money from home.
This must be the coldest museum in the Balkans.
The brick-walled courtyard looks like plenty of others in the neighbourhood and I walk through it half expecting to be reprimanded for trespassing. Instead, a young man emerges from the house at the end, takes me inside and politely asks me to replace my shoes with one of the many pairs of rubber slippers lined up by the door. Whoever bought them was overly optimistic about visitor numbers (a flick through the guest book shows mine is the first entry in three days).
I wish I didn't have to change my footwear. This must be the coldest museum in the Balkans and it's got nothing to do with preserving historic artifacts. It's eight degrees outside and at least a few lower inside the old brick building.
Even after donning a scarf and gloves, I'm chilled. So is my guide, judging by the way he keeps his hands jammed in his armpits. As we move from room to room, me shuffling awkwardly in my oversize footwear, he fires off short explanations of the traditional costumes, cooking utensils and weapons, then waits for my appraisal and a signal that we can move on. The information boards are more enlightening. In the "birthing room" I read about the old belief that a woman could ease a difficult labour by taking three drinks from her husband's shoe. What she had to imbibe and whether she had to take three sips or thrice empty the contents of the shoe was unclear. If that didn't help, she could always try jumping over a pair of her husband's trousers.
I linger as long as my cold feet allow, then go in search of warmth and fuel. Promenading might be pleasant in summer but in winter you can walk Pristina's potholed, broken streets for only so long, inhaling exhaust and the acrid smell of street vendors' singed chestnuts, before you need somewhere to thaw.
I find that "somewhere" in a bakery so yeasty and warm I can't see through the windows for the condensation. The moment I step inside, the same thing happens to my glasses. I ask what's hot. "Burek!" the woman behind the counter says. Two thick batons of elastic dough filled with fetta cheese and a tub of plain drinking yoghurt set me back €1 ($1.27). I sit on a small plastic stool close to the steamed-up window and tuck in. When there's a break in the flow of customers, I catch the woman's eye, point to my lunch and give her an appreciative thumbs-up. She kisses her fingertips, tosses her hand in the air and grins.
Maybe people, not places, are the real attraction of this young country.