The Grand Hotel in the Kosovar capital of Pristina is regularly reviled in internet reviews. Here’s a sample: ‘disgusting’, ‘a ruin’ and ‘an absolute horror, probably the worst I have ever been at’.
But the managers seem unfazed by the online abuse. They do not take web bookings and barely offer access to the internet; their hotel has no email account.
A byword for modern opulence when this part of the Balkans was still part of the now defunct Yugoslavia, the state-owned Grand has gone into such a steep decline that even Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaçi, usually an eager booster of everything his country has to offer, struggles to find anything nice to say about it.
“I don’t think it is the worst hotel in the world, but that is because the world is very big”, the President said, expressing disbelief when told that I was staying there.
When I checked into the 500-room property recently, I was the only guest. With 13 stories and three adjoining concrete blocks in a prime location, the hotel accommodates flocks of pigeons on the upper floors and has rented out its basement, once used as a prison by Serbian paramilitary thugs, to a health club.
But it is otherwise deserted, a maze of dimly lit corridors that are littered with pigeon feathers, strung with cobwebs, lined with doors of dark wood and haunted by even darker memories of Kosovo’s past. Two floors have been reduced to rubble, the remnants of a remodeling program that ran out of money.
The establishment’s color scheme — lots of mossy green — and dilapidated creepiness would make it an excellent set for a remake of the Coen brothers’ 1991 film ‘Barton Fink’, which features a similarly deserted hotel in Hollywood.
The Grand Hotel’s General Manager, Rrahim Fazliu, conceded that the place perhaps no longer deserved the five-star rating it has claimed since it was built in 1978. But, he insisted, ‘with a bit of makeup’ it can become a ‘symbol of success’ for a country still struggling to find its stride nearly 20 years after a NATO bombing campaign broke Serbia’s grip on the unruly region.
The hotel, Mr. Fazliu added, was a ‘mirror of Kosovo’, and the image reflected there these days is decidedly less alluring than what had been hoped for when it achieved freedom in 1999.
Service is minimal to nonexistent, the marble lobby stinks of cigarette smoke and the green carpeting that covers most of the floors is stained and scarred. And then there are the cockroaches.
But to be fair, the Grand deserves better reviews than it gets online. On the two floors kept ready for guests, rooms are kept relatively clean and offer occasional hot water. The few staff that remain try to be helpful, and they are clearly embarrassed by the shabby state of their once respectable establishment.
Shurije Abazi, a 58-year-old maid who started working at the hotel a month after it opened four decades ago, still makes sure there are soap and shampoo for guests who no longer exist but who, in a triumph of hope over reality, she thinks will soon return.
Along with other ethnic Albanian staff she lost her job in the 1990s, when Serbia’s former dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, began a program of ethnic cleansing. She has no nostalgia for those times but still mourns the hotel’s decay.
The President, who has only bad memories of the hotel in the past and despairs at its current condition, harbors big plans for its future.
“Perhaps we could build a Trump Tower there”, Mr. Thaçi suggested.
Before Yugoslavia collapsed in a spasm of bloodletting in the 1990s, he recalled, the Grand was a favorite haunt for communist officials and, after they left, for armed goons bent on keeping Kosovo part of Serbia.
Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s longtime dictator, had a suite on the fourth floor. After Tito died in 1980 and his multiethnic country began to unravel, the Grand soldiered on and even prospered for a time, its occupancy rate lifted by the arrival of foreign journalists and Serb paramilitary gangs that wanted to purge Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, who made up a large majority of the population.
Zeljko Raznatovic, a Serbian career criminal and bloodthirsty nationalist fanatic better known as Arkan, commandeered Tito’s old suite while his gunmen put up a sign on the front door barring entry to ethnic Albanians and dogs.
On my first day at the hotel on my recent visit, a group of revelers from a grimy nightclub on the top floor took rooms in the middle of the night and boosted the number of guests to five — an occupancy rate of one percent, which is about as good as business gets at the Grand these days.
“We are ready every day to operate at full capacity but there are no people”, said Mr. Fazliu, the General Manager. He works out of a huge office on the second floor equipped with a long wooden conference table, multiple telephones and other relics of better and busier days.
Stuck in limbo since the end of the Kosovo war, which brought Mr. Thaçi and his comrades in the Kosovo Liberation Army to power, the hotel stands as a bleak monument not only to Kosovo’s painful past but also to its blurry future.
Free of Serbian control for nearly 20 years and now celebrating its 10th anniversary as an independent country, Kosovo is itself stuck in limbo, recognized by the United States and most European countries but still denied a seat at the United Nations and routinely harassed by Russia and Serbia.
It only recently got its own telephone country code — 383 — while still mostly using codes 377 and 386 borrowed from Monaco and Slovenia. Meanwhile, iPhones do not offer weather reports for Pristina.
However, many of the problems plaguing Kosovo — in particular, endemic corruption and shady dealings by former commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army — are of the country’s own making.
I had last visited the Grand Hotel on June 12, 1999, the day NATO ground troops first entered Pristina after a 78-day bombing campaign. A jittery receptionist told me then that all the rooms were booked and would be for a long time.
The city was then swarming with foreigners looking for a place to stay — Western journalists, military officers, aid workers and European officials.
We had all rushed to Pristina to witness the end of Serb hegemony and the birth of what the United States and its European allies hoped would be a prosperous new country firmly anchored in the West and its ways.
A critical part of this plan was a crash program to privatize former Yugoslav state assets like the Grand Hotel. Put up for sale in 2006, it was bought by a murky local company that paid just 8 million euros (a little under $10 million at current rates) but promised, as part of the deal, to invest a further 20 million euros.
The promised investment never happened, and in 2012 the Kosovo Privatization Agency canceled the sale — and kept the money it had received. Plans to find another buyer then got snarled in a lengthy legal battle after Behgjet I. Pacolli, a Swiss millionaire originally from Kosovo who is now the country’s foreign minister, announced that a company he owned was suing the government over the original sale.
The hotel is now in liquidation and its assets, which include a valuable collection of modern art, will be sold or put in a museum so that a new owner can be found and the hotel can be refurbished from scratch.
The hotel has more than 500 employees left on the books from the time when Kosovo was controlled by Serbia. The Serbian staff all fled after NATO’s arrival. Around 80 staff, all ethnic Albanians, now show up for work.
Mr. Pacolli estimates that it will cost at least $50 million to make the Grand grand again. It is, he added, perhaps not the world’s worst hotel but ranks near the bottom.
“It is really terrible. How can you stay there? How can anyone stay there?”, he said. /The New York Times