Its about 50 kilometres from the border crossing to the town of Užice. En route, I stopped at a roadside cafe, logged onto the wifi, and sent an email to the Hotel Zlatibor in Užice requesting a booking for a room for the night. I had found a reference to this hotel on a website and was determined to spend at least one night there. I never had a response, so by the time I arrived at dusk in this town of about 60,000, I sorted myself out with some other accommodation, which, being on the 7th floor, gave me nearly unrivalled views of the town. And the view included the fabulous Hotel Zlatibor.
Built in 1981, and designed by Svetlana Kana Radević, sadly or happily, this building no longer operates as a hotel in the generally accepted sense of the word. Some called this Montenegrin architect a designer of the Brutalist school. Locals apparently called the hotel a ‘ rocket ‘ due to its soaring and angular, ribbed appearance.
Fortunately, although I couldn’t rest my head there, the extremely helpful receptionist on the ground floor, when I walked into the foyer the next morning, showed me to the lift, and told me to press the button with the highest number on it. Slightly heart in mouth, I pressed the button with the number 14 on it and as the doors glided shut to hide her smiling, cheery face, I headed for the nose-cone of the ‘ rocket’.
The view from the top was superb, and for the next half hour, I slowly descended the stairs, marvelling at the unique details, of finish and design, and imagined the building in its heyday, with the surly staff, taking their time to deliver the morning breakfasts to the guests in the cantilevered and jutting dining areas and balconies, dusting the gritty exposed concrete sections, or cleaning and polishing the extraordinary chromium-plated light fittings.
In my wonderfully welcoming lodgings, there’s a bottle of clear liquid on the kitchen worktop. And somehow inside it, someone has managed to construct a cross. Not being an alcohol drinker, I am however interested in this evidently local custom. I gather from my host that the cross is made of oak, and it ‘ oak ages ‘ the brandy. It is indeed pretty strong, but I cannot comment on whether the brandy is better with it or without it.
As a non-drinker, I am finding it impossible to buy alcohol-free beer on this trip. I am obliged to buy the odd bottle of real as opposed to ‘ pointless ‘ beer, with interesting labels, and spend time reading Misha Glenny’s excellent book.
I am laden with gifts of pears, and plums, as I ride out of Višegrad after my second night there. It is a climb up from the River Drina towards the border with Serbia at Kotroman. On my way through the meandering valley, I pass an Orthodox monastery, and very shortly after, a mosque. I’m only a few miles from the border, and I decide to ride off the road, and have a look at the monastery. A coach is parked up outside. There is a big group of teenagers in the church, being shown around by an adult. The buildings and grounds are so well maintained, and this is a very striking aspect about all the places of worship I visit. There are some lovely and faded paintings on the internal walls of the church. This monastery is theDobrun Monastery. The facade is very brightly and highly decorated, but I prefer the interior, and its 14th century interior. I brace myself and join the group of teenagers, all sitting outside in the warm sun. I’m curious that a group of 30 or so teenagers are keen to give up their day during their school holidays to go and visit religious buildings. A couple of them speak a little English, and after their initlal embarrassment and giggling, I have a short conversation with them. In answer to my question about what the site means to them, the answer is,” its very old “.
There is a strange and confusing moment at the border crossing. As I approach what appears to be the border, on my left there is an interesting collection of buildings and what appear to be earth-bermed bunkers. There is also a sign indicating that there is a memorial up on the hill to my left, and there are some old railway sidings and some semi-abandoned sheds. There’s even an old rail carriage. But there is a high chain-link fence, preventing me from accessing it all. The confusion ends when I realise that to investigate this intriguing bit of history, I have to go through the EXIT check-point of Bosnia & Hercegovina, and then turn immediately and sharply left, effectively in a kind of no-man’s land, and then I’m let loose. I’m not entirely sure where I am – having exited Bosnia & Hercegovina but not entered Serbia. Up a very steep little-used track is a memorial and chapel to 440 fighters killed in the First World War. I can imagine this steep and narrow defile would have been the scene of a bloody confrontation. And then I cycle back down to the road, and onto the Serbia ENTRY check-point. One of the wonderful aspects of travelling across borders on a bicycle is the ease with which you pass through these crossings. It is pretty universally accepted that cyclists just coast up to the front of any queue, get their documents inspected and stamped, and are happily welcomed through and into the next country. The border guards always seem to exhibit a cheerful curiosity, and ask about where you’ve come from and how far you’re going. They’re usually very encouraging. And so onto Serbia.
The next day its a cycle along the Drina River, heading north-east. At first, its pretty easy going, along a very tranquil old road on the east bank of the river. The river is wide, slow moving and green, and it cuts through the landscape, forming a gorge, the steep sides forested right down to the water’s edge. Trees are just beginning to turn the light brown colour of autumn; they are oaks, pines, birches.
On the opposite side of the river I can see a lot of traffic, busy darting into and out of tunnels, and I’m glad I’m not having to risk my life in them. My pet hate on a bike is going through tunnels. On busy and fast-moving roads, where there is only one lane in each direction, I am aware of vehicles not seeing me from behind until they’re quite close to me, however bright and wildly flashing my rear light is. My Edelux, front-hub driven front light is very intense, but that doesn’t really protect me from the drivers behind me. It does possibly prevent those occasionally mad drivers coming towards me, from overtaking as they enter the tunnels.
My strategy is to cycle towards the next tunnel, and then look behind me. I check the sign that names the tunnel, and also that usually indicates how long it is. I stop on the side of the road if there are any vehicles approaching from behind. As soon as there’s a lull, I get going, and ride like hell, as quickly as I can go; and hopefully reach daylight at the other end, before I have to contend with vehicles moving either in my direction, or heading towards me.
The worst vehicles are articulated lorries, and I recognise that my presence as a cyclist is a real nuisance to their drivers. They are like super-tankers at sea; they do not operate on the same set of parameters as cyclists do, and when I think about, I conclude that the two vehicle types really shouldn’t be mixing on the same roads.
And its pretty rare in my experience, for the needs of cyclists ( or pedestrians for that matter ) to be considered in the design of tunnels in pretty well any part of the world. I have travelled with a friend in a tunnel in Montenegro. It was fairly newly built, and it did very helpfully have narrow pavements on either side of the two-lane carriageway. But that’s about as far as it went, because in the unlit tunnel, it was impossible to see the inspection covers at 25 metre spacings, along the pavement, which were cast blocks of concrete, raised some 100 milimetres above the level of the pavement. In addition there were lifting handles, consisting of bent reinforcing bar pieces cast into the concrete and projecting a further 100 milimetres above these covers. As if that wasn’t enough, the designers had placed the advisory speed-limit signs at regular intervals, at just the right height for an unaware cyclist to bash the forehead into them. And indeed that is what happened, breaking my friend’s cycle helmet. I always offer up a little vote of thanks to all the drivers who did not hit me, and who were patient, when I come to the end of a rash of tunnels.
Višegrad lies in eastern Republika Srpska, close to the border with Serbia. It was a much contested area during the Bosnian War in 1992. As I got closer to the town, I was forced to cross the river from my quiet old road, and travel on the busy road, with all its tunnels. I hadn’t realised that I was travelling towards the scene of such past horrors.
As I approached the town, and negotiated the tunnels, I became aware of floating objects in the quiet, and slow-moving waters. Rounding the next bend, I realised what it was.
There is a hydro-electric plant just upstream from the town, and its clearly important to prevent the discarded plastic waste from entering the turbines. In 1992, there was an altogether much more hideous ‘ waste ‘ that had to be prevented from entering the turbines.
Some 3,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in and around the town I was about to enter. Their bodies were thrown into the river, by the hundred, in “one of the most comprehensive and ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian conflict” , by local Serbs, the police and paramilitary forces. I enter the town by crossing the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge.
Its a warm, late summer, Sunday afternoon, and I join the tourists, by the coach load, who have come to enjoy the quiet town, its numerous cafes, and to saunter across this bridge, built in 1577, and named after the Ottoman Grand Vizier.
I wonder how many of the visitors know that only twenty six years previously, Bosniak men, women and children, were dragged to this ancient bridge, summarily shot, and their bodies thrown into the river. As I cycle through the town, on the way to my place for the next two nights, I am cycling from the scene of one massacre to another; where scores of women and children were locked into a room and burnt alive or past a house where young girls were systematically brutalised and raped, and in writing this, and discovering this after I’ve visited, I’m left feeling guilty of ignorance, and even a sense of complicity. Muslims and their places of worship were systematically eliminated from this town by the most barbaric methods. And Serbians have made it theirs.
In 2011, the building of the new town of Andrićgrad was commenced. Built to memorialise the Yugoslav novelist and Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, the creation of the complex including a cinema, theatre, marina, gymnasium, craft workshops, hotels, sports facilities, a new building for the Visegrad municipality, galleries, and a new church, seems to me to be a final insult designed to stamp the authority of the Serbs, on a town that had previously contained a diverse ethnic and religious diversity. The Serbs were successful in driving out the Bosniaks, and now all that remains is to drive out their religion and culture and drown it out with their one-sided version.
Its new, ridiculously pastiche, stone buildings and streets, obliterate physically at least, the site of the slaughter that took place here, and replace it with a gaudy sham. Where Bosniaks were murdered, and their ghosts lie beneath the tourists feet, will soon walk and play visitors. Where coffee and ice-cream is consumed, and where pleasure cruise boats ply their trade, will be concealed the bodies of hundreds of innocents.
I’m left asking the perennial question about the meaning of religion; if it allows itself to be employed as a device to exonerate the perpetrators of vile acts, and not to protest loudly when it is coopted into the project to reinforce division; what is its place?
From the battlefield of the Second World War and scene of the bravery of the Yugoslav army as they resisted the onslaught of the Axis powers; I rode up and out of the valley, and followed the course of the Drina River; and onwards towards the town of Foča.
Along the Drina river
Foča, on the Drina River
Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY
A modern-day spomenik? Memorial to the Foča massacres; victims of utter barbarism
As I rode, on my bike, through this tranquil valley, crossed and re-crossed the river on semi-derelict or new footbridges, and meandered along the quiet bucolic narrow riverside dirt tracks, I was travelling from the Sutjeska battlefield of 1943 through the scene of the horrors of a more recent past.
During the period from April 1992 till January 1994, the madness and true barbarity of the Serbian military and paramilitary forces was unleashed upon the Bosniak population of this valley; especially the women and girls, and to a lesser extent, boys, in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing, by the systematic use of rape.
Bosniak women and girls were held captive, in houses and detention centres, where they were repeatedly visited by Serbian military and police forces, and raped repeatedly. Some of the girls were as young as 14. That the Serbian forces of law and order were actively involved in these atrocities is beyond my comprehension. This was the most shocking example of the use of rape as a weapon of war; as an instrument of ethnic cleansing.
During this period, 13 mosques were destroyed, and virtually every Muslim was forced to flee. Since the war, a few have returned. The latest figures I can find are for 2013, and show that there were approximately 1300 Bosniaks and nearly 17,000 Serbs at that time.
The Dayton Accords, imperfect as they are, at least drew a tortuous line between the warring factions, and allowed a simmering peace to survive, and endure. My anxiety is that the peace is fragile, and that undercurrents still flow.
It takes the vile and devious motives of the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, to rattle the cages of rabid nationalists, to fabricate divisions and to foment hatred, and to further partisan political ambitions. I truly hope that the healing and reconciliation which so many ordinary people hope and pray for, will be allowed to endure.
It would be naive and ignorant of me to suggest that the former Republic Of Yugoslavia was a harmonious and unified state. It was far from it, and the sense of perceived inequities within Tito’s communist paradise, were amplified upon his demise, by those who harboured grievances.
However, the former unity that fought against the old tyranny of the Axis powers must be found again to fight the new tyranny of discrimination and internecine hatred. I hope it can be found.
In May 1943, during the Second World War, the Battle of Sutjeska took place in this nationally revered place. By all accounts, this was a most extraordinary, but phyrric victory for the Yugoslav Partizans, led by Josp Broz Tito. Axis forces totalling over 120,000 were held for some weeks by a force of a little over 20,000 partizan troops of the Yugoslav National Liberation Army. This stalemate ultimately contributed to enabling the Yugoslav forces to drive the Axis troops out of Eastern Bosnia.
I did not find out till I got home, that Richard Burton played the part of Tito, in the movie Sutjeska, made in 1973. I mean to watch it!
View from the balcony of the derelict hotel in the Park
The Hotel Sutjeska; seen better days
It is impossible to imagine what took place here; nearly 80 years ago, and how the sacrifices during those events have become a part of the national psyche. To understand what is taking place in the Balkans today, one has to understand the struggles which have gone on here for hundreds of years; and The Battle Of Sutjeska is one of the most important. I had ridden eastwards from Tebinje, and onto Gacko, still in Republika Srpska, before riding into the Sutjeska gorge, and then into the Sutjeska National Park on my way eastwards.
It was here that I first came across the astonishing phenomenon of the spomenik.
Tjentište Spomenik; Sutjeska Memorial
When I arrived in early September 2018, work was near completion to repair damage to the site around the massive concrete memorial, which had been erected in 1971. Unfortunately, in February 2018, a massive landslide had occurred which threatened the stability of the site surrounding the monument. I cycled up the muddy track to the west of the memorial and up onto the paved area between the magnificent concrete monoliths. They are truly wonderful! I was in awe of these symbolic and abstract sculptures.
Spomen Dom Museum
Also in the same valley; The Valley of Heroes, is the museum complex. Made almost entirely of concrete ( including the main doors ) , its design borrows from the classic wooden shingle roof typical of mountain woodland cabins.
Unfortunately, the Museum was not accessible. Because as this blog shows; the interior is a glorious and graphic depiction of the events being commemorated.
This site in this beautiful valley, was my introduction to the spomenik(s) of Yugoslavia. The wonderful resource that Donald Niebyl has compiled, together with his beautiful and concise and informative recent book, The Spomenik Database, has opened up to me a fascinating exploration of these extraordinary memorials; together with their distant and recent historical connections.
It was while I was visiting the very interesting Museum in the old town of Trebinje, trying yet again to grasp the history of Serbs in Eastern Hercegovina, that I received my first introduction to the cave olm, or proteus anguinus. Sometimes also known as the cave salamander, this extraordinary creature is supremely and specifically adapted to the environment in the caves in the Dinaric Alps.
It was my luck to be in town, and to be able to attend a presentation about the Proteus Project.
A committed group of volunteers, some of which were present at the Museum that evening, have done so much work to try and educate local people about the olm’s vulnerability and also the interconnectedness of its habitat and theirs. It has been hard work.
Why I titled this little section as I did, is because of what I see as the vital role of the olm, as an indicator of how well or badly we care for our environment.
To begin with, the range of temperature of the water that is required is very narrow – generally between 8 and 14 degrees Celsius. The alkalinity level is vital too, and these qualities of water – clarity, alkalinity, temperature and level of oxygenation – are specific features of the karst of this part of Europe, and hence the vital ingredients for the survival of the olm.
However, all kinds of pollution are increasingly challenging the quality of the water in these subterranean habitats. Agricultural runoff; be it pesticides and fertilisers, heavy metals, leachates from industrial processes, and from legal and illegal waste-tipping, are all extremely toxic to the cave olm.
The project volunteers have been working hard not only to educate local people about the value of maintaining the cleanliness of their environment for the value it gives to them, but also how safeguarding this rare, and iconic creature, can bring with it a sense of pride in the astonishingly beautiful landscape they share with it.
A small town of around 30,000, Trebinje has a lot to commend it.
It was a very hot day, and I walked up to the top of the prominent hill overlooking the town. At the summit, is the Gracanica Monanstery, completed in 2000. Its a Serbian Orthodox monastery, essentially a fairly faithful modern copy of a monastery of the same name in Kosovo.
As I’m a bit of an atheist, I always take a bit of an atheist’s view of religious buildings, but nevertheless admit to often being in awe of the beauty and splendour of the architecture, or the sheer weight of the presence of the ghosts of all the thousands or even millions of souls that have passed with reverence and religious devotion through the doors of these buildings. I have visited many, often seeking them out as places of quiet, for contemplation, or for refuge from a storm, or from the crowds. And I observe with interest, the trappings of the various theologies; the products of thousands of years in development. The site comprises a ‘ gift ‘ shop, and a restaurant and cafe, with a wonderful city wide vista across the river.
In Britain, the pace of building of new Christian churches is slow; it seems we have already got enough of them, and congregation numbers are falling. In fact, where I live in Wales, I know that a lot of churches and chapels are being sold, for conversion to dwellings, as the institutions are unable to afford the funds to maintain them, and there’s only so much public money to go round to maintain the architectural essence of the few more interesting examples. Mosques, in certain part of Britain, on the other hand, are being built, as the congregations seem be growing, albeit slowly.
In the countries of the Balkans, its a more complicated picture.
Romania has until recently had the fastest rate of construction of new churches in Europe; ten per week. ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23420668 ) and this for a country of not much more than 25 million, with under-resourced public services. Only very recently has the Romanian Government made the decision to withdraw from its major commitment to assisting in the church building programme. ( http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/romania-reduces-funding-for-churches-12-12-2015-1 )
The countries of the former Yugoslavia are also booming; if you are a builder who knows how to knock up a place of worship.
Gracanica Monastery, Trebinje
Gift shop, Gracanica Monastery, Trebinje
I suppose, that after nearly 50 years, from 1945 onwards, when virtually NO churches were built, it’s only natural that the faithful would want to assert their right to worship the religion of their choice, once the prohibition had ended, and I would be among the strongest supporters of that right. So, now its a busy time for church-builders.
I don’t know what the up to date situation is, but in 2014, researchers Milan Spasojević and Milica Milojević, wrote that in just the previous 15 years, over 200 Orthodox churches had been built, with another 100 in the final phase of construction, in Serbia alone. (http://www.ejournals.eu/pliki/art/3179/ ).
What is also an interesting observation, is that during the Bosnian War from 1991-5, ten of Trebinje’s mosques were completely destroyed, and that from a situation where 5,500 out of a population of 30,000 were self-declared Muslims in 1991, by 2013, only 1000 out of a similar total population, declared themselves to be Muslim. I am not sure how many new mosques, if any are being built, although I did see a beautifully restored little stone and timber one in the centre of the old town.
What this change implies, for the longer term, is beyond the scope of my understanding after a mere two days here. But it does seem that Christian Orthodoxy is in the ascendant at the moment, in this place at least.
Mosque in the Old Town, Trebinje
At the end of this very hot day, I went looking for a place to swim. I had seen on the town’s Tourist Information board, a map, with a municipal swimming pool clearly shown. A wide slow moving river – the Trebisnjica – must surely offer a wonderful swimming opportunity. And indeed it did!
This wasn’t to be the last such municipal swimming pool which I would encounter on my bike. Around a bend of the river, and upstream of the centre of the town, is a pool of several acres! A weir and sluice gates controls the inflow and outflow from and to the river, and a grating prevents anything other than water or small objects entering the pool. The water was deliciously warm, a little muddy, and the warning from a fellow-swimmer about the slimy concrete bottom to the pool, accurate.
Surrounded by a concrete apron, extensive shady lawns, changing booths, showers and enhanced by a diving platform, this place must surely be crowded with families during the school holidays and evenings. As it was, only a handful of swimmers and sun-bathers were here, and I enjoyed a solitary swim, with my eyes on the distant, sun parched karst horizon.