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.
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.
Properly speaking, its only a sunny and comfortable little uphill cycle ride from the park next to the market in Gruz; which is just along the coast to the north from Dubrovnik, and up into the interior of this incredibly narrow strip of Croatia, and then to Bosnia & Hercegovina. I’ve been looking forward to getting away from the coast, with the cruise ships, ice-cream sellers, sun-worshippers, and planeloads of inebriated British wedding party arrivals. I’ve been looking forward to getting the pedals turning on the hills, with the heat bouncing off the tarmac. But its a longer and more complicated journey.
Within less than 15km, I’ve climbed from sea level to just about 400 metres above it, and to the border crossing at Ivanica. At this point, to my surprise, is an apparently very sound track bed for a railway. This is the surviving evidence of the railway network that was built by the Austro-Hungarian empire towards the end of the nineteenth century; and which fell into disuse in the 1970’s. Now, parts of the network have been developed as part of the Ciro bicycle network.
Overlooking the rail-bed from Republika Srspka, to Dubrovnik and beyond
Mine presence warnings just off the roadway between Ivanica and Trebinje
Other roadside warnings; the current gastronomic fashion for ‘ pulled-pork ‘ comes to mind; and not in a good way.
Contrary to the signage, physical hazards along the way are few, but I’m trying to understand the complexities of the territories that I slowly move between and across.
I want to get this right; for one thing, for fear of offending someone for getting it wrong, but fundamentally, because I want to try and understand what has been happening and to be able to follow the course of events that will surely unfold here in time to come.
In the period since Yugoslavia came crashing apart after Tito’s death, one of the countries that came into being was Bosnia-Hercegovina . Its also sometimes known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, and in Bosnian or Serbian, Bosnia i Hercegovina. Its sometimes just called Bosnia, but people from the region known as Hercegovina quite rightly wouldn’t be entirely happy about that.
Bosnia i Hercegovina consists of the two autonomous entities – Republika Srpska and The Federation of Bosnia & Hercegovina. And if that’s complicated to comprehend, then Wikipedia notes the detail about the ethnic groups. There are three constituent nations…and they’re all given equal recognition by the country’s constitution; are Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, not necessarily in any particular order. This is just the little thread of this earth that I am spinning along, and there is this complexity, and these differences. As anywhere else in the world, but perhaps more exaggerated here than in most places, people and societies feel the need to differentiate themselves, to gather around totems, and to note and assert their viscerally felt differences.
The more recent that wars are, it seems the more keenly the need to do that is felt. From my peaceful and safe and unthreatened little corner of the world in Wales, I do not feel this need, but I can understand its origins. What worries me is the ability and ease with which those that want to keep sorting through the entrails to find some difference to highlight, and to rattle the nationalists’ cages about , and can raise the spectre of internecine warring again. I was struck by a footnote in the Wikipedia excerpt which I’ve referred to here.
It refers to the study which concludes ” A Y chromosomehaplogroups study published in 2005 found that “three main groups of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in spite of some quantitative differences, share a large fraction of the same ancient gene pool distinctive for the Balkan area” . ( (1) ) Differences are human-constructs; overlaid and highlighted for all manner of reasons.
By the time I arrive in the lovely town of Trebinje, still in Republika Srpska, I’m ready for a drink. The centre of Trebinje is a very genteel looking place. Tall, poplars and pines shade shiny limestone-paved squares and avenues and what seem to me to be an inordinate number of places to drink coffee and beer with friends. I join them, and then later walk along the river in the late evening sun. I visit the bridge which this town is renowned for, and draws both tourists and religious pilgrims to.
The wonderful thing about travelling by bike is the pace; I notice so much more than if I am in a car….I’m barely off the little ferry from Zaton, arriving in Gruz port, where so much destruction took place in the early 1990’s, and I get my first puncture. Oh well, easily sorted. It gives me the opportunity to visit the market to buy a bit of fresh fruit. And then I bump into Dom!
He is standing near these interestingly shabby doors near the market, and I quiz him about the building I can just see through the door if I push it a little bit! ” Come in, and I’ll show you around “, Dom says as he pushes the door wide open, with authority.
A big, delightfully overgrown garden, with semi-neglected vines, fig-trees, a vegetable patch, and shade from the midday sun lies behind the doors. And surrounded by the garden…a big house, a private chapel and beautifully mysterious, dark and half-revealed interiors, wooden panelled and furnished, of staircases, high ceilings, becomes the absorbing physical setting, for the next two hours, as Dom shows me round, making as he does so, a valiant attempt to relate the history of the Balkans to me…..dating back to the 8th century…..
Italianate….is probably not the correct adjective, given the date of all this…and the fact that Italy didn’t exist as we know it until the nineteenth century, but that regional architectural influence is clear all down and up the Dalmatian coast.
Two hours later, I’m a little the wiser, and Dom certainly holds strong and informed views about the course of events over the previous centuries in the Balkans! Just then, as we begin to explore the possibility of letting ourselves into the building itself to explore it a little further, a man lets himself in through the garden gate. Its immediately very evident from the tiny amount of language exchanged between the two men, that I can comprehend, and the body language, that we are not welcome…and Dom’s evident authority as a tour guide suddenly evaporates, as we are summarily ushered out into the busy road. Its been a verdant haven, and an elementary lesson in Balkan politics.
Territories in former Yugoslavia as at 1995
The situation is so dynamic in this part of the world; this is then….how is it now? What’s changed since this map….well, Kosovo and Makedonia are two examples…as I’ll discover as I head over into Republika Srpska, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece over the next month.
Looking south-east to Montenegro
Standing high up and inland from the Old City of Dubrovnik, I can see for miles, into Montenegro, into the magical and mysterious Durmitor mountains, where I’ll be heading. This vantage point was the focus of a vicious armed conflict, and its obvious why.
View of Dubrovnik from The Homeland War Museum
And all the while, there is a constant reminder of the loss of life…
War Photo Ltd; exhibition. 600 coffins of victims of Srebenica massacre await burial; original photo by Tarik Samarah.
Well, I’m heading off now, and up and over the mountains to Republika Srpska.
Strava helpfully tells me I cycled over hill and dale and covered 1500 kilometres horizontally, and 16 kilometres vertically during the month September. I started in Dubrovnik, and headed over the first mountains and the border into Republika Srpska, and the town of Trebinje – with its leafy and genteel cafe-rich centre. And I ended at Thessaloniki, after traversing the hot, flat plains between Edessa and the port city in Northern Greece.
But first, Dubrovnik. I won’t dwell on the milling crowds, or the old city, or The Game Of Thrones, or the cruise ship terminal that the nearby port of Gruz is. I had visited Montenegro on my bike in 2017, and relished the high mountains, the Dinaric Alps, with its karst formations, and wanted to travel deeper into the republics of the former Yugoslavia, to try and begin to comprehend the incomprehensible ( to me ) connections between them.
Visiting the old city of Dubrovnik, trying to avoid the crowds, and the heat, I headed up one of the impossibly steep and narrow alleys, where diners seek shade at a narrow intimate table for two, and take refuge.