Category Archives: bicycle

Day off the bike; bus journey to Kadinjača

Its a rare day; in other words, one on which I travel by bus, and leave the Thorn bike  behind, safely chained to a bannister in my apartment block in downtown Uzice. Kadinjača is a village about 14 kilometres from Uzice, and I board a mini-bus, carrying another 6 passengers, in the efficiently organised central bus station, and enjoy the changing view through the window as it winds its way up the valley and out of the town, heading north-west. On the last bend before my stop, I see it.

I’ve become intrigued by the spomenik phenomen since visiting my first one a few days ago. The wonderful resource that is the Spomenikdatabase, has introduced me to these architectural memorials, mostly from the Yugoslavia-era period, although strictly speaking, the word is a general term meaning “memorial”.

It’s hard to convey the scale of these wonders! Walking amongst the white-painted concrete bulky forms, it is impossible not to be in awe of them, and also what they represent. This one was finished in 1979, and as described in Donald Niebyl’s comprehensive description, was erected to commemorate the Battle Of Kadinjaca of 1941.

The imagery of the principal element of the sculpture, symbolising the bursting of a shell through a defensive shield, and in doing so ripping open a body, and creating a messy and raw puncture wound, is an apt and graphic visual metaphor for the historical period, but also a more recent past.

My walk around the memorial complex, and amongst the rearing, oblique shards, with their vaguely humanistic forms, somehow seeming to be shooting up from deep-rooted corms, is a solitary one. But the nearby carpark and visitor centre complex, indicates that at times there are large numbers of visitors here; and especially on the 29th September, the date of the original ceremonial opening of the memorial.

I cross the road, and stand next to the empty bus-stop. It’s early afternoon, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, and I’m content with waiting for the bus…whenever it will arrive. On my trip up here, I had asked a fellow passenger when there might be a return bus back down to the town. She had shrugged her shoulders, and had said, ” I don’t know “.

The valley below the monument site is verdant, and in the immediate foreground there is a group of five or six people; some of them bent over, and others standing, and slowly moving forward over the freshly-dug brown earth. A small tractor is parked at a distance from them, and attached to the back of it, is what I instantly recognise as a potato-harvester.

When I had first seen one in operation, about 40 years previously, at the time I moved to Wales, I had thought it was some infernal, autonomous machine, with a mind of its own. The rapidly spinning cast iron wheel, with its several flailing arms, suspended above the ground, rolling inexorably to its destination on the spindly, iron-spoked wheels, seemed to inevitably be the harbinger of maimed and smashed limbs. But, firmly under the control of my Welsh farmer neighbour, by magic, the potatoes that had been swelling out of sight underground for several months, were efficiently and summarily wakened from their slumber and thrown into the air, to drop onto the ground, to await collection by the group of neighbours. I raise my hand, acknowledging the toil of those who work on the land.

A young man walked across the road to join me in the bus stop. He speaks English. He begins by looking angrily at his watch, and swearing about the bus being late. He has a lecture starting at his college in an hour, and he’s expecting the bus. It doesn’t come for well over an hour, which gives me time to ask about his life, his hopes, his attitudes.

His family live on a small holding in sight of the bus stop. They grow raspberries. Everybody grows raspberries. The local Mr Big buys all the raspberries, stores them, and markets them. The price Mr Big pays his parents this year is less than the previous year, and no one is making a proper living out of growing raspberries. Except, presumably, Mr Big. I ask the young man if any of the farmers have thought of forming a cooperative, and doing their own marketing and storing. He answers that there isn’t any government help to do that, and so the small farmers carry on as they are.


 He is getting angrier and angrier, as by now the lesson he is supposed to be in, must have long since begun. Between swearing episodes, he strides off up the road, checking his mobile phone and watch, aiming to see round the hairpin bend in the vain hope the bus is coming round the corner. Interspersed between the swearing episdoes, and the angry dashes up the road, we continue our conversation. I didn’t ask his name, nor his age, but tentatively quizzed him about the Serbia/Kosovo ‘ question ‘ .

There is an idea, being proposed by Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, that there should be some kind of land-swap, between their territories. 

Kosovo, which declared itself to be an autonomous state in 2008, abuts Serbia to the north. Serbia has never recognised Kosovo’s autonomy, and continues to claim its territory. Serbians are in the majority in three of Kosovo’s municipalities, notably in the north,  whilst Albanians are in the majority in much of the south. The town of Kosovska Mitrovica, in the north, and straddling the Drina River, is a focus for tension, which lingers on. The memory of the war of the late 1990’s is still a raw, open wound. It takes the presence of the KFOR, the NATO-led international peace-keeping force, to maintain stability and prevent the outbreak of skirmishes. The land-swap would possibly swap the mainly ethnic-Albanian Presovo Valley area of Serbia, with the northern region of Kosovo. The idea’s proponents suggest this as a way of resolving the inter-ethnic tension that pervades the two regions.

 My student friend is no more than eighteen, but has well-formed views. ” Kosovo is Serbian ‘ , he says, ” and must not be separate, or join the EU “. He didn’t have many good words to be said about President Vučić, and ” his cronies “. He said,  ” if it comes to it, I’ll take up arms “. 

The bus finally arrives, and we jump on, sit together, and make small talk, about the countryside as we pass through it. We soon return to the town, and he’s missed his lecture, and I’ve also missed the main lunch hour at the restaurants. But he insists on going out of his way to introduce me to his favoured diner. We say goodbye and he rushes away smiling into the crowd of his curious student colleagues.

Down near the river, his recommended eatery is a drab and dusty workaday place, with a few plates containing unidentifiable menu choices drying out on the plate-warming shelf. I check what is on show, and risk the fish-shaped object. It comes with a couple of accompaniments; big slabs of bleeding beetroots, the size of my palm, and some oily sauce. The plate-warmer is underperforming at this hour, so I struggle to be enthusiastic about the rather tepid and greasy meal. I pay and go, and then linger at a nearby cafe on the riverside, where I stop to take in a couple of extremely strong and good espresso coffees, in order to cut through the lingering after-taste of the fish lunch.

I walk along the river, upstream, to the municipal swimming area, just out of the town-centre. The temporary sluice-gates have been lowered, and the river flows in its normal course. This will be dammed up again next summer, and the huge pool will provide enjoyment for the town’s inhabitants and visitors for the summer months; water sports, races, school swimming, and even dining in floating restaurants.

The idea of the land-swap comes back into my head. It makes sense in some respects. Why persist in trying to keep the peace between fractious neighbours? If the majority in a region feel unable to accommodate a small number of neighbours with different beliefs and culture, then why not move the unwelcome minority to another region, to join their cultural ‘ family ‘ ; and ‘ exchange ‘ them for your own family members; drawing them back to the fold? The trouble is that this idea stems from the same strident nationalism that both Thaçi and Vučić, and others, espoused during the build-up to the war in 1998/9. It promotes the idea of ethnic purity as the solution to the region’s problems, instead of dialogue and compromise and diversity. It reinforces the divides, which all reasonable voices are trying to overcome. And should the idea be allowed to be implemented, it is also very likely that the calls for Serbian-majority parts of Bosnia & Hercegovina to join Serbia would get too loud to ignore. And it wouldn’t stop there. Surely the responsibility of leaders is to promote compromise and healing and co-habitation, rather than to dwell on the past, the divisions and differences. But how would I go about persuading my tardy student travelling companion of my argument?

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From Višegrad in Bosnia, to Užice in Serbia

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. 

Cross in a bottle of brandy….fuzziness brought about by strength of contents 
Local beer with a name to conjure with

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 the Dobrun 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 “. 

Dogs taking the sun in the monastery gardens

Church interior
Monastery gardens 
Emperor’s Mosque – near border crossing at Kotroman
Border crossing into Serbia, at Vardiste
The trains stands in the station
Welcome to Serbia

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.

Memorial at Vardista border control

Dubrovnik, Gruz, and a view of Montenegro

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!  

DOM - DUBROVNIK

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.

ITALIANATE GARDEN 1 - DUBROVNIK

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 GARDEN - DUBROVNIK

ITALIANATE GARDEN 1 - WATER

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

1995 - former Yugoslavia territories

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 

MONTENEGRO KEEP OUT.jpg

Look south 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

DUB

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.

COFFINS

Well, I’m heading off now, and up and over the mountains to Republika Srpska.

CYCLIST

 

 

September cycling in some Balkan countries – First stage : Dubrovnik

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Covadonga climb

Covadonga ascent

Covadonga ascent

It’s hard to describe the mixture of trepidation and exhilaration when approaching the base of a mountain like Covadonga on a bicycle, knowing you are going to have to keep going till the summit, not allowing yourself to entertain the thought that you will give up half way up, yet secretly harbouring that destructive thought.

Once you get going, however, all those feelings are replaced by the simple physical exertion. Although its only 1134m a.s.l., the road reaches a gradient of 15% over an 800m length towards the end of the climb. It was a beautiful day when I  went up, and well worth the effort to be able to descend without any effort whatsoever – just like being on a motorbike, but MUCH quieter and more enjoyable!