Category Archives: travel

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
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The road of many tunnels; Foča to Višegrad, heart of darkness.

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. 

Drina River 

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. 

Mosque

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. 


Plastic waste in the River Drina

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”[5] , by local Serbs, the police and paramilitary forces.  I enter the town by crossing the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge

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. 

Just one victim
Andrićgrad
Andrićgrad
Andrićgrad

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?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worth one’s salt…..

There are so many expressions using the word ‘ salt ‘ . And there are so many ways we harvest the stuff; mining rock-salt and evaporating sea-water, as examples.

But the salt-workers in the Afar region of Ethiopia, in the Danakil Depression,  work pretty hard to win their salary….( see what I did there? )

And I’m not sure whether the camels or the burros work harder than each other either. 

Danakil ¢

The salt-pan breakers come along with a kind of axe,  and break up the salt crust left from the evaporation of the shallow layer of water that briefly and seasonally exists over the flat, flat surface. 

Danakil 10

Then they use 4 long wooden poles, in pairs, to lever up the randomly shaped pieces of salt crust and leave them as dug. ( In the picture here, there are three workers….and a fair bit of laughter…)

Danakil 9

Then another guy shapes the random pieces into blocks – maybe 10 by 50 by 40 cm, and weighing about 5 kg.

Danakil 1

Then another worker comes and stacks the blocks into packs of  blocks and ties them up with rope. 

Danakil 2

Danakil 3

You can see the burros and the camels waiting in the glaring 35 degree sun-blasted plains, just dying to get the stacks of salt loaded onto them….the camels carry about 130 kg ( about 25 blocks ) and the burros about 6 blocks each.

Danakil 8

Danakil 6

Danakil 7

Danakil 11

And then the drovers and animals set off, travelling at night, and walk for days….up to 14 days in fact, to get to Mek’ele. A 5kg block doesn’t earn that much….about 2 US$, delivered.

Apart from the fact that the workers wear ‘ jellies ‘ ( plastic sandals ), dark glasses and gloves, and of course use mobile phones, I can’t see that a lot has changed here for centuries…..its always been hard work, in any case.