Tag Archives: travel

Trebinje, Republika Srpska, Eastern Hercegovina

A small town of around 30,000, Trebinje has a lot to commend it.


Trebinje 1

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. 

monasteryGracanica Monastery, Trebinje

monastery interiormonastery gift shopGift 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 1Mosque 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.

poolTrebinje lido.











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. 

Transhumance – by a cyclist

South Carpathians – the Transalpina route

I first visited Romania in October 1995. Between 1995 and 2000, I visited a further 2 times,  and had many Romanian friends visit my farm over the same period.

Although I haven’t visited Romania for over ten years, I have maintained contact with some of the members of the farming community in Valcea County, who had become friends during this series of reciprocal visits. 

As a hill sheep-farmer myself, I felt a strong affinity with the people I met in the villages and the nearby mountains, in the remote summer cabins and in the winter lowland pastures. I became particularly interested in the features of the seasonal movement of sheep to and from the mountains in the spring and autumn. Remember that 1995 was prior to Romania’s entry into the European Union, and that the fall of Ceaucescu and the Communist regime was recent history – only 5 years previous. I became interested in discovering how the practice of transhumance had endured through all the turmoil and upheaval of not only the recent years, but also the centuries of change and geo-political evolution – through feudal systems, through collectivised and ‘systematised ‘ eras, and how it would now endure during the seemingly chaotic period of privatisation and transition to the ‘ free ‘ market.

I had visited the immense, derelict buildings on the north shore of the Danube river in the middle of winter, where the sheep were overwintered, whilst the shepherds lived in makeshift huts or caravans, awaiting spring and the long walk back to the uplands. I visited the high mountains in the summer, where the family members cooperated to gather firewood to keep fires going in the crude wooden cabins; both to keep warm and to make the cheese from ewes’ milk every day for five months. I spoke to the lonely shepherds, who, with their dogs, watched the flocks pick over the peaks and rocky outcrops at over 2000 metres above seal level, watchful for predators and the capricious storms of the Carpathians. And I met the shepherds, travelling with their donkeys, dogs and a sack of polenta meal, as they moved the flocks across the fields, along road verges and disused ground on their way to the next overnight resting place, and ultimately to the destination; often taking over a month to get there.

So, I’ve just returned from my first visit to Romania for 12 years. Much has changed. Romania gained accession to the European Union in 2007, but changes to agriculture brought about by this are necessarily slow and take time to take effect. But what about the transhumance? I was interested to discover how more recent changes had affected the practice. Travelling by bicycle allows a perfect balance of speed and accessibility when it comes to visiting both rural and urban environments. I cycled over the highest road in Romania – The Transalpina – and also rode around the wonderful towns of Sibiu, Sighisoara and Brasov.

But going back to my interest in transhumance; my conclusions are that it may only be a few years before the scenes which I visited 15 years ago, will become scenes of the past. Increased traffic on roads, EU inspired regulations in respect of animal welfare and hygiene, and the increasing urbanisation of Romania, and in particular, the increasing aspirations of the youth, will all combine to eliminate this historic feature of Romanian agriculture. How drastic must the changes have been in the last ten years, that a practice that has endured through centuries, should so rapidly become so unsustainable or unattractive for whatever reason?

The seasonal movement of sheep over long distances to the mountain pastures will continue, but will diminish, as the rural economy becomes more monetized, and the practices of barter, exchange and the consumption of the brinza ( un-cured cheese ) in the local community, lessens. 

The easier ( and quicker ) , movement of cattle from the nearby low-lying villages to the mountains will continue and increase, and the cheese will continue to be produced in a similar way for the time being. The sheep will be loaded onto road transport and the long distance movements accomplished in a day rather than weeks. The young shepherds will become livestock hauliers. Unless the cheese becomes a product which is ‘ marketed ‘ in the new ‘market-commodity ‘ world, then a significant element of the under-pinning of the system will be eroded.

As a consequence, I am certain that the skills which are attached to the maintenance of the tradition of long-distance overland movement of these ewe flocks, and the management associated with it, will not endure for much longer. I have seen many changes in Wales and sheep-farming here over the last 35 years, and there is a prosperity here now,  where life was much harder and poorer in many ways when I arrived. So, not all change is bad, if we can take part in it and manage it properly.