Balkans, November 2012
There was a Romanian philosopher in the 20th Century called Emil Cioran. He was a cheerful soul, writing predominately about existentialist, nihilist, and suicidal themes. But, in his 1960 work ‘Histoire et Utopie’ (‘History and Utopia’ – given his philosophical bent it seems natural that he chose to write in French for much of his life!), he said the following:
“Balkans — that taste for devastation, for internal clutter, for a universe like a brothel on fire… the last “primitives” in Europe.”
Being a Romanian exile, he might well have been biased … :p
It is true though that he may have had a point, at least with the first bit of his statement. A quote attributed to that great Prusso-German statesman Otto Von Bismarck in the 19th Century went “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”, which was proven several times after his death, but most notably following a minor diplomatic incident in the Summer of 1914 …
I’ve visited the Balkans twice before (1994 and 2000), technically to two different countries although the only places I’ve ever been are Belgrade and Novi Sad. My desire to visit every capital city in Europe would be much easier if people stopped creating new countries after I’d been there! This visit coincided with the 100 year anniversary of the 1st Balkan War, an important but oft-ignored/remembered conflict that set the scene for World War One, but to be absolutely honest, every year’s probably an important anniversary for some battle or conflict in the area!
The Balkans are a reasonably big area with slow public transportation, hence why this is “Part One” – at some point in the next few years I’ll do the South and South-Eastern part of the Balkans (places like Albania, Montenegro, and FYROM)!
|Day 1 : On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend …?|
Day 1: Wednesday 7 November –
On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend … ?
I always seem to start my holidays in somewhere unlikely. Previously it’s been Sheffield and London. This time, however, it was Peterborough! There’s something about my holidays that always seems to require an early start on the day. Maybe it’s because I’m quite often heading East, and Eastward-bound things tend to be early starts. Look, I don’t know; I’m merely musing!
Anyhoo. Today (with a small amount of yesterday, to be fair) has been mostly about travelling, and, due to the nature of my job (re: I’m a geek!), I’ve been contemplating the Customer Experience aspect of it all. It’s not looking good, to be honest. On them, not on me – mind you not much ever looks good on me. That’s why I never wear shorts. But I digress.
The first issue I had was with the hotel in Peterborough last night. A couple of days after I booked it, I had quite a curt e-mail from the owner informing me that check-in closed at 8pm, and this was an absolute cut-off time. I replied back saying my train was due to arrive around 7.35pm and that I shouldn’t have any problems. He never responded.
Upon arriving at Nottingham railway station (which was a tad confusing as they’re rebuilding it so everything’s moved around), I noticed my train was running about 11 minutes late. Not a problem. Except that it eventually left the station around 16 minutes late and went very slowly en route as we were stuck behind a slower train all the way to Grantham. So, naturally, I called up chap at guesthouse to say I was possibly going to be about 5 minutes late. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like that one bit, basically saying that the cut-off time was 8pm and that it was my fault for catching that train and that all this was written down in the T&Cs. He said that just this once he’d leave it open to 8.10pm, but absolutely no later. He was quite rude and objectionable, a little patronising. I didn’t shout at him or anything like that despite the fact he was frustrating me, you may be pleased to know.
We arrived in Grantham about 29 minutes late (this had all apparently been due to ‘passenger disturbance’ earlier on the journey in Sheffield). I did the only thing I could do under the circumstances, and called up LateRooms, spoke to a very very nice and friendly customer advisor (called Imran), who booked me into the cheap-and-nasty ex-Formule1 hotel in Peterborough and cancelled my guesthouse reservation without incurring any fees. In the event I arrived into Peterborough about 8.05pm so could probably have made it to the original hotel, but feck that. He loses out on £27.50 and I get a relatively comfortable night in a functional hotel that actually wanted me (and whose receptionist was jolly friendly!).
Of course, the customer experience *of* the ex-Formule1 Hotel leaves a lot to be desired. It’s “functional”, by which I mean it has a bed, a heater, a sink in the room, and the whole place feels like it’s built of plastic and Formica, with primary-coloured signposts all over the corridors. The shower’s got a very short push-button activation, the toilets don’t have ‘seats’, etc … As a place to sleep, it works very well. But that’s all it does. But it’s cheap. Although not as cheap as the guesthouse with Mr Grump.
I haven’t even talked about today yet! As it wasn’t much more expensive, I’d booked a first-class ticket for the train from Peterborough to Stansted. However the tray-table wouldn’t stay up so it was in the way all the time, and the seat was a little cramped. (God it sounds like I’m whinging a lot today!). Cramped conditions continued on the plane to Trieste too. It being Ryanair, it was cheap and therefore popular. Perhaps unexpectedly, I’m not going to say anything bad about Ryanair today – they were perfectly nice and functional, and I had no need to poke any of their eyes out with a sharpened parsnip. For a change. However, they were oft walking around asking people if they wanted to purchase ‘priority boarding’ – something that as a 6’3″ single traveller, I never really saw the point of (I like the aisle seats, which are easier to get into when everyone else has already boarded).
Except today. There seemed to be 74328967349675934 people on the flight, and I was one of the very last people to board. However this meant the plane was absolutely packed to the rafters. The first seat I found was a window seat, empty because the two other people in that row seemed intent that they wanted the aisle and middle seat. This of course also being a Ryanair “Bus” meant that once I edged into the window seat in question, it was impossible for me to sit straight ahead. Cue not the most comfortable of 2 hour flights. The view was good though. Cloud has always interested me looking from above, since it always looks as though they’re blobs on a glass-topped table, under which the ground is. Plus we flew over the Alps, woah nice scenery.
Naturally the plane was late leaving, by about 45 minutes, so all my best-laid plans for travel from the airport came to naught. This is a bit of a shame, as I was vaguely interested in seeing the twin towns of Gorizia/Nova Gorica, and walking across the square that divides the two (and which, in the old days, had a dirty great big fence running through it, to separate Italy from Yugoslavia). However, I didn’t, as public transport from the Trieste Airport area to Gorizia is … ‘vague’, and onward travel to Ljubljana isn’t terribly regular either. So I went via Trieste.
I’ve done this journey once before, about 10 and a half years ago when I took a rather abortive tour around Italy. But I was a different person then and that wasn’t a terribly good time for me anyway. What’s quite interesting today though is that I have absolutely no memory of Trieste at all, not the airport, not the drive to the city, not the city itself. Nothing at all. (To be absolutely honest I have virtually no memory of that entire *trip*, and not due to substances either!). I will say though that the road into Trieste is quite pretty – on the left are cliff rocks quite high, on the right is the very blue sea, and in the distance in front are coastal villages and the town of Trieste seen along the curve of the coast. Very picturesque. Or would be if you could see it properly through the trees. Trieste itself, despite having been there now twice, isn’t a place I know a lot about. It’s a city that used to be in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Yugoslavia definitely had eyes on it for many a year in their early days. It also had a bit of a reputation for being a little ‘racist’, due to the proximity of several different countries/nationalities in the 70s and 80s.
The lasagne and the glass of house white wine from “Martin’s Bar”, a restaurant overlooking the square outside the bus station, were pretty nice (first time I’d had wine for actually several months!); the bus station itself is a bit cold and uninviting (actually it reminded me of a much smaller version of the old Digbeth Coach Station in Birmingham), but it was a pretty quiet and uneventful place. This being because my bus was 50 minutes late. You see there’s a kind of pattern developing here … the ladies at the station had told me when I bought my ticket (when I arrived, before I even went for food) that it was running late, “somewhere between 5 minutes and an hour”, but didn’t know any more than that. When it did arrive, it was quite, uhm ‘functional’ – it was warm and comfortable without being terribly pretty. It was a coach run by a bunch of Bulgarians whose routing started in Florence and ended in Sofia. Long trip! It was also about half-full, so grabbed a double seat of my own and settled back to watch the city lights go by. And coming out of Trieste we went uphill for about 15 minutes so it was a nice view looking back over the city!
Arrived in Ljubljana about 20 minutes late, so we made up some good time en route. First impressions of the city are that it’s small, quite pretty, peaceful, calming, safe, and romantic. But we’ll see. The backpacker hostel I’m staying in is called the ‘Sax Bar and Hostel’ – the corridors are lined with replica vinyl records of jazz classics and the rooms are named after jazz stars (I’m in the BB King room, whilst next door is the Miles Davis room). The bar onsite is cosy, and seemingly full of young-ish English-speaking backpacker/student types! Well, *something* today had to be worth a Promoter score!
Day 2: Thursday 8 November –
Laibach and think of Slovenia
Culture, Society, and Art in the 20th Century
Ahh, Laibach. But I’m not here referring to the Industrial/Experimental music group/culture who started in the late 80s/early 90s and who had a habit of producing very dark/bleak versions of classic rock tracks (check out their version of ‘The Final Countdown’ to see what I mean!) – even if they *are* touring in the area at the moment (I think they’re in Montenegro and Kosovo late next week, inconveniently, else I’d have popped over to see them). Rather, I’m referring to what they are named *after*, being the city of Ljubljana.
Laibach is the German name, as the whole area was for a reasonably long period of time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until its forcible demise following their atrocious performance in World War 1. Indeed one might almost argue that, from a Bosnian/Serbian point of view, the war and its outcome was actually A Good Thing, and the culmination of years of plotting. (The Balkans were caught between the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian one. Serbia had achieved independence by the start of WW1, but Bosnia hadn’t). (On a side note, it’s really quite interesting how war eventually came to be declared, and how the quest for Bosnian independence led to over 100,000 deaths at The Somme, on the other side of the continent. It all comes down to dominoes on the world power stage, and the rather bizarre change in British foreign policy to start backing the French instead of fighting them …). Bloody French, can be blamed for everything 😉
From a personal view, my first encounter with Laibach (the city!) came relatively speaking 100 years earlier; during ‘A’-level history we studied European history immediately following the Napoleonic War – to maintain a balance of power, the leading countries in Europe instigated a series of ‘Congresses’ to prevent any future war between them (in reality it was designed to prevent any one country getting too much power and influence and worked by diplomats pitting their rivals against each other). Four ‘congresses’ or ‘councils’ were called – the first being at Vienna but one of the others (I believe it was the third) was held at Laibach. The system quickly petered out due to, well, political intrigue and the fact the whole thing seemed rather pointless since no-one would really be held accountable for anything (the smaller states were vastly under-represented too, but since when has that been seen as a problem?!).
[As a side note, Britain’s view on Europe in the 19th Century was to ensure no country got too powerful. To that end, we fought with the French against the Russians, stayed neutral whilst the Germans fought the Austrians, then the French, then fought with the French and Russians against the Germans and Austrians. A bit like a wanton slut who doesn’t care who they spend the night with, as long as they get the best shag at the end. Woo, it’s like Ian Holloway teaches Politics!]
So, four paragraphs in and I haven’t even said what I did today yet!
The first thing to say about Ljubljana is that it’s a really nice city. It’s small, compact, quiet, and indeed quite safe – at least it certainly feels that way. But it definitely has a friendly charm and vibe. It actually reminds me a bit of somewhere like Bruges; it’s got a kind of laid-back feel, a little quirky but definitely understated. Except that it has nowhere near as many tourists. Maybe it’s a city yet to be discovered? Maybe it’s just that the beer and chocolate aren’t as good?! Or maybe it’s just that it’s less easy to get to? Or even that, er, not many people have ever heard of it! Even though it’s in the EU and uses the Euro, a fact that again, probably not a lot of people know. Maybe they just still associate it with being a ‘dodgy’ place on account of it being in what used to be Yugoslavia and therefore seen as ‘Eastern Europe’ (an inaccuracy too; it’s actually in Southern Europe, and in any case, Yugoslavia wasn’t in the Warsaw Pact.) – who knows! I’m not complaining – it’s not too expensive and not too crowded!
The “Museum of Contemporary History” goes into this in a bit of detail – it basically takes you on a tour of 20th Century Slovenia, from its position as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and drawn in into direct conflict in WW1 with Italy (who have always coveted it), then through its forcible union into the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes’ which later become Yugoslavia (after the monarch dissolved parliament because one of the Serbian deputies shot one of the Croat ones. You can’t ever imagine that in the UK, no matter how much Alex Salmond annoys David Cameron!), then through its virtual eradication in WW2 as Italy, Germany, and Hungary divided it up between them and tried to de-Slovenify it completely, through the dodgy years under Communism (the communist-led Partisans liberated it during WW2, and took over. Lots of people died in the immediate post-war aftermath), all the way to the declaration of Independence and Europeanism.
Obviously it was a little bit biased … Slovenia *might* suffer from ‘small dog syndrome’, in that being a small country, it has to try and prove itself to be a big player on the world stage. That said, the Independence war in 1991 was quite interesting. They had a referendum on independence, which was obviously approved by a large majority. They did some behind-the-scenes groundwork and preparation, and the day before Yugoslavia gave them an ultimatum over the issue, Slovenia unilaterally declared independence and declared war *first*. After 10 days of fighting, with 83 dead, a six-month plan for a peaceful resolution was agreed, not long after which, Croatia declared independence and everyone in the region completely ignored Slovenia. Which suited the Slovenes just fine; they went their merry way whilst ‘next door’ there was a 3-4 year bloodbath!
(As a side note, there have been more bizarre independences. Singapore, as far as I know, is the only country to have ever been forced unwillingly to become an independent state, having been kicked out of the Malaysia Confederation, whilst Belgium became independent after a drunken riot following a theatre production, which wasn’t fought against.)
The other relevant museum I visited was the ‘Ethnographic Museum’, which suffered from two problems. Firstly, being the last museum of the day, I was a little bit ‘over-informationed-out’. Secondly, much of the exhibits were only described in Slovenian (there was some generic overview in English but many of the items themselves were Slovene only, at least on the first floor I went to – a whole series of exhibits about the self; the individual in society, and what people do to both ‘belong’ and ‘differentiate’. So it talked about things like jewellery, the role of symbols like keys and doorways, and contrasting and comparing the way different cultures do the same thing. At least I assume that’s what it was going on about. Of languages on my list to learn, generic ‘South Slav’ isn’t high on my list. Sorry Jelena! :p). (Ah hah, you thought I’d forgotten I’d started writing that in brackets, hadn’t you! Or maybe you had, and you’re now looking back to see where the opening bracket is!). So I passed through it somewhat quicker than people are really intended to, I guess. Although it had a world scope, the comparison point was frequently Slovenia, yes. There were also segments on ‘outsiders’, both Slovenians abroad and immigrants to Slovenia, and how society in general disapproves of people from without.
The other main floor was all about culture across the world, and there was a bit of meta-museumness about this: or, roughly, “we’re going to show you some stuff now, but be aware that museums generally put things in them that are ‘different’ to the society that the museum’s in, which over-emphasises these items and suggests that, for example, all pre-Columbian Caribbean cultures were headshrinkers. Who knows what today’s ‘normal’ items will be over-emphasised in the same way by future generations.” Yeh, that’s too deep for 5.30pm on a Thursday evening …!!
The last floors were temporary exhibits, one was a rather bizarre and out-of-place thing that seemed to involve things made out of plastics and detritus (including a couple of motorbikes), whilst the other was a series of ‘vox pops’ on posters; people from many different countries ‘abroad’ discussing life in Carpathia (Austrian region) and how they fitted in there. Again it emphasises the concept of ethnography and culture.
The other museums I visited were art galleries. Mainly, I have to admit, contemporary/modern art. The “Museum of Modern Art” was self-explanatory, and mainly concentrated on Slovenian artists of the 20th Century (there was a whole couple of rooms on the ‘degenerate art’ of Marco Pogacnik and the OHO movement, including their promoting of ‘lithopuncture’ – acupuncture of the Earth, to create random series of stone ‘columns’ driven into the ground. Like needles, yes. It’s all rather ‘new age’-y and … a little odd. My hippy subculture preferences don’t stretch to ramming menhirs into the ground and then hugging them. Just so’s you know. The other aspect of Modern Art present in the gallery was the odd series of, well, I’ll theoretically call them ‘paintings’, but calling something ‘Untitled’ and then making it look like nothing discernible is just pretentious head-up-arse pantyhose if you ask me (Tugo Susnik and Gustav Gnamus, today I’m looking at you. No stars, stay behind after class!).
The “International Centre of Graphic Arts” was similarly ‘contemporary’ but with an Arabic feel. At least most of this had a reason behind it, including the ‘inkless drawings’ of Taysir Batniji (a Palestinian – they were about his brother’s wedding, who later died in one of the Intifadas, so all quite symbolic), and Nazgol Ansarinia, who took the US’ “National Security Strategy Report’ and, uhm, sorted it into alphabetical order. By word. Keeping all punctuation (of the particular word), and all duplicates. And published it. His thought process was ‘there’s a lot of repetition in this report, let’s see exactly how much’. And there is. “terrorism” appears a lot, in many guises and capitalisations!
Apart from that, the other thing to note about Ljubljana is the numbers of cyclists!! They’re everywhere and they ride right at you, before moving out the way at the last minute. It’s a bit like playing Chicken. Or, technically I suppose, Frogger.
Foodwise, I’ve started to notice (and it happened in SE Asia too) that the more I do, and the more I physically move around, the less I eat. Today I only had one meal – granted it was a bit of a large one, from a place called Sestica – which cost around €22 for a two-course meal and a drink, which makes it marginally more expensive than Wetherspoons. I also grabbed some random pastry from a shop this evening that was open when I went past it. No idea what it was, though the nearest I can come to describe it would be like some kind of fruit turnover, where the fruit might have been fig. I dunno, I can’t read Slovenian! I have, however, been sipping on a Slovenian beer as I type this – ‘Union Beer’, 4.9%, quite lagery actually. In the background is some 60s music (slightly Jazzy rock, I’m thinking a similar style to ‘The Animals’), whilst everyone in the bar seems to be ignoring the fact that Maribor are playing Tottenham Hotspur in the football. One assumes therefore that Ljubljanans have little interest in the performance of other Slovenian football clubs …
Day 3: Friday 9 November –
Here be Dragons!
Okay, it took me until the very last tourist attraction of the day to figure out the connections, so here we go:
There is a ‘Dragon Bridge’ on the East side of the city centre; it’s called so because at the entrances and along the sides are sculptures of green dragons.
There is a recurring theme of motifs around the city of dragons; they appear in crests, on a couple of buildings, and, indeed, on postcards.
St George is one of the main venerated saints here.
It turns out (as I was reliably informed in a 12min film overview of the history of Ljubljana Castle, narrated by a fire-breathing Green Dragon – aficionados of early Dungeons & Dragons will of course note the discrepancy here, as it is widely known that Green Dragons breathe chlorine gas – apparently later editions retconned this into acid, but meh either way it’s not fire! – rather it is the Red Dragon who is the fire breather) that there are two myths with regards to very early history of the surrounding area. The first is that this is the place where St George killed the dragon. The second is that this was the place where Jason (of Argonauts fame – it’s unclear if by this point he’d embarked on a solo career) killed a dragon whilst fleeing from Colchis with the Golden Fleece.
[The dragon pointed out that neither of them can possibly be true. He claims to have fled from the large lake that existed in the area and hid in the mountains where he remains to this day. But since he doesn’t even know what he breathes, who can say how much of his account can be trusted!]
It was all change last night in the dorm. The three people who had shared with me on night one all fled very early in the morning, due to early buses/trains (two to Croatia, one to Munich), and nothing to do with my farting in bed or anything. They were replaced very very late (I was reading in bed at the time they arrived) by three Americans from the Minnesota/Wisconsin area, so they were positively bouncing with the hot weather here (it’s about 11 degrees C).
Yes, the weather. When I was plotting this trip, I wasn’t sure what to take in the way of clothes, primary regarding footwear. It was suggested that it being November, and Bosnia being mountainous, that I ought to prepare for frosty conditions. Given that I didn’t want to pack too much, I only took along the shoes I was wearing; quite thick walking shoes (not boots!).
Now, some of you might be aware I have been known to have a certain ‘hippy’ style – I was wearing sandals until the frost started to hit Nottinghamshire just as the clocks went back at the end of October. Therefore I’m not really liking closed shoes at the best of times. Now, I reach Slovenia and find that it’s several degrees warmer than the UK. And sunny. Bah. Coupled with which, Ljubljana’s a city where walking is the preferred mode of transport – well actually cycling seems to be, but either way … suffice to say I’m about ready to throw my bloody shoes off the top of the tower at Ljubljana Castle. Except then I’d have no shoes. And that would be awkward. Especially if it is frosty in Bosnia. Even my friend Bea in Sheffield wears socks in ice!
But I digress. Yes, I walked a bit today. Just outside the city centre there is a large area of hilly woodland called ‘Tivoli’. It seems to be popular with joggers and old people walking to keep active. It is exactly what a woodland country park looks like the world over, from Formby Nature Reserve to the Lickey Hills (I realise that’s not quite the world over, but it is if you start in Formby and head West (and very very slightly South)). It’s very quiet and peaceful there, and it’s hard to believe that the very centre of the city is maybe 20-30 minutes away by foot from the very heart of the park.
I ended up walking in it for maybe 2 and a half hours. Now, one of the day-trips one can do from Ljubljana is to the scenic area around Lake Bled, in the Julien Alps (the southern end of the Alps Mountain Range). It’s one of the most scenic bits of Slovenia. But I’ve decided not to go there tomorrow, partly because it’s in the mountains and therefore very cold, partly because it’s winter and therefore wouldn’t have much daylight time there, partly because I don’t have a map, and partly because I’m wearing the wrong shoes. But *mostly* because after today’s walking escapades, I’ve realised I’m not very fit at all and I’m knackered! So I’m going to Belgrade instead. And bugger Banja Luka too, at least this time!
The other thing I learned today is that, when it comes to visiting cities, I shouldn’t obsess so much about things like museums and art galleries, unless they’re about topics that interest me or topics that make me go ‘coo, I didn’t know that’. Granted it was free entry because I bought a 2-day Ljubljana card, but I was left distinctly underwhelmed by the National Gallery. Partly because about 40% of it had nothing in it! The spaces were there on the walls where the paintings would have been, and the descriptions were by the side of some of them, but … there was a distinct lack of art. I think they must be renovating or moving stuff around, but either way it was a considerable disappointment and a waste of the €7 I didn’t pay …
On a related note, in religious art, why does nobody ever *smile*? Every single religious painting or sculpture in that gallery showed someone with a frown or a surprised look. Oh wait, high Christian art tends to be Catholic in origin, and [stereotype] no Catholic ever smiles … [/stereotype] :p
Today’s food (courtesy of a restaurant called Sokol) was a mushroom soup contained within a bowl made of thick bread (a concept that exists across the world, except possibly in the UK. The last time I had it was at a RenFaire in Michigan), followed by ‘Kranjska’ sausage with sauerkraut. Both apparently Slovenian dishes. They sound Austrian, yes. And again, the people serving were dressed in what I presume to be Slovenian costume, but the frills and the shirt and the waistcoat just made them look, well, Germanic. Although saying so would probably get me deported – they’re not overly fond of Austria here, having spent most of the last 1,000 years under either an Austro-Hungarian or a German yoke. Except for the bits when they felt dominated by Serbia. See, I told you, small dog syndrome!
Today’s beer is called Laško Točeno, again it has a certain lager tint but it’s better to my palate than last night’s (it’s quite hoppy, but with a slight sweetness), I’m drinking it outside a pub called Bikofe (‘Buy Coffee’, see?!), which is described in Lonely Planet as ‘hipster’. There is a certain ‘alternative’ theme to the music, there is a Bob Dylan poster in the window, and when I passed it last night there were some early 20-something poet-looking types outside it smoking. Plus the chap who served me looks about 23 and had one of those artistic beards.
As I sit here in fact, as a parting note, I can see Ljubljana Castle off to my left all lit up with what you might call ‘mood lighting’. It was my final port of call for the day, having got there about 4pm. It’s not really a ‘castle’ as we might know it in the UK – historically it’s been a hospital, army garrison, royal residence, rebuilt at least twice … it’s now a small series of connected buildings (function rooms, mainly) surrounding a large courtyard where I arrived too late for a wine festival to celebrate St Martin’s Day. Had it been beer I might have been more upset by this. Apart from the film about the castle history mentioned earlier, it also had *another* history of Slovenia museum – although this one was more interactive and actually pretty cool, though I won’t bore you with the details since that’s the kind of thing really only I’m interested in – but also a tall watchtower, from where you can (after climbing a set of large metallic spiral stairs that’s quite dodgy in the dark) look out over the city. As I went to the history museum first, by the time I reached the top of the tower it was dusk/twilight, but it meant the views out over the city lights were quite impressive. And it being a clear evening, one could see for miles – quite spectacular. The only other two people up there at the same time were less interested in the view and more interested in each other’s mouths. Quite a good place for a snog though, I’d warrant!
Day 4: Saturday 10 November –
Ridin’ cross Pannonia on a bus with no name
Don’t get me wrong, I *like* travelling. Sometimes the fun is more in the getting there than in the arrival – with the possible exception of any flight on Ryanair. However, even I might find it hard to say something interesting about a 7 hour bus ride.
Of course I’ve had some longer journeys. I had two in China and one in Laos that all touched 10-11 hours. I’ve done overnights on Greyhound buses in the USA and Eurolines coaches in, well, Europe. Heck, I’ve even spent four *days* on a train – and not because I got stuck in snow somewhere outside Darlington – but in general they were interesting journeys in their own right, through spectacular scenery or amongst weird and interesting people. Today, on the other hand, was neither.
For a journey between two European capitals who used to be part of the same country, it wasn’t terribly popular – only about 11 or 12 people on a 40-seater coach. Now, there are two buses a day, and a couple of trains, but the trains take longer and are more expensive, so I’d imagine it’s just a general disinterest for people to do the journey any more, especially as there are places much closer that are just as easy to get to (one imagines routes from Slovenia to Austria being considerably more popular, for instance). As for the scenery … the route does rank alongside the A14 in England, and the Interstate through Ohio, as being amongst the least exciting – predominantly flat farmland with a handful of trees every so often. Occasionally there were small hills on the left. I’m not sure we hit a curve in the road until Serbia either! I did get halfway through ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson though …
These are the Pannonian Plains, a region that’s been inhabited since pre-Roman times. Fertile farming country, on the edge of the River Sava valley, that extends Northwards into Hungary. However, just because somewhere has been stable enough and productive enough to hold a base of population for millennia, it doesn’t make it terribly interesting. My Serbian friend Jelena pointed out that, not coincidentally, the region from Hungary down into Vojvodina has some of the highest suicide rates in Europe, although one imagines that would be through boredom rather than despair; Jelena has never been to Stoke-On-Trent.
I did realise en route this was the first time I’d left the EU overland since 1996 – most of my world travelling has started/ended by plane, or been contained entirely within Europe. Crossing the borders was relatively painless – the only time we had to leave the bus was the exit point of Slovenia. Entering Croatia, a guard just came on and glanced at everyone’s documentation; entering Serbia the driver took our passports and gave them to the border guard outside to be stamped. Entry/Exit stamps are quite boring, really, usually uniform shapes and fairly utilitarian – it’s the visas that are the stylish items.
One other point to note about the whole journey – including the stopover at a motorway service station, the journey through Croatia took a couple of minutes over four hours. Having now been to Belgium properly, this makes it (I believe) the shortest amount of time I’ve ever spent in any country! (That is if you don’t count airports. The shortest time I’ve ever spent at ground level in any country is the approximately 25 minutes I spent rushing from one gate to another in Zurich Airport last time I came to Belgrade, in 2000, where I reached the arrival gate 3 minutes before my connection was due to depart, only to find my connection had also been delayed – all due to air force manoeuvres over the Alps. I made my connection that day, my rucksack however did not. It’s amazing how often that happens to me. One might think it would be safer on a bus, but my experience in Glasgow once suggests that the only way to guarantee a rucksack arrives at the same time you do is to wear it!).
As a further side note, this is the third time I’ve been to Belgrade, and on all three occasions I’ve used a different mode of transport to get in and out. The first time, in ’94, I came in/out by train from/to Budapest. The second time, as described above, I flew. This time, it’s bus (I’m intending to leave by bus to Mostar in a couple of days. Or Sarajevo. I don’t know yet!!) – Jelena and I were discussing how I could come in next time. She suggested canal boat down the Danube, I thought I could try hitch-hiking with some dodgy Turkish truck driver. And this it turns out would be quite convenient and easy – at the second stop at a service station just over the Serbian border there were at least eight Turkish-registered lorries parked up. I’m not going to ask what they’d want for payment … 😉
Today was another day with very little food. A ham/cheese crepe was eaten for breakfast, and then I didn’t eat at all until reaching Jelena’s flat where her parents had cooked up some nice pastry-thing with (predominantly) eggs and feta cheese, whose name she did tell me but I don’t remember cos it’s late and she’s gone to bed and I have the memory of a broken colander.
Ah yes, memories. I’ve been here twice, but I have virtually no memory of either trip. What makes this all the more confusing is that neither does she! There are pictures of my last visit, but neither of us can remember anything about what we did – almost as if some kind of alien being has gone into our minds and removed our entire memories. Even the flat itself is completely unfamiliar, even though I spent presumably 5 nights in it last time. Neither of us can even remember where I slept! It’s all very peculiar!
Having issue with their Internet. This may prove awkward …
Day 5: Sunday 11 November –
A walk in the White City
Today was very much a ‘left to my own devices’ day, as Jelena had to do work (she works from home as a translator of documents). This is probably just as well given that she wouldn’t have been able to keep up with me. That said, of course, had I been with her rather than on my own, we’d have gone everywhere by bus anyway … swings and roundabouts, as they say. Although not literally; I did see signposts to a fairground actually but that was as close as I got.
There were unexpected problems with her Wi-Fi, which is why yesterday’s entry was posted rather later than anticipated. The wireless router works, but it doesn’t connect to the Internet. Yes, we have rebooted it. Twice. I suspect it’s a dodgy cable connecting it to the modem (as when I ethernetted (yay, I invented a new word!) my machine in to the same cable, it didn’t work either). It’s not a big issue, it just means I have to connect with cable in Jelena’s room rather than having the free run of her flat.
So, it being a Sunday but also a reasonably pleasant day, I decided to go for a walk, to explore this city that my memory claims I’ve never been to, despite physical evidence to the contrary [interestingly, at no point on my walk did I think anything at all looked familiar. Did I go through 9 or 10 days with my eyes closed?!?!]. She lives about 2-3 miles out of the city centre, on the other side of the Sava River, in the suburb of Novi Beograd (there are more ‘Novi x’ towns and suburbs in the ex-Yugoslavia than there are ‘x Woodhouse’ in Nottinghamshire!). It’s not the world’s prettiest area, but ex-communist suburbia rarely is … there’s a lot of apartment buildings, yes!
Much of Novi Beograd appears to be a commercial district, by which I mean ‘business park’ – I walked much of the length of a long straight road with big commercial buildings either side. Perfectly safe, just, well, dull. A lot of the roads round here, business park or not, are quite wide – more like stereotypical boulevards than roads in fact. One of them, in the centre of Beograd itself, has trams running in the central reservation area. This confused me as I crossed half the road and waited in the middle, only to be nearly hit by an oncoming tram…
Ah, that reminds me. In some states of the USA they have this ‘turn right on red’ rule, which confuses, well, almost everyone, especially those from out-of-state. In ex-Yugoslavia they seem to have a ‘turn right on x’ rule, where ‘x’ seems to be ‘whenever you can go straight on’. This only becomes apparent when the pedestrian crossing on the road to their right has the ‘green man’, and so you cross it, narrowly avoiding the car turning right into your path …
While I think of it, I need to clarify the name of the city. In the Slavic languages, the name of the city is ‘Beograd’, regardless of whether you use the Cyrillic or Latin alphabets (for those wanting to be absolutely pedantic, obviously in the Cyrillic alphabet they wouldn’t write ‘Beograd’, but the notebook I’m using can barely use Latin letters so I’m not going to re-transliterate it … !), and the name means ‘White City’ – apparently there was a fort near where the Sava meets the Danube that was built out of white stone, and the settlement that grew up around it was named after the fort. I’m not sure why the English-speaking world uses the name ‘Belgrade’; ‘Beograd’ is easy enough to say, and there are many other towns across the Slavic world that have ‘grad’ in their names that are in common use in the West – St Petersburg was never called ‘Leninsgrade’, after all … !!
On the Northern edge of Novi Beograd is a large parkland, which runs along the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. It’s a typical city parkland, with childrens’ play areas, footpaths/cyclepaths full of joggers, free water dispensers that don’t work, but also with hostels and small art places on the riverbank itself. Quite a nice location actually. At the end of the park, near the Sava River, is a plantation of trees. The interesting thing about them is that they have all been planted by visiting politicians and dignitaries from around the world, who have planted a tree ‘in friendship’. Next to each tree is a small stone marker, engraved with the name of the planter, the country they represent, and the year. I did manage to find the one planted by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 … many of the trees were planted by other leaders from the ‘non-aligned nations’ – some of them seem to have disappeared (eg Mali, there was a plaque but no tree!).
[Clarification note: The ‘non-aligned nations’ were those countries who, during the Cold War, chose not to align with either the USA nor the USSR. These countries tried to stay neutral, and deal with both sides equally, and avoid being influenced by either. Yugoslavia was one of the leading players in the non-aligned movement (indeed they originally created the concept); despite being ‘Communist’, they pulled out of/were kicked out of (depending on who you listen to) the Warsaw Pact quite early on as they never agreed to the concept of any one country dominating the ideology, which the USSR did. Another leading player was India, who were powerful enough to stand on their own anyway. Many African and Latin American countries were in the organisation too at some point (eg Peru, Ghana, Ecuador, Kenya), and some Asian countries too (the most notable being Indonesia). Since the end of the Cold War, they’ve kind of not really seen the point. It’s akin to a peacemaker stepping into a fight between two people, who then both bugger off – the peacemaker’s left in the middle going ‘er, what do I do now?!’]
See, educational, isn’t it, this travel diary malarkey!
I then walked across the Sava River, and headed into downtown Beograd. This was mainly driven by a search for drink, as I was feeling a bit dry, and eventually found some cola in a chippy somewhere just South of the centre. Much needed, as I’d neglected to leave the flat with any water. Careless. It’s not as if it was a terribly hot day, but all that walking does make you feel a bit thirsty. Cola’s obviously not the best thing to resolve it but it’s often easier to find than water!
It being Sunday, but more importantly, it being a Sunday before a national holiday, most of the interesting stuff was closed – you may be pleased to know therefore that today consisted of no museums. I’ve already written a history lesson anyway, and there’ll be another one coming up later, so get some matchsticks out to prop your eyes open with; it’s important in the context of why this area isn’t the most peaceful in the world!
It’s pretty peaceful now, especially at the Southern tip of my walk which took me to the Yugoslav History Museum and Tito Museum. Which was closed. As was the stadium of FK Partizan. And there was absolutely no-one about, so was quite quiet too. Even though the walk back also took me along some busy roads. I rested a couple of times in the many small parks and gardens that I passed en-route back to the city centre, in one of which I managed to snaffle some free Wi-Fi connection from someone who’d carelessly left theirs unlocked. It’s always worth checking these things, cos you never know when you might find it! It was a very weak signal, but it was enough to catch up on Twitter and check that, no, I hadn’t won the National Lottery!
As it got dark, I decided to head back to the flat. Went slightly the wrong way and ended up on the busy main shopping streets of the city centre, which was a nice detour though. After crossing the bridge again, I decided that I was too knackered and it was too dark for me to walk all the way back, so I caught the bus. Not something I would have done in the old days where I’d have been too self-insecure to do things like that in strange countries.
Ah, now, the other history lesson. Beograd’s got an interesting layout if you look at it on a map. The ‘old town’ is to the East of the Sava River, Novi Beograd to the West, and virtually nothing at all is North of the Danube. This makes the city centre also very much on the edge of both the city and the whole conurbation, which is unusual (many cities end on rivers, but there’s usually another city on the other side of it. The other side of the Danube from the city centre of Beograd is fields).
Beograd stands on the borders of several cultures and empires. The Danube was often the frontier of the Roman Empire. The Sava was often the boundary between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Given Beograd’s location at the centre of all this, it’s not really that surprising that the area has been in the midsts of a lot of conflict …
[As a side note, the River Sava itself is often seen as the Northern border of what is known as the ‘Balkan Peninsula’. The river rises on the Slovenian-Italian border, and flows past Zagreb in Croatia before flowing into the Danube here. As European rivers go, it’s a pretty significant one!]
Day 6: Monday 12 November –
Public Transport in a Socialist Utopia
There is one quite odd thing about buses in Beograd. There’s quite a wide-ranging service, and on the major lines they run fairly frequently until very late at night (ie, beyond 11pm). Methods of payment to use the buses can be one of several, but the most common seem to be small plastic/glorified cardboard cards that you can load up with money beforehand and swipe on the electronic reader machine at any of the bus entrances (yeh, Beograd buses have that continental style of several doors along the length of the bus that open automatically). From what I can gather, bus journeys cost the same regardless of length (72 Dinar, which works out at about 54 English Pence).
However, this is a nominal theoretical cost. Virtually nobody pays. I’ve been on several buses over the last couple of days and I haven’t seen one person use any of the ticketing machines. And, more interestingly, no-one ever seems to check! The vast majority of people using the buses here use them for free. Because they can. [On a side note, I’m always wondering how they would check the prepay cards anyway – you swipe them when you get on but not when you get off, so all swiping does is take money off the card, but only you know how much money was on the card when you topped up].
So yeh, free buses. Apparently they used to be free for real, back in the days of Socialism.
Today’s adventures however also saw the use of trains. These are generally regarded as slow, late, and cheap, so similar to British trains in two of the three. Jelena’s friend Vlada did say that he’d been told great things about the East Coast Main Line – it’s interesting to note of course that that’s currently the line being run by the government due to problems with the previous company who ran it (this is not the place to go into detail about the UK’s rail franchising system!) – who says Socialism doesn’t work?!
We were headed to the city of Novi Sad, probably Serbia’s second biggest city, and a journey of around 80km. This makes it comparable to, say, Nottingham to Birmingham. The journey took about an hour and a half one way – again, comparable. The price of the ticket was 410 Dinar return so … maybe not so comparable after all 😀
The train out was quite a wide carriage mainly filled with rows of two chairs opposite each other (no table) either side of an aisle, so similar to UK trains but with much more legroom. The journey back was one of those stereotypical European or Victorian-style UK trains with 6-seat ‘compartments’ off an aisle up the length of the carriage. Train was quite busy both ways; on the way back I ended up sitting opposite a grumpy young woman who I would have spent the whole journey lusting after, had I not been engaged in conversation with Jelena and her friend Maša.
Novi Sad (the name means ‘New plantation’ or ‘new fields’) stands upon the River Danube. In 1999, all the bridges were bombed by the USAF, but had been mostly rebuilt by March 2000, something that would never have happened in the UK (we’d have gone through 5 rounds of design applications before the whole rebuild would have collapsed due to some obscure planning legislation!). The name presumably comes from it being an expansion of the settlement on the other side of the river, surrounding the fortress of Petrovaradin, built upon a rocky outcrop with great views of the River (yay!) and the Pannonian Plain (not yay!).
When coming out of the railway station, the first impressions of the town are a bit stereotypical – wide roads, people wearing thick coats, and rather ugly concrete buildings. Add a bit of snow and it would have looked exactly like a communist metropolis somewhere in Siberia! More towards the city centre though the buildings liven up and the main square is surrounded by artistic architecture and a very nice church with a tall spire. Many of the signposts are in Serbian and English, as are the menus in some of the restaurants, which suggests that they expect a reasonable number of tourists …
To be fair, Novi Sad is apparently famous for a music festival – the EXIT festival, held in summer every year and often regarded as one of the best music festivals in Europe. Founded out of the student social protest movements in the late 1990s/early 2000s (cf Otpor for another aspect to this – I used to have an Otpor poster in my house!), it’s grown to be really well known and popular. Except that obviously, I’d never heard of it … 😀
The city centre has free wireless internet but even in the park we walked through for a bit, the signal was ‘weak, bordering on refusal’. Not that I have an Internet addiction, of course not, I just like to check to see if nobody wants to talk to me … 😀 We did find a pub with its own service (Pivnica Gusan – the Goose/Gander Brewery); this is where we ate and drank. Mmmm Serbian beer (Lav, Dark: hoppy, slightly roasted malts, watery rather than thick, quite traditional 70s beer in feel). Food involved something traditionally Serb-ish, ‘Karadjordjeva Šnicla’ – chicken and melted cheese inside breadcrumbs, about the length and shape of a sausage roll. Yumness!
We did wander up to the Petrovaradin fortress, primarily to take pictures of the view across the Sava. At the top of the hill there is an unusual clock that tells the right time, but in the wrong way (its big hand and little hand are reversed, so the big hand shows the hour and the little hand shows the minutes). Apparently this was done to make the clock easier to read from afar (since the hour is more important than the minute) so from a distance, it’s easier to see what hour’s being shown.
It might appear from the above that I didn’t do a lot today, except just wander around and take pictures and chat. And you’d be right! But it makes a change from spending my entire day in museums; plus of course actually being with locals is rewarding in itself. It’s a joy of travelling. Now all I have to do is to learn the language … 😉
The thought of going back home to a cold, empty, house in a backwater town doesn’t really thrill me in the slightest. My work colleagues themselves noticed a change in me when I came back from SE Asia – sort-of a good change (I looked ‘more radiant’), but also a change in attitude, almost more ‘distant’ in a way, coupled with more of an inclination to say how I really felt – it’s really hard to explain, but I know what they mean. More openly ‘direct’ (some might say ‘undiplomatic’!). I kind of feel more at home on the move than I do in one place; as long as I can have a place to rest and be myself in my own space, I feel I should be keeping moving. Is odd.
Jelena says that last time I came, I looked too thin and the fact that I’m now fat means that overall I look healthier, especially in my face. This is one step away from calling me ‘baby cheeks’ which is possibly justification for war. Everyone was also impressed by how much walking I did yesterday around Beograd – they wouldn’t have believed me had I not taken so many pictures from where I went; I took pics of places even *they* didn’t know much about! Coo …
Day 7: Tuesday 13 November –
Alone in the Dark, and all that jazz.
It’s quite impressive the number of Internet Wi-Fi places I can pick up just walking around the streets of Beograd, that are freely open and unprotected. This is quite useful when on the move, as you can well imagine. At one point today I even managed to connect to a University Wi-Fi connection! Not that many people tend to want to e-mail me on an average daily basis, but that’s not the point … What I do seem to be learning with all this though is that I don’t need to be connected to the Internet so much for so long, because, really, not a lot actually happens on a minute-by-minute basis! I turn my phone off at nights at home because at 4am there’s nothing I can do about things anyway, so maybe I should start to take the same attitude about e-mails and social network notifications. And maybe, just maybe, one day, I can stop being online for 7 hours a night at home, clicking ‘random article’ on Wikipedia, and actually do something productive! There again, airborne pigs.
This wandering randomly around Beograd occurred this evening; Jelena had to go to a ‘talk’ for an hour, so as we were in the city centre anyway, she left me to my own devices – ostensibly to find a bar but that didn’t happen (I did eventually find one but by that time I wouldn’t have had time to order and drink). But city streets in the evening are quite interesting places to be, to people-watch. At least it wasn’t raining. Earlier on, however … !
In the North of the city centre there’s a fortress and park called Kalemegdan. It’s one of the oldest still-surviving bits of Beograd and contains the walls of a fort, containing within it a large area of trees and greenery that you can walk though. Under normal circumstances, this is quite a pleasant and busy area as people in the city use it as a place to relax and get some fresh air; there are good views over the Danube and to the plains beyond. 5pm on a dark November evening, with persistent misty rain, is not one of those circumstances!
We virtually had the place to ourselves as we wandered through it. In such conditions, the lighting that illuminates the different parts of the fortress took on a more eerie look, especially as they lit up the rainfall and showed it falling in weird swirling motions due to the effect of the slight breeze. The eeriness was heightened by the distinct lack of other people – in the whole time we were there I think we saw maybe four or five other people, which is apparently very unusual. One could imagine that in some of the dark corners there were people maybe doing things that would be frowned upon …
Earlier in the day, I’d arranged my hostel accommodation in Sarajevo for the last two nights of my holiday – yep it’s nearly over already (it feels like I’ve hardly started!). In my original plan, I was due to come here on the Sunday and leave on the Wednesday evening – whereas in actuality I arrived on the Saturday and will have ended up with one extra day here rather than anywhere else. In a strange way I hope there isn’t that much to do/see in Sarajevo that I won’t feel I’ve missed out on anything!
The plan is to take an overnight bus tomorrow evening from Beograd to Mostar, in Bosnia. This will put me a little outside my comfort zone as, inconveniently and carelessly, I neglected to photograph a map of either Mostar or Sarajevo to take with me. It’s not so much that I’m a ‘control freak’, more that I crave knowledge and feel most comfortable when I “know” where I should be headed and what to see, etc.
After re-meeting up with Jelena again we headed back to the other side of the Sava River, but this time to the ‘riverside resort town’ of Zemun (near where she used to live in fact). Her friend Maša had told us about this old-fashioned restaurant/bar-type place where they played live jazz music on a Tuesday night; a place Jelena’d never heard of before, but which sounded interesting, so off we went.
It looked like a typical restaurant; long (relatively thin) seating area, with tables along the walls. Waiters serving tables. Food and drink menus. Standard stuff. Except that near the far end (very close to where Maša had reserved us a table), within the aisle of the restaurant (so not raised or anything), were a jazz band, with saxophonist, drummer, vocalist, etc. And every so often they’d launch into a number, whereupon a couple of diners would stand up and have a dance to it!
The clientele were generally older (at least in their 50s, some older), although there were a few people our age there. Quite a few of them were dressed up reasonably well. Evidently this was their ‘social occasion’, and it certainly showed that people were enjoying it. It was good music, good atmosphere, even if a tad surreal to be in a jazz club in Beograd … mind you last time I visited Jelena, she took me to the theatre to see a production about gay men. In Serbian. Next time, she suggested that we ought to do Opera-on-the-cheap!
An indoor smoking ban doesn’t seem to have reached Serbia yet, so many people there were smoking. It’s strange to realise now just how smoky and smelly your clothes get after being in such an environment! Although possibly not as smelly as some of my clothes will be after an overnight bus trip … 😀
Day 8: Wednesday 14 November –
Big Fish, Little Fish
As international borders go, the one between Serbia and Bosnia that I passed through around 2.30am wasn’t anything particularly special. An overhead rigging, with a cabin by the side of the road – the road at that point being a normal, standard, single carriageway with one lane in each direction. Quite possibly the smallest and least gregarious border I’ve passed through, in fact. Nothing more special than a place to get a couple of passport stamps and then move on.
Except that I didn’t – so I have an entry stamp for Serbia, but no corresponding exit stamp, and no entry stamp for Bosnia. Hopefully this shouldn’t cause me too much trouble going forward, it just might make for an interesting conversation if I enter Serbia again on this passport. Which would be Saturday then when I change planes at Belgrade airport. Presumably however, being in transit (as in the vast majority of countries in the world) doesn’t mean I enter the country – for some reason being in transit in the USA means you have to pass through immigration, which confused the border guard when I came back from Mexico as he wondered where ‘In Transit’ was when I put it on the ‘destination’ part of my entry form …
The other weird thing about this border though was the signposts between the two customs posts: “Goodbye from the Republic of Serbia” was closely followed by “Welcome to the Serbian Republic”! Such is the dual nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina – if you thought Belgium was weird with its two identities, Bosnia will knock your socks off (assuming you’re wearing socks, that is – normally I’m not)! [The two entities being a) The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and b) The Serbian Republic. They have different government structures, tourist agencies, bus companies … a few years back they had different currencies!]
But that’s all for another day. Let’s re-rewind (the crowd say “Do Vidjenja”). Today was mostly spent at the seaside. No, wait, that’s a lie. Today was mostly spent on the riverside, in a town that resembled a quiet seaside resort. These days it’s a satellite town of Beograd, but the town of Zemun has charms of its own. Quiet, peaceful, hilly cobbled streets, and churches that have been being renovated for several years … and good views over the Danube and out over the whole of Beograd itself.
[It’s actually where we went yesterday, to the jazz club place, but obviously things look much different in the daylight].
It has to be said that we didn’t do a lot in Zemun, except take full advantage of the cake shops! One of the local sweet delicacies that they have here is like a sundae bowl of crushed chestnuts, topped with cream, which is really nice tasting but just a little ‘dry’, as the chestnuts soak up all the water in your mouth. The other dessert I had, later on in the evening, was a baklava with plums. Baklava doesn’t normally come with plums, at least not in my experience, so this was a novel approach (and one that made it even sweeter than normal!). To be honest, with all these sweet things going round, it’s amazing how the Serbs aren’t an overweight nation!
It being the riverside, naturally there were fish. Obviously the Danube being the big river it is, it’s relatively unsurprising that many people attempt to make a living out of fishing in it (one assumes logically therefore that the river isn’t too polluted. It’s hard to tell!) – and indeed the area around Zemun is littered with fishing-type boats (even the houses halfway up the cobbled hills have the occasional boat in their front yards, although some of them they really are occasional boats; at other times they serve as a means to create rotting wood). At the end of one of the paths along the riverfront is a ‘fisherman’s club’ (just as we in Nottinghamshire might have Miners Welfare clubs or Working Mens’ clubs), which also has a restaurant open to the public. So the three of us (being me, Jelena, and Jelena’s friend Maša, who has been lurking around this travel diary for the last few days in fact!) popped in for a bite to eat!
What we got was a large bowl of fish soup to share between us. I couldn’t honestly tell you what sort of fish was in it – all I can say is that quite a lot *of* the fish was in it – but cooked very well and chopped very small so that even the bones and stuff was crunchy and edible. Interestingly, one of the condiments they served it with was chilli flakes, so that catered to my need for spices! They also bought for me, just for the taste, some Serbian plum brandy (šljivovica) to wash it down with – quite smooth but also a little smoky. Or maybe that was the atmosphere. Again, what smoking ban?!
It also turns out that neither of them had heard the traditional song from the NE of England, which seemed quite appropriate to mention. They were amused by my rendition of it – as anyone would be if they heard me sing. Or possibly offended, but then neither of them come from NE England so I felt perfectly safe:
“Dance to tha daddy, sing to tha mummy, dance to tha daddy, my little bear.
You shalt have a fishy, on a little dishy, you shalt have a fishy, when the boat gets in.
You shalt have a herring, on a little dishy, you shalt have a herring, when the boat gets in.”
Other versions exist, in NICAM stereo and subtitles where available on page 888.
Apart from that, the day wasn’t terribly eventful. The coach out of Belgrade was pretty packed to the rafters (a change from the ride from Ljubljana), but fortunately I’d managed to grab a double seat near the front. This was useful since I didn’t really have the legroom to sit comfortably and relaxed enough to doze just by sitting straight ahead so the ability to use the space to my left was useful! The first ‘pit stop’ after about 2 and a half hours of driving was a remote restaurant and bar whose toilets (in a cubicle outside) were almost countryside Chinese in quality and style (yep, holes in the floor, Oriental style, and very mucky. Fortunately I only needed a wee …).
Day 9: Thursday 15 November –
Wikitravel (a very useful site for backpackers, if some of the information is “dubious”) says that the journey from Mostar to Sarajevo goes through some nice scenery but it “is therefore more picturesque as well as cheaper to make this journey by train” rather than bus, to get the most of it. Owing to the infrequent nature of the trains, I did the journey by bus, and I have to say I seriously doubt the veracity of that statement. Not, you may be pleased to know, because it’s wrong, but because partly from the road we could see the railway line for much of the time, so they’re not that far apart, but mainly because you’d have to see something absolutely stunning from the train to match what we could see from the bus. I can honestly say it’s probably the most scenic road I’ve ever been down. A combination of high mountains, deep blue lakes, rivers, trees, and a sense of loneliness all coupled to make this a somewhat impressive journey. It’s also probably the only time I’ve been stuck behind a slow-moving lorry and haven’t wanted us to overtake it!
Oddly, most of the journey from Serbia had been like this. After crossing into Bosnia at stupid o’clock, even thought it was dark you could tell what the landscape was like just by the images of the rocks and the fact we kept climbing. However obviously it wasn’t until dawn came that we could see just how different Bosnia was to Serbia (at least the part of Serbia that I’d been awake for – namely the Pannonian Plain. South-Western Serbia is equally as pretty as Bosnia, but I generally didn’t see it!) – I woke up for a bit around 6.30am to be greeted by practically polished white rock formations on the right and, far below us on a plain, pure white houses. In the distance lay another ridge of mountains.
The two unfortunate things about this were that a) I was still dozing even until we reached close to Mostar, and b) technically speaking I was sitting on the wrong side of the bus. The way the road went up and down meant that most of the views lay on the left side and I was on the right. Even so, as I was sitting very near the front, I could see a long way – what made it all the more spectacular was that we had clear blue skies overhead so everything glimmered in the cool crisp Autumn sun.
At one point in the last hour of the journey, we wound up a very bendy, winding, road going up and down a sharp hill. It actually felt like something out of The Italian Job. Without the gold bars, obviously. Although you never know what kind of thing gets smuggled between Serbia and Bosnia. Not that I’m smuggling anything – 70 Serbian Dinar won’t get me very far (not quite as worthless as the 100 Riel note from Cambodia that I gave to Jelena as a souvenir though. When I first went to visit her in 1994 she gave me a 12 billion Dinar note from the days of Hyperinflation a couple of years earlier. Guess you could say we trade worthless currencies :D).
My first stop, in the morning sunshine, was the town of Mostar. It appears to be famous for two things; the old bridge, and for being near Međugorje, a Catholic pilgrimage site. No, I’d never heard of it either, but then I’m not a Catholic. However the lady in the shop I bought some postcards from near the Old Bridge said that, while most British tourists (like me) come either individually (like, er, me!) or in couples, the majority of tourists come in tour groups from places like Italy or Brazil, primarily to visit the pilgrimage site, and then pop by Mostar because it’s close by and is vaguely interesting!
She also said that she thought Bosnia-Herzegovina was missing a bit of a tourist trick by not really promoting itself particularly well. She said that Bosnia has the scenery, the food, the weather, some of the purest water in Europe, the sports facilities (well, skiing!), but that the government doesn’t seem to promote the country terribly well. And in a way she’s right, especially Mostar, for one simple reason.
Mostar itself lies in a plain surrounded by mountains. You can see the peaks rise in the distance between the buildings, or in the distance at the end of the roads. With the sun shining as it was today, it just felt like it was some remote Himalayan town – it actually was quite gorgeous! I mean yes, there are some buildings that are still, shall we say, ‘in need of repair’ after the wars in the 1990s, but for a relatively small town there’s an awful lot here – most of it is visual rather than educational but even so … there are mosques, churches, ornate buildings, bridges, even the graveyards have style. And it’s close enough to the mountains to be able to go hiking and look down.
I will talk more about the graveyards tomorrow…
Sarajevo … is not quite so blessed with charm and good looks. Or at least, not on the surface with initial impressions. However, it’s a much bigger city and therefore prone to variations on a theme of architecture. The SW approaches, from whence I arrived, are grey, grim, overgrown, and generally not much cop. However, once you start to get beyond the train and bus stations, it becomes much more like a city centre rather than the concrete suburbs. And then you hit Baščaršija – the ‘Old Town’. It actually means ‘Main Market’ in Turkish, and it’s a combination of pedestrianised shopping street and, well, souk. It’s actually more full of places to eat rather than anything else, although there are a couple of very ornate mosques in the vicinity.
As you can probably gather, the origins are Turkish, and there is still very much a Turkish bent to Sarajevo, and in fact to much of Bosnia in general. This is why my food today, whilst traditionally Bosnian, has sounded very definitely Turkish – ćevapčići (essentially a Slavic kebab, with small sausage-shaped pieces of meat, especially popular in Bosnia and Southern Serbia), and (h)urmašice (a very sweet pastry dessert). These two were my “breakfast” – I’d had a hot chocolate in Mostar by the old bridge in a café where the young woman who served me really liked my accent (!), but this food (around 3pm) was the first time I’d eaten all day. In fact the only reason I was even eating then was because I couldn’t get into my hostel. I also had a Doner Kebab in the evening. Because lots of places do it and it’s traditional. So there.
Ah yes, the hostel. When I’d booked it I’d said I would probably arrive around 6pm. This was based on catching the 3pm bus out of Mostar. In the event I caught the previous bus, at 11am, so I was in Sarajevo by around 1.40pm. I eventually reached the hostel at 3pm, partly because I walked from the bus station through the city centre – taking pictures of all and sundry – but also because of the other weird aspect to this part of the city centre, and related to the fact this is the oldest part of town (my hostel is actually mere meters away from Baščaršija): very few of the roads have road signs on them. This makes is almost impossible to know where anything is. The instructions said the hostel was only a few meters from the tram stop – what it didn’t say was in which direction the road was since it wasn’t labelled on any map and none of the roads around seemed to have any signs on them even if they were on the map! Anyhoo, when I got there, the hostel was shut.
It turns out he only opens the place when he knows people are going to arrive. Me being effectively 3 hours early fooled him. Fortunately he was amenable and said he’d be there in an hour – this gave me an hour to go find something to eat. Which I did. And we both arrived at the hostel more or less the same time!
It’s not a bad old place, not as homely as the one in Ljubljana, but again I’m in a room with three other beds. No other people – he said I was probably going to be on my own tonight. Not sure about tomorrow yet, but as I’m leaving at sparrow’s fart to catch a plane, I’m not that mythered. Oh, on that note, the bloke who runs the place (he’s a young guy, I’d guess late 20s but appearances can be deceptive. He also has a slight Arab look, and I mean North Africa rather than Middle East (and his accent does even slightly border on a French twang!), but I assume he’s Turkish) is going to arrange a car for me (he says taxi drivers overcharge), but he also confirmed that the airport itself only opens at 6am. Which makes having a flight at 6.20am somewhat bizarre! But there we go.
Part of the shower door is missing, and the hot water’s passable, but apart from that it seems pretty all right.
Am sure I will have a full today tomorrow, but I’m finishing early this evening because I’m still feeling knackered from the overnight bus ride. The things I do to save some dosh, eh?!
Bosnia uses the ‘(Bosnian Convertible) Mark’ as its official currency. However it’s fixed to the Euro at a rate of approx 1 Euro = 1.99 Mark (the shops generally work on a 1=2 rate), and I seem to be getting Euros in change whenever I pay for things so I haven’t managed to obtain many Marks yet!
Day 10: Friday 16 November –
The Ballad of August 1993 (and other stories)
So, let me take you back to the heady days of nearly 20 years ago. What were you up to? Most of my friends would have been babbling incoherently, crying a lot, and having bodily fluids being expelled from both ends. This is primarily because, apart from Jade (who was 3), most of them were at that age where they were just discovering alcohol.
I was having a casual time; I was in that loooong summer holiday period between finishing school and starting university. Conquering empires in Civilisation, taking Gateshead into the then-first division on an early football management simulation game, dancing barefoot and singing along to 10-year-old pop songs in the comfort of my own living room espied by no-one, and writing what I might later call ’emo’ poetry. I had my first kiss too, with my penpal from Wales called Louise, although unfortunately that kind of ended badly. But in general, life was peaceful and I was more concerned with the possibilities of my immediate future rather than anything deep and meaningful.
Others, however, were not so lucky.
Both in Mostar and here in Sarajavo, I’ve seen cemeteries full of people who died fighting in the Balkan Wars in the 90s. The one in Mostar seemed to have been filled specifically between July and September 1993, whilst the Sarajevo ones were more varied in scope. Mostly Bosniak (ie, Bosnian Muslim). I’m absolutely certain that similar graveyards exist for both Serbs and Croats, it’s just that I seem to have only found the Bosniak ones. The one in Sarajevo was quite large, and covered an area rising up a hill. Nearly all the gravestones were pillars/obelisks, in almost pure white marble. Cold.
Death is everywhere in Sarajevo. But we have to go back a bit further for the subject matter contained within the first of the two museums I went to today (look, sorry! But I *like* museums!). It has to be said I only went in this one to escape from the endless tour groups that kept getting in the way of both the pavement and my attempts at photography!! Bloody tourists!
This was the historical Sarajevo Museum (whose exact title seems to vary depending on which signpost you followed). It’s located pretty much on the exact spot of the most famous assassination in history, and predominantly concerns itself with life in Bosnia/Sarajevo between 1878 and 1914. So you get to see period clothing, furniture, medals and decorations of sports clubs, photographs, and city ordnances of the time, plus (I presume a replica of) Gavrillo Princip’s gun. It’s actually pretty neutral in terms of saying what happened (unlike, say, a museum in Ljubljana would be…), and sticks clearly to the facts – the archduke wasn’t even supposed to be going down that road and it was a lucky break for Gavrillo. That said, the Archduke was already supposed to have been dead by that point – a previous would-be assassin didn’t quite connect with a grenade bomb – while the outcome would have been the same, the world’s most famous bridge would have been one block down the road. Whereas there isn’t even a marker or plaque to tell you that that was where he missed. The ‘Latin Bridge’, conversely, is full of tour groups.
The other museum I spent two hours in, towards the end of the afternoon. I was exploring around the city centre and came across it. I didn’t expect to spend two hours in it, but they had most of the exhibition on an interactive computer screen. I don’t even know what the name of the building it was in was, but the museum exhibition was simply called ‘11.07.95’.
Srebrenica. It’s a small town of fairly little consequence, pretty much in the arse-end of nowhere. Not a lot happens there, and interestingly not a lot has ever happened there (it’s apparently a good place for walking in the countryside though). However, the mere name of this town conjures up a certain series of images in people’s minds.
There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said already, somewhere. Suffice to say that the exhibition went into detail. Great detail. Perhaps too *much* detail. It plotted the course of events from July 5th to July 19th 1995, how it happened, what happened, why it happened, why nothing was done about it … not just text but voiceovers, images, filmclips (source material included the War Crimes Trials at The Hague, as well as filmclips shot by Bosnian Serb Army. That wasn’t all they shot, either. Yes, I told you there might have been too much detail …).
The rest of the exhibit is simply pictures, faces of people who died (as like The Killing Fields), pictures of relevant graffiti, pictures of objects … there are also some testimonies of people who lived through it, who were there, who lost family …
(Very few of the killings actually took place in Srebrenica itself, but in villages and locations in the area).
As an interesting side note, a couple of hours later I found out that a couple of Croats who were charged with War Crimes last year have had their sentences squashed. One cannot help but smell a bit of a ‘whitewash’ – Croatia is due to join the EU in 2013 … of course there is no connection between these events, and I’m not suggesting there’s any slight favouritism towards one side over the other here, but ….
Then I had a walk over to the monument to the children who died in Sarajevo during the war. Because sometimes genocide just isn’t enough. Sat there for a while musing on the ephemeral nature of life and the pointlessness of existence, and just how people, as a general thought, are too selfish to ever create lasting peace and harmony.
Then I had a beer. Sarajevska Piva. Quite hoppy, lager-ish but not as metallic, dull but inoffensive.
In between the two museums I went for a long walk through the old town, past some churches and mosques, up and down a very steep hill the other side of the old town (not many tourists go here but you get great views over Sarajevo city. Or would do if it wasn’t so misty today), and eventually down a path along the river, through some spectacular cliff edges, all the way to what’s known as the ‘Goat Bridge’, a very old bridge that’s on the original trading routes that passed through Sarajevo between the West and the Ottoman Empire. It might get its name from goat herders or goat traders, no-one really knows. Anyway it’s about 2.5km out of town but it’s very very rural – virtually nobody heads out this way. Shame, as it’s quite pretty.
Food today consisted of nutty chocolate cake, Burek, Kadaif, and kebab. Not all in the same meal, I hasten to add! Going back home’s going to be boring. I may have to have Chinese takeaway on Sunday …