We drive south into Republika Srpska. Srpska is a political entity that’s part of the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina – most of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb population live here. Needless to say its very existence is subject to constant dispute and controversy. During recent wranglings, Republika Srpska politicians threatened to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina, once again throwing the region into uncertainty and turmoil. Throughout Bosnia we see huge colour posters of assorted politicians (some are friendly car salesmen, others dodgy looking henchmen) representing well over twenty political parties.
Near the town of Jajce, next to the Hotel Balkana, are a couple of trout laden freshwater lidos where we swim. Jajce is situated in the mountains with a fortress and 65 metre waterfall. In the town we pass an estate of high rise flats with huge piles of logs stacked outside for their wood burning stoves. The buildings are heavily pitted by artillery fire. In the summer of 1992 the town was heavily bombarded, eventually succumbing to Serb forces in October of that year. A column of 30,000 to 40,000 civilian refugees, stretching 16 kilometres, walked south towards Travnik. It has been described as “the largest and most wretched single exodus” of the Bosnian War. By the end of 1992, all religious buildings in Jajce had been destroyed, save for two mosques whose perilous positioning on a hilltop had made them unsuitable for demolition. We walk the town, which despite its castle and waterfalls, has what Jo describes as ‘a sadness’.
We stay overnight by the beautiful lake just outside the town, with its enchanting wooden water mill huts. Ever since the Middle Ages, locals have harnessed the power of the fast flowing water to grind wheat into flour. These huts likely date back to the Austro-Hungarian period and were still in use up until World War II. I cook a beef stifado stew which we eat on a wooden deck by candlelight, on the lake. We have a pleasant chat with a young couple from Oman who are here on holiday. Our sleep is broken overnight by heavy thunderstorms.
The following morning we drive towards Travnik. A friend of many years from Sussex was born in Travnik and we plan to meet up with his old school friend and best man at his wedding; Nino. The speed limits in this region of Bosnia are ludicrous – they shift frequently from 70kph to 25kph and back to 50kph – and they’re enforced. I’m told that the police fund their own salaries through speeding fines. I’m simultaneously amused and irritated by cardboard cutout traffic cops next to cardboard cutout police cars with flashing blue and red lights. We are stopped by the police for speeding at a 25kph limit zone but quickly waved on when he realises we’re foreigners.
We pass through the weirdly depressing town of Donji Vakuf. There are grim looking bars occupied by chain smoking drinkers, a plethora of betting shops and fast food outlets. There are no women to be seen – Jo assumes rightly that they’re all working in the shops. The place has a wild west frontier town feel about it. It’s so awful we stop to enjoy it – I’m surprised not to see wagons and horses tied up outside the local saloon.
Travnik is in a splendid location, set in a valley surrounded by mountains, the most notable of which is the Vlašić, at almost 2,000 metres, one of the highest mountains in Bosnia. I park in a small downtown carpark where I’m immediately hailed by one of the locals. ‘Hi, welcome. Where are you from?’ He knows we’re from the UK, he’s seen the country plate. ‘England.’ I say. ‘You are welcome here.’ he says. We remember the British Army and Bob Stewart in Vitez during the war. You are very welcome.’ The Royal Cheshire Regiment, part of the UN force to protect humanitarian convoys in Bosnia, was based in the nearby town of Vitez. Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Stewart (presently the Conservative MP for Beckenham, Greater London) very publicly lost his composure and impartiality after his unit discovered the remains of Muslim civilians who had been massacred by Croats in the village of Ahmići in April 1993. Our local friend in the carpark speaks of it as though it happened last week.
We settle, in the sunshine, at a cafe terrace table opposite a beautifully painted mosque, from where I call Nino. ‘Hi Nino.’ I say, ‘It’s Armand, Zdravko’s friend.’ ‘Hi.’ says Nino, ‘Welcome. Where are you?’ ‘I’m outside a cafe bar next to the mosque.’ ‘Armand, there are thirty two mosques in Travnik. Which one?’ With a muslim population of 38% in 1991, today it’s 71%. Travnik is very much a muslim town. We eventually figure out that we’re next to Sarena Dzamija, the Ornamented Mosque in the old town. ‘See you in five minutes.’ Says Nino.
Tall, thin, shorn grey hair, grey stubbly beard, Nino always has a fag in his hand. ‘It’s free to smoke anywhere in Bosnia.’ he says. ‘Bosnia is the freest country in Europe.’ We enjoy a beer in the sunshine and get acquainted. My old friend Zdravko left Travnik as a young man for university in Sarajevo and ultimately France and England. Nino is well travelled but he has never forsaken Travnik. He remained in the town throughout the war and declares that for him personally it was not bad. ‘If you lose friends or family or witness terrible things then the war is bad. If not then it can be ok. I was at home with my family for a week then on the line (military duty) for a week. I didn’t lose any loved ones.’ But about the war in general, he is unequivocally angry. ‘Stupid, stupid’, he says often. ‘Crazy madness’. ‘So much time is lost and wasted’. ‘Look at Ukraine,’ he says. ‘So much lost time. Putin and Zelinsky don’t care how many people die. Crazy waste of time’. He tells us that immediately, upon the outbreak of hostilities, neighbours were no longer friends, and instantly, at the end of hostilities, they shook hands as if nothing ever happened. ‘Crazy.’
Nino talks of Bosnia before the war when ‘…nobody cared about being a Muslim or a Croat or a Serb. Now everybody cares.’ He blames religion and politics, those two great demons, for the chaos that’s been and the chaos that might ensue. ‘The war set Bosnia back hundreds of years, infrastructure destroyed, manufacturing destroyed, confidence destroyed.’
We move to another restaurant bar for more pivos (beers). It’s an attractive old building, once the residence of Ivo Andric, poet, novelist and winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1962. Andric was born in Travnik. I see that Nino has great teeth and complement him. He smiles a toothy grin and tells me that he’s had all of his teeth replaced with implants by a local dentist; Dr. Lisica (Dr. Fox in English). ‘I have all my teeth removed and eat smashing potatoes for months.’ he says. I tell Nino of my tooth problem and within half an hour I’m sitting in the Fox’s surgery for an examination (something that takes 2 weeks in England). Great news – he can treat me. I need an apicoectomy; a surgical incision in the gum to access the infected root. Today is Friday. He can do it on Monday morning.
Nino directs us to a free parking lot close to his local bar – the Jazz Cafe (no Jazz – ever!) where we top up the alcohol levels with a little raki. The free parking is next to a noisy busy road so we move to a big car park next to Travnik High School, and buy a cheap weekly parking ticket. The car park is being enlarged and it’s noisy and dusty during the day but very quiet at night. Nino has recommended a restaurant in the old town for the best cevapi in town. The restaurant is closed but it’s easy to find this dish in any number of other places. Cevapi are small, oblong-shaped kebabs made from lamb and beef served in somun (Bosnian pita bread) with raw onions and a sour cream sauce. Locals eat this for lunch, dinner, or as a hearty snack.
After dinner we meet Nino again for beers at the Jazz Cafe.’You moved to another car park.’ says Nino. Travnik is a small town where he will know exactly what we’re up to over the next few days The Jazz Cafe is a convivial smoky cafe where we sit on the outside covered terrace. ‘This place isn’t great.’ says Nino, ‘The coffee is bad and the furniture is terrible but the people and conversation is what it’s about.’ Jo notices that the men we saw here this afternoon are in the bar this evening and they’ll be here again in the morning by 8am.
Back in the van we can smell the cigarette smoke on our clothes – a whiff of nostalgia – it’s like getting home from the pub in England in the twentieth century. There’s a toilet in the car park much used by the construction workers. Jo returns from it in the dark and says, with a hint of irony, ‘I can’t believe it. I’m a lady with a half a million pound Mill House with three bathrooms in the Yorkshire Dales, yet I’m reduced to living amongst stray dogs in a van in this noisy half built municipal car park, and using a dirty old piss stained builder’s toilet’. She doesn’t add, ‘and all because of your stupid bloody tooth.’ Before we fall asleep I get a text from my daughter Hannah telling me that Queen Elizabeth II has died.
Despite being a Saturday morning we are awoken early by the noise of the car park construction. We meet Nino for coffee at the local and he suggests a couple of possible destinations for us for the weekend – the first of which is the Vlasic mountain. We follow him by car to the summit where, at the refugio, in the sunshine we enjoy a brace of pear rakis for breakfast. Nino tells me that in a military engagement during the war his platoon captured this summit. ‘Without loss?’ I ask. ‘Almost.’ he replies, but he doesn’t elaborate.
Nino indicates a couple of good walks and departs, with an arrangement to meet on Monday before my dental appointment. The air and light is wonderful on Vlasic mountain and it’s not too cold. We walk along a mountain track to a viewpoint overlooking the town. There’s a Bosnian couple sitting on a bench enjoying the view with whom we have a brief conversation. ‘Where are you from?’ the man asks. ‘England’ we say. The woman’s expression forms a sad pout. ‘Elizabeth’ she says.
We drive across the summit to the ski resort which is all concrete car parks and empty hotels. The clouds roll in, the light disappears and the rain lashes down. We thought we might stay here for the day but it’s not now an inviting prospect. We drive down a potholed mountain road towards Nino’s second recommended destination, a small lake beyond the small town of Bugojno. The lake, one side of which is bordered by a low cliff, is pleasant enough, but the campsite is closed and barred by a padlocked gate. The remaining lakeside is extensively covered with trash; bottles, broken glass, cans, plastic bags full of old food and packaging, wet wipes and toilet paper – you name it. It looks like the Monday after Glastonbury festival. We drive off with nowhere particular in mind.
On the I-overlander app, Jo finds a promising looking campside, Iglena camp, in somewhere called Kupres. It’s about an hour’s drive along a terrific, winding road through densely forested hills. Along a fast stretch of this road we see and pass, at the side of the road, smoke rising from a barbeque. I turn around and pull over. Three whole sheep are roasting on spits over a big charcoal fired barbeque. They smell great. There’s a tariff for a sit down meal but I somehow indicate that I just want a takeaway. A woman leads me to a coolbox in which are several warm joints of meat. I buy a leg of something for 12 euros. As we drive away I wonder if I’ve just bought an overpriced tough piece of old mutton.
We descend a steep road off the mountains of the Dinaric Alps into the high altitude plateau of Kupres. We don’t have any internet access, but we know the campsite has a view over the plateau, so we meander for some time along a number of narrow tracks along the hillside looking for it. We’re thinking of giving up when I ask a guy in his front garden if he knows of a place called Iglena. He directs us further east and then up a quiet track, at the end of which is a flat piece of ground with the most magnificent view south towards the town of Kupres, its vast Roman Catholic basilica, and beyond over the wide expanse of the Kupres valley. Above us, to our right, cut into the hillside is an enormous chequered Croatian Coat of Arms. The campsite is empty and there’s a supply of dry kindling and logs for the firepit.
In the setting sun, we are organising the van for the night when a tall young man arrives in a pickup. He introduces himself as Dario. ‘Not Mario.’ he says. ‘My brother’s name is Mario.’ This enthusiastic fellow has cleared and flattened the land here, transforming it into a basic campsite, with one of the best views in Bosnia, charging 5 euros a night – the firewood is free. I’m impressed by his enterprise – he runs quad bike tours in the summer and he’s a ski guide in the winter. He thoughtfully asks about our feelings about the death of the Queen and tells us that we are at the highest town in Bosnia. He recommends a lake, 5 kilometres away, that is good for swimming.
After the sun sets, it quickly gets very cold. For the first time since leaving England a month ago, I build a fire in the firepit and we sit beside it wrapped in blankets. Supper is roasted onions, peppers and tomatoes with rosemary and thyme, and we heat up the leg of mutton, from the roadside barbeque, with a drizzle of oil. The meat is soft and tender – it falls off the bone and is quite delicious, amazing. I shouldn’t disdain old mutton. The food journalist A.A. Gill writes of the replacement of mutton by lamb in the UK as ‘a great marketing and agri con.’ When wool was valuable, sheep weren’t slaughtered till they were four or five years old. But now that wool has little or no value, farmers want a quick return on their animals and slaughter them young, so we eat inferior meat. Gill writes, ‘Flavour, richness, interest, and complexity come with age. Mutton is the true taste of our national cuisine, and it’s gone.’ But you’ll find it by the side of the road in Bosnia!
I’m outside for a call of nature at 3am. There’s an owl hooting in the woods above us. The scene before me is quite mystical. The clear ink blue sky is sparkling with stars. In the distance are the dark mountains of the Dinaric Alps and in the foreground the orange glowing lights of Kupres, the twin towered basilica and the plateau, all suffused in a white sea of mist.
Early next morning the sky is grey, it’s raining and very cold. In a campervan, freezing wet mornings are the hardest. We break camp in silence, drink hot tea, and eat a simple breakfast of fruit and cereal. We drive into town in search of warmth and wifi. It’s a Sunday and most of the cafes are closed, but in the cigarette smokey lounge of an open bar we order a couple of coffees. There’s no wifi though, the wifi is ‘kaput’ – actually the internet connectivity for the whole town is down – but at least we can write here in the warmth.
By midday the sky has cleared to sunny intervals and it’s warmer. We drive to the small lake recommended to us by Dario. It’s called Kukavikco jezero, Cuckoo lake. Given our recent encounter with lakeside trash we’re not optimistic. We park on the edge of a forest track some distance from it and make the slippery descent to the lakeside on a little used path lined with many varieties of wonderful woodland mushroom. But it’s hard going – I slip into the mud and we backtrack to the van for our hiking poles. Using Mapsme (an App which identifies the most obscure tracks in the most desolate places) Jo finds a more defined route that leads us to a grassy clearing where, under the southern slopes of Stožer mountain, are the clear waters of Kukavikco jezero.
There’s a sign by the lakeside, heeded by visitors, asking them to respect the place and take their rubbish home. I’m getting changed for a swim when an older guy, my age, tanned, very fit looking, arrives on his racing bike and changes into swimming trunks and a swim hat. We enter the lake together and swim towards the far bank. Despite being a glacial lake at an altitude of 1,200 metres, its greatest depth is only 13 metres and the temperature is quite pleasant, at around 17°C. We’re treading water near the far shore when the tanned swimmer says, with some conviction, apropos of nothing, ‘I am a Roman Catholic, I am a Croat. Vive Ukraine’. I’m not sure how to respond – ‘Vive Ukraine’ seems like an agreeable safe bet. We swim back across the lake but I’m having problems with water getting into my right ear and I pause several times to try to clear it.
I’m back with Jo, drying off, and my Catholic Croat friend wanders over with a small bag of fried chicken and a doughnut style soft bread. He offers this to us and he gives me his spare swim hat telling me that, next time I swim, I must wear it to keep water out of my ear. A few minutes later he’s rubbing oil over his body. ‘You want oil?’ he asks. I decline the offer but his open generosity is heartening. He changes into red shorts and what looks like a pair of gardening gloves. Then he’s off, running around the lake. I spot him a little later disappearing up a hill in the distance. He is very fit, doing his Sunday morning veteran triathlon.
In the afternoon Dario returns to the campsite and I mention my encounter with the triathlete by the lake. Dario knows of him. ‘He has some mental problems from the war.’ he says. ‘Some trauma.’ It’s interesting that he has chosen fitness, not drink or drugs to help escape his demons. Dario tells us more about the town and the war. We talk about the remains of a small chapel that has been raised to the ground – the foundations left as a memorial. The enormous modern basilica with twin towers that’s been built next to it, as if in defiance of the previous loss. And a huge chequered Croatian flag that’s cut into the mountainside. Dario says, ‘Kupres is very important because of its position. It’s the highest town in Bosnia and close to Croatia. Whoever holds this town has control of the gateway to the Dalmation coast. It was bitterly fought over by Serb and Croat forces. Today it has a predominantly Croat population but it has a small Muslim population and a transient Serb population who work mainly in forestry. We hear the same story from so many people to whom we speak: ‘It’s the politicians who fuel religious division. The people here get along fine.’
We are joined by a young man; Airian from the Netherlands. He’s feeling a bit glum as he’s just spent 900 euros getting the clutch replaced on his VW campervan. ‘And this was only a short trip to take a friend to Albania.’ he says. We set another fire going in the pit although it’s hard because it’s windy and the wood is damp. Dario tells us that there will be snow by the end of October. We can tell. It feels like there’s the prospect of snow in the air, yet it’s only mid September. ‘I like the snow.’ says Dario ‘but six months of it is too much.’ We will be in bed early again tonight, but for a while we sit by the fire with a dinner of Thai chicken broth and a few beers with Airian.
After another freezing night we reluctantly emerge from our warm bed at about 9.30am. Airian is already eating his breakfast by the ashes of the fire. He’s staying another night. We tell him about the lake and depart for Travnik and my Monday evening dental appointment. We’ll refuel, visit a supermarket and a laundrette (which we fail to find), and get some elusive wifi, give our families a quick update and check that they’re all happy, and plan the next stage of our trip.
We meet Nino at the Jazz Bar for coffee at 5pm. At 6pm I’m in Dr Fox’s orthodontic chair. He’s a very reassuring young dentist. He needs to be – I have a dread of dentists going back to childhood. After two anaesthetic injections he tells me, as he approaches my open mouth with his scalpel, that I’ll feel no pain – which I don’t. But the tooth is an upper left rear molar and, after making a horizontal incision in the gum next to the root, he excises it with a small circular saw. My brain vibrates and the noise of the drill is ear splitting. But it’s over pretty quickly. Then it’s just the tugging of tightening stitches – ten of them. He gives me four prescriptions and tells me to keep an ice pack on my cheek for a few hours.
I buy a bag of frozen peas, we visit a pharmacy and I break the bad news to Jo. The Fox wants to see me again on Wednesday morning – we must stay in Travnik for another two days. Jo doesn’t say much – a clear sign that she ain’t happy.
The ice pack of peas and the assorted drugs work wonders and I have a comfortable night. I’m still sleeping next morning when Jo rises with the intention of finding wifi somewhere warm and comfortable. She goes to get her external hard drive from the safe under the passenger seat when I hear expletives of distress and frustration. The safe is unlocked by a keypad powered by four AA batteries inside it. But the batteries have been shaken loose and the keypad is inoperable. There’s a backup key lock but Jo has immediately realised that the necessary key was stolen together with the spare van key in her backpack in Slovenia. We can’t get into the safe and, critically, our passports are inside it. We’re going to need a locksmith which might take days. We feel like we’re doomed to be stuck in Travnik forever. I’m immediately awake and jiggling the door of the safe which, after a few seconds, beeps a sign of life. We have a momentary connection and Jo quickly enters the code and opens the door. We laugh with relief and hug each other. To avoid this happening again, we spend the next fifteen minutes with gorilla tape ensuring the batteries are snug and stuck in place.
We spend the day in coffee shops and cafe bars – omelette for breakfast, coffee, more coffee at a riverside cafe, pizza by the castle, and a couple of beers in the afternoon sunshine. I feel recovered and Jo has a good plan for the next stage of the journey to Turkey; we’ll visit Sarajevo for a day and make for Niš in Serbia. We will stop only once in Bulgaria – in the city of Plovdiv where we plan to book a hotel for the night of my birthday.
In the late afternoon we sit on a park bench in the sunshine and I quickly fall asleep. In the evening we meet Nino and his wife for farewell drinks at the Jazz Cafe. ‘I saw you yesterday, in town, with a bag of peas on your face,’ he says. He’s such a kind man. I don’t know what I’d have done without him on our extended stay in Travnik.