We are travelling in our Ford Transit Custom campervan from the Yorkshire Dales, northern England to the southern Mediterranean coast of Turkey – a round trip that will cover over 8,000 miles in eleven weeks. Our outbound journey to Turkey will take us through France, Germany, the Czech republic. Austria, the Balkan states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, and finally Bulgaria. We’re in no rush and circumstances will slow us down. It will take five weeks to reach the Bulgaria Turkey border.
It’s very difficult to visit the Balkans without encountering reminders of the bloody civil war when, in the 1990s, the federation of Yugoslavia tore itself to pieces. After more than twenty years since the end of that war, those stark reminders are everywhere; in encounters with the people, in the bomb shattered and bullet pockmarked buildings, in the still landmine contaminated landscape and from the memorials and museums. Whilst that may seem somewhat grim, the Balkans is a beautiful region of southeastern Europe: Croatia’s long Adriatic coast of beaches and islands, Slovenia’s lakes and alpine mountains, Bosnia and Serbia’s mountains, gorges and river valleys are magnificent. The people are friendly and engaging. And the food and drink is delicious – and great value.
My companion in the Balkans (other, of course, than the ever enthusiastic and patient Jo) is the cyclist and travel writer, Dervla Murphy. Dervla was born in County Waterford, Ireland in 1931. In 1999 and 2000, when in her sixties she undertook two long distance bicycle journeys through devastated Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. She died aged ninety, three months before we set out on this trip to Turkey.
I have with me her 2003 book: Through the Embers of Chaos. Balkan Journeys, in which she recounts her cycling journeys, describes the history and politics of the region, and her encounters with the people and the landscape.- and the dogs for which she had a soft spot. What comes across in this book is Dervla’s sharp intelligence, her courage, enthusiasm, stamina and powers of inquisitiveness and observation. But perhaps above all, her Irish gift for engaging with people and encouraging them to give of themselves and their experiences.
On the afternoon of 26th August, we cross from the Czech republic into the small Alpine country of Slovenia. The border region is one of easy rolling hills and vast swathes of well shorn grass. It is very hot. We have a load of Czech cash that we should have spent on diesel fuel before entering Slovenia but we took a minor road without encountering a gas station. So we map out a major road and drive for 45 minutes back to the Czech Slovenia border to buy fuel – a frustrating introduction to the country. It’s 30°C and 6pm before we climb a steep narrow winding track to a small plateau with a magnificent view of grapevines on the hills below. We cook up spaghetti carbonara and spend the night here.
The next morning it’s still very hot. There’s a formidable wooden watchtower above us which Jo climbs. She says the views are fantastic and encourages me to go up it too. I’m standing below it looking up. The broad stairwell rises inside the open framework. I climb. I have graphic dreams where I experience realistic vertigo. This is no dream. Half way up I look down and slightly sway. I climb. At the top is an open platform surrounded by a waist high railing. The health is here but where’s the safety? One of the less pleasant features of vertigo is the compulsion to jump. I look down again and take a deep breath. I sway and quickly descend; each lower level is a relief. “Great view eh” says Jo. “Wonderful” I say, but I’ve already scrubbed it from my memory.
We visit the ancient towns of Maribor and Ptuj; both next to the wide Drava river. We cycle the Bromptons around Maribor’s broad, traffic free avenues and big bright squares. Jo wants to see the more than 400 year old Zametovka grapevine. I want a bottle of the local wine and a croissant. In a local park we find, to my surprise, a statue of the Bengali polymath (poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter) Rabindranath Tagore. Over the years I’ve bought and sold some fine editions of his books. The Slovenian poet Srecko Kosovel was considerably influenced by Tagore – an unexpected kinship of ideas and sentiments between this part of Eastern Europe and India. In the 1960s Tagore was on the Slovenian school literature curriculum.
You’d expect that travelling in a van, in summer, enchanted by the sublime landscape and ancient cities, eating local produce, drinking fine wines, and meeting the friendly locals would be a constant delight. But when you’re in a small campervan for months on end there can be tensions. The weather can be dismal, the landscape a flat, bleak urban or industrial wasteland, and you occasionally encounter miserable bastards. We sometimes want to do different things and can’t agree on a plan of action. We are irritable, tired, moody and find each other difficult and annoying. We get, as they say in Yorkshire, right pissed off. This isn’t the prevailing mood but it happens.
After some dispute we agree to drive on to the Jeruzalem wine region of Northeastern Slovenia. The countryside from Ormoz in the south to Jeruzalem is beautiful, with terraced vineyards and many vinotekas along the route for wine tasting. The wines are almost exclusively white, Pinot Grigios, Reilslings and a local grape variety, Sipon. We stop at a vinoteka, taste a few, and buy a Sipon. The viticulturist is chatty and tells us that the grape harvest is now a month earlier than in years past, at the end of August instead of the end of September. And over the last few years there’s been just a few days of snow in February when it used to snow all month. And this year, no rain in the crucial early months of May and June and too much in August. And wasps are ruining his grapes. The wine would be good this year but there will be less of it. Doom and gloom – the farmers’ lot.
But this is not the first time that a winegrower has mentioned climate changes. We heard this in Greece too. But is it a real problem or should the growers just adapt to normal climate changes without being so gloomy? Harvest a month early – surely not such a big deal. Jo says I’m a climate change denier which I deny. I’m a climate apocalypse denier.
Anyway, that aside, he’s a nice guy and recommends another vineyard close by where we can park for the night. So we drive on, past hillsides of vines heavy with black grapes, to another stunning hilltop location. But the owner wants 20 euros for the pitch – much more than we would normally pay. We don’t need water or electricity or food, so we’d just be paying for the view and toilet. And there’s a free car park nearby with quite a good view – so Jo’s not inclined to spend. We are at odds again. I like it here. I’m done with driving for the day and I have a glass of the vineyard’s Sipon in my hand. We stay but the mood is chilly. Overnight there’s a terrific thunderstorm after which we’re plagued by a pesky mosquito that evades all attempts to squash him. Finally, despite my protests, Jo sprays the cabin with insecticide and I’m forced to sleep outside on a damp recliner.
The following morning it’s cooler but still very hot in the sunshine. We have an unexpected change of plan. I have an infected molar tooth that has previously had a root canal treatment and a crown. A couple of weeks ago I had an abscess lanced by a German dentist. He prescribed antibiotics and advised me to get it fixed as soon as possible. A friend of Jo’s has recommended a dentist in Zagreb with whom I have an emergency appointment tomorrow. But first I need an x-ray which I’ll try to get today. I don’t feel good about this diversion but there’s nothing I could have done to predict it in England. Jo is quietly understanding, I think, or at least accepting of the problem.
It’s a boring, busy 2½ hour drive to Zagreb on one of those long bleak commercial highways that could be anywhere and everywhere; lined by car showrooms, shopping malls, drive-in fast food outlets (McDonalds – the burger bar that ate Europe) and industrial units. The dental x-ray shop is located in downtown Zagreb and we cruise around to find parking for the night.
The central district has some fine buildings but they are blighted by mindless graffiti. Some say the street art in Zagreb is a ‘must see’ but what we see is not the beautiful and stimulating modern street art or murals that can enliven an otherwise lacking urban scene. This is graffiti tagging – those formulaic bulbous letters making up, to the uninitiated, i.e. almost everybody, meaningless scrawl tags. And it’s everywhere, every historic apartment building or office block is covered in this stuff from head height down. Only the marble of the Sheraton Hotel remains unscathed. And Zagreb appears to have resigned itself to it – to be accepting of this ugly blight.
The place is a dirty vandalised mess. The streets are strewn with trash and you can taste the air pollution – in November 2021 Lahore, Pakistan was the most polluted city on earth, followed by Delhi, India. Zagreb was third. The approaches to the centre and downtown itself are congested with traffic and parked cars. We like to cycle into a city from a place outside the centre, but that would be dangerous here – there are no cycleways and the traffic is chaotic. It’s like London at its worst. In one potential overnight parking location there are cans, bottles, used food containers and dirty nappies strewn across the car park, and it stinks of urine. Something has happened to Zagreb. We’ve been here before and enjoyed it. But in just a few years the city has lost its civic pride. Covid will likely be blamed, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. For now, we sadly have to accept that we will not return in a hurry, or recommend the city as a destination to anyone else.The Zagreb authorities and its inhabitants need to get their act together.
We find a short term car park close to an instant x-ray place, the Multiray Centre. Multiray is brilliant. The technician speaks English well, and within twenty minutes I have two x-ray images of the offending tooth for just 9 euros.
We want a beer and walk across the central square to the old historic town, much of which is under scaffolding for renovation.On a pedestrian street of bars and restaurants, we try a Sri Lankan street food place and I enjoy an excellent kottu roti. Jo uses our contactless card to pay and gets overcharged almost double for a meal – 467 kuna instead of the actual bill of 267 kuna. We rarely check these types of payments, but she spotted this ‘error’ and was refunded with an apology. The experience has left an unpleasant feeling. Later we eventually find a tree lined avenue between the zoo and a football pitch. It’s quiet and after a good night’s sleep we enjoy an excellent early morning coffee in a pavilion restaurant in Maksimir park by the zoo – a peaceful oasis.
The dentist tells me that I need oral surgery. The tip of the tooth root is infected and the only way to access it is through an incision in the gum. The good news is her son is an oral surgeon. The bad news is that he can’t do it for a month. She prescribes more antibiotics and tells me that it will all be ok for at least another month and wishes me well. But I will soon discover that it won’t be well at all.
We’re happy to be leaving Zagreb and heading back to the southern forests of Slovenia where we stop at the splendid 13th century castle of Grad Otocec, now a Relais & Châteaux hotel, on a small island in the middle of the Krka river, accessed by a wooden bridge. There’s a big empty car park under trees on the banks of the Krka opposite the island. It’s a lovely place to spend the night. But it will transpire into what Jo will accurately describe as a complete f**k up.
We watch kingfishers darting along the river and in the evening eat a simple omelette with a bottle of Slovenian wine. We are asleep soon after dusk.
It’s the last day of August. It was my responsibility to ensure that we have the proper motor insurance cover for this trip and I assured Jo that we did. In the past we’ve had a Green Card document that stipulated the European countries for which we have insurance cover. Green Cards are no longer issued and my mistake was to assume that the same cover applies as stated on that old Green Card. But I woke up this morning with some doubts. I read the Insurance documents and other than cover for countries of the European Union I can’t find any evidence that we’re covered for Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo or Montenegro. I know we’re not covered for Turkey but I can buy insurance at the border.
Jo is rightly pissed off. ‘This was your responsibility. I can’t trust you to even sort out the insurance’. I spend the morning on the phone to our Insurance Brokers who in turn speak with our insurers. Eventually I get an emailed document that itemises every country in Europe for which we have cover. But that list excludes Kosovo and Montenegro so we have to rethink our route. The problem is resolved but I’m feeling pretty incompetent.
In glum silence we go through the routine of preparing to move on. Then Jo asks me ‘where is my backpack?’ ‘I dunno, in the front I guess’. ‘It’s not there’ she says, ‘I left it on the driver’s seat’. ‘It must be there’ I say. ‘It’s gone’ she says, ‘It’s been stolen’. ‘I don’t believe it’, I say, ‘I locked the doors’ ‘Yeah you said you locked the doors but you didn’t did you?’
If Jo was writing this page it would be splattered with expletives. Trust, reliability, competence are all brought into question. Jo feels really let down by me and very uncomfortable about the fact that a thief had entered the van with us in it. I’m way too casual about security and am always brushing off Jo’s questions for reassurances about locking up.
Jo tells me that she had a strange feeling in the night that she heard the front door close but, as I’d assured her that I’d locked the door before bed, she let it pass as a dream. A campervan is always a target and, if you’re audacious, an unlocked one, even with occupants asleep inside, is easy pickings. The new backpack contained an old iphone and the spare keys to the van, plus another key, the absence of which will cause some anxiety in a couple of weeks’ time. We wander up the road to find the less valuable contents – tissues, snacks – discarded at the side of the road.
An unplanned journey for my damned tooth, inadequate insurance for our trip and now this. I have seriously f**ked up and will have my work cut out to vindicate myself from the charge of uselessness.
Jo is in no mood to “get over it” and we sit almost in silence as we drive. At about 2pm, we are at Baza 20 in the Kočevski Rog forest and stop for lunch. I apologise to Jo for being such an ass. I tell her I feel shitty about today and my previous responses when she checks up on locking. I’ll buy her a new backpack and start a new routine where we will deadlock all the doors except the side one at night. And I’ll make a point of saying doors locked when I lock up with the electronic key fob. Jo says thanks and we move on.
The weather has turned suitably grey. Baza 20 was one of the numerous camps in the woods of Kočevski Rog which were once the command centre of the National Liberation Movement of Slovenia in the Second World War. Brown bears allegedly live in this forest but the ticks are more prolific, less inhibited and potentially more dangerous, so we cover up and explore. We visit one of the bunkers and the sites of several mass graves. These burial sites are all over the forest and are the result of extrajudicial killings during and after the Second World War. Nearly 600 such sites have been registered by the Commission on Concealed Mass Graves in Slovenia, containing the remains of up to 100,000 victims. The postwar graves contain the remains of suspected collaborators, soldiers, and civilians that fled towards Austria in the hope of surrendering to the Allies (including the British army) in May and June 1945, as well as groups targeted because of their ethnicity (e.g. Gottschee Germans, Hungarians, and Italians) and civilians that were the victims of political purges or marked as “class enemies” to eliminate potential opponents to the new communist regime in Yugoslavia.
Britain’s involvement in some of these murders is tragic. After 8 May 1945 thousands of Chetnik (German collaborators) and refugees were sent back to Yugoslavia by the British army to be slaughtered on arrival by Tito’s Yugoslavian partisans. Nigel Nicolson, an Intelligence Officer with 5 Corps of the Eighth Army, later gave evidence:
We were ordered to tell these wretched men that they were going to Italy and that they would remain in British hands. And this was something that even at the time shocked us deeply. We had to put up a sort of facade. They were collected at this railway station. It took several days actually. These long, long trains with box cars and we used to put 30 men into the box cars. They were allowed to take their wives and children with them too. They were all shoved in, in rather a merry mood. They thought they were going to sunny Italy where they would be looked after and fed. We hid the Tito troops behind the station buildings. They only appeared at the very last moment and marched up and down and all the Chetniks started shouting and screaming and swearing at us. We hated it. It was so much against the tradition, particularly of the Brigade of Guards, to lie even to your enemies. They weren’t really enemies. They were simple peasants. One mustn’t think of these Slovenes and Chetniks as one would think of the German army. They were very young, some of them just boys with older men with their wives and some of them with their children. You were dealing not really with an army, you were dealing with thousands and thousands of civilians. I wrote a daily situation report. At the end of one of them I said that ‘our soldiers carried out this odious task with great reluctance’, which was perfectly true. But I got hauled over the coals for that. I shouldn’t have said it. But I think this was one of the most disgraceful actions that British troops have ever been asked to carry out.
(From a BBC Timewatch programme, 3 January 1984)
The despatching of more than 26,000 men, women and children to certain death began on 20 May 1945. These actions have been uneasily defended, by some, on the grounds that, at the time, Europe was in chaos and people scarcely knew what they were doing – not an impression one gets from Nigel Nicolson’s testimony. A more believable explanation for them is that Field Marshal Alexander, Allied Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, and his political advisor, one Harold Macmillan, knew exactly what they were doing. In exchange for these prisoners, Marshall Tito pulled his five divisions out of Carinthia, Austria and Venizia-Giulia in Italy, which he was then absurdly claiming as part of Yugoslavia. 26,000 dead – what a price for some stability in post war Yugoslavia.
We drive up through the forest on route 917 which degrades into a dirt track with no room to pass vehicles coming down – but there are no other vehicles up here. It starts to rain and we ascend into a fog. We stop near the summit in a forest clearing next to an ancient disused sawmill. I lock up. We’re both exhausted and after a simple dinner we have an early night.
1st September 2022. There’s torrential rain overnight and a rising wind – weather conditions that are very loud in the van. In the morning the dense fog has returned. There was the possibility of climbing to the peak – but that’s not an inviting prospect. It’s a 17 km descent on a winding narrow track in awful visibility. So we wait. By 9am we’ve run out of patience, and the drive is surprisingly enjoyable. We call into the town of Kočevje and stop at a simple traditional restaurant where Jo orders a delicious hearty truckers plat du jour, an 11am breakfast of sausage and bean stew.
Slovenia has a short Adriatic coastline where there will be few if any options for free campervan parking so we turn towards the capital, Ljubljana. It’s still a gloomy grey day. We stop for a couple of hours at a laundrette and an Aldi supermarket then head towards the centre where we park in a big city centre car park and walk into town. It’s a delightful city: clean, friendly, historic, and lively, full of traditional bars and restaurants. The city is distinguished by a number of rivers that traverse it; the Ljubljanica, the Sava, the Gradaščica, the Mali Graben, the Iška and the Iščica. On Castle Hill above the centre stands the imposing medieval Ljubljana Castle. The old historic centre is unspoiled and despite earthquakes over the centuries, the wide cobbled streets and squares are lined with fine Gothic, Baroque and Venetian style buildings.
We visit a couple of cafe bars. At the Cafe Antico we sit at the outdoor terrace on the street and, over a couple of Lasko pivos (beers) and white wines, we watch Ljubljana citizens leisurely promenading in the evening sunshine. A young couple arrive on bicycles which they leave in the apartment block across the street. They wander across to the terrace for kisses, hugs and drinks with friends. Jo says ‘I’d like to spend a few months living in an apartment somewhere in Europe like this. What fun’. It’s a splendid idea. We cross a bridge to the Nostalgija vintage cafe for a few more beers and wines after which we can’t agree about the best route back to the van.
There are still a few after-tremors from the theft at Grad Otocec castle and our other tribulations, so the next morning we go our separate ways on the Brompton bikes. These fold up bikes are terrific and, despite the bone shaking cobbles, they’re the best way to explore a city like Ljubljana. Today is Friday and Open Kitchen ‘Odprta Kuhna’ is in full swing in the pretty Pogačarjev trg square. Ljubljana restaurants, and food and drink vendors congregate here to cook and sell delicious food. In a nearby square is a farmer’s market and in another a flower market. The sun is shining, it’s warm and the colours and smells are fantastic. I cycle along one of the rivers to find a print shop where I get a hardcopy of our vehicle insurance cover. The cobbled street to the castle is too steep for the bike. I walk up. The castle is largely under wraps for renovation so I immediately shake and rattle back down the hill. Near the central Prešeren Square I spot Jo cycling towards me. We have a big hug.
Slovenia has an abundance of picturesque lakes, the two most popular are Bled and Bohinj. Lake Bled is fairytale pretty with, in the middle of it, a Gothic church on an island. We pass it on the way to Lake Bohinj, located in a beautiful glacial valley in the Julian Alps. We stay here for a couple of days at a busy campsite, mainly full of younger folk in an assortment of campervans from hippy wagons to state of the art motorhomes, parked very close to each other around the perimeter of a big gravel car park. ‘No Parking Overnight’ in the wilderness is the rigorously enforced rule in Slovenia with steep fines for infringements. It’s not a big country and, with so many tourists, the opportunities for camping in the wild are few. Landowners ask as much as 30 euros to park overnight. Even for this scrap of land, they want 20 euros for a mobile home. The van is not registered as a mobile home, so we mischievously contend that it’s a car and stay for 4 euros a night. The views of the mountains, especially in the sunsets, are wonderful. We cycle through the hills and around the lake where we laze in the sun and swim in its clear warm water.
We drive to Kranjska Gora and our first sighting of Triglav mountain, the highest peak in Slovenia, before taking the 24km Vršič pass connecting Kranjska Gora in the Save Valley to Trenta in the Soča Valley, via 50 precarious, hairpin bends. There are some incredible views over the surrounding mountains and valleys. It’s a wonderful and at times exciting drive.
After 8km, just off the pass, there’s a simple wooden Russian Orthodox chapel, built in 1917 by Russian prisoners of war to commemorate their comrades who died in an avalanche during the road’s construction. The threat of avalanche continues to close the road during the harsh winter months. It’s very still up here, the silence punctuated only by the distant clanking of cow bells.
As the Vršič pass slowly descends into the picturesque Soča valley, the road flattens out and becomes a leisurely drive to Bovec. Here we see the Soča river, an ever-present accompaniment for the remainder of the pass. We stop at the gorge of the Soča where the river is clear and freezing cold and full of big trout. There are people swimming in the fast flowing waters. Are they mad? I spontaneously strip off down to my underpants and jump off a rock. It’s invigorating and brain numbingly cold. Further down river is the pretty medieval town of Kanal where, on a bridge 70 metres above the Soca river, there’s a jumping off platform. A young lad is standing on it, looking down, concentrating and swaying to and fro in anticipation. He jumps, his arms swirling to maintain an upright position. It’s a serious jump, beautifully done.
Into Croatia and Bosnia – A River Cruise with Hussein, and a Beaver
Moving south, back into Croatia, we are transiting a short stretch of the Croatian Adriatic coast. The Med’ looks beautiful and there are plenty of small campsites on the shoreline. I’d like to stay here for a night. I see a sign pointing to the sea that declares ‘campsite’. I pull off the coast road into a small empty terraced parking lot. It’s not busy, a couple of motorhomes. There’s blue security tape, partially removed, sectioning off the shower block and toilets, the water taps, the electricity supplies, and some of the parking areas. The beach bar is boarded up. A sign at the entrance states that ‘the owner has Covid, leave money in the box. 20 euros by the beach.15 euros further back’. It’s squalid but the small narrow stretch of beach looks great as does the sea. I don’t mind a bit of squalor. To Jo’s dismay I say ‘This place looks ok. And it’s unmanned. I reckon it’s free’. ‘You reckon? Better be,’ says Jo, ‘coz we haven’t got any Euros, or Croatian Kuna’.
We swim, sunbathe and enjoy the view out to sea towards the forested hillside of Krk island, almost imagining that we weren’t at a derelict campsite at all. We make full use of the condemned facilities.
I’m preparing dinner in the van when we’re approached by a dark, burly unshaven Croat (Think Zorba the Greek.) ‘20 Euros’ he says without greeting or a smile. I negotiate it down to 15 and say ‘Please five minutes. I get you money’. To Jo I say, ‘Great. Now what? Zorba’s gonna break my fingers’. Jo says, ‘I’m sure I’ve got some Euros somewhere’. How can this be? I think to myself. I’d never have any quantity of cash hoarded away somewhere. Same with booze. But Jo thinks that she might have an old envelope somewhere that’s labelled ’Foreign Currency 2002’. This, she thinks, might be stashed inside a bag labelled ‘odds and sods’ in the bottom of one of three 20 litre plastic storage boxes somewhere in the back of the van – maybe. I’m sceptical. Whilst Zorba shuffles off in search of other prey we unpack the van. After only five minutes – Jo knew she had money stashed – she triumphantly waves several Euro notes in the air. She was right about the inevitability of paying and she saved the day. I’m delighted, but it’s a small setback on my road to redemption from uselessness.
Early next morning, after a swim in the sunshine we drive along the busy coastal road to the town of Senj and then east over the hills into the Croatian hinterland. For the next few hours, due to road closures, Google maps will send us on a merry chase down remote country lanes, and depending on where you stand, this is either a frustrating waste of precious time or an opportunity to leisurely enjoy some of the countryside. Google knows about the first closure and directs us down a circuitous potholed lane for half an hour. We’re in flat fertile farming country where there are lots of abandoned homes, some pockmarked by gun and shell fire, others completely destroyed.
I can remember, as a child, England and more particularly Belgium, in the mid to late 1960s – twenty to twenty five years after the second world war. There was none of the destruction that I see about me here, twenty five years after the Balkan wars. There has been some reconstruction, and some new buildings, but a lot remains in ruins where, I imagine, inhabitants have not returned. This was a recurring theme in Derla Murphy’s Balkan Odyssey; the forced removals, the horror of murder and rape, so that even if people are not ‘ethnically cleansed’, they’re simply too afraid or so traumatised that they never returned. Or the homes, villages of one group are now occupied by another. Admittedly, Dervla wrote about these displacements only a few years after the war, but over twenty years later I sense no rapprochement.
She also takes issue with the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ and is minded to start a campaign against its use. Whilst based on a term that originated in Serbia; ‘cleansing the terrain’, foreign journalists adapted the phrase for their own use, and this doubly inaccurate term is now used all over the English speaking world. As Dervla wrote, “The abuse of language blunts both thinking and feeling. ‘Cleansing’ is a wholesome word, conjuring up a process with a healthy outcome. And in the Balkan case ‘ethnic’ cleansing is seriously misleading. Apart from Kosovo’s Albanians, all those involved in the recent conflicts are of the same stock – southern Slavs to a man and woman. They were not murdering, plundering and displacing each other for ethnic reasons.”
Being Irish, Dervla would know a thing or two about ethnic conflict where, in Ireland, those of Celtic origin were pitted against Anglo Saxons. Regarding the Balkan wars I’m reminded of the American Civil War where Confederate Scots, Irish and English troops fought their northern Scots, Irish and English adversaries.
We see several generations of a dark skinned family, the children in tatters, harvesting plums from one of the many small orchards in the region.
Back on the decent two lane highway (the major A road between Croatia and Bosnia) we see that the fast lane is closed up ahead. There’s a big guy in grey overalls, with a bucket in hand, standing impassively in the middle of the slow lane. ‘Closed. Go back.’ he says. We can now see that the road up ahead is being resurfaced and is impassable. Google knows nothing about this closure and there is no signposted diversion. ‘We want to go to Bosnia. No go back.’ I say. But I think he’s exhausted his English vocabulary. ‘Closed. Go back.’ he repeats. So we reluctantly turn around. Jo manages to locate a minor road, suggested by Google, fourteen kilometres long, through the nearby National Park into Bosnia. This is a great road if you’re going hunting in a Land Rover. We’re behind an old truck with a canvas canopy, belching acrid black diesel fumes. He’s rattling confidently along this massively potholed dirt track that climbs, dips and twists through what, under normal circumstances I’d appreciate as a beautiful ancient forest. After about 8 km there’s a ‘vehicles prohibited’ sign which the old truck ignores. And we’re not for turning either – not that we could if we wanted to. An hour later we emerge, with some relief, onto a tarmac road that quickly leads us to the Bosnian border near Bihac.
It’s a warm sunny evening in Bosnia. Our Park4night App indicates that there’s a riverside campsite with excellent reviews, just beyond Bihac, on the banks of the river Klokot, a tributary of the river Una. Reviewers say that the campsite owner, Hussein, is a friendly and helpful guy. As always, we’re on the lookout for free camping and there is the possibility of such on the banks of the Klokot before Husseins. We’re at this possible freebie location when a big Bosnian, cigarette dangling from mouth, smiles and waves at me from a dirty old red Nissan car. Somehow I know who this is. ‘Hi.’ I say, ‘You must be Hussein.’ ‘Follow.’ He says.
We follow him a short distance along a rough track, across an old wooden beam bridge, to a large grassy field. Hussein is a big round faced guy, devoid of any muslim features that his name might suggest. He offers a firm handshake. His first word to us is, ‘Relax.’ I ask him something in English and he says ‘Relax. No stress.’ I ask him something in German and, motioning his hands, palms down in front of him, he says ‘Relax. No stress friend.’ And whilst we will get to know each other quite well over the next 24 hours, these and a few other exclamations will be our only dialogue.
Under willow trees, next to the slow flowing river Klokot, in the dappled late afternoon sunlight, stands Hussein’s splendid little wooden chalet with a covered terrace overlooking the river. And moored on the river is a boat upon which sits a table for six people, under a white canvas awning. Monet would be inspired by the tranquil scene.
Hussein offers us a seat at the table on his porch and insists we share his lunch; omelette with sausage, salami, grilled vegetables and bread. ‘Relax. No stress’. I ask him if he has any wifi and he asks me, ‘slivovitz?’ ‘Slivo. Sure.’ I reply. Slivo is, mostly homemade, plum brandy. Collectively known as rakia, the Balkans produces a host of such distillations; komovica (grape rakia), travarica (herb rakia), orahovac, made from walnuts, and one of the most highly regarded, dunjevaca, made from quince, in Serbia. I’ll get to sample plenty of these in some quantity – to accompany breakfast, lunch, dinner, or on its own. Over the next few weeks I’ll get the impression that Bosnia and Serbia are on a bit of a bender.
Hussein wanders to the back of the field where, next to a woodpile, he parked his old car. He fires up a small diesel generator which powers, amongst other necessities, a wifi router. I see him walking back with a green litre wine bottle in his arms. A car approaches to cross the field and Hussein hides the bottle behind his back. Once it has passed he relaxes and, using his one small rakia glass, he pours me a shot of clear slivovitz. ‘Minimal’, says Hussein as he pours – the ‘al’ rhyming with ‘pal’. He’s suggesting that the shot is just a little one (it isn’t). I down it in one. It’s sharp, chest warming, with a taste of plums but without that jammy fruit flavour. I like it very much. He pours a ‘minimal’ for Jo and then one for himself. ‘Hop’ he says – the Bosnian ‘cheers’. We’re sharing the same shot glass – so much for post pandemic caution. I imagine the slivo is as effective as any alcoholic hand wash. We share another. ‘Relax. Minimal. Hop’. Then another.
An attractive young German couple,Thomas and Sylvie, arrive in their stylish brand new Mercedes campervan. Thomas works for Mercedes in Stuttgart and Sylvie is a social media influencer. They speak fluent English and, well oiled by the slivo – ‘relax, minimal, hop, minimal, hop’ – we get along like a house on firewater. Hussein retrieves another bottle from the woodpile.
It’s a fine warm evening and we’re all pleasantly plastered and ‘relaxed’. Hussein has become affectionately tactile – not with the beautiful women, or even the handsome Thomas – but with me. He kisses my cheeks and the side of my head, and more intimately, my neck. He hugs me and grips my upper leg. I’ve spent most of my life in the south of England where such male on male intimacies are the provenance of our gay brothers. I’ve never felt my masculinity threatened by male advances but Jo, Thomas and Sylvie think it’s hilarious, giggling at every grope, and that makes me feel a little awkward. I’m certainly too drunk to speculate on the reasons for his amour – perhaps he is gay or it’s a Bosnian thing when hammered.
As the night progresses the party moves to our bar – the kitchen at the back of the van. I open a bottle of Slovenian red wine and Thomas opens a bottle of Swabian white. There’s more salami, cheese and bread, and the ‘minimal hops’ just keep on coming. The conversation is animated and Hussein loves me. After a couple of hours I suddenly reach a point where I can’t take any more of anything so, without completely physically abandoning the fest, I just crash out on the bed.
I’m awake early next morning with a surprisingly clear head. The campsite is tranquil but the sunshine is awfully bright. There’s smiles all round and we laugh about our unexpected evening social. I see a couple of other campervans I’d not noticed last night. Oh dear, what dreadful neighbours we must have been. I wander to a discrete corner of the field for a wee where, in mid-flow, Hussein creeps up behind, embraces me and kisses my neck. But, this morning his affections are for Thomas too. He hugs him and firmly grips a buttock, ‘Friend’, he says.
Hussein is making coffee in the kitchen. We’re sitting on the porch and Jo tells me that she’s had a Google translate chat with Hussein where he messaged her that I remind him of his deceased father and this is the root of his affections for me. Over the coffee, Hussein, with tears welling in his eyes, messages me,‘You are very like my late father’. I respond, ‘it is good to meet somebody who reminds you of someone you once loved’. He shows me an image on his phone of his father in a military uniform at what looks like an airfield. Hussein would have been in his late teens, early twenties during the Balkan war. It is possible that his father was killed in the conflict. Hussein doesn’t say and I don’t probe. But I’m reminded of the proximity of the war and the people, many younger than me, whose lives have been adversely affected or wrecked by it.
My tooth is playing up – the antibiotics not having the desired effect. I say to Jo that we should be thinking about heading off. Hussein senses that we are planning to leave. ‘Relax’ he says, ‘No gas gas. No stress’. Jo says to him. `We need to go Hussein’. ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ he says, ‘No gas, gas.’ indicating that we must not drive away. He texts me. ‘I will cook you lunch. It will be wonderful. We will go on the boat on the river’. It’s very difficult to refuse. There are hugs and kisses all round when Thomas and Sylvie leave to drive on towards Montenegro. We stay for lunch.
I relax on a big rug under the willow tree by the river whilst Jo and Hussein gather tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes and melon from the vegetable garden.
Hussein’s river cruiser is a simple flat bottomed wooden boat with a table, bench seating, a canvas canopy and a quiet electric engine powered by a 12v leisure battery. In the early afternoon we quietly set off downriver. The water is crystal clear, very cold with plenty of vegetation and trout. Lunch is roasted peppers, tomatoes, onions and fried eggs. There are cold beers and the remains of the slivo which we ‘minimal’ and ‘hop’ with gusto. When Jo refuses any more alcohol Hussein says, ‘Blah, blah’. I notice that he drinks enthusiastically but eats nothing. At a bend in the river we see a large mammal at the water’s edge – more closely we see it’s a big beaver munching on a plant. We watch him for some moments before Hussein claps his hands and it dives underwater. I have my binoculars with me and when I focus on a low flying helicopter Hussein says, ‘Putin’. Another favourite catchphrase is, ‘No politica’, or when we fail to comprehend each other, “Communicatzie problem”.
We cruise as far as a weir and on our return up river Hussein moors up and disappears across a field to a large house, possibly his home. He’s alluded to a daughter but says nothing of a wife. He returns some minutes later with another two litres of slivovitz – which confirms my suspicions that Hussein is not just a party animal – he’s an alcoholic.
I tell Jo that we must go – the hospitality is great but the drinking is pretty relentless and our brains and stomachs can’t cope with much more. We have to drag ourselves away. There are tears – much hugging and kissing. Jo says to me as we drive away, ‘I guess if you’re a drinker, you’re always needy of company. It’s always better to drink with friends than on your own.’ I agree with Jo, but only up to a point, because in the end the unrelenting alcoholic’s only enduring friend is the bottle. Later, Hussein messages us saying that he loves us and we will always be his friends.
To Travnik. Slivo with Nino and Surgery
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.
Hassles and High Jinks in Sarajevo
It’s a 90 minute drive to Sarajevo in the outskirts of which we’re stuck in snarled up traffic. This gives us a chance to take in its geography, in the Sarajevo valley, in the middle of the Dinaric Alps, surrounded by five major mountains, some rising to over 2,000 metres.
Like everywhere in the Balkans its been fought over since Roman times but today’s inhabitants live in the shadow of the Siege of Sarajevo. Thirty years ago, in 1992-1996, the city was militarily encircled from those mountains that we see, and subjected to daily sniping, mortaring and shelling, first by the the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and subsequently by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). The siege lasted 1,425 days, making it the longest in modern history.
In a painstaking 101 page, 2002 report, Population Losses in the Siege of Sarajevo, September 1992 to August 1994, the United Nations presented the names of 3,798 killed persons and 12,919 wounded.
Bosnian Serb artillery inflicted immense damage (on average more than 300 shells struck Sarajevo every day) and targets such as schools, hospitals, and homes were not spared. Nearly every building in the city was damaged. Ordinary citizens, suffering the privations caused by the cutting-off of gas, electricity and water supplies, were deliberately targeted by shell and sniper fire. And the world media was there to watch it, write about it and film it.
We cross the river Miljacka in the city centre and drive a steep road to a mountainside campsite that offers toilets, showers and that much needed launderette. As soon as we pull into the forecourt we’re approached by an Englishwoman who tells us that the campsite is closed – the owner has Covid – but there’s another campsite next door.
We descend down a short precipitous track into the tiny yard of Olywood One Campsite. The owner, Oliver, has managed to cram six campers, a tent and a motorbike into this little space. There’s a dirty wc/shower hut and the price is an extortionate 23 euros. But this is a short visit and we don’t have many options near the city centre. Unshaven Oliver introduces himself and says something weird and incomprehensible about how to say hello in English in Malaysia. I’m struck by his rank body odour. We resolve to prepare the van for the night, walk into the city and not return until bedtime. We’ll leave early in the morning too.
We walk down a steep cobbled lane, a 30 minute walk to the city centre, past a series of big cemeteries. Jo says she’s feeling a bit down and in the mood for a few drinks tonight – a sure sign of some high jinks to come.
We head for Sarajevo’s biggest tourist spot: the street corner where the nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip started the First World War by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia. Some say that for many Westerners, the Sarajevo assassination provided a convenient means to divert blame for the First World War from their own leaders. Others argue that the war would have started anyway, if at a slightly later date; for years the Austrians had been fixated on attacking Serbia. But that would spoil the tourist trade’s best Sarajevo story. The exact spot from which Princip fired his pistol is marked by embedded footprints in the cement pavement. He had little feet.
Not far from that corner is another of Sarajevo’s major tourist attractions, the historical and cultural centre of the old city, the Baščaršija district. Today it’s overwhelmed with cafes and souvenir shops selling the same old kitsch tat. We don’t linger for long. However, we do stop at Gallery 15/7/95, an award winning audio visual exhibition of the history of the atrocities of the Bosnian war, and in particular the siege of Sarajevo and the mass murders of 8,000 muslim men and boys in and around the nearby town of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995.
Upon entry we’re supplied with audio guide headsets but I quickly ditch mine. The voice is a tedious gloomy recital of dates and numbers, DNA analysis statistics and facts relating to post massacre investigations relating to events in Srebrenica. It feels like a detailed litany to convince massacre deniers. But the photojournalism and the short films about Srebrenica are powerful and distressing. Jo is very upset by the account of a woman who witnessed the slow murder, in a kitchen, of an infant in front of its mother. She understandably cannot comprehend the monstrosity of such an act or the mindset of the perpetrator. There’s also a clever and poignant five minute film portraying, through the eyes of a young son sent out to get milk, five minutes in the siege of Sarajevo when a family’s life is transformed from near normality to chaos, death and destruction.
We spend over two hours in gallery 15/7/95 at the end of which we’re emotionally spent and feeling quite flat. I google ‘best authentic bar Sarajevo’ and am directed just a few blocks away to a cafe called Zlatna Ribica. Its entrance is elaborately decorated in wood and wrought iron with an ornate door canopy. Inside is an Aladdin’s cave of antique furniture, wood panelling, framed mirrors, more wrought iron wall decor, antique chandeliers and fans, table lamps, cabinets full of ornaments and knick knacks under a warm golden glow of light. We sit in a couple of small stuffed vintage armchairs at a round table and order Sarajevska pivos (beers). There’s no food, just complimentary salted pretzels.
Thirty minutes later and we’re on our second round of beers. A blonde woman and two men enter the cafe. The men occupy seats near the entrance. The woman walks on and passes us, taking in the atmosphere of the place. She overhears us talking, and in an English home counties accent she asks, ‘Are you English?’ We introduce ourselves and she takes a seat at our table. Her name is Sue and she’s a retired ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon from south London. She orders a beer and we chat. She lives with her Bosnian partner Emir, a veterinary surgeon, and twenty three cats in Abu Dhabi. They’ve flown into Sarajevo on a cheap Wizz Air flight. They’re looking to buy a property here. It is Emir who’s sitting by the entrance, in conversation with his friend, an architect. ‘Emir.’ she calls. ‘These people are from England. Come and sit here’. They ignore her. Surprisingly, for an ENT surgeon, she chain smokes. We talk about our relocation to Yorkshire, our life of travel and impressions of Bosnia, she about divorce, early retirement from the stress of ENT surgery, and life in Abu Dhabi.
We order another round of beers. ‘Emir.’ she says, ‘do please join us.’ which he now grudgingly does. We fall into discussion about my infected molar and the treatment I received in Travnik. ‘Best marijuana in Bosnia is grown in Travnik’ says Emir. Sue orders two more beers. There are five of us and even if the bottles on the table are half full she now frequently orders two beers. We quickly lose control of our consumption.
Despite not wanting to join us, I’m now Emir’s best mate. He has his arm over my shoulder and he’s cautioning me about my oral surgery. ‘Who was this dentist in Travnik? You need a proper scan. You’re not on the right antibiotics. I can get you the correct antibiotics. I have contacts. Here’s my number. Call me.’ He shows me an image on his phone of a labrador’s teeth. ‘I treat teeth all the time.’ he says. ‘But I’m not a dog.’ I tell him.
We arrived at Zlatna Ribica at 6pm and it’s now midnight. We’ve not eaten and we’re all very drunk. Jo and Emir go to the bar to settle up the – by Bosnian standards – pretty hefty bill. The obvious and fair thing to do would be to split it 50/50 – well almost fair – there are three of them and two of us. But despite their obvious wealth, to which Emir has been alluding to all night, he doesn’t have enough cash to go anywhere near 50/50. ‘What a tight arse.’ says Jo as we stumble into the street. It’s a warm night. We share a large chicken kebab – always best eaten when drunk – at a wooden table outside a kebab shop.
We find a taxi at a nearby taxi rank. We tell the driver our destination at the top of the hill. ‘How much?’ Jo asks. ‘15 BAM’, he says. We’ve been advised by two separate sources that the going rate is 10 BAM. ‘No, 10 BAM.’ says Jo. The cabbie vaguely waves his hand and we pile in. What did that wave mean? we wonder later. After fifteen minutes we pull up on the highway close to the campsite and Jo gives the guy 10 BAM. ‘No. 15 BAM.’ he says. I argue with him and he shouts at me. ‘Don’t shout at me.’ I shout at him. The exchange degenerates into abuse. He gets out of the taxi. Not a good sign. He’s tall and Bosnians carry guns. But I’m in no mood to back down. We eye each other up and shout more abuse. Jo tells us to stop it, and gives him 5 more BAM but she’s not happy. The guy at the bar not paying his share of the bill, a rude taxi driver ripping us off and now we’re at the overpriced shit hole of a camp. At the moment we feel we’re done with Sarajevo.
At 8am the next morning we’re awake, dehydrated and hungover. We swiftly pack up and with a cursory nod to the campsite owner we drive up the steep ramp and onto the road, east to Serbia. Our destination is the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja, a distance of over 300 km, about 8 hours duration including distractions. The drive from Sarajevo to the border and through the towns of Rogatica and Visegrad is splendid, with the river Drina flowing alongside and often below us in the depths of deep gorges. We stop for coffee at a hotel terrace at the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina. The beautiful stone arched bridge was immortalised in the Balkans by Travnik-born and Visegrad-raised author Ivo Andrić, in his 1945 novel, the Bridge on the Drina. At Mokra Gora we stop for lunch from the van and visit an old narrow gauge railway. The arrivals board declares that a steam train is due, but a few moments before its arrival time it is delayed. This happens several times so we decide to move on.
Jo wants to visit the city of Niš to see a macabre early 19th century Ottoman Empire stone structure embedded with human skulls. It’s somewhere on the outskirts of the city. We eventually find it near a maze of one way streets without parking. I pull up on the side of the road and wait whilst she goes to take some photographs. Sitting here, I recall a passage in Dervla’s Balkan Odyssey where she derides the international community, and specifically NATO (she doesn’t mention that it was actually the Royal Netherlands Air Force) for dropping cluster bombs on the central market square of Niš in May 1999, killing 14 and inflicting terrible wounds on 28 more. These bombs are designed to kill people, not destroy infrastructure. and the use of them is in violation of the Geneva Convention (as is the use of depleted uranium bombs, also dropped by NATO on Serbia). I know it’s over 20 years since that incident but memories linger in the Balkans. Perhaps I’m being over sensitive but I wouldn’t feel any entitlement to a comfortable welcome in Niš market square. On our drive out of the city, Google takes us down a narrow street on which a small band of musicians are playing fast tempo brass and percussion instruments for a wedding ceremony – the wedding guests dancing off the pavement into the road.
It’s 7pm when we arrive at the small village of Novo Selo, outside the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja. We’re in hilly farming country with smallholdings and fairly large but basic farmhouses with adjoining greenhouses, barns, livestock pens and vegetable gardens. We pull into a big grassy field and park under an apple tree. The owner steps out of a small outbuilding next to the main house and greets us with a big smile. She is Milena, a short, spritely, seventy year old woman, suddenly widowed only last year after fifty years of marriage. She’s vacated the main farmhouse and now lives in a tiny outhouse in a room that serves as bedroom, lounge and kitchen, with an adjoining bathroom/toilet. She invites into her cosy living room which has been warmed by a log burning aga type stove in the corner. In another corner sits an old fashioned TV flickering a poor quality image of a football match.
We all sit at the dining table. She is the best host; allowing us to park on her lawn, sharing her shower and toilet, and feeding us salad, feta, and roast lamb from her farm – accompanied by her homemade raki. She speaks not a word of English but she introduces us to an Amazon App called SayHi – how is it that we’ve not come across this App before? Select two languages, speak into your phone and it translates from one and speaks the other – occasionally with some very amusing mistakes. Jo and Milena really hit it off and chat for hours. She has three daughters, seven grandchildren (‘like Snow White – Snežana.’ I say ) and some more distant relatives in Blackburn with whom she has lost touch. She survives on a paltry pension of 200 euros a month because she eats fruit, vegetables and lamb from the farm, burns local wood for heat and cooking, and augments her income through campers like us and renting her big farmhouse to Slovenians in the summer. She’s very convivial and so happy to have us as company. Jo has to tear herself away to get to bed.
It’s another fine morning and there’s no better way to start it than with a Milena Serbian breakfast of coffee, raki, cake, fried eggs, raki, pancakes, tomato salad and raki. And Jo does a lot more chatting with Milena. We wheel out the Bromptons and cycle the hills into Vrnjacka Banja where Jo buys a padlock on which we write our names, lock it to the Bridge of Love and sling the key into the river. Jo convinces me that this is a good thing. She deserves a kiss. Back at the farm Milena is busy in the kitchen frying chicken for lunch. I reluctantly tell her that we cannot stay. We must get to the Bulgarian border before dark – but we promise her that, on our return trip from Turkey, we will visit her again. It’s a promise that we will keep.