Saturday, 22 December 2012

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?

world-map bosnia


And here it is Merry Christmas… and the end of 2012… and the final installment of Balkania, probably my most in-depth, (and certainly my longest), work. I hope you all enjoyed it and please give me any feedback that you might have as it is quite controversial in places, none less than this week’s offering where I reflect and conclude upon the entire trip whilst enjoying a coffee in the gorgeous Croatian city of Dubrovnik.

But that’s not all that’s new here on Uncle Travelling Matt! Check out the links to the right of these words, for I’ve added a new one, a history of my travelling life with a variety of photos from around the globe. Who is this Uncle Travelling Matt and why does he love travel so? Well, find out by clicking there and laugh at how ridiculous he looked in his younger years.

And if that too is not enough, then a regular reader sent me this rather interesting link from the Guardian about travels in Urfa in Turkey, a city which really impressed me and can be read all about in my Latvia, Georgia and Turkey travelogue. However, whilst I had a great time there, it appears that I missed the prime attraction! Damn and blast! I suppose I’ll have to go back there one day…

But if that is the past, what of the future. Well, whilst I am steadily working my way through all my archived material, there’s still loads to post here and so keep on visiting us. In 2013 there’ll be articles on Indonesia, my account of my Trans-Asian Expedition from Japan to Bulgaria via South Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine, whilst I also have a guide to the holy sites of Staffordshire and reports of my summer trip to Ukraine, Romania and Moldova and my winter pilgrimage around South Wales. Oh yes, and I’m off to India and the UAE in February so I’m sure there’ll be some bits of that as well.

But until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and thank you all for supporting Uncle Travelling Matt.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Dubrovnik (2)

Upon returning to Dubrovnik, I gave back the car and then walked into the Old City for the evening. I wasn’t really in a sightseeing mood, but I knew that I couldn’t actually stay in Dubrovnik and not see this world famous site up close, (I had seen it from a distance when driving back from Montenegro).

Earlier that day I may have visited Budva, the ‘Mini Dubrovnik’, but that was no preparation for the real thing. The fortifications were enormous, awe-inspiring in both design and scale and even Niš’s impressive fortress paled beside them. Reading Balkan history one wonders why this tiny colony never fell to its many enemies; seeing the fortifications up close, it no longer is a mystery.

I walked through the majestic double gate and found myself in a different world. The forbidding martial aura was gone and in its place a fine Renaissance Italian city. Walking down the main street, Stradun, its stones smoothed by the feet of a million souls, I realised I was now in Europe’s West, the Europe of France, Spain and Italy, a Europe that had always been Catholic, never once under the influence of either the infidel Turks or the heretical Orthodox. It was a city steadfast and sure in its Latinness, and the Roman Catholic faith which had seemed so out of place and incongruous when I’d come across it in Bosnia-Herzegovina, seemed completely at home here. Here it was as much a part of the landscape as Orthodoxy had been in Serbia and Bulgaria.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 556

The Stradun, Dubrovnik


I sat down at a table beside the Church of St. Blaize, (the Patron Saint of Dubrovnik), and listened to a fiddler who was playing a tune for the benefit of the visiting masses. This truly was a magnificently beautiful place, but the spark of my interest was not there. I had come to see the Balkans, to experience Balkania, that exciting mish-mash of culture, faith and landscape that has enchanted me for years, but this, beautiful and rich in history though it was, did not seem Balkan at all. This place had never fully experienced the Balkan mix despite being a part of Yugoslavia for decades. Dubrovnik should be on part of Italian itinerary, not a Balkan one.

And so, I realised, that my trip was over. I was sat only metres from the waters of the Adriatic, having travelled all the way from the shores of the Black Sea. I had passed through five countries, two entities and countless towns, cities and villages on my way, talking to locals and tourists alike and trying all the while to make sense of what I was seeing. But sat there, a cup of Italian coffee in my hand, what conclusions could I honestly draw from the whole trip; after traversing it from east to west, what had I really learnt about Balkania?

The first thing that struck me is that whenever I start to talk, to describe, to explain the history or politics of a particular place in Balkania, within second I am busy referring to the ethnic make-up of it and spewing out demographic statistics. In very few of the many other areas of the world that I have visited and written about has that been the case and about none of them have I done it with such regularity. Yet everywhere in Balkania it is a necessity if one really wants to understand the realities of the place, about why people think and act like they do. At the start of this travelogue I began comparing the percentages of Muslims and Orthodox in the Shumen Region and at the end (well, it was sort-of near the end…), I tackled similar demographic issues in Herzegovina. And I had to do so for without doing so one could never comprehend why so many of those great Balkan tragedies, from the Great Excursion to the Treaty of Craiova to the liberation struggles against the Ottomans to the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s and dozens more such happenings that have scarred this wonderful and beautiful peninsular ever happened at all.

And when one looks at those statistics, what astonishes more than anything else is their fluidity. Bosnia-Herzegovina may be seen as the ultimate Balkan hotpot of peoples these days but only a hundred and fifty years ago most other areas of the peninsular were just as mixed. Back when Bulgaria was ‘liberated’ from the Turks in 1878, as much as half the population was Muslim and thus did not really want those Turks to leave. Many of those Muslims disappeared with the retreating Ottoman troops into the all-embracing fold of the remaining provinces of the empire and today their descendents are so mixed in with the rest of the population as to be indistinguishable to us. And then, in the 1980s, it all happened again, the Great Excursion causing thousands to uproot and move to Turkey. In 2003 I was lucky enough to travel to Istanbul and stay with the Mutlu family, one of those families who were forced to move during the Great Excursion.[1] They still retained their Bulgarian identity amidst the vast cosmopolitan expanse of Turkey’s largest metropolis, but will their children and their children after them? Within a hundred years their descendents will most probably have forgotten that their family ever spent centuries in Bulgaria whilst Bulgaria will have forgotten that a family named the Mutlus ever resided within her borders.

This shortness of memory – or at least, selective shortness – is crucial. Reading the chapter in Noel Malcolm’s exquisite Bosnia: A Short History on ‘Serbs and Vlachs’ is a revelation. Prior to the Ottoman Conquest, the population was virtually entirely Catholic or they were members of the dying Bosnian Church. There was in short, almost no Orthodox – and thus Serb, presence whatsoever. The Serbs only came later, settled there by the Ottomans and prospering under them largely at the expense of the Catholic Croats if anyone. And whilst many Slavs – both Catholic and Orthodox – did convert to Islam, as I have already outlined, the process was gradual and generally not forced, and those who did switch, most did not necessarily benefit all that much from their change in creed. By the 18th century Bosnia-Herzegovina had a Muslim majority but after the Austrian occupation of 1878 thousands fled south the Kosova and Macedonia, enduring much hardship in the process, and leaving the latecomers the Serbs as the majority.

I say all of this to demonstrate just how fluid these populations were and how far reality usually veers from the oft repeated nationalist myths that one hears everywhere in Balkania. Listen to a Serb and you’d be fooled into thinking that they are the original inhabitants of Bosnia; listen to a Bulgarian and it is as if the entire country was Orthodox and united against the Turks. These are but two of the nationalist fantasies that I’ve heard whilst wandering about Balkania or talking to her people overseas and they are two of the least ridiculous. I have also heard that Albania should be twice the size that it currently is, including great chunks of Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosova and the Greek province of Epirus, (the Albanians call it ‘Çamëria’), yet at the same time I’ve heard the Greeks claim that the southernmost part of Albania is theirs; I’ve heard Serbs tell me that Kosova used to be majority Serb whilst Albanians insist that it was always predominantly Albanian; I’ve heard Bulgarians claim that the Slavic Macedonians are in fact Bulgarians whilst the Serbian on the train to Niš was sure they are Serbs and at the same time the Macedonians themselves claim to be neither Serb nor Bulgar, instead being purely Macedonian just as Alexander the Great was, a claim countered by the Greeks who insist to me that Alexander was Greek and only Greek and “those Slavs in Skopje” don’t even have the right to use the name Macedonia, let alone anything more.

It is plain for all to see therefore, that all these myths cannot be entirely correct all of the time. Epirus/ Çamëria cannot be both Albanian and Greek, it must lie within the borders of one or other state and whilst in many ways one could argue that the Slavs of Macedonia are Serbs, Bulgarians and Macedonians all in one – and somewhere along the line, they probably contain some blood from Alexander the Great – that is no recipe for state building. And therein lies the problem, for the more that one travels around Balkania and the more that one speaks to her peoples, then the more one realises that, a few exceptions notwithstanding, these are people, this is a region which seems able only to deal in absolutes. In Balkania you see, everything is either true or false, right or wrong, black or white but never grey. Earlier I suggested that the Slavic Macedonians could be seen as Serbs, Bulgars and uniquely Macedonian all in one and to me, such a way of looking at things is quite natural and obvious, for they are made up of both the blood and the culture of their two Slavic neighbours as well as containing certain ingredients unique to Macedonia. But I am not of Balkania and suggesting such a viewpoint would merely result in a look of mystification. “But you can’t be two things, let alone three!” he would insist. “You must be one or the other; that is the end to it!”

There are countless examples of this on both a macro and micro levels and they affect every aspect of the lives of the people of the region. We have already talked about several macro examples but to give an example of the micro I shall tell you about an Albanian that I know who is currently serving time in gaol for murder. “I’m innocent!” he insists to me whenever the subject is raised and who knows, perhaps in the strictest sense of the word – i.e. of landing the blow that killed the man – he is. But at the same time, he was still present at the event, may have egged on the actual killer and certainly did nothing to either prevent the crime or alert the authorities and as such, in the eyes of the law, he does bear at least some of the burden of guilt. To the British mind this goes without saying and I have no doubt that a British defendant, regardless of his true thoughts on the matter, would have gone into the witness box stating that he did not land the blow but making a big act of repentance for not preventing or trying to prevent the crime. To my Balkan man however, such a way of doing things would not make sense. He was not guilty, end of. And if anyone tried to question his word, then that was a personal affront to both his pride – another tragic Balkan weakness – and good name and he would tell them so. “I am from the Balkans,” he said to me sadly, “I talk straight, not like a snake.” And so he did talk straight, denying that any guilt was his and raging at the court for suggesting as much. And as a result, he got Life.

His case is interesting because it displays so many of the tragic traits that curse Balkania. The black and white mentality, an excess of pride and an inability to appropriate self-blame. In Balkania nothing is ever the speaker’s fault. From my Albanian friend on the micro level to the macro level and an event like the Great Excursion, (“Zhivkov had to do it because the Muslims wanted to set up an independent state with Razgrad as their capital! Yes, it was bad but the alternative was far worse! You don’t believe me? But there are documents that prove it!”), the blaming of the Other permeates through every level of life on the entire peninsular. And in my opinion, these are the factors behind Balkania’s rocky and hate-filled recent past.

In his book on Bosnia, Noel Malcolm argues that the animosities which caused the horrific events of the 1990s – and by extension the other wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Great Excursion, the Treaty of Craiova and numerous other acts of inhumanity in the region over the last century or so – were ‘not permanently built into the psyches of the people, they were instead the products of history and could change as history developed.’[2] I agree with him and yet, at the same time, I do not. Yes, the prejudices in Bosnia and beyond aren’t permanent and can change, but conversely, I would also say that the black-white mindset where the speaker is always white is, and this will inevitably lead to prejudice and disharmony every so often. Later on in the book, Malcolm also makes the conclusion that, ‘In the end, it seemed that American policy had succumbed to the false analysis which had so poisoned European policy since the start of the war – an analysis which saw “ancient ethnic hatreds” as the origin of the conflict, and therefore favoured some kind of ethnic separation as the solution. By persisting in their misunderstanding of Bosnia’s past, the Western statesmen, both European and American, were helping to ensure that Bosnia would have a much more troubled and uncertain future.’[3]

This summing up both pleases and angers me. Did the strategies – or lack of them – of the Western Powers exacerbate the situation? Yes, undoubtedly so, just as outside powers, be they Ottoman, Venetian, Austrian, Russian, French, Italian, German, British or American, always have exacerbated Balkan woes, but at the same time he ignores certain realities. The fact is, reading such a conclusion, a citizen of Balkania would be most pleased, for it passes all the blame, all the guilt onto another party, those devious great powers of whom we are eternally the victim. All that Malcolm does is perpetuate the Balkan trait of a lack of honest self-evaluation and in doing so does as much to condemn Bosnia – and by extension, the rest of the region – to a much more troubled and uncertain future as any Pentagon policymaker. The fact is, pleasant or not, that these days the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats do not want to live together, just as, deep down, I firmly believe that the vast majority of Orthodox Bulgarians do not really like sharing ‘their’ country with Roma, Turks and other minorities. They may not be murdering each other over the issue in Bulgaria, but the feelings are still there. And what is more, my time in Višegrad taught me that, tragic and unfair though it may be, ethnically separated, the two communities can move forward and be happy far more easily than they can when still sharing the same space. As I have said before, nationalism is, in my opinion, a poison based on pure fantasy that has found fertile ground in the black and white, no self-blame Balkan mindset and it has caused immeasurable damage as a result. But whatever my personal political feeling may be, what I also must recognise is that nationalism is nowadays a poison that is so deeply impregnated in the peninsular that, despite the liberal wishes of Malcolm et al, it won’t be going away. He tells us that immediately prior to the war, political commentators argued that Bosnia could never be a state because it contains three different nationalities, before then posing the question of why they assume that nation-states are the only viable states?[4] Well sir, I would counter that whilst, like you, I wish that such a view did not prevail, unfortunately it does for ever since the French Revolution unleashed the scourge of nationalism upon the world, then the global political system has been built around the notion of the right to self-determination with nationalism as its guiding ideology. So is it time for a new way of thinking? In my opinion, yes indeed, but again, I am not in sync with the world in general and Bosnia in particular. And Bosnia-Herzegovina’s borders, lines drawn on the map by the great power brokers of the 18th and 19th centuries do not work nor will they ever work in a nationalistic world.

And so, I am afraid to say, that after travelling around Bosnia-Herzegovina, my outlook for her future is not rosy. Two of her three peoples don’t want to belong to her and a combination of rabid nationalism and memories of terrible wrongs wrought means that they will not be happy until the day when they do not belong. That is an awfully pessimistic view I know, but I can’t see things any other way. In 2009 the traveller that I met in Gjirokastra compared Kosova and Bosnia to me. “They are completely different, you can’t compare the two at all,” he said. “In Kosova they are moving forward, slowly it is true, but they are. Now that the Serbs have gone, the hatred is disappearing and the fighting won’t return. In Bosnia though, they have put their guns away because the West is there and has split them up. But the hatred still exists and the guns still lie beneath the floorboards. The moment that the West leaves and they’ll be at each other’s throats again.” Sadly, after having visited both countries myself, I have to say that I agree with him entirely.

But I am no pessimist by nature and on this voyage through Balkania, whilst I saw plenty of cause for concern, I also witness great cause for hope. Bulgaria, like Yugoslavia, was impregnated by the poison of nationalism for decades which culminated in the tragic events of the 1980s. But since then the regime has fallen and the world has opened up. And talking to Pavel Marinov in the Sea Gardens that night, I realised that that black-white Balkan mentality is no more permanent than the borders of Bosnia. It has existed in Balkania for centuries because it has been actively cultivated in Balkania for centuries, through ignorance and the skewed telling of history. And whilst it will take centuries more to shift – if it ever can be shifted entirely – I firmly believe that the mentality of the people of Balkania is changing. The Bulgarians – as with all those brought up under communism – were exceptionally well-educated, but that education also had the flaw of enforcing the black versus white and blame the Other outlook because it suited the ideology of the regime that provided it. But in talking to Pavel, and the other young movers and shakers of the post-communist world then I detected, for the first time, a sense of balance, of realism and of truly measured thought.

The European Union has its many critics, particularly here in the UK, but its active inclusion of the Balkan states and its breaking down of boundaries and walls of the mind may yet prove to be its greatest legacy to the continent. For Balkania you see, is worth far more than the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, far, far more. But hopefully, in a future where the illusion of the nation is substituted for something much higher, it will no longer demand them.


Trans Balkan Trip 2011 555

Journey’s end: Dubrovnik



Written Smallthorne and HMP Dovegate, UK

September 2011 – February 2012



Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History

Robert D. Kaplan

Published by Vintage Books (New York, USA) 1994


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

Rebecca West

Published by Canongate Press Ltd. (Edinburgh, UK) 2006

First published by Macmillan Ltd. (London, UK) 1942


Bosnia: A Short History

Noel Malcolm

Published by Macmillian Ltd. (London, UK) 1996 (with additions)


Bulgaria: A Travel Guide

Philip Ward

Published by The Oleander Press Ltd. (Cambridge, UK) 1989


Kosovo: A Short History

Noel Malcolm

Published by Macmillian Ltd. (London, UK) 1998


Montenegro (1st Edition)

Peter Dragičević

Published by Lonely Planet Publications Pty. Ltd. (Singapore) 2009


The Apostle of Freedom: A Portrait of Vasil Levsky Against a Background of Nineteenth Century Bulgaria

Mercia MacDermott

Published by Sofia Press (Sofia, Bulgaria) 1979


The Bridge over the Drina

Ivo Andrić (Translated by Lovett F. Edwards)

Published by The Harvill Press (London, UK) 1995

First published in Serbo-Croat by Prosvera Publishing Co. (Belgrade, Yugoslavia) 1945


The Days of the Consuls

Ivo Andrić (Translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Bogdan Rakić)

Published by Dereta (Belgrade, Serbia) 2010

First published in Serbo-Croat by Prosvera Publishing Co. (Belgrade, Yugoslavia) 1963


The Quest for Radovan Karadžić

Nick Hawton

Published by Hutchinson (London, UK) 2009


Through Another Europe: An Anthology of Travel Writing on the Balkans

Edited by Andrew Hammond

Published by Signal Books (Oxford, UK) 2009


Why Angels Fall: A Journey through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo

Victoria Clark

Published by Macmillian Ltd. (London, UK) 2000


Essays and Travelogues


Albanian Excursions

Matthew E. Pointon

Unpublished, 2010


Bosnia’s Dark Icons

Albena Shkodrova

Available online at:

No marked date (c.2010)


Constantine the Poet

Michael D. Nicklanovitch

Available online at:



Međugorje: History, Prayers, Messages, Map


Published Anon


Razgrad and Isperikh

Matthew E. Pointon

Available online at:



Religious and Sociocultural Dimensions of the Kazalbashi Community in Bulgaria.

Vesselin Bosakov

Pub. University of Niš (Yugoslavia), 1999

[1] See my travelogue ‘Cold Turkey’

[2] Bosnia: A Short History, p.xxi

[3] Bosnia: A Short History, p.271

[4] Bosnia: A Short History, p.234

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

world-map bosnia


This week we leave Bosnia and head up into Montenegro, the Black Mountain where Orthodox Bishop-Kings once held the Ottomans at bay. Nowadays its far less dramatic, hell they even use Euros there, but still a fascinating little country to check out and extremely beautiful.

The other news this week is that I’ve just booked next year’s expedition. I’m off to India, flying into Delhi and aiming to visit Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs and perhaps Rajasthan as well. I can’t wait and of course it shall all be updated here first!

In the meantime, Christmas draws ever nearer. The last post of Balkania should be up before the festive period leaving us with a new travelogue to explore come the New Year.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Dubrovnik (1)

Dubrovnik was a city that I knew well. I knew it well despite having never visited it before. I knew it well because my grandmother visited it during the 1980s and trust me, anywhere that my grandmother visited on holiday, you ended up knowing every inch of. No one on earth could extract quite so much pain from a Sunday evening slide show.

Even by her standards though, Dubrovnik was a place that we really heard a lot about. It came second in her list of holiday destinations, (to a place in Australia humorously named Yorkeys Knob), and she waxed lyrical about its beauty and how the roof tiles were all handmade, formed over the thigh of the bloke who was making them. I don’t know why that particular detail stuck in my mind so much – perhaps because I was told it so very many times – but if ever anyone has asked me about Dubrovnik, I’ve always managed to pull that one out of the library of my mind. However, the Dubrovnik that I saw from the bus was not the stunning Italian masterpiece that she had described. Instead, it was a rather ordinary Croatian town. But then this was the newer part of the city, the Old City lay to the south.

At the bus station I was met by an old lady offering a room in her house for €17 per night. It was a reasonable price in a city renowned for being one of the priciest on the peninsular so I took it. Besides, there was a bonus: it was only across the road from the bus station so I didn’t have far to lug my bags.

That evening I got talking on the shaded courtyard of the house with the other occupants of our hostess’ spare room. They were a Brazilian couple and a young American named Dave Naughton. Like Ryan before in Mostar, they were all excellent company and all really enjoying their own Balkan expeditions although there was much confusion as to why and what all the wars of the 1990s had been about. I outlined the facts to them the best I could, (not an easy task), but with a few maps and diagrams along with gems fished out of the recesses of my mind garnered on my Politics degree things became a little clearer and we settled down to a very pleasant evening indeed, chatting and swapping stories. It was like in Mostar and like it had been back in Albania and Kosova two years previously. One doesn’t come across many fellow travellers when in the Balkans but when one does find them, they are always decent and interesting people.

I don’t know why; perhaps the region just attracts people like that.

Herceg Novi, Cetinje and Budva

From He-Man to Hercules, Robin Hood to Robocop, great heroes have always known who their enemy is and have never shied from fighting them. I, on the other hand, am no hero, and if proof were needed of that, then what I did upon waking up in Dubrovnik on my last full day in the Balkans, is certainly enough: I hired a car.

Let me tell you how I was feeling then. I was tired, both mentally and physically. My brain was overloaded with all that I’d seen and experienced over the preceding weeks; my body yearned to relax, days of travel and non-stop movement had caught up with it. I believe the term for it is ‘travel fatigue’, (‘travel sickness’, after all, has different connotations). And so why then, did I straight away stroll down the street and book out a Ford Fiesta, (the cheapest automobile on their books but still a world removed from Plamen’s trusty Astra)?

Because I am my own worst enemy, that is why, and because I am no hero from legend, I can’t be bothered to fight that mortal enemy most of the time. What I needed was to relax, to mooch around town, (one of the finest in Europe after all!), and replenish body and soul, to recoup, to save some money… That is what I needed, and I knew that more than anyone. But would that old foe of mine let me? You bet he didn’t! ‘Stay around here! Are you mad, Matt?! Listen, you always planned to go to Montenegro; you want to go to Montenegro; you’ve never been to Montenegro before and look, it’s only a few miles down the road! A whole new country! You who says he loves the Balkans so much, then how can you not go to Montenegro; how can you not take a trip to Cetinje? Montenegro, Matt, Montenegro, go on son, you know you want to…’

‘But wait!’ replied common and financial sense, those oft-ignored true friends of mine. ‘You can’t afford this and you won’t be able to take it in properly!’ Then there’s another voice: ‘I concur!’ screams my body, ‘Let me chill, dude!’

An hour later I was through the border.

But why the need to go to Montenegro you may ask? Well, some will understand this more than others, but for starters there’s that basic maxim of travellers that teaches, ‘It exists, therefore I travel there.’ That was a pulling factor, a major one, a country within touching distance that could be ticked off life’s little list. But with Montenegro it was much more than that. I could try to win you over with the argument that it was the bay of Kotor that won me over. That looked stunning in the guidebooks and is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in Europe. But no, I’d be lying if I went with such a logical reason. Sure, I wouldn’t mind seeing Kotor, but that wasn’t the real drawcard, the real pull factor. Instead it was a tiny town of fifteen thousand souls high up in the mountains. Before I left the Balkans, I wanted to see Cetinje.

Starting around 1356 when they conquered Thrace, the Ottoman Turks swept through the Balkans defeating all that stood in their way. Many resisted, some more successfully than others, but in 1499 the last kingdom on the peninsula fell, the tiny Principality of Zeta, a state whose borders roughly correspond with those of modern-day Montenegro. Thus began what should have been – and was for all the other Balkan peoples – the long, dark night of Turkish Rule. But in the rough and rugged terrain of the Black Mountain, (‘Montenegro’ or ‘Crna Gora’ as it is called by those who live there, are both translations of ‘Black Mountain’), control was never easy and often on paper only. The landscape was forbidding and the locals never fully accepted Ottoman control with power being more in the hands of local chieftains in the hills as opposed to the Ottoman Governor on the plain.[1] Then, in 1516, the last of the Crnojević dynasty, (who had rules Zeta prior to the Ottoman invasion), retired to Venice and conferred royal succession on the Bishops of Cetinje. This stroke of genius was just what the Montenegrins, for whilst they had always been able to fight the Turks, they could never agree amongst each other, each tribe vying for primacy over the others. The church however, was held in high regard and the Prince-Bishops, (Vladikas), were elected by popular assembly and could come from any of the major families. Thus united, the Montenegrins fought against the Ottomans continuously and won two key battles in 1603 and 1613 effectively making the country an independent theocracy. Over the years that followed many more battles were won – and many lost, the capital Cetinje itself was captured in 1623 and 1687 – and a combination of inhospitable terrain, fierce fighting from the Montenegrins and diplomatic ties with Venice – who controlled much of the coastline including Herceg Novi and Budva – meant that the tiny mountain state survived, (in various political forms), all the way up until 1916 when it was occupied by the Austro-Hungarians during World War I. After the war it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which later became Yugoslavia and it seemed as if an independent Montenegro would never be seen again. But after the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Montenegro found itself in a Yugoslavia that was no more and the country was simply called Serbia and Montenegro. A referendum on independence was held on the 21st May, 2006 and 55.5% voted for independence, (to be successful, they needed over 55%), and so on the 3rd June, 2006, the Montenegrin Parliament declared independence and for once, the Serbs had no problem with such a declaration. The dark days of Milošević were over, after all.

And that is why I longed to see Cetinje so much; the tiny capital of a tiny kingdom that had stood firm against one of the greatest empires in the world for four centuries exactly. A real-life Strelsau or Klow in a real-life Ruritania or Syldavia. More than that though, I hoped that it would also show me something else, something of great personal fascination for any Balkan enthusiast: a glimpse of what the Balkans would look like had the Turks never got there. Yes indeed, that would be worth seeing.

I was hungry so I stopped off in the town of Herceg Novi. My first Montenegrin experience though, was not positive; the prices were almost as high as in Croatia, (I’d deliberated not eaten there to save money), and the food was bland. However, the town itself looked interesting and I saw a sign pointing to ‘Ivo Andrić House’ which piqued my interest after visiting several sites connected with him in Bosnia so I went looking for it.

I was unsuccessful in my search[2] but instead I stumbled across the city’s museum which was housed in a handsome villa overlooking then sea. With Serbo-Croat labels, this presented the usual collection of pottery fragments and folk costumes but I did manage to learn that the Turkish domination of the town had been short and instead there was a far greater Venetian influence.

Walking round the town afterwards and that influence was clear to see. It was a pretty place, very pretty in fact, but not at all what I would call ‘Balkan’. Instead, it seemed as it had been transplanted from the South of France or the Amalfi Coast, the word ‘Mediterranean’ being far more applicable than ‘Balkan’. As with Dubrovnik, it was clear that I’d left ‘Turkey in Europe’ far behind and was now firmly in the Italian sphere of influence, a Mediterranean playground of those with bundles of tourist euros to spend.

Although the twisting narrow streets of the walled town were pleasant, my Herceg Novi highlight was the dungeon in the Kanli Kula, (the ‘Bloody Tower’ fortress), for there on its dirty walls were scratched fantastic pictures of sailing ships done by bored inmates centuries ago.

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Herceg Novi from the Bloody Tower

Moving on, I drove towards the Bay of Kotor, Europe’s southernmost fjord and one of the continent’s most beautiful spots. I crossed the bay at its narrowest point on the car ferry and then drove through a series of picture-postcard villages on its banks to the town of Kotor itself, after which I climbed the steep hill behind the town, from which the guidebook promised glorious views over the bay.

And my, weren’t those views glorious! There was a lady selling ice creams by the roadside so I bought a Tropicool off her and stood by the car, drinking them in.

As a writer, I struggle with superlatives. Use too many and they sound crass, use too few and the magnificence is not conveyed. That’s a problem now, for with Kotor, one needs them. In short, the view is of rocky peaks in the distance, lush, green slopes by the water’s edge, and serene blue waters dotted with boats. That however, does not express anything about the beauty at all. All I can say, is that it is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen and only by viewing it yourself will you understand.

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The Bay of Kotor

But things were not finished once I got back into the car. The road turned into a veritable assault course, twisting and turning its way up the rocky slopes of the Black Mountain that gives the entire country its name, a series of twenty-five switchbacks in all, each one offering more spectacular views than the last. It was certainly the most amazing road that I’ve driven along, (although damned hard work to navigate, particularly when one encounters a bus travelling in the opposite direction!), and when the top was finally reached the landscape was transformed into a rocky alpine wilderness of few people and sparse vegetation. It was a world away from the verdant Mediterranean wonderland far below.

After ten kilometres or so, I came to the village of Njeguši and I knew straightaway that I was away that I was away from Italy Abroad and back in Balkania, for its low stone cottages and squat Orthodox church could have belonged to nowhere else. There were signs advertising the birthplace of one Petar II Petrović Njegoš and I was tempted to stop and find out more, but conscious of the time I drove on.[3]

Cetinje is a strange and charming little place. Although situated high in the mountains, it is largely flat and easy to walk around, and although a capital city for centuries it has a languid laid back air as if it is slumbering, ignoring all the hustle and bustle of the coastal towns down below. I parked up on one of its tree-lined streets and started to explore on foot, the cool mountain air making such an activity far more enjoyable than it had been in Herceg Novi a few hours previously.

Cetinje – like most capital cities – abounds in two things: foreign embassies and museums. I wandered round the embassy district first, looking at a few of the former, particularly the former French Embassy, the building of which being moderately famous due to its somewhat extravagant and somewhat Oriental design, the exterior being covered in colourful ceramic tiles. Urban myth states that it was originally intended for some North African capital but the plans got mixed up somehow and it ended up in Montenegro; a romantic if perhaps somewhat implausible tale. I then moved onto the museums, taking in two of the five that constitute the National Museum of Montenegro; the Biljarda Museum and King Nikola’s Museum.

The Biljarda is a former fortress and residence of Petar II Petrović Njegoš, who is generally seen as Montenegro’s greatest ruler.[4] It was built in 1838 and gained its name from the fact that Petar had a billiards table imported from England and housed in one of the rooms. I wandered around taking in the exhibits and in particular some of the artwork that forms much of the national collection including a series of paintings that vividly portray traditional Montenegrin peasant life. I then moved onto King Nikola’s Museum, housed in the rather Mitteleuropean palace of the country’s last king. This I preferred, for one could see clearly in the preserved rooms the strange synthesis between the grandeur of the European tradition with the earthy peasant lifestyle of the Montenegrins that characterises Montenegro.

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The Biljarda; St. Peter of Cetinje’s residence

Exiting King Nikola’s Museum as it shut, I headed across to the tiny Court Church before then heading up to the city’s spiritual heart, the Cetinje Monastery. En route I came across a souvenir and antiques stall where I spied some old Montenegrin banknotes. All old banknotes fascinate me, but these in particular for Montenegro today does not have its own currency. Instead, it utilises a curious system whereby the National Bank buys euros off the ECB and distributes these as the national currency, the idea being that it will help attract tourists and investment as well as promoting stability. It certainly makes things easier for the visitor and it sounds a positive idea to me although I do not pretend to be an economist and one wonders that if it is such a good plan, why has no other small country adopted such a strategy?[5] Certainly one good argument against euro usage and reintroducing the old currency would be that its name, the perper, is one of the most whimsical and memorable in world finance.

I bought a one perper note and then continued onto the monastery. Founded in the 16th century, it houses the bones of St. Petar of Cetinje and also the right hand of St. John the Baptist. The present building dates from the start of the 18th century and inside there is a mystical and serene atmosphere that reminded me somewhat of the earthy Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Georgia. I would have loved to have stayed longer to savour it but I knew that time waits for no man, I had a city to explore and I needed a drink.

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Cetinje Monastery

I sat with a coffee in Cetinje’s main street and reflected on what I’d seen in Montenegro so far. Despite suffering from travel fatigue and thus not really taking in things all that well, I was glad that I’d come, although I knew too that a second visit would be necessary to do the place justice. What had struck me most on this short foray into the country was the overwhelming feeling that I had not truly entered Montenegro until I’d driven up that hellishly twisty road up the Black Mountain and come to the land on the other side. The coastal plain seemed like a different world, wholly European, Italian, touristy. Yes, it was pretty and yes, it was full of history and culture, but somehow it didn’t interest me. I’d regretted not staying on the beach in Dubrovnik until I’d climbed that hill, but the moment I did I regretted no longer and was glad that I’d made the effort. Cetinje and the wild lands around Njeguši were the Montenegro that I’d imagined and sought. Here was a land of legend and rebellion where a mystical church held sway, a land that was European and yet, at the same time, still wild and untamed. This was Balkania, truly Balkan in a way that Herceg Novi and Kotor were not and yet it was also unlike anywhere else that I’d been to on the peninsula. The Turks had only been in Cetinje for a few decades and culturally it was as if they’d never set foot in the place. The Balkans are often characterised by the Oriental Factor, Turkey in Europe, yet here it was completely absent. The elegance and symmetry of the mosque and medrassah were missing and with them a degree of sophistication, of art and civilisation. Yet in their place was a rawness; the rawness of an earthy people with an earthy faith who struggled eternally against both the unforgiving terrain and their powerful, external foes. It is the rawness of freedom with all the benefits and costs that that brings.

This was a subject that fascinated West when she travelled to Montenegro. Yes, the Montenegrins won their freedom, and they had to fight exceptionally hard and long to do so, but, like all freedoms, it had come at a price. As Constantine the Poet says to her whilst on the road into the country when West asks him about the great sacrifices made by the Montenegrins:

‘Greater than you can believe. They have sacrificed almost everything except their heroism. They are nothing but heroes. If they eat or sleep it is so they shall wake up heroes, who would not trouble to come out of their mother’s wombs were they not certain that they would grow up in heroism. They are as like the people of Homer as any race now living: they are brave, and beautiful and vainglorious. A soldier must be vainglorious. He must go into the battle believing that he is so wonderful a human being that God could not let it be that the lesser men in front of him should kill him… This vainglory will not permit them to have any other characteristics, except a little cunning that is quite simple, like the cunning of the Homeric heroes, for to be perfectly and absolutely vainglorious you must hold back from all activity, because you dare not ever fail at anything. So the Montenegrins are not really interested in any kind of work and that makes it very difficult to fit them into the modern state of Yugoslavia.’[6]

The good poet’s analysis is perhaps not entirely accurate: the Montenegrins managed to fit into the modern Yugoslavia better than most of its peoples as history has attested, but nonetheless much of what he said rings true today. Even now Montenegro is still producing Homeric heroes who will stand and fight, who know no fear, yet who can also be bloodthirsty and evilly nationalistic. For starters the infamous President of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić was born and bred in the Montenegrin village of Petnica. And it is true also that a society so consumed by war and conflict, has neither the time nor money to cultivate art, culture or science. The Montenegrins kept out the Turks, but in doing so they kept out a lot of the learning and civilisation that came with them. Walking around the monuments and survivors of this hardy mountain kingdom, I was reminded vividly of the famous American quote ‘Freedom is not Free’, (although not in the sense that it was originally intended). It was fascinating to behold.

I paid for my coffee and walked down the main street of one of Europe’s more endearing capitals[7] and then drove back down to Italy Abroad below.

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The commercial district, Cetinje. Roppongi it ain’t.

I had my evening meal in Budva, another Venetian colony on the Balkan shores of the Adriatic although today’s colonists tend to hail largely from the Russian Federation and stay only for a fortnight each year. The Old Town, hermetically sealed off from the touristic metropolis outside by its ancient stone walls, is dubbed as a ‘Mini Dubrovnik’ in the tourist literature and is certainly both as pretty and as over-priced as its larger neighbour to the north. I wandered around its narrow streets and peered into its smoky churches but my travel fatigue had well and truly returned after the brief respite in Cetinje and I took naught in. Besides, this was not what I had come to see; this was not Balkania. I retreated to the tourist town and filled my stomach before driving back up to the Croatian border, defeated finally by an overload of sights and scenery.

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Budva: ‘Mini Dubrovnik’

Next part: Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


[1] He was based in Shkodra in modern-day Albania. Indeed it should be noted that the situation was extremely similar in the equally inhospitable mountains of Northern Albania but they never so far as to declare independence, possibly because a large percentage of the Albanians converted to Islam and thus benefitted far more from the Ottoman presence. For those wishing to learn more about the tribal lifestyle in Ottoman Northern Albania, Edith Durham’s ‘High Albania’ is an excellent place to start.

[2] Ivo Andrić it transpires, often stayed in Herceg Novi which he once described as ‘a town of eternal greenery, sun and stairs’.

[3] At the time I was unaware of who the Petrović Njegoši family were but had I known that they were the dynasty who ruled Montenegro for several centuries and that Petar II was in fact St. Petar of Cetinje, then I would probably have stopped. Instead, at the time I was more intrigued by the similarity between the name ‘Njegoš’ and ‘Niego’, the surname of my Bulgarian Jewish friend, Katya. Was there a coincidence? Alas, it seems not; Niego is Spanish, not Montenegrin. A shame since she would have done very well as a Montenegrin queen me thinks.

[4] Although reading historical accounts, I struggle to see why. He was not a bad leader but his predecessor Petar I and several others seem to have done more. However, as the prince who left behind the garbs of a priest and put on the traditional outfit of a highland chieftain, he was certainly the most stylish and style counts for a lot in these parts.

[5] And no other country has adopted such a strategy although Kosova uses the euro too. They however, adopted it due to the country being under NATO – and then EU – supervision and it was seen as a stable and neutral option, not favouring any single ethnic group over the others.

[6] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p.1009

[7] Not that Cetinje is the capital of Montenegro these days; that honour has been bestowed on the rather more workaday Podgorica instead. Cetinje is still however, the spiritual capital, the repository of Montenegro’s history, culture and nationhood and I do not think that that shall ever change.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

world-map bosnia


I’m back from Wales now after having enjoyed a fantastic few days of pilgrimage and sightseeing. I managed to visit a host of places which I’ve never before explored including the spiritual heart of Wales, St. David’s, her temporal capital, Cardiff and the Valleys including Merthyr Tydfil which, for any fellow socialists, is where the Red Flag, drenched in the blood of a sheep, was first raised in 1831. All in all, fascinating and inspirational and a whole new insight on a little country which I thought I knew well already. Anyhow, it shall all be written up in full very soon, promise, but in the meantime, here are a couple of photos from my travels:

SAM_0089 SAM_0135

Top: At the Chapel of St. Non, near to St. David’s; Bottom: Cardiff Bay with the new Welsh Assembly building

By the by, if you’re wondering about the facial hair, it was all in aid of Movember and if anyone wishes to donate, just get in touch.

Now, that was Wales but here on Uncle Travelling Matt it’s back to the Balkans and this time I talk about the tragic city of Mostar and my experiences there including meeting an excellent American chap called Ryan and a pair of very friendly Bosniaks.

Oh yes and finally, my Wales trip has made me do something that I’ve been intending to do for quite some time. Whilst I was there I stayed at one of the friendliest establishments I have ever set foot in and I thought it was well worth recommending it so I’ve created a new page, (see right), Uncle Travelling Matt Recommends… in which I’ll be recommending any establishments which really went over and above to make my trip a special one. So check it out and if you’re ever in the Fishguard/St. David’s area please check out Hamilton Backpackers even if it’s only to have a natter with Steve…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Mostar (2)

Back in Mostar I went for tea with Ryan, the American from the excursion, next to the Old Bridge (Stari Most), perhaps the most potent symbol of the tragedy – and slow recuperation – of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I need remind no one of how this incredibly graceful structure spanned the Neretva for over four centuries until it was pointlessly blown-up by Croat artillery on November 9th, 1993. It has since been rebuilt and, along with the old stone houses of the town, forms an incredibly beautiful sight and fitting backdrop for Ryan and I to talk about what we’d seen and experienced that day and throughout the whole of our trips.

Like me, Ryan had not been overly impressed with Međugorje but he had really enjoyed the rest of the trip and other places that he’d visited in the former Yugoslavia. I liked Ryan because he was good conversation and a genuine guy. He was studying for his Masters in Mathematics at a university in Budapest and spending his holidays doing some travelling around Europe. He’d initially headed for Italy, (where he had relatives), but the high costs had scared him back out again and so he’d headed down the Adriatic Coast into Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where things are much cheaper and, to Ryan’s surprise and delight, there was just as much to see. “I can’t believe this region,” he told me, “it’s both beautiful and fascinating. I just wish I’d known about it before because I’d have come straight here.” Another Balkanophile in the making it seemed, so I told him a little about my travels and warned him that he’d only just touched the tip of the beautiful big Balkan iceberg.

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The Old bridge, Mostar

As so often happens in those parts, our conversation turned to religion. Visible from our seats by the river was the tower of a huge new Catholic church on the western bank of the Neretva – traditionally the East Bank has been Muslim and the West Bank Catholic and this division was merely solidified during the war – and a large cross on a nearby hillside. It was apparent to even the most casual of observers that these modern additions to the local skyline were largely political, not religious in motivation. The tower was so preposterously tall that it looked ridiculous and its only real purpose can be to be taller than the minarets of the mosques, but it is the cross that most infuriates the Bosniaks since it is sited on the exact spot where Croat snipers used to sit and pick off Bosniak civilians in the town below. Both the cross and the new tower were there to proclaim to the world that, despite its Turkish bridge and beautiful old mosques, Mostar is as Catholic as it is Muslim and that whilst the city may lie within the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it should lie within the borders of Croatia instead. It is a statement that I personally doubt that the Christ who taught us render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s[1] would have approved of.

For Ryan, a firm member of the atheist camp, this was yet more proof, (as if it were needed), that religion is really quite a negative thing indeed. However, one must remember that things are not always as obvious as they seem. Mulling over that tower and cross and the other sights visible from our seats, Ryan stated, “Compare that tower with the minaret on the mosque over there; I much prefer the minaret for it has a purpose and was not built solely to annoy the other faith.”

“But what purpose was that?” I countered. “To administer the Call to Prayer, yes, but then bells too are rung from the tower to call the faithful to Mass. However, was not the prime reasoning behind building the minarets so high merely to assert the dominance of the new, true Islamic faith over the old, corrupted Christian one? Indeed, throughout the Ottoman Era there was even a law which stated that any new church had to be lower than neighbouring mosques so that the Christian faith was always lower physically as well as politically, than the Muslim one. Graceful it may be, but it is my opinion that the same warped reasoning as dictated the building of that ridiculous church tower in the 21st century was also behind that minaret in the 16th century.[2]

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The Old Bridge with the tower of the new Catholic church in the background

I returned to Miran’s hostel because I had to move my bags into the single room and because Miran had promised the girls to show a video of Mostar during the war, whilst Ryan had promised to make a phone call to his girlfriend, but we promised to meet up again in the evening for a drink.

The video came in two parts. The first was the showing of a 1993 BBC documentary called Unfinished Business in which the reporter Jeremy Bowen accompanied Bosniak fighters over the Old Bridge shortly before it fell and filmed how back conditions were during the fighting. It had been made to inform the wider world of the fighting in Mostar and to let the West know that the Croats, who were at times tacitly supported, were into the killing and cultural destruction business just as much as the Serbs. In that purpose, at a time when international eyes were all turned firmly towards Dubrovnik where the Croats were very much the victims, it served well indeed. However, eighteen years on, like with the exhibitions in the Tunnel Museum and Sarajevo Historical Museum, whilst it portrayed the suffering and misery of the war in graphic detail, I found it weak on details of exactly why and how the conflict was happening and the historian in me was confused. The Croats swapped sides: why? The Serbs were now supplying the Bosniaks: why? What were the three sides all trying to achieve? The only answer I received was that war is horrible.

The second part of the video showing was a home video of Miran’s taken during the height of the fighting. Although entirely in Serbo-Croat, this was far more affecting than the documentary since it was virtually all filmed in the very courtyard where we were now watching the TV. We saw which windows had been broken and which had wooden panels protecting them; which walls had bullet holes in them and which houses had been hit by shells, and more than that, we saw younger versions of the very people whom we were sat with. The film centred around Miran’s uncle who lived in Sarajevo. He’d passed through the tunnel during the height of the siege and then walked for five days through the mountains to see his family who hadn’t know until he turned up on their doorstep whether he was alive or dead. Then he’d only stayed in Mostar for two days – the days covered by the video – before walking back and they heard nothing more from him for almost two years until the war ended. Most moving of all, the tape showed Miran’s grandfather laughing and joking with his sons. Only a month later he was killed by a sniper whilst fetching food. Seeing all this on such a personal and immediate level made Miran’s earlier monologue so much more comprehensible and the divide between Bosniak and Croat all the more unfathomable. Indeed, confirmation that it was still almost total came when Miran showed us his hand and a finger that had stitches all around the base. Apparently it had been sliced off during a riot between Bosniaks and Croats following the Turkey versus Croatia match in the 2008 European Championships.[3]

That evening I joined not only Ryan, but also Amar – who ran the hostel that Ryan was staying at – and Amar’s girlfriend, Selma. The two Bosniaks were great company being friendly, intelligent and also possessing great English. Amar – who bizarrely looked as if he’d been separated at birth from Ryan – immediately remarked on my Stoke City top and entered into a conversation about Asmir Begović, the recent FA Cup Final and Rory Delap’s long throws. The air full of football, we headed down to the Old Bridge and then over it into the small enclave of Stari Grad which, despite being on the western bank of the Neretva, stayed in Bosniak hands throughout the war.

In a bar there we got talking about the recent burqa ban in France. Ryan wanted to know what our opinions on it were; were the French right to ban the faceveil or not? II must admit that this is an issue which I have struggled to come to a firm conclusion on. On the one hand I consider it wrong for a state to dictate to its population what it can and cannot wear and I was firmly against the Taliban forcing the burqa onto the women of Afghanistan. However, on the other hand, I do believe the veil to be something of a special case as it is a garment specifically designed to separate and create a barrier between people and as such flies in the face of community integration and cohesion which are ideals I also strongly believe in. Therefore, overall, with many reservations, I am inclined to say that I support the French government’s position. Ryan, on the other hand, with a similar number of reservations, opposed it. What surprised us both though, were the opinions of the Muslims and in particular, the female member of our party.

“I agree with the ban completely,” said Selma unhindered by any reservations. “I really don’t like the faceveil, I think it is scary and I would hate to have to wear anything like that. To me, it is even un-Islamic. The Qur’an never tells women to wear something like that.”

“But what about the hijaab?” I asked.

“Some Bosnian girls choose to wear headscarves although not me or any of my female friends. The girls that wear headscarves, most of them are fucked up from the war; maybe they were raped or had family killed. It messed them up so they become religious as a way to cope. For me though, no way!”

Selma’s comments were interesting because they reflect the general premise of Na Putu and opinions that I had head several times whilst travelling around Bosnia-Herzegovina, namely that the Bosniaks are secular and only turn to religion because the war has emotionally scarred them in some way or another, rape being the most commonly cited example. That stereotyping strikes me as being somewhat patronising although, like most stereotypes, it doubtless has some basis in the truth. What strikes me even more though, is not how the war may have affected Bosniak attitudes to Muslim dress but more how communism did. Selma’s peers might well consider her attitude and views to be quite normal and sensible, but they would be most alien to her ancestors in Mostar for prior to the communist takeover of Yugoslavia, the city’s Muslim females dressed and acted quite differently as this quote from West recording her 1937 visit to Mostar demonstrates:

‘The Moslems slid about black-muzzled, wearing their cotton wrappers, which were usually striped in coldish colours, greys and slate-blues and substanceless reds, except for those who wore that costume that one sees in Mostar and not again when one leaves it, unless one’s journey takes one very far: to Turkestan, I have heard it said.

The costume is stirring to the imagination and as idiotically unpractical as any I have ever seen… It consists of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it. It is cut with a stiff military collar, very high, perhaps as much as eight or ten inches, which is embroidered inside, not outside, with gold thread. It is never worn as a coat. The woman slips it over her, drawing the shoulders above her head, so that the stiff collar falls forward and projects in front of her like a visor, and she can hide her face if she clutches the edges together, so that she need not wear a veil. The sleeves are allowed to hang loose or are stitched together at the back and nothing can be done with the skirts which drag on the ground.’[4]


Traditional Muslim clothing, Mostar

Following this West proceeds to talk about the psychology of such a costume, of what feeling and thoughts such a mode of dress brings and her conclusions are worth noting:

‘It presents the female also in a more sinister light: as the male sees her when he fears her. The dark visor gives her the beak of a bird of prey, and the flash of gold thread within the collar suggests private and ensnaring delights. A torch is put on to those fires of the imagination which need for fuel dreams of pain, annihilation and pleasure… There is about all veiled women a sense of the melancholy quite incommensurate with the inconveniences they themselves may be suffering. Even when, like the women of Mostar, they seem to be hastening towards secret and luxurious and humorous love-making, they hint of a general surrender to mortality, a futile attempt of the living to renounce life.’[5]

Despite the fact that she was writing over seventy years ago, this is a subject that still has great relevance today. Why should one shroud women in veils and robes, hiding them from view? Most Muslims would give an answer talking about modesty, by hiding the woman it reduces her sexual appeal to men, (even though, as West herself hints, it can work in the opposite direction…). Many Westerners would tell you that it is more about control; the woman has to hide because she is the property of her husband, that she is inferior, and as such, the veil is unacceptable in modern society. Those who wear the veil say they do it from choice and are not oppressed, but the simple problem is, just by looking at the lady in the photo above and comparing her with her 2011 descendent, Selma (below), one cannot help but comment that Selma appears to be more liberated. Strangely in Britain though, most of the girls who do wear the veil – and they are a growing number – are as liberated as Selma, which therefore begs the question as to why choose a difficult and cumbersome dress code that seems to fly in the face of that liberation? I do not know the answer, but from speaking to many members of Britain’s Muslim community, both male and female, the popularity seems to be that the veil is a sort of badge that proclaims your Islamic identity against a secular or Christian majority, and within the Islamic community itself, tells everyone of your religiosity as opposed to the worldliness of the majority of Muslims. Perversely, a garment that was designed to draw attention away from the wearer, these days seems to be worn to draw eyes towards her.

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A night out in Mostar: Left: With Amar and Selma; Right: Ryan and Amar

Selma and Amar left around eleven since they both had to work in the morning and there was a storm brewing, but Ryan and I had nothing to get up for and we were enjoying ourselves too much so we stayed out. As we were walking along Maršal Tita though, that threatened storm did break and it did so with an almighty crash and so fleeing almost monsoon-like rain we dived into a bar where we decided to drink away the time until it was safe to venture back out again.

Over our beers Ryan told me about himself and his past, and in particular, why he disliked religion so much. He comes from Tennessee in the American South and his father is a very committed Baptist and, I am afraid to say, but the picture that he painted of his dad is one that doesn’t really do any favours for the faithful. Desperate for his son to follow in his holy footsteps, when Ryan announced that he wished to go backpacking, his father attempted to make a deal. ‘You go on two missions and I’ll pay for your backpacking trip,’ was the offer. Ryan told him where he could stick his missions, which is something that I agree with since one should really only go on a conversion mission if one actually believes in the doctrine that one is there to preach. “He’s so fucking sanctimonious!” said Ryan. “Everyday he lists what good deeds he’s done as if that is some sort of proof that I should become religious. And do you know what he said to me before I left? ‘The problem with me son, is that I care too much!’ For fuck’s sake! Can you believe it? He actually said that!” I must admit that I found it hard to believe that someone supposedly following a faith based on humility could say such a thing, but there again, I’m not a Baptist so I can’t really judge.

Ryan did however, believe in something and that was his Mathematics. Back at the waterfalls, I’d seen a tattoo that he had which was of a mathematical formula. I asked him what and why and he replied, “It’s a proof that infinity exists. If I’m ever doubting why I’m doing all this, then I look at that and remember.” Whilst no lover of either Maths or tattoos myself, I liked that, it was good.

We were deep in conversation and several beers heavier when everything went black. There was a power cut through the entire district and I could hardly see the man opposite me. The whole place was in virtually complete darkness, the only light provided by the occasional flickering lighter and red glow of a cigarette end. We huddled over our beers and spoke in low voices, the darkness making the air almost conspiratorial. The owner of the bar brought two beers over for us, free of charge, (“for Begović”), and we drank and waited. It was surreal and it was special. As the rain drummed down on the roof like machine gun shots and the gale force winds buffeted the windows like shell explosions, the power gone and surrounded by grim-faced locals seeing out the harsh night, immersed in our silent solidarity one could almost believe that it was ’93, not ’11 and the hell that Mostar had once endured was still raging all around us.

A morning stroll to the bus station told me that there wasn’t transportation onwards to Dubrovnik until four and so I had half a day in which to explore Mostar. I walked down Maršal Tita and called into the Kara Ozbegova Mosque, generally considered to be the finest in Mostar. Completed in 1557, it is very typically Ottoman and its beautiful interior reminded me of the Tomboul Mosque in Shumen. Outside I bought a postcard for Sardar Qadri, the imam where I work who collects postcards and had asked me to get him some, and I noticed that the decorations shown on the card differed considerably from those that I had seen inside. I asked the young man at the entrance about this and he informed me that the mosque had been badly damaged during the war and only recently been restored. Experts from Turkey had come to do the restoration and whilst doing so the original painted decorations had been uncovered beneath later tiles (shown on the postcard) and the decision had been made to restore it back to the original state although a few tiles had been left in place to show how they would have looked. The main feature of the paintings were trees and I asked if these were Quranic – perhaps from the descriptions of Paradise – but he told me that such was not the case and that using trees as decoration was a local tradition which had nothing whatsoever to do with scripture.

The young man turned out in fact to be the imam of the mosque and a most friendly and chatty person to boot. We began a discussion on Balkan Islam with me telling him all about my experiences in Bulgaria and Albania and particularly regarding Demir Baba. His brand of Islam turned out to be of the most liberal type but he was not a Sufi. That said, he regarded most Sufi orders as being properly Islamic – many Muslims do not – but drew a line at the Bektashis whom he considered barely Muslim, so convergent are their beliefs for the Qur’an. Regarding other faiths, he was particularly well-disposed to the Church of England in particular and the English in general having once been invited to the UK to perform the Azan (Call to Prayer) in Salisbury Cathedral during an event commemorating the events in Mostar. “Everyone was friendly and I was made extremely welcome, and the building itself was beautiful!”

This brought us onto talking about Islam in Britain which is heavily influenced by Kashmiri Pakistani, they being the oldest and most numerous of the Muslim immigrant groups. The imam told me that he had issues with Pakistani Islam with all of its tensions – Deobandi versus Pir and the like. “We have lots of problems here, that’s for sure,” he said laughing, “but thank God we don’t have that one! When we get Pakistanis here, they are always looking at people and asking, ‘Is he Muslim? Is she a Christian?’ But we Bosniaks are not like that, people are people, that is that.”

Back in the UK, I had the opportunity to look at the subject from the other side. Giving Sardar his postcards, he started telling me about when he had visited Sarajevo back in 1996 to reopen the Begova Mosque after its restoration. He recalled how he’d had to fly in on a UN transport plane from Zagreb and how nothing was available at all. Despite all that though, he’d really liked Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Islam that is practised there although it should be noted that, as a Sufi, Sardar is far more liberal in his outlook than many of his Pakistani brethren.

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The imam in front of his mosque, Mostar

I continued on to the Old Bazaar where I bought some souvenirs and some old Republika Srpska banknotes[6] and then visited the Old Bridge Museum which is housed in the tower at the end of the bridge that it once guarded. From the top of the tower I looked out over the bridge towards the Croat side of the city clustered around the new church with its stupidly-tall tower and I knew that to fully understand what had happened here, I needed to visit that half of the city as well, so I crossed over the bridge and headed towards what had once been enemy territory.

The first thing that I came across was an empty lot surrounded by bullet-scarred buildings. A large sign announced that this was where Mostar’s synagogue had once stood. The only other clues to its former purpose were a simple slab commemorating the local Jews who’d died during the Holocaust and a piece of anti-Semitic graffiti on the fence.

West Mostar seemed like an entirely different world to the East. Both still bore the scars of war but the West didn’t wear them as well, it largely being communist era apartment blocks that would have looked pretty awful even if people hadn’t spent several years shooting at them. But in the centre of them all was the still-unfinished new church, vast, concrete and cavernous but not unpleasant in its design save for the incongruous tower. I stepped past the workmen and inside to pray and try and understand some more of the Catholic role in this intricate Balkan tapestry but I left none the wiser. In my mind, I was struggling to associate Catholicism with the Balkans. This was largely due to the bulk of my Balkan experiences being in the Orthodox – and in some provinces Muslim – stronghold of Bulgaria, but also because I had not once seen a single piece of Roman Catholic architecture that seemed rooted in the land in the same way that Sarajevo’s Old Orthodox Church or Demir Baba were for example. All the Catholic churches that I’d come across in Bosnia-Herzegovina – or Albania too for that matter – were either bland new builds or second-rate 19th century copies of Italian or Austrian designs. Yet why was that? According to Malcolm, prior to the coming of Islam virtually all of modern Bosnia-Herzegovina was Catholic, the Orthodox Church was ‘barely active’ save in Herzegovina.[7] Why was that? Why does so little remain of ancient Catholic life in Bosnia? The only answer I have found so far is again provided by Malcolm, and it again, does not fully answer my question. However, he argues that during the 16th to 18th centuries, the Catholic Church was much disadvantaged in the Ottoman Empire – because of its links to Venice and Austria – even in comparison to the Orthodox Church, let alone Islam, and as such it barely managed to serve its souls in many parts of the country:

‘The genuine poverty of the Catholic Church in Bosnia emerges from many reports. Bishop Maravić noted in 1655 that “few of the parishes have churches where the Mass can be said and the holy sacraments administered; the Mass is usually said in cemeteries and in the private houses of Catholics.” To administer the sacraments, the Franciscans would ride out on horseback to outlying villages and stay the night, indistinguishable in their lay clothes from the peasants, they were addressed as “Ujak” (‘uncle’), a practice which has survived to the present day.’[8]

Was the answer therefore, that no old Catholic churches or institutions survived because they never in fact, existed in the first place? I still awaited a full answer to this one and wondered if I would discover more in Croatia?

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Catholicism in Bosnia-Herzegovina: very old, yet very new as well…

I’d intended to finish reading The Days of the Consuls on the bus to Dubrovnik, but I felt sick after a couple of pages – I suspected food poisoning at the time, but it turned out to be mere travel sickness – so I put the book down and stuck to watching the world go by. The scenery now truly was Mediterranean, arid with cypresses and olive trees, and I no longer felt like I was in the Balkans but instead some province of Italy. It was beautiful but it was not what I’d come to see.

I was surprised when we came to a border post sporting the Croatian flag. A look at the map tells you that Bosnia-Herzegovina has an outlet to the sea at Neum and I’d expected to travel straight there before turning left for Dubrovnik, thus crossing only one border. But here we were on the Ploće road, heading into Croatia the wrong side of Neum. There is a road through Bosnian territory straight to Neum – or at least the map shows one – but it is evidently not good enough for luxury coaches.

The Dalmation Coast was beautiful in the evening light. When I say ‘beautiful’, I mean perhaps the most gorgeous coastline that I have ever clasped my eyes upon. Our road clung to the cliffs and below us was a sea of glass dotted with verdant green islands, a tranquil paradise. I was reminded of Corfu which is also incredibly green and lush, but then that should not be surprising, for she too is another island off this coastline, but a few hundred miles further south.

dalmatian coast

The Dalmatian Coast with Neum in the distance

We crossed back over into Bosnia-Herzegovina and stopped for toilets at a service station just beyond Neum. We may have been back in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it felt more like Croatia. People were spending Croatian dinars in the shop and there was a Hajduk Split scarf and Croatian national team pennant up behind the counter. If the people here wanted so much to be in Croatia, why was the town in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Neum’s inclusion in Bosnian territory is an accident of history. Under the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699 which concluded the Austro-Ottoman War, (a decisive victory for the Austrians who, under Prince Eugene of Savoy burnt Sarajevo to the ground only two years earlier), large tracts of land along the Dalmatian Coast that had formerly been Ottoman, were ceded to Venice, (these now form part of Croatia). The Ragusan Republic (modern-day Dubrovnik) however, stayed independent and so that it did not have a land border with Venice, the Ottomans were allowed to keep a 22km strip of coastline (Neum), and these borders were transferred onto Bosnia when Yugoslavia was first established and have remained so ever since despite the fact that the population is staunchly Croat.

And so, after our last short stop in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we reboarded our coach and headed towards the Bosnian border for the very last time. Now I really was heading into Croatia and towards the end of my trip. Bosnia was what I had come to see this year and Bosnia was what I had seen. It had been a country that had challenged me, shocked me, dazzled me and befriended me all in equal measure. I had talked with Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats and had discovered a land that is a microcosm of the Balkans, the Balkans in its most concentrated and volatile form. It was a harsh cocktail to imbibe but it was also a highly-addictive one. It was tragic and heart-breaking yet at the same time it was fascinating. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a lesson for our time that each and every European should learn.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain


[1] Mark 12:17

[2] As an aside, talking to Miran about the tower, apparently it was brought up in a debate in the Bosnian parliament. A Bosniak MP asked why it had to be so tall to which a Croat MP replied, ‘To show that we control you,’ to which the Bosniak retorted, ‘But we go further than that, for every night the moon and the stars are above your spire!’ A good comeback I thought that one was.

[3] Whilst no excuse for starting a riot, one must say that this was one hell of a match. At 90 minutes it was still 0-0 so it went into extra time. Nothing happened then either until the last minute of extra time when Rustu, the Turkish keeper, rushed out of his goal to clear a cross and left a gaping goal for Croatia to pop the ball into. There were wild celebrations from the Croatian team and bench and everyone assumed the game was over as there was no added time to be played, but the Turks had another idea, took the ball down to the other end of the field and scored with the last desperate kick of the game. As a result it went to penalties where the Croatians, still devastated, scored only one leaving Turkey to emerge as 3-1 victors. When asked what happened, the shell-shocked Croatian manager Slaven Bilić merely replied, “We thought we’d won it!”

[4] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p.290-1

[5] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p.291-2

[6] I collect old banknotes and on this trip I managed to pick up some excellent specimens, particularly in Varna. Republika Srpska no longer issues money of course but during the war it printed its own currency.

[7] Bosnia: A Short History, p.70

[8] Bosnia: A Short History, p.99