Exit from Bulgaria – flat route, flat emotions, “arrest” on the border
I stayed quite long in Sofia, battling with the curse of procrastination, trying to finish up my write up for almost 2 months of being in Bulgaria. So when I was finally finished writing and posted up my last blog post (probably a little too hastily – sorry for the typos etc), I was conscious that I had been stopped in one place far too long, and needed to get moving again. Whilst carrying out a walk like I am doing, especially if doing it alone, in one way you are completely free. There is no one to tell you where to go, when to stop, when to move; you are completely your own master, and it is truly wonderful. Except I have found that I am not completely free. I have a small voice in the back of my head urging me – “onwards, onwards, forward motion, keep on going, don’t stop”. When I am walking the voice is silent, except if I am contemplating an early stop for the day then it makes itself known and will often persuade me to keep on going . When I do stop at a place for longer than a night, the voice is always there, quiet at the start, but getting louder with every passing day. So after more than a week in Sofia, I was acutely conscious of needing to move, the voice in my head was getting very insistent on the point.
So I burst from Sofia, like a coiled spring, out of the large estates of identical communist blocks of the suburbs and into the broad arable valley lying to the north-west of Sofia. The sun was shining, the road was clear and easy, my pack was almost 10kg lighter than before Sofia, as I had sent my winter equipment home. I should have been elated, but my emotions were strangely flat for the 2.5 days it took me to get to the Serbian border. Perhaps it was because I was leaving behind the closest personal connection I had made on the trip so far, or because the route was so flat and easy, and mainly on tarmacked roads. I feel like, when we have no adversity to face and life becomes too easy, it starts to lose its purpose, and we start to drift. So I drift; through villages and towns barely registering their passing on the way to the border, insensitive to the attractive rolling landscape and curious geomorphology.
At the border I was given a sharp reminder of how lucky I am to have been born where I was born, to have the passport that I do, and to have the opportunity to travel as I do for pleasure (and why I ought really to snap out of my funk and wallowing in self pity). I was perhaps 1km shy of the border, hiking along a tiny road. I wished to avoid switching on to the main road until the last possible moment, as it was thick with trucks and cars traveling scarily fast. An old lady in her garden started gesticulating at me wildly – so I came over to see what the problem was. She could speak not a word of English, but was clearly pointing to the road I was on and then indicating handcuffs – if I continued on the way I was going I would get arrested. Checking the map, her message seemed plausible, as I was now on one of the main migration routes for desperate people trying to get to western Europe.
I thanked the lady and turned around to head back the way I had come, planning to join the main road and head to the border control that way. I hadn’t got more than about 10 paces, when a defender pulled up at speed and two border control officers got out. They couldn’t speak any English, took a cursory look at my passport and then gestured me to get in the back of the car. They took me to the local police station where I was placed on a bench and waited whilst they checked my passport. Across from my bench I could see a holding cell with about 10 illegal migrants who had evidently been caught whilst trying to cross the same border I was about to. Bulgaria is one of the harshest countries for illegal migrants in Europe, with beatings, robberies and worse at the hands of the border police extremely common (1). These people were attempting a similar journey to me, for very different reasons, and yet, because of where they were born, they were faced with deportation, and more violence along the way, whereas I was handed back my passport after 10 minutes and allowed to head on my way. The haunted, hollow expression, on their faces will stay with me for a long time. The issues associated with the European migrant crisis are huge and seemingly intractable; it is easy to push them to the back of the mind with the lower rates of migration but the push-pull factors are still there and will be for the foreseeable future. One can only hope that Europe figures out a way to handle migration in a more humane way, that migrants are dealt with in a way that affords them basic human dignity, and that the UK agrees to let in more than the shamefully low target of 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 (Germany has taken in over 600,000; Turkey 2.9 Million; Even tiny Lebanon has taken over 2.2 Million refugees – and Lebanon’s population is just over 6 Million! (2)).
Introduction to Serbia – spring rains, cloudy peaks, road walks
The border crossing itself was uneventful, and very quickly I found myself in Dimitrovgrad, the little town of 6,000 people which had seen huge flows of refugees last year, which has now slowed to a trickle, thanks to the dubious EU deal with Turkey. The first few days out from the border, I stay in the towns, in paid accommodation. Every one I see during the days assumes I am a migrant, and I have to assure them that I am a tourist and walking for pleasure (No one understands this – it seems no one in Serbia walks for pleasure – or at least no one that I have met). Some are friendly, others not, so I feel it prudent not to camp, until I am off the main migration pathway. It took me four days to get from the border to Niš, Serbia’s third largest city. The weather broke, and I encountered heavy rainfall, cutting winds, and low temperatures. This keeps my head down, and thoughts focused mainly on making forward progress. After many road sections I decide to be adventurous and head up for a traverse of a giant horseshoe of a mountain called Trem. As I climb temperature dips below zero, visibility falls to 20m or so, the wind picks up, and I am pelted with hail, and rain and sleet. I can feel my body temperature dipping with the prolonged assault of the elements, and decide to skip the peak, and head for a lower level traverse instead. As night is falling, I’m still out on the mountain side, contemplating the unpleasant prospect of camping out in the miserable weather, when I stray off the path and come across by chance a picnic area with a solid roof and two sides walled in. It’s a little paradise, with its own spring, and an beautiful view down to the North. I put my bedding on one of the solid benches hard into the corner of the two walls, strip off my soaking things and crawl gratefully into a warm, dry – if somewhat hard, bed. Its hard to know how inviting a solid wooden bench can be, until you are tired, cold and soaked to the skin; and the alternative is to camp on the sodden ground. The following evening I arrive into Niš, book into a hostel, have a hot shower, and all is instantly forgotten
From Niš, I catch a bus up to Aleksinac (pron. Alexinats) to visit an old friend of mine, Jasmina, who – by a massive coincidence – happens to be back visiting her parents for Easter. Having not really met or chatted to any Serbians up until this point, the welcome to the Zivic household by Jasmina, Tane, Svetlana, Marije and Sasha, is a wonderful introduction to the Serbian hospitality that I would be lucky enough to encounter many times on my trip onwards. We have a huge lunch, with more and more wonderful food being produced, together with copious amounts of grape and plum rakija, made by Tane himself. The conversation flows with the brandy, and I end the extended lunch far better informed on Serbian customs, culture, and language. When I leave the next day to get the bus back to Niš, Tane disappears back into the house and comes back with a half litre of the plum brandy, it brings me tremendous solace in the dark nights in the forests to come.
Across the middle – A tale of two Mountain Massifs
I set off walking from Niš to the west (West, west, I am always walking west), towards a looong narrow E-W heavily forested ridge which practically cuts central Serbia in two – Jastrabac. My 1980s soviet maps got me lost trying to gain the ridge, but once I had fought the undergrowth to get up there I could power along a broad forestry track at a high rate. I camped up near the summit of the first peak I came to Mali (small) Jastrabac, getting very little sleep due to high winds threatening to blow the tent away. I woke up as the day broke, around 5:30 or so, and was on my way as the sun first kissed the horizon. I continued along my ridgeway down to a saddle and then up, up to Veliki (big) Jastrabac (1477m), which I attained about lunch time. In the true Balkan spirit, the summit was taken up by a military base complete with big signs telling you to piss off. I settled down just round the corner from the base to cook up some lunch. The jeep track I had been following ended at the military base, so from here on I would be following faint footpaths marked on my old map. As I struggled with my spirit stove, an army jeep pulled up, and the officer asked me just what I thought I was doing there. I showed him my soviet maps and said I hoped to walk the rest of the ridge. In broken English the commander explained that this would not be possible, as it was a military zone, and was off limits due to radiation left over from the NATO bombings of 1999, there were no paths, and I was to go back the way I had come . He got back into his jeep and sped off down the mountain.
It would have been a huge detour for me to go back, additionally I felt like the amount of radiation I would be exposed to in my three day traverse, unless I unluckily camped on top of a depleted uranium shell, would be vanishingly small. The last thing that helped me decide to countermand the direct order of a military superior, was the fact I could see the bullseyes of the old Yugoslav long distance path markings(*) disappearing off along the ridge top to the west – the way I had been told not to go – so there definitely had been a path there, just as there was a path indicated on my (40 years out of date) map. So I packed up my stuff as quick as I could and checking no one was watching, dived into the bush.
Supporting what the officer had said, the ‘path’ was indeed severely overgrown, and it was apparent that it hadn’t been regularly used for a long time; it looked about 18 years out of use to my professional eye. But the ghost of the path was there, and it was just about possible to follow, carefully, from faded marking to faded marking. The next two days was some of the wildest, and most exciting of my time in Serbia. I felt like I had the whole place to myself, I saw neither people, nor any sign of recent human activity. Spring was in full bloom, wild flowers popping up everywhere, trees bursting into leaf, deer crashing through the forest away from me. I was even lucky enough to spot a pine martin before it bounded away. Pathfinding, and smashing through undergrowth where it had completely enveloped the long dormant path were certainly challenging at times, but this just served to heighten the enjoyment and sense of achievement when I got out the other side. So I suppose the moral of the story is to take what people say with a pinch of salt; if someone says that something is not possible, there is a chance that it is, in fact, possible, and that you will only find out by giving it a go.
Coming down from the jungle that was the Jastrabac massif, I spent two glorious nights at the lovely Vila Đorđević (http://www.viladjordjevic.rs/), with the extremely hospitable proprietor Pedja, and his wife Zora, close to the small town of Brus. Next on the itinerary was another mountain massif (south Serbia is covered in them) – Kopaonik. This is Serbia’s second highest mountain, and has the Balkans second largest ski resort on the top (3). I hiked up from Brus, hampered and depleted by my first outbreak of “the runs” since starting the hike in Istanbul; and by heavy rain. When I got to the Kopaonik ski resort I was weak and shivering, and waiting for the next tidal wave of pressure to knock against the doors of the “bomb bay”. I felt too wretched to camp as I had intended, and decided to look for accommodation in the resort. There are few places I have been on this hike that I have felt as been as gloomy and dispirited, as this out of season ski resort at that precise time. My state of misery was like a multi-layered cake: the weather, and my internal “storms” undoubtedly put me in a negative frame of mind, and could be the first layer of sponge. The grossly insensitive development covering this high mountain, and the large amount of litter and detritus covering the insensitive development could be the second layer. But all this would be forgiven if it weren’t for the icing on the cake, which was that everything was shut, forcing me to squelch through the gathering gloom from bolted door to bolted door. But from the lowest depths of misery, it becomes easier to obtain lofty peaks of glorious contentment and relief. In this case salvation came when after an hour of knocking on doors, I found a grimy apartment complex, where the bored receptionist confirmed that they were open and yes they had a room. A shower, a bed, and a flushing toilet – pure bliss.
Next morning I climbed to the top of Kopaonik’s highest point, Pančić’s Peak – 2017m. I was still suffering somewhat internally, but the weather was clear, and I had a positive frame of mind leaving the ski resort. The path to the summit snaked up under the lifeless ski lifts, and I noticed that under each lift was a carpet of fag ends, drinks bottles and food wrappers. On the top was a military base, half in use, half derelict and decaying; and a huge gash just off to the side of old open cast mine. I was so depressed by this point that I hardly lingered at the top, I took a photo or two – to prove I’d been there before promptly turning tail and heading right down again. The contrast between the two massifs I visited in central Serbia couldn’t be greater, one which I had to disobey signs and soldiers to enter, which was gorgeous, bursting with life and beauty; and the other, which had signs for miles around imploring me to go there, to experience the nature, which bore the deep scars of past and present human exploitation, despoliation and destruction of the natural environment. Is it really not possible for man to enjoy nature’s beauty, without simultaneously degrading and corrupting it – in Serbia it would seem the answer is no.
Finishing up – music festivals, high mountain pastures, ski resorts
A few days after leaving Kopaonik, I arrived Studenica, a 12th century Serbian Orthodox monastery, and one of Serbia’s holiest sites. It was founded in 1190 by the founder of the medieval Serb state Stefan Nemanja, and contains the relics of at least 4 saints, including Nemanja himself. It’s tucked up a valley far away from anywhere, with a beautiful situation, up the side of the valley a little bit, with a view up and down it onto a few scattered hamlets peeping out of the forest, almost unchanged – one imagines – for the 800 or so years of its existence. I was lucky enough to be housed in the guest attached to the monastery, with its cell like rooms, and refectory for eating where there was no choice in what to have, I could easily imagine myself to be a monk, or at least touched by the religious experience. When I walked round the monastery the following day marvelling at the impressive byzantine frescoes; I saw devotees file in and kiss each of the coffins containing the saints, my monk-like inner self was shed. I would love it if kissing the coffin of a 12th century warlord could remove my many sins, and give luck to the rest of my journey, but in my heart I cannot believe that it would be so.
Maybe I should have been a little more pious, haha, because the next three days it snowed, heavily. People I encountered assured me this was highly unusual for this time of year. It drove me down from the hilltops, into the valleys, and onto the roads; I only have trainers now, so walking in deep snow for long periods of time is not a happy prospect. So I scoffed at devotion expressed at the holiest site in Serbia, and for the next three days a freak weather event made my life miserable – correlation, or causation…? I guess I better be more careful from now on.
When the snows passed, and I could lower my hood and once more fully appreciate my surroundings, I found that I was in Arilje, Serbia’s capital of raspberry production. The area around the town produces over 20 million tonnes of raspberry’s annually, and the inhabitants have erected a monument to the fruit that has revitalised the fortunes of the town. They have their own saint in the town, in the form of an agronomist and writer who lives in the town, who taught the town how to achieve high raspberry yields. I tried some raspberry juice in the spirit of the town, I can’t recommend it – soooo sweet – I think it is probably much better if enjoyed fermented, and then distilled into Rakija :)).
From Arilje I took a bus to the small town of Gornji Milanovac for a highly unusual but extremely enjoyable Serbo-Norwegian World music festival. The acts included a Serbian Gypsy band, a Norwegian Folk music band, a Norwegian Blues Band, with the headliner Crvena jabuka (Red Apple) a Bosnian Pop/Rock band very popular throughout the former Yugoslavia. The stage was set up in the town square, the festival was free, and by the time the headliners came on it was absolutely rammed. it was a glorious celebration of different cultures and styles of music, and filled your heart with happiness at such diversity in the world – or maybe that was the copious amounts of the local beer which consumed? Who knows? Whichever the answer, I had a wonderful time, and if anyone is looking for an unusual (and free) spring time music festival I can recommend “Serbia World Music Festival” (http://serbiamusicfestival.com/).
I took a bus back to Arilje stayed a night in the town, and then set off for the Bosnian Border. I marveled at the limestone karst scenery coming up out of Arilje, thinking I would be seeing much more of this in the Dinaric Alps (**) which I was just entering the eastern edge of. I felt like I had encountered more than my fair share of rain and snow in Serbia, and the parched white limestone teeth I was clambering over, seemed to whisper of baking hot Croatian beaches and islands. Warmed both by sun in my mind, and the actual sun on my back, I made rapid progress towards the Bosnian border. It took me three days hike from Arilje to the Border, during which time I passed over a high mountain plateau with pretty farms and summer pastures, and the not so pretty resort of Zlatibor. Zlatibor has a wonderful situation, which it successfully manages to spoil. The centre consists of fast food restaurants, tacky bars, casinos, and huge hulking hotel/spa complexes, the outskirts of development after development of largely gross McMansions. It was developed as a health resort, taking advantage of the clean high altitude air, and beautiful views across the high mountain pastures. I was minded of the story of the killing of the golden goose. How much poorly regulated development could be allowed to take place before the reason for the existence of a resort, is developed out of existence? Maybe most people don’t care so much about such things, and just enjoy the drinks and fried food; I didn’t really dig it, and passed straight through out to the mountain plateau to the West. My path snaked across the plateau up to the forested peak of Vjogor, my last Serbian mountain. Whilst up there I could see the row after row of mountains stretching off into the distance. These were my first views of Bosnia and Herzegovina – it looked dark and foreboding, every bit as ominous as recent history suggests it should.
Conclusion – a land of beautiful scenery, wonderful hospitality, and just a little overcompensation
For me, Serbia was a land of contrasts: golden sunshine one day vs. heavy snowfall the next, dramatic extensive high plateaus vs. fertile valleys, deep mental lows vs. soaring heights of joy, unspoilt natural wildernesses vs. Sprawling resorts steadily corrupting the nature that is their raison d’etre. The one thing that was constant was the hospitality with which I was received. When one walks into a bar/cafe off the beaten track, people would invariably turn to stare, and then enquire as to who or what I was – once it was ascertained I was a tourist, I would be implored to join a table, rakija (or coffee or beer) would be ordered, and offers of any assistance I needed would be offered. I have encountered this hospitality before, but it never fails to surprise and delight; so spontaneously is it offered to a complete stranger and so genuinely the spirit in which it is offered.
Serbia is often overlooked by tourists from the west, but it has much indeed to offer casual or long stay visitor. The whole south of the country is scrunched up into a series of mountain massifs, plateaus, and broad fertile valleys; away from the few nasty resorts they are stuffed full of remote villages, monasteries, thermal springs, forests, lakes. This much you could read in the tourist guides to the country, but I have two comments probably not found in the guide books. The first surrounds the depressingly high level of litter in the countryside. This unfortunate state is not confined to Serbia, it was the same in Bulgaria and Turkey. Along roads with moderate levels of traffic and outside each and every village, even in the most achingly beautiful spots, one will invariably find bags and bags of rubbish simply deposited at the side of the road, or thrown off embankments. Serbia is a beautiful country, it would be nice if more of the population saw it so, cherished it for what it is, and disposed of their rubbish correctly. The second is an ever so slight overcompensation and blind spot on the part of a large part of society. People would often ask “so how have you found the Serbian people? We are friendly yes?” (Implication: We are not the monsters that you might think we are from our portrayal in international media). I would confirm that people were very friendly indeed and I had had a wonderful time. But later on, if I enquired about Kosovo, the majority of people would close up, and repeat the line, “Kosovo is Serbian, it is criminal what is going on there”. It seems that a significant part of the Serbian nation still regards the actions of the Serbian security forces in Kosovo as those of protectors and saviours, and will not countenance that sometimes they may have been more like those of those aggressors and oppressors. As long as this blind spot continues, this lack of questioning the official explanation of events, there will always be a minor gulf of understanding between the curious visitor, and the locals. But this can easily be avoided by staying away from any difficult topics.
I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to the Zivic family, for letting me stay with them, and providing me with copious amounts of good food, drink and merriment, please keep the “fun-machine” going full speed ahead, its products are a cure for all ailments. Thanks to Pedja and Zora at Vila Đorđević, your house and garden are a gorgeous haven of peace and tranquility and I wish you best of success in the future. The team at Aurora hostel in Niš – The hostel is a great one and the staff extremely friendly and helpful.
(*)Yugoslavia had a well developed network of hiking paths which criss-crossed the country. Unfortunately, the network has not been maintained since the break up of Yugoslavia in the 90s. It is also not possible to find any hiking maps with the trails on (except in Slovenia, and maybe Croatia). Whilst I am freestyling my route using old Soviet military and Yugoslav National Army (JNA) maps from the 1980s without the trail network marked on them maps, I nevertheless frequently come across these old paths, as I am drawn to the same ridges and peaks and wild places that naturally drew the designers of the old trail network. Hopefully in time – with responsible better government, and rising living standards – the national and regional trail network will be rediscovered and rejuvenated. Until that time, unfortunately, it seems you can only find the trails by a mixture of educated guesswork and happy coincidence.
(**) The Dinaric Alps are a mountain range formed largely of parallel ridges running NW-SE stretching from Slovenia in the north west, all the way down to Albania in the south east. Geologically they consist largely of sedimentary (especially carbonate) rocks , deposited in a shallow sea which was pushed together and runkled up by earth movements associated with the Alpine orogeny 50 – 100 million years ago. Their largely carbonaceous nature gives rise to the dramatic Karst scenery that we associate with the Croatian coastline. The flooded north west of the chain forms the pretty islands Croatian islands. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinaric_Alps)
(3) In terms of uplift capacity. The largest is Bansko in Bulgaria, in case you were wondering. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopaonik