It took an hour at a crossroads in the hot sun before deciding which way to go. To the left lay Serbia, to the right Montenegro and Kosovo. I left Sarajevo planning on this latter route but at crunch time my certainty wavered, although I didn’t know why.
After all, I had a GPS route mapped across Serbia which meant less road walking. There were fewer leg- breaking inclines and it was shorter. Why then was I so hesitant?
The one sticking point was people. After a while, mountains start to all look alike. But human contact is infinitely varied and uplifting and has been the major factor in why the last few months have been so special. So the fact that Montenegrans and Kosovans are more friendly and welcoming tipped the balance. Then the penny dropped. This ‘fact’ had about as much supporting evidence as Trump’s Twitter feed.
It’s funny how love so often engenders hate. The more you like something, the more protective you feel and you begin to distrust anything that threatens or opposes it. As my affection for Bosnia and its people grew, an insidious and subconscious wariness of Serbians grew with it. Its hard to walk past signs for evocative places like Sarajevo or Srbnecnia – the location of the world’s worst post-war genocide – without taking sides. You hear stories, they slowly pile up layer upon layer, until something hard and permanent forms like paper mache. Before you know it, you have a firm view of a country and its people created from incomplete and one-sided information. Serbia was undoubtedly the aggressor and perpetrator of horrific acts during the war but the more I learn about the region’s politics, the murkier the situation appears. Whatever the truth, I owed Serbians a chance to show how wrong my prejudice was.
So I turned left.
It didnt take long to prove me wrong. A few hours across the border, a misadventure trying to buy a handful of raspberries from a farmer had led convolutely through a bizzare farm tour, a delicious meal and left me with more fruit than I could eat in a week. Arms full I entered a tiny smokey room – the nearest open door to where I planned to camp – to give some away. All four grizzled men inside the football clubhouse, whose faces could be found in yellowing team photos on the walls, were raspberry farmers. Of course they were. I couldn’t pay them to take some off my hands. They however had their own glut, of local moonshine, and they needed help with it. I did my best to be helpful but six hours and two litres later I passed out on the sofa. I awoke in the morning to the sound of rakija hitting glass and knew I was in trouble. I escaped after two shots had been forced down me. With a couple of cucumbers and tomatoes thrown in for good measure. My raspberry haul woefully intact.
A morning schnapps it turns out isn’t just the preserve of alcholhilics. It is a totally respectable way to start the day: People who indulge on a daily basis have an iron constitution and live forever. Or so it is said. Whatever the health benefits, I’m getting a taste for it. It’s a perfect accompaniment to a dark sticky Turkish coffee served with a square of Turkish delight. Maybe before or after a Turkish bath. The sharper ones amongst you might have noticed a repetition there. Centuries of Ottoman conquest has left an indelible mark on Serbian culture directly through cultural imports but also circuitously as resistance against the invader forged the country’s folk heroes.
Occupation is always occupation no matter how you look at it. Even today, the legacy of this 500-year Turkish “yoke” is still used lazily to ferment Islamaphobia in the region. But the Ottomans were tolerant colonialists by many standards. They allowed existing religions and customs to flourish because, although they were fervent Muslims, they also worshipped the bottom line. Persecution, they knew, was bad for business. So countless medieval monasteries that made this region a religious and intellectual hub survive. They nestle among the small villages that pepper the rippling hills, all enveloped in the haze of a hot, dry summer. It is a pretty landscape although far removed from the spectacular scenery from earlier in the trip.
It confirms my suspicions that Europe, at least the slender ribbon that I have meandered along, is a giant sausage. Bear with me. Its being squeezed at one end, so apart from a small bit of meat escaping between two fingers that makes up the Black Forest mountains, the giant fist leaves northern France and southern Germany completely flattened. This huge force rockets the Alps skywards then dissipates slowly, as mountains become hills, which in turn gently undulate into nothingness as the last filling dribbles into the Bosphorus.
I’m looking at what I have just written amazed. What a weird analogy. I think I’m eating too much meat. Dinner a few nights ago was a burger stuffed with meat. Yesterday it consisted of a kilo of roast pork in one hand, a tomato in the other. When I say in hand I mean it: No plate, no cutlery. I may need re-domestication when I get back.