It was 2004, and I decided to approach the Balkans from another end, this time through Bosnia. As I set forth from Berlin, I had a wavering vision of minarets and the old Turkish Baščaršija dreaming of Istanbul. I was impressed by the Bosnian notebooks of weird eastern motifs and secret Muslim villages of Austrian artist and novelist, Alfred Kubin.
Prior to the trip, the Serbs had been my first love. I was an out-and-out Serbophile and went around Berlin with Serbian nationalist T-shirts, antagonizing Muslims and Croats. I had travelled to Serbia with Peter Handke’s pro-Serb book, Justice for Serbia, A Winter’s Journey in my rucksack. Muslims were “the other”, strange and vaguely threatening, Serbs my darlings.
My first trip to Bosnia changed all that. I began seeking out the Oriental in the Balkans, crossing and re-crossing the Balkans every year in search of the Muslim Balkans.
My trip in 2004 cut against the grain. Instead of travelling through Hungary and the flat Pannonian plain, more amenable to cycling, I took a more ambitious route, over the Alps, crossing at one of its highest points, the Grossglockner pass at two thousand meters, still snow-capped in June. I avoided heavily trafficked main roads, opting instead for dirt paths and potholed byways. I was uncertain where I’d sleep or eat. People laughed at me along the way — the very idea of bicycling from Berlin to Sarajevo seemed eccentric to put it mildly.
Along the way I visited many interesting sites of European history. I saw the chateau in Bohemia where Casanova retired to his books and wrote his memoirs (his grave was – no one knew for certain – somewhere under the local church), I stopped in at the ruined castle visited by Richard Wagner who used it as his setting and inspiration for Tannhäuser. The same night I watched Czech Republic lose to Greece in the European football championship in a village pub with antlers on the walls under a ruined keep overlooking the Vltava, where men came into the smoky bar with rifles slung over their shoulders, having just come back from the hunt. As the Czechs went on the offensive the drinkers hoisted their beer glasses in boisterous unison. I spent the night in my tent pitched on a bluff overlooking the river, woken up early in the morning by suspicious cops.
In the Böhmerwald – the Bohemian forest – I foolishly camped out in a field full of grazing cows and lay in my tent rigid with fear as the bulls gradually encircled my tent, snuffling and tearing at the rough grass, brushing their horns against my tarp.
In Austria shrines stood by the road like holy milestones. In a torrent of sudden rain I waited out the shower in one of these little chapels.
I sustained myself with bread and sausage. Vodka, slivovitz, marillenschnapps revived my flagging spirits and sent me rocketing onwards. High on schnapps, I began to sing songs of the open road.
Over the Alps on the Grossglöckner pass, and riding on under an ever darkening sky, the mountains trembled on the brink of storm. I made the pass just as a torrent swept in and I spent a wet night in my tent as rain seeped through the tarp. The next morning mist rose from the valleys, as hundreds of rivulets poured downhill and waterfalls streamed off the cliffs dropping in long parabolas into a river below as I rode down to Carinthia.
I became more and more excited the further south I went. There was another feeling in the air and I was conscious that the Balkans were not far. Posters stuck on barn doors advertised upcoming concerts by Slovenian brass bands, distant echoes of Serbian orkestars.
Crossing the border into Slovenia, I tasted for the first time the chewy white bread one ate all over ex Yugoslavia, and spicy, fat-studded kobasica sausage. The landscape was lush and green – Central European – but a Balkan feeling impinged. I was drawn by a strange magnetism of the Orient.
I rode down the Karst to Triest. Green and steel-blue dragonflies flashed in the sun, and scarlet-winged grasshoppers whirred harshly. The Mediterranean was close, wafting at me warmly. The whole landscape seemed full of joie de vivre.
I rode along the Istrian peninsula, and in Croatia I went island hopping. Raab and Krk were bare and waterless, all scorched rock under a blazing sun.
I joined up with the mainland again, climbed the Karst and entered that region where Croatia is most Croatian and black-clad widows and widowers walked dusty streets. Outside the Plivnice lakes, where they shot the East German western Winnetou film, I went to sleep in a field, caught the dying sun through the stalks of wheat and woke up wet with dew.
That morning I rode through the cold dawn air and entered the Krajina, which had less than ten years ago been cleansed of Serbs. Not wanting to be caught on the wrong side of the line, the Serbs had rebelled against Croatian independence — and they paid the price: 150,000 Serbs were expelled in an operation called Oluja, “Storm” in 1995. It was the biggest refugee crises of the Balkan war. Refugees set off in long columns of slow-moving tractors, carts, buses, trucks on a 140-mile arc across northern Bosnia.
The scene was post-apocalyptic as I rode through an utterly empty landscape, among ruins rife with menace and malignity. Unkempt and desolate houses stood forlornly; agriculture had come to a halt; corn bolted and rotted in the fields; farm beasts strayed; villages died. Women in black headscarves sat in front of rickety tables selling wild honey, pondering the absence of passing trade.
There had been fierce times in the Balkans, and there still were. That year, some five hundred kilometers to the south, Albanians in Kosovo were engaged in a province-wide pogrom against Serbs, burning, looting, killing.
I crossed into Bosnia from Croatia and it was as though I had traversed a marked cultural boundary, entering a land of mosques and Oriental mood. I was entering the strange Balkans, with its Eastern essence. The Balkan geography began taking shape under my eyes and West Europe seemed to recede, the influence of the big cities of the West waning. Gradually you began to feel the pull of a new magnetic force; the force of the Orient, of Istanbul and Turkey.
I felt, as I crossed the threshold of Dar al-Islam, which literally means the house, or abode of Islam, that there was another feeling in the air. I was entering a new world, the field of great battles between East and West. I saw the first rostilje joints, the first wild dogs, ferocious, with shaggy, knotted coats.
A total and striking change in the look of the country took place, in the style of buildings, the look of the people. The shape of the haystacks changed with the weather. My fuel changed as the countries changed with Korn in Germany, Marillenschanpps in Austria, slivovitz and loza in the Balkans.
I passed farmers conducting their conversations at a shout, as is the habit among people who spent most of their time out of doors. They shouted “Živio!” (“Long live!) And they heard in return cries of “Živio!” All the news was shouted from hill to hill. On a slope, the wheat, ready for harvest, here and there the harvesters, lying in the grass and their scythes leaning against a nearby tree, satchels open at their feet, a loaves of bread in paper wrappers. Whole families were reaping and it was here I saw the bizarre figure of a war veteran minus a leg, reaping on crutches. He smiled at me broadly as I rode by.
I drank cold spring water at crumbling fountains marked with marble plaques in old Ottoman script. It was beautiful, idyllic — and yet, make no mistake, fighting had taken place here and the country was pockmarked by war — from time to time I passed burnt-out derelict farm houses, the façades scrawled with anti-Serb slogans.
In Jajce, which means “little egg” I stayed in a shoddy Tito-era hotel which stood to me as a symbol for the shabby state of a Bosnia. Jajce had a medieval castle, the ruins of which had survived the Turkish conquest. Here the old ruler of Bosnia sought in vain a refuge from the invading Turks. Round the egg-shaped hill, at the top of which stood the castle, clustered black and white wooden houses, surrounded by the foliage of the walnut trees.
I rode through Travnik, town of Bosnian writer Ivo Andrić. No place in Bosnia was so famous for its Muslim tombs, huge edifices fenced in with iron railings and covered with stone canopies, like immense baldachins. These türbe, which were almost as large as houses, were for the last resting-places of the Muslim governors of Bosnia. Lush gardens led up to an old castle, which dated from the days of the Bosnian kings.
A picture of Bosnia began to take shape – of romantic beauty, of the wild and uncultivated mountains, gorges and inaccessible torrents — but the rivers were all indescribably dirty as the Bosnians didn’t care a jot about natural beauty, it seemed, spoiling it at every turn, leaving inescapable rubbish tips on the edges of each town.
But then again, I wasn’t after picture-postcard Austria, where everything was kept unnaturally tidy for the tourists. Once I met Czech artist who had walked from Prague to Venice to show at the Venice Biennale. After walking through clean and pristine Austria, he rejoiced at the sight of rubbish in Italy. Rubbish meant life.
I was in pain now as I steered for Sarajevo, like a sailor taking a sight on the coast. I drank from my bottle of Croatian slivovitz, which pulled me together and entered Sarajevo, harried by passing cars and catching sight of grim communist housing, crumbling concrete and a Saudi-financed mega-mosque. A motorcycle gang of Bosnian Hell’s Angels had pulled into town.
I followed bikers to the Baščaršija, the old town. Low-slung, wood-framed houses with jutting eaves occupied by open shops selling tourist knick-knacks or else serving as ćevapčići joints and kafanas, where in an older era were stalls where Muslims, Serbs and Catholics and Jews hobnobbed and practiced long forgotten trades.
Evliya Çelebi, who passed through here in 1660 described Sarajevo as an emporium for wares from India, Arabia, Persia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ghazi Husrev Beg (1521-1541) laid out its streets of crafts and trades. The houses were made of wood, with protruding second story wooden latticed oriols. The streets — more alleyways, than anything, were paved with narrow, bumpy cobblestones.
Sarajevo became known as “the city of a hundred mosques” and the real magic of Sarajevo resided in its minarets. The many small cemeteries also struck visitors, some not conventional cemeteries in the normal sense, but randomly scattered gravestones which indicated the sex, status and particular achievements of the deceased in half-converted parks.
A Muslim citizen of Sarajevo described his hometown in 1650 euphorically as “the birthmark on the cheek of the earth”, “similar to paradise” ”the westernmost bulwark of Islam”. It was the bastion of the Muslims and during the Austrian period Bosnia and Hercegovina became the first Islamic enclave within Christian Europe.
As I pulled in on my bike, I found the Baščaršija full of foreign soldiers in uniform. There were old Bosnian men in black berets sitting in cafes along the pigeon strewn main square with the Sebilj fountain watching the soldiers. It was here in the old Baščaršija that I found a hostel, the only hostel in town back then in 2004.
Inside the hostel I threw off my pack and immediately I felt 70 feet tall. When I plotted the route, I found the distance I had actually slogged was 1,500 kilometers. The journey had lasted fifteen days. It gave me a legitimate feeling of something achieved.
Looking up from my travel-stained heap, I found a number of people were gathered in the living room drinking beer and listening to Ederlezi from Goran Bregović. There was a Japanese, a Macedonian, a Brit and some Irish. I explained I had come from Berlin and immediately the Macedonian started rapping a few lines in German from the gangster rapper Bushido.
I sat down with the Irish, breaking out my bottle of loza which I had bought at a Croatian shop west of Sarajevo and offered the bottle to the Irish, but there were no takers; they didn’t know what the shit was and were wary.
The Irish were talking about their impressions of Bosnia and their trusty guidebook had warned them from venturing off the Sarajevo pavement because of mines. They were from Dublin and had come down here because Easy Jet had offered a cheap flight to Lubjiana. They had rented a car and driven down to Sarajevo. In the evening I went out with these Irish to – of all places – a lugubrious Irish pub, where I met a vaguely Arab looking Frenchman, who had just walked through Albania, a fairly adventurous feat in 2004. He was surprised when I said I was American. The sun, the slivovitz, and the biking had turned me Balkan.