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.
Uncle Travelling Matt
Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:
Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)
Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)
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.
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. 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.’ 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.’
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? 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.
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
Published by Canongate Press Ltd. (Edinburgh, UK) 2006
First published by Macmillan Ltd. (London, UK) 1942
Bosnia: A Short History
Published by Macmillian Ltd. (London, UK) 1996 (with additions)
Bulgaria: A Travel Guide
Published by The Oleander Press Ltd. (Cambridge, UK) 1989
Kosovo: A Short History
Published by Macmillian Ltd. (London, UK) 1998
Montenegro (1st Edition)
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
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
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
Published by Macmillian Ltd. (London, UK) 2000
Essays and Travelogues
Matthew E. Pointon
Bosnia’s Dark Icons
Available online at: http://www.balkantravellers.com/en/read/article/292
No marked date (c.2010)
Constantine the Poet
Michael D. Nicklanovitch
Available online at: http://www.serbworldusa.com/REBECCA%20WEST.html
Međugorje: History, Prayers, Messages, Map
Razgrad and Isperikh
Matthew E. Pointon
Available online at: www.travelmag.co.uk
Religious and Sociocultural Dimensions of the Kazalbashi Community in Bulgaria.
Pub. University of Niš (Yugoslavia), 1999
 See my travelogue ‘Cold Turkey’
 Bosnia: A Short History, p.xxi
 Bosnia: A Short History, p.271
 Bosnia: A Short History, p.234