Non-Place and Place: “Remnants of Another Age” by Nikola Madzirov

Nikola Madzirov was born in Strumica in south-eastern Macedonia in 1973 and over the past few years has come to be recognized as “one of the most powerful voices in contemporary European poetry”, according to the blurb of Bloodaxe’s collection of his work, Remnants of Another Age. That might sound bombastic, but they may be right.

The book, which comes as a bilingual Macedonian-English edition (more on this later), has some breathtaking lines, like these in “Everything Is a Caress”:

The snow was folding its wings
over the hills, I was laying my palms
over your body like a tape measure
which unfolds only along the length
of other things.

The repetition of “folding” links the simile of the tape measure, which fulfils its purpose as it unfolds, not just to the speaker’s hands, but also to the snow, which too is nothing, until it falls on other things. Read more of this post

Skopje: A capital with a “nice personality”

By Rob Packer

When Yugoslavia began to fall apart in the 1990’s, the only person I knew who’d been there was my mum, who visited the country twice, most recently in 1980 shortly before Tito’s death. As a ten-year-old beginning to grow curious about the world, I wanted to know what it was like in this place whose violent images of war populated news bulletins. One of the things that stuck in my mind was her description of Skopje as a dump. Unsurprisingly when I visited the city in January, my expectations were far from high.

Not too bad: the view from Skopje's fortress.

Communist-era architecture in Skopje.

When you arrive somewhere with low expectations, you’re easily impressed and as cities go, Skopje isn’t all that bad and I have seen far worse cities to pass 24 hours in; Read more of this post

The City of Consuls

By Rob Packer

Bitola, Macedonia’s second or third largest city—it depends who you ask—, about an hour away from Ohrid, is a town that’s down on its luck. What was once the Balkans’ second largest city (after Thessaloniki) and an Ottoman provincial capital, now seems a bit of a backwater: it was an agricultural and trading centre for the region with a lot of grand houses to show for it, but fell into insignificance after the Balkan Wars of 1913 when Bitola found itself 14km from the Greek border and in the furthest corner of an area reorienting itself towards Skopje and Belgrade. Today the process is so complete that there isn’t even any public transport across the border into Greek Macedonia. And even if it is factually correct, the city’s nickname, the city of consuls, must seem more and more anachronistic: this city of barely 100,000 people still hosts 11 consulates including British, French and Russian ones, apparently locked in a game of chicken where no-one wants to be the first to go.

Backstreets of Bitola, Macedonia's city of consuls.

In a similar way to Sarajevo, Bitola seems Read more of this post

A saint’s heartbeat: Sveti Naum

By Rob Packer

If you put your ear close enough to his tomb at Sveti Naum Monastery, they say you can still hear St Naum’s heart beating 1100 years after his death.

Maybe the Orthodox choral music was too loud, maybe I didn’t know where to listen or maybe it’s an Orthodox-only treat, but I didn’t hear anything from beyond the grave at the monastery, spectacularly sited under the shadow of Galičica Mountain and on the shores of Lake Ohrid barely a kilometre from the Albanian border. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by St Naum, a disciple of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two 8th-century brothers, who famously conducted one of the first Christian missions to the Slavs and one of whose names I’ve known since I was 13 in my first Russian class where we learnt the Cyrillic alphabet.

Inside Sveti Naum Monastery.

My last visit in Ohrid to a church over a millennium old.

Like so many of the churches around Lake Ohrid, the monastery is covered in frescoes and the taped choral music and smell of incense make it seem like you’ve stepped back in time to another age. But Sveti Naum goes further Read more of this post

Ohrid: Europe’s Oldest Lake

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration to say that Ohrid was once the most important Slavic city: it was a key religious centre for the Orthodox religion and was the capital of the Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 11th century. At its peak it was said to have one church for every day of the year and is possibly the place that invented the Cyrillic script now not just used in countries like Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia, but even as far afield as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.

As soon as you catch a glimpse of Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s oldest and deepest you realize that this is a special place; it’s not as high or as deep as Titicaca—which I haven’t visited—or even as Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan—which I have—but as you emerge from a pine forest to catch a first glimpse of Sveti Jovan Kaneo on a cliff over the lake against a background of snow-capped mountains, it really does seem magical. I even met a Macedonian philosopher who believes that this city, its location shaped like the bowl of a Greek theatre, was founded by King Philip of Macedon and Aristotle as an experiment—after a long drinking session.

Sveti Jovan Kaneo, Ohrid at sunset.

Of the 365 churches that supposedly existed in this Balkan “Jerusalem”, the ones that remain are spectacular covered in frescoes with elaborate iconostases. But getting to see them was difficult with Macedonia out for the low season. Read more of this post

The Bridge over the Drina

Review of Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge over the Drina

By Rob Packer

The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t always the timeless honour for posterity that people often associate it with and some of its winners remain as relative unknowns on the world stage: Ivo Andrić, the prize’s Yugoslavian recipient in 1961, probably falls into this category despite his fame in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Andrić’s most famous work is The Bridge over the Drina, a book written while the author was under house arrest in Belgrade during the Second World War and set in Višegrad, the eastern Bosnian town where he grew up.

I read the book while I was in the Balkans earlier this month and the cover of Harvill’s edition promises that “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists”. The novel fits within the nation-defining tradition that often combines history and fiction in new nations trying to find their place in the world, and reminded me of Jan Neruda, one of the first Czech writers to write in Czech. Rather than having a central human character, the novel revolves around Višegrad’s Ottoman bridge charting the history of the town and the townspeople over nearly 350 years; and as you read the novel it seems more like a fictionalized history book than historical fiction, which gives it more structure than The Railway, a novel that also lacks clearly defined central characters and which I also read recently.

As you read The Bridge over the Drina, history seems to be a faceless, but powerful force: Višegrad might sit at a cultural crossroads between the worlds of Christianity and Islam, but history happens around and to the town and is controlled by outsiders with the inhabitants watching uncomprehendingly as they sit on the bridge drinking coffee. In the context of only basic education, the townspeople learn by observation alone: for most of the book, the bridge is a constant, unquestionable presence to the characters, even though when the Ottomans originally built the bridge, it was seen as a futile, even godless, act; and at the end as the bridge is mined as the Austro-Hungarian army fall back, its partial destruction is seen as another futile and godless act.

One of the things that seems to emphasize itself again and again in the book is the constant ethnic divide in the town between “Turks”—the term historically used for Bosniak Muslims—and the Serbs. It is a neighbourly attitude mixed with suspicion rather than a hostile one; however, suspicion and fear come to the fore whenever history starts to act on the town, at Serbian independence in the 19th century or when the Ottoman Empire withdraws from Bosnia. In some ways the divide seems insurmountable; and looking at Andrić’s own political views, it can only be overcome by removing foreign rule and independence—in 1945, this is Yugoslavia’s rather than Bosnia’s independence.

Going back to the promise on the book’s cover, it does put the Balkans’ recent struggles in historical perspective and is an excellent introduction to the region, and Bosnia in particular, which always seems to be a microcosm of European ethnic difficulties. The way it threads through history and its intensely regional viewpoint isn’t for everyone, but for anyone interested in the Balkans it’s unmissable.

Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija/На Дрини ћуприја), Harvill 1994. (Original 1945)

Sveti Stefan: A luxury legacy of communism

By Rob Packer

Looking back on it, Yugoslavia really had my kind of communists: sometime after breaking with Stalin in the 1950’s, Tito’s government requisitioned Sveti Stefan, a small and incredibly picturesque island fishing village on the Montenegrin coast to turn it into a luxury resort whose guests included Sofia Loren, Princess Margaret and Marilyn Monroe.

When Yugoslavia fell apart during the 1990’s, the bottom fell out of the Montenegrin tourism industry and the resort closed. It has now reopened as part of Aman Resorts and from the pictures on its website it is obviously aiming for luxury and exclusivity – or maybe eksklyusivnost.

Exclusivity comes at a price though: the place is strictly off-limits to non-guests.

Sveti Stefan, luxury resort in a communist state.

The closest I was getting to Sveti Stefan this time.

The other view from Sveti Stefan.

White Elephants? Tourism in Montenegro

By Rob Packer

In southeast Asia when a subject overstepped the mark, the king sometimes gave him a white elephant, a holy animal requiring elaborate care and a ban on paying its way by working; in most cases, this “gift” bankrupted the recipient and the term white elephant has come into the English and French languages to mean something that is very expensive to maintain with very little gain. The term doesn’t exist in all languages and certainly doesn’t in Serbian: one of the real estate agencies I saw in Budva was called Bijeli Slon, which means White Elephant. Not exactly what Montenegro’s government has in mind as it develops its tourism infrastructure at breakneck pace.

White elephants on the Montenegrin coast.

Budva's harbour: count the yachts.

Montenegro is often touted as an “undiscovered Mediterranean jewel” Read more of this post

Inside the Black Mountain

By Rob Packer

As the road snakes its way up from Budva towards the Montenegrin interior, the landscape undergoes a profound change: the relatively lush greens of the coast disappear and are replaced, in winter, by the browns and greys of a landscape that reminded me a lot of the surface of the moon. The first time I saw it on my way to Cetinje, I wondered how people survived on this land that—apart from a few areas of farmland and some terracing—appears to yield next to nothing. But rather than being a marginal, remote area of the country, this is actually its heart: the Black Mountain—what Montenegro means in every language I know—is the one area of the Balkans where neither the Ottomans nor the Habsburgs penetrated and where Montenegrins guarded their independence for centuries.

The Black Mountain: the view over Montenegro's mountainous interior.

The view of the coast from the road to Podgorica and Cetinje, the current and former capital.

Montenegro's rocky interior.

It has never been a rich place, and this is obvious from the start in a place like Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro’s prince-bishops before joining Yugoslavia after the First World War. Read more of this post

Perast: A Town on the Bay

By Rob Packer

Like so many places on the Montenegrin coast, Perast gets by on its good looks in summer and spends its winters in hibernation. The town is a former Venetian port town on the steep slopes of the Bay of Kotor and it’s full of pretty stone buildings looking out on two small islands in the bay.

Other than eating and visiting the islands in summer, there really isn’t all that much to do though.

Pretty much all you need to know about Perast: stone buildings and two islands.


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