Hungry in Serbia
I didn’t really think about food as I was crossing the border, more about where I could change money. I spent half an hour at the service station on the Bulgarian side, calculating prices of peanuts and almonds, trying to spend everything I had, down to the last stotinki. Then came a while of walking alongside the long open motorway that led from the border point and onto a flyover for the long distance transit routes, before I could cut away into my first Serbian town, Dimitrovgrad. I waited half an hour in the bank queue, raising eyebrows with my neighbours, head down reading my book, waiting for the sound of heavy stamps marking paper that signified the counter person was done and we could all shuffle forward. 200 gbp brought me 26,000 dinar, a pile of notes that I hurriedly packed away into my rucksack, embarrassed at my apparent show of riches, unsure yet of just what proportion of the average monthly wage I’d just waved around in front of a queue. I went next door into a pizzeria and sat for a while, looking at my maps and eating, well, pizza.
I decided to go north, into the Stara Planina mountains, before turning west across Serbia. Mainly because I had a detailed map of the area, and these are hard to come by. I needed to make the most of it by following the maps length, south to north, going into the mountains and coming out near to Niş for a day off. I could see plenty of villages dotted across the area and decided not to buy any more food in the town. I had about 3 days worth, some instant mash, oats, a tin of tuna, a tin of rissoles and beans, two bananas, one apple, a jar of red pepper and tomato paste (lutenitsa from Bulgaria) and a small salami. It felt plenty, and I’d soon come to a shop, I thought, be able to top up with more vegetables and small bits.
But it didn’t work out that way. I climbed a hill straight out of the town, cutting under the motorway and upwards, following a path that should have led me over the hill and down to my first village of Petrlaš. I lost the path, of course, as so often happens, what seems to be a good 4×4 track, two solid tyre lines running on compacted stone turn at first to marks on grass, then suddenly there is only one line, then it turns thin and winding then I find I’m following animal tracks and suddenly there is nothing, just a wall of impenetrable scrub, that will spike and catch at me as I try to push through it. I’m unable to work out where I’m going wrong, however closely I seem to be following paths at the beginning, leaving settlements, I invariably end up not on a path at some point. So my lack of path up this hill had me climbing in, fortunately, reasonably well spaced young oak trees, the thickly carpeted orange leaves on the ground keeping undergrowth from sprouting. Of course there were spiky moments, there always are. A thunderstorm came slowly towards me from the Bulgarian side of the valley, I looked behind me through occasional gaps in the forest to see the town far below me and rain clouds massing, the dark blue haze of rain falling in the distance. Eventually it came to me, soft rain falling gently and I covered myself, pushing on upwards until the ground flattened out and I found the curve of a bigger road that I’d been supposed to follow a path along up to. Here was a track, no matter that I’d been away from it, I could follow along now, easier walking towards the village. It seemed occupied at first, the flat fields were ploughed and seeded as I came towards the red tiled houses, apparent from far away; there were groves of fruit trees, their trunks limed freshly white. But closer still and the houses were in extreme disrepair, windows closed to light with newspaper, torn curtains hanging ragged in empty frames. I could see the skeletons of their wooden insides, white coating peeled to show the earth and straw mix pushed between wooden slats that formed the body of these buildings, stone bases only built knee high, the rest was all wood and earth. Some houses were falling down, wildly undulating tiles showing the collapsed rafters beneath, others entirely gone in a tumble of beams and sagging walls.
I walked up into the centre of the village, still uncertain of what I’d find there, perhaps a small bar or shop, where I could get a hot coffee and sit somewhere warm for a while. But there was a long locked building, showing padlocks on a mighty hasp and a town hall with smashed windows, padlocked too. I sat there for a while, put my tent out to dry from the previous night’s condensation, drank some water in order to replenish from the spring nearby and checked my maps. A couple of people appeared, taking water from an outdoor tap. I called to them, asked about a shop. No shop, they told me, only 10 people live here. “In the whole place? But there are more than 50 houses here.” “Almost 100 houses, but empty. Empty” She pantomimed resignation and walked away, gumboots flapping.
A sudden rain came again and I waited it out, refilling my water bottles and readying myself for the walk. It was close to 6pm when I left the village and I camped not far away, streetlights visible in the distance, lighting the way for nobody.
The next morning I walked through forest for a while before realising that I recognised the shapes of the trees, there were many sprouting branches coming straight from the ground, rather than single trunks. This was coppice wood, not natural woodland, trees cut regularly and encouraged to sprout multiple branches straight upwards that can be regularly cut and used for fences, tool handles, lath panels etc. Using the faint remnants of my Bulgarian phone signal I sent photos to a friend to be sure. Yes, he said, it’s grown out coppice, last harvested about 20 years ago. What was happening in Serbia 20 years ago? War. I wondered what had happened here, natural migration of young people eschewing the peasant lifestyle, perhaps hastened by conflict, but I couldn’t label it that way for certain. There was a cuckoo echoing through the forest, wild flowers growing. I came down the hillside and to a wide flat plain, an ancient road running straight across the centre, military road, it said on the map. A Roman road to Constantinople. Ahead, starting to climb the mountain range behind it, was the next village, Odorovci. As I entered, in the rain, there was a family ploughing and seeding a field. Young man guiding the rotivator and behind him, older man and young woman, scooping and spreading from buckets, then, older woman, headscarfed, prodding with her stick, covering the seeds. I’d seen it in Ukraine, and in Mexico too, a group of people doing the work in one small field that modern agriculture does with one man over a much wider acreage. Human power replaced by machine, bodies freed to work elsewhere, to get money in order to buy the food that their bodies didn’t have to labour to produce. Efficiency, but, in the end, for who.
In the village all was quiet again, I climbed the hill, listening for the sound of voices. Eventually I could ask someone, where is the shop? “It’s up the road but it closed an hour ago, won’t open until Monday” – it was midday on Saturday. I found the locked building, sat in the porch at a strange collection of school desks and wooden chairs, empty beer bottles showing the signs of drinking, and ate my lunch, waiting for the rain to pass. There were three doors off this porch, one shop open 8-11.30 six days a week, one unknown door, and one medical door a surgery sign above it, open two days a month. I felt happy to be there, winding an uncertain, indirect route into the mountains, no clear destination except Niş in a weeks time.
I’d been so fixed in Bulgaria, sticking to back roads, no paths available, and always powering ahead, making my way across the country in a virtual straight line. I decided not to worry about making progress here, for these first few days in Serbia; I’d just wander about in the mountains, take it easy, forget about targets.
Eventually, after about an hour, the rain stopped and I could continue. I was happy about the wandering but concerned about the villages ahead. It was another day’s walk up and over a mountain to the next village, which I’d reach on Sunday. If I couldn’t get food, I had a choice, to walk ahead and hope for a shop in the next place or turn away and head to the big town, Pirot, 10 miles down the mountain pass. When I arrived in the next village, Rsovci, I’d only have one day of food left. If I had to pass there and go to the next place Gostuša, I’d arrive with nothing, it was a gamble on whether I’d get food there.
But I had food now and there was a mountain ahead. As I left the village I got lost, as usual, it seemed like there should be a bridle path running diagonally up the side of the steep hill, climbing gradually, but what seemed like the turn off the main road, at the right corner, didn’t lead to it, and I found myself pushing through scrubland, making progress in bare fields but thwarted by regular spiky hedges. I stopped, dispirited, maybe I should rethink the whole route, turn back to the village and take the road east to loop around the entire mountain. I didn’t want to but if I couldn’t find the path then battling through undergrowth for miles, wasn’t worth the effort. I turned around, not back where I’d come but taking a different route towards the village and within 20 metres I found myself on a clear and obvious track that led away in exactly the direction I wanted. Spirits risen, I found my feet making an immediate turn to the left, it seemed I was headed away to the mountain after all. I was able to spend the entire afternoon and early evening climbing slowly upwards, from 700m to 1200, over five miles, following a clear track the whole way. The village disappeared from view beneath the curve of the hill and all I could see was a wide flat plain that led back towards Bulgaria, 10 miles away. Eventually I curved around into pure upland territory and there was nothing but forest and grass in view. The clouds had cleared to billowing white, rather than heavy thick grey and I was in sunshine, with a chill wind blowing. It was wonderful to be there, picking my way through first long grasses, folded over by a season of snow and then, higher up, once the track had passed the shepherd’s huts and dwindled to nothing, over rocks and thorns, the aromatic smell of thyme kept coming to me, but as I searched for it, every pinch of leaves that I crushed between my fingers gave a different smell instead. With 20 minutes until sunset I pitched my tent in a hollow at the dip between two peaks, my ascent was done and tomorrow would come the corresponding descent. No jackal song to accompany the fading of the light tonight, only the flutter of wings as birds found their final perches. I was woken in the night by the cracking of branches nearby, my heart immediately spurting into an adrenaline fueled pulsing, but decided to believe it was deer, rather than continuing to scare myself with thoughts of anything more predatory.
In the morning my hollow was white with cloud, droplets furring every grass tip.
A descent then, checking carefully between compass, map and GPS, trying to correlate all three to stay on the route I wanted. It worked, I came down through forest paths, stopping at first to gape at the incredible view that opened up ahead from a sheer drop not 50m onwards from where I’d camped. The slight failure was that there were springs marked on the map and I couldn’t locate them, a beginning headache showed me that my body was low on water, I shouldn’t have left the last village with only half filled bottles. However, the route was clear; the mountains ahead, plus a tiny road winding at their base showed me where my next village was, plus the way I would wind, through gorge, onwards to the following valley. The snuffling of boars marked my downward track, their rooting aside of the leaves in search of tasty grubs. Here too was a destroyed anthill. What would do this? I could only think of bears but maybe pigs.
Past the shepherd’s huts, their presence a sign that I was coming to the beginning line of human territory again. I stopped to peek in through the windows, marvelling at the simplicity within – a stove, a bed, bare walls and coats hanging on the door. Nothing more. Then down, finally, to a church at the main road, with a spring where I could take water and eat my first meal of the day. A friendly dog came bounding to me, pawing the air to induce me to pat it further. I watched people cross themselves as they drove past the church, there were very few cars, I’d have a hard time getting to Pirot if I wanted to hitch that day.
I decided on a plan. If there was no shop in Rsovci then I needed to be able to check with someone that there was a shop in Gostuša. I couldn’t just leave the village blindly, arriving in Gostuša with no food left. If I couldn’t get either food or info then I’d have to head to Pirot, probably spend the night there and come back to start again the next day with a bagful of provisions.
Walk another 2 miles and here it came, the village. I asked and yes, there was a shop. Saved! A kind woman unlocked the door to a small room and stood waiting as I assessed the contents of the shelves. Only bread for a carbohydrate, sadly, but there was cheese, salami, tuna and pate to go on it. No bananas but I bought a few apples. I asked for a coffee to drink outside, bought a packet of biscuits to eat with it. A couple of other people turned up and we all sat together. The woman, M, spoke good English and we chatted about what I was doing, I told them my troubles finding places to eat. “Ah yes, Petrlaš”, she said, “nobody there anymore.” “What happened?” “They left,” she said, “like everywhere. Here, half the village lives in Pirot now, they come here at weekends.” She told me that they have some land nearby, forestry where they used to take wood, but they don’t go there any more. She got bitten by horrible bugs the last time, and mimed for me the sizes of the lumps on her arm, getting an injection in her bum from the doctors. They only showed up here after the bombings, the bugs. We call them ‘Clintonche’. Little Clintons. After the president who ordered the attacks. I ask if they were bombed here. Not here but Pirot, she tells me, we were in the village that night, safe, but we could hear them.
I didn’t pursue it, not wanting to bring war into my first proper conversation with Serbian people and the conversation moved on, without rancour, to bears and wolves. There are no bears here, apparently, but there are wolves. I think of the empty spaces I’ve seen in the last 24 hours, the lack of humans; there’s plenty of land for wolves to inhabit.
We drink our coffee and M buys me and her husband a beer, he is a thin man with big eyes and a naughty look on his face, speaking no English. We get my map out and point out the different villages. No shop in Gostuša, he tells me. I was lucky to find this place. At one point, rooting in her bag for a pencil, M brings out an apple and hands it to me. ‘It’s like Ukraine all over again’ I think to myself, where I was constantly being given apples. They show me the old border between Serbia and Bulgaria, moved after the first World War where, on different sides, the Serbs took territory from the Bulgarians, villages changed passports but not languages.
We all get ready to leave, it’s 1pm and I am heading for the gorge towards the next valley, M and her husband back to their weekday house in Pirot. As we walk along the street together she offers me their house for the night. I start to say no, it’s only 1pm, but take a breath and say yes. It’s good to say yes, I am meandering through these mountains, not racing, and sometimes offers should be accepted. They show me the house, three rooms, no more, on top of shed spaces underneath. There’s a large bread oven under shelter across the yard and when I point to it, M tells me the story of her husband’s grandparents, whose house this is, their life of subsistence agriculture, everything they made, they ate, they had no money, apart from what came from hiring out the bull. His parents too, then finally, her husband, V, and his brother were able to stay in school, his brother became an architect and he an engineer. They have renovated the village house very slowly, painting and refurbishing on their weekends. Next project is to get an inside bathroom. We hug and kiss and they leave for Pirot. I am to give the key in at the shop tomorrow morning.
I make a fire and rejoice in this warm, comfortable space, mine for as long as I like – stay a few days, they said, get to know the village. I’ll only take one night though, there’s always walking to be done. The next morning, drinking coffee from a small and perfect espresso cup, painted dark blue with ornate golden edging, pouring myself topups from the jezveh – a Turkish coffee-making vessel used throughout the balkans, I had a moment of perfect fulfillment. Sitting on the verandah at a simple plank bench and table, painted green, with the lime washed white walls around me, sunshine on the house opposite and the crisscrossing lines of the four red tiled roofs of various sheds and houses in view, beautifully aged and weathered to an undulating softness. Birds sang and one even came to inspect me, a bullfinch, sitting on the electric line that ran into the house and assessing me for a few brave seconds. I felt completely content there and sat in happiness, there was nothing I would change, nothing more I needed.
Continued in part 2….
During this journey I’m raising funds for Target Ovarian Cancer – my own cancer 7 years ago led to the realisation that ovarian cancer is not diagnosed in many women until an advanced stage and Target Ovarian Cancer do their best to improve early diagnosis, fund life-saving research and provide much-needed support to women with ovarian cancer. If you’d like to donate, click here. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/onewomanwalkseurope