21st AUGUST 2018
It’s not every day I can write ‘I woke up at the Distillery,’ but today is that glorious day. Breakfast is part of the deal here, so I head over to the restaurant and find I’m the only customer in a cavernous space with high ceilings and a huge bar that runs almost the length of the room. The bloke behind the bar brings me over some tea and orange juice, then asks if I’d like to try some of the distillery’s own Rakija while I’m waiting for breakfast. Rakija is a fruit brandy, popular in the Balkans, and similar to the Palinka I had in Hungary. So, apart from a tiny sip of orange juice, the first thing I will consume today is a huge measure of quince brandy.
The barman disappears upstairs and returns from the kitchen with a gorgeous looking fresh breakfast and the offer of yet more Rakija. I’m served a gourmet taste plate packed with omelette, cottage cheese, ham, pate, bread, yoghurt, tomato and bacon. While I’m eating, the barman tells me that he is still recovering from a minor stroke he suffered about nine months ago. As a result he now can’t feel hot or cold on his left hand unless the temperatures are really extreme. He also can’t have fizzy drinks or sweets again as he’s been warned they may trigger another stroke. He’s quite philosophical about it all, and takes the view that every day is now a bonus and that he was lucky to survive. He’s only in his mid-thirties.
I’m shown the downstairs cellar, full of date-stamped wooden barrels that will sit maturing for years and decline my third shot of breakfast Rakija. The barman, who has been an absolute star this morning, gives me a handful of apples straight from their orchard to send me on my way.
To begin, I have to retrace yesterday’s cycle back towards Gradačac and pass a huge sign telling me that I am now leaving the Republic of Srpska. I had seen this sign on the way here, but had no idea what it meant. The barman filled me in that the Republic of Srpska is an autonomous region run by Serbs within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. My limited understanding of this situation is that there are now essentially two separate countries within Bosnia and Herzegovina – one for Serbs and one for Bosniaks. To me it seems sad that the country is still so obviously divided along religious and ethnic lines a full twenty-three years after the Bosnian War ended. However, a more optimistic view would be that it’s almost a miracle the two sides now manage to live side by side after the horrors and hatred of that war.
It seems the Republic of Srpska comprises mostly the North and East of the country, which are basically the borders with Serbia and Croatia. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has Sarajevo and the West. I do notice that mosques become far more common once I leave the Republic. They all seem very modern, with minarets that look like a tall, slim rocket standing beside a normal building. It takes me a little while to work out that they’re all modern because the old ones would have been destroyed during the war.
The hill I have to climb to get out of Gradačac is ridiculously steep, and my morning intake of Rakija certainly isn’t helping me reach the top. As I lumber up the slope I see a digital sign at a petrol station which tells me the temperature has already hit thirty-six degrees celsius. I manage to gasp ‘No Way!’ out loud as I pass. There is a horrible chance the sign may well be correct, though, with the amount of sweat that is dripping through my eyebrows and into my eyes. When I reach the summit I have to stop and stand under an apple tree for a few minutes feeling dazed and trying to get my breath back. Mercifully, I’m rewarded with a long, steady downhill from the summit, so I just freewheel and enjoy the cooling effect of the airflow that has been created.
I’m only covering 60km today, but it takes a lot longer than it should due to a combination of hills, heat and a messy route that involves a few too many junctions. I think I spend as much time resting under shady trees as I do cycling, but I still reach Bosnia’s third largest city of Tuzla by mid-afternoon. My accommodation is run by a thirty-something guy who looks like he has inherited his grandmother’s house and converted it into a guesthouse. Within two minutes of our meeting, he tells me that he hates speaking English and that all Bosnians feel the same way. Charming. He also tells me that today is a Muslim holiday, so there will be nothing open in town. As a result of this my dinner consists of the nuts, bananas and chocolate left over from today’s cycle.
I’m up early the following morning and walk to a small supermarket for breakfast and road food. Keny, the guesthouse owner is in better form today and asks if I would like a coffee before I go, so I sit at an outside table with him and an old bloke who does the cleaning. I’m not really a coffee drinker, but Bosnia is famous for its coffee, and I do like to try the local food and drinks if I can. It takes about five minutes to make from fresh, hand ground coffee beans and is served in one of those tiny little espresso cups. Weirdly, even though it has a strong flavour, it doesn’t really look or taste like coffee as I know it. When I reach the bottom of the cup it has the consistency and colour of grainy melted chocolate. By this point the coffee is so strong and bitter that I can almost feel my lips pursing and eyes widening as I drain the last mouthful. I imagine that I look like one of those kids you see on You’ve Been Framed who get fed a lemon just so their parents can laugh at their expressions.
Keny seems to have warmed to me more now that he’s discovered I’m from Scotland. He has a discussion in Bosnian with his cleaner, who sounds like he is trying to explain the difference between me being ‘Scotski’ and plain old ‘Britanci.’ He then tells me that Braveheart is a beautiful film and shows me a picture on his phone of a guy who caused a stir by wearing a kilt on his night out in Tuzla. After a while Keny departs to drive another guest to the train station, while his cleaner gives me some advice for the road ahead. According to him I should expect 50km of uphill as far as Kladanj, then 70km of downhill to Sarajevo. However, experience has told me to take almost all well-meaning road advice with a pinch of salt.
The road out of Tuzla follows a river downstream, then passes an ugly thermal power plant that is belching smoke from four tall, fat chimneys. A steep short cut then takes me above the power plant, and I begin a slow trudge further upwards. As I’m plodding along I start to hear the most awful squeaking noise, which sounds like it could be coming from my pedals or the pannier rack. It’s only when I stop to take a look that I realise where the horrible racket is coming from. I’m being followed by a mad old guy on a squeaky bike and the noise is coming from him, not me. He’s grinning at me like a loon and trying to communicate, but we are getting nowhere. I tell him I’m heading for Sarajevo, so he pulls ahead to show me which way to go. All the time he’s turning round to talk to me, which leads to him swerving dangerously all over the road like a drunkard. Perhaps he’s been on the breakfast Rakija too. I’d feel terrible if he got knocked over, so I’m bloody relieved when he wobbles off the road and into his workplace.
The road is fairly flat for the next 15km, but all that changes after the biggish town of Zivinice Grad. I start a gradual climb, through some poor looking villages and past lay-bys strewn with litter. In one town a teenage lad on a bike follows me for a bit and asks for money. I just laugh and tell him I have none, which he seems to accept, before he says ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and cycles back to his friends. All this gets me thinking how easy it would be to mug a cyclist in the middle of nowhere if there were four or five lads who fancied it.
A few kilometres further along I see a dog on the opposite side of the road, but outside it’s garden fence. I don’t think the hound will cross in case it gets hit by a car, but as soon as I’m past it rushes over the road and jumps up on to a wall beside me. The wall runs for about fifty metres and the dog runs along behind me barking and snapping all the way. I can see the wall is going to end soon and provide the dog with a chance to get back down to road level, so as I’m cycling I have a look for any sticks or rocks. It’s going to get an almighty smack on the head with something very hard if it tries anything. I’m happy it doesn’t come to that, and thankfully the dog stops when the wall does. I figure this is the dog’s party piece and running along the wall and barking is what it does all the time. Still, whether I’m being chased by malevolent dogs or harassed for money by teenage lads, I’ve had a couple of reminders of how vulnerable you are on a bike.
The road continues to climb slowly, before rising sharply for the final 10km to the summit. It’s probably five degrees cooler than yesterday, but I’m still plagued by sweat trickling into in my eyes and dripping off my nose as usual. At the top I can see bare mountains in the distance, while below there’s a green valley dotted with light-coloured buildings topped by terracotta tiles. In fact I’m surprised that the surroundings look so lush and green, given the recent high temperatures and lack of summer rain.
A speedy downhill then takes me into Kladanj, which wouldn’t look out of place in the Swiss Alps with ski resorts and chalets clinging to the surrounding hills. I’m staying at the very un-Swiss Hotel Bosna though, which is primarily a bar and club that also happens to rent out rooms. The bar staff look surprised and inconvenienced by my arrival, but at least they manage to find me some accommodation. One guy shows me to my room and I ask him where I can put my bike. He just shrugs and motions to the landing outside, clearly demonstrating that he doesn’t give two shits where my bike goes. I reciprocate by not giving two shits about his hotel and dragging my dirty bike upstairs and into my room.
In the evening I go and do some shopping in a complex that has a large sign above it saying ‘Bingo.’ For my first couple of days in the country I thought that Bosnians must be obsessed with the game as there seems to be Bingo Halls everywhere. It’s taken me this long to realise that it’s actually the name of a supermarket chain !