Tony Blair once justified Britain’s intervention in the last Balkan war on the grounds that it was “on the doorstep of Europe”.
It raised a few sniggers at the time given that both Serbia and Kosovo are well within the boundaries of the European landmass. The continent’s coastline is a couple of hundred miles in any direction and the Ural mountains are a five-day journey away by car or bus.
You see the odd sign in Turkish at the motorway service stations offering meal deals and rooms for Turkish holiday makers heading south but you’ve a long way to go until you hit Istanbul and cross the Bosphorus into Asia Minor.
The Balkans are in Europe alright, even if the blue-and-gold of the EU is in danger of being outflagged by the Russian eagle and the star and crescent of Ankara. Europe’s doorstep this is not. If the refugee crisis 2015 proves anything then it is that the Balkans are Europe’s front door.
Here in Niš, which stands at the crossroads of east and west and where the gates of the old Ottoman fortress still dominate the city centre, the image becomes very easy to visualise. Step inside and much of what you see will bring the Near East just that little bit nearer.
West infuses into east like a strong black tea. Café bars selling Heineken lager stand next to the hamam; the old Turkish steam bath. Arabic arches have fallen victim to Orthodox graffiti. The west feels like an impostor, drowned against an impossibly grand backdrop.
You are not in Asia yet, but you’re subtly reminded that it’s not far away. Like the graffiti, the Ottoman heritage may be fading but it will never vanish altogether.
At the height of the Ottoman Empire there were twenty mosques in Niš. Now there are two, one used by the small minority of Serbian Muslims and one here in the fortress which is used as a gallery and a place for the unjustifiably grumpy curator to eat his sandwiches. Islam may belong to the past rather than the present but it still makes its presence felt.
This feels in no way strange. It fits our world view to think of Islam as new to Europe, brought to our shores by Syrian refugees, Pakistani post-colonials and Turkish Gastarbeiter. It’s an easy notion to succumb to but to do so would be to over simplify the complex tapestry of Europe’s past.
Islam may not have directly replaced the Celtic sun gods and state-sponsored Roman deities who once held sway over our continent but it was around long before, say, the upstart Protestants.
Nor was the Koran carried northwards by the sword. The clinical efficiency of the Ottoman war machine may have terrified Christendom’s defenders from Austria to Albania but conversion was rarely a condition of conquest. Istanbul employed a tax policy which levied considerably more per capita from Jews and Christians than it ever did from Muslims. Evangelism would have been bad for business.
Stambol and the Sultan have been gone for over a hundred years now but Islam still maintains a willing presence. In the remote post-Reformation north-west corner of our continent it may seem like an intruder but this is by no means the case everywhere else.
Serbia is a predominantly Christian country but its Ottoman detritus is prized. Here, the fortress is the cover girl for the local tourist board and is treasured among the locals as a prime spot for picnics and promenades. Serbia cherishes her independence but is confident enough in herself to wish her former conqueror no ill.
The pattern is repeated across much of the country. If you find a restored and functioning hamam you should jump right in there. Konaks, mansions of the Ottoman great and good, form the historical and gastronomic centerpieces with which small towns attempt to attract intrepid tourists away from the motorway on the journey south.
Ivo Andrić’s epic Bridge On The Drina, regarded by many as the greatest work of literature in the Serbian language, carefully reconstructs the region’s past through the eyes of a resolutely Turkish main protagonist: the bridge itself.
As a feat of architecture it is nondescript, as a leitmotif it is enduring. The other characters come and go in a blur of anecdote and mannerism; only the little white bridge remains. For hundreds of years it is the knot that ties east and west — and there are dozens of them throughout the land.
Shisha bars are few and far between in a part of the world which still prefers real smoking but there’s an oriental aftertaste here alright. They also do a beautiful line in carpets and this I can personally vouch for.
I picked up my first in the bazaar in Sarajevo, some days after the Scotland game which first brought me to this part of the world and a love affair developed which has never quite deserted me.
At the time it was a marriage of convenience. It was a rug, it was going cheap and I didn’t have one. But thirty hours on a train binds you closer together.
When I got back home, delirious from imported spirits and lack of sleep, my friends shook their heads. Apparently it is not normal to go to a football match and come back with a carpet.
But, as they would with a new girlfriend, they all wanted to get a look at her eventually. Much as I love my friends, I have to report that they were childish and insensitive. When they saw her most of them pointed and laughed.
It isn’t the biggest carpet in the world. You wouldn’t put it outside your front door in place on a welcome mat but neither is it entirely suitable for the throne room of the Topkapi Palace.
If you brush dust under it then the lumps tend to show up after a couple of weeks and if you want to fly on it, well you’d better cross your legs tightly. It was my first love and now I have others.
Serbia does not have bazaars but here too there are some beautiful rugs to be had if only you know where to look. You have to look very closely indeed. Proper Serbian carpets come from one place and one place only. Today we going there to buy one.
East of Niš, through the Sićevo Gorge and not six miles from the Bulgarian border, lies the small industrial town of Pirot. These days it’s the tyre factory that brings in the money and the ex-Yu architecture which dominates the precincts. Nightlife consists of café bars selling Coca-Cola and Worthington’s English Bitter. If you hadn’t done your homework, you wouldn’t stop here long.
But take a look up into the mountains that surround the town and you’ll start to understand what made Pirot great — and kept it so for over seven hundred years. The sparse, rocky hardscrabble peaks are ideal sheep country. It is the wool from these hills — and only these hills — which is woven together by the women — and only the women — of the town to make the Pirot ćilim.
They are works of art. The best ones only use natural dyes. The symbols were set down centuries ago; each one has meaning and provenance. Some, such as the fish, draw their inspiration from the Christian tradition; others such as the turtle and the tree of life draw their inspiration from an empire which was never afraid to embrace the exotic.
Hours of finger-breaking work go into each one. Rearing sheep is about as attractive a proposition in Serbia as it is in Britain and up in the hills the villages are emptying fast as the young head west to seek their fortunes. Weaving has become a profession for the old so that when the women who currently do this work finally call it a day, a centuries-old tradition will cease to exist.
When I was here a couple of years ago ćilims were as rare as hen’s teeth. At the time, two cooperatives employed around a dozen women working on a part-time basis. There was one finished article of any size in the shop. In a fit of altruism that I have yet fully to comprehend I bought it for my mother and contented myself with a fake.
The reason for making the journey is in the hope against hope that I may get another one and to lend support to a worthy cause. This is all for purely altruistic reasons you understand.
Pirot might not look like much but it’s rich in spirit. The last time I was here the streets were splashed red with the juice of peppers trampled underfoot as they spilled out of the sacks by the roadside.
Today, the rain is coming down in buckets and business is slow. It reminds me of two things: firstly just how precarious life on the land is and secondly that no two trips out in Serbia are ever the same.
I head up the street to the konak. The last time I was here I got a good meal at the restaurant and a tour of the house laid on for me alone. The curator spoke excellent English and asked as many questions to me as I did to him. As a result I now know the history of the house, the history of the town and the fact that the local football team has the fourteenth toughest hooligans in all Serbia.
Professionalism might not be a strong point of the tourist industry here but the personal touch is always appreciated. Of the things that I told him, he showed most interest in the Old Firm derby. Of the things he told me, I was most fascinated by Little Ali’s office.
Mali (little) Hrista Jovanović is the sort of character who could come straight out of Bridge On The Drina. A merchant in the town who acquired the sobriquet because of his diminutive stature, he used the room for business and to welcome the Turkish tax inspectors. The ceiling is as high as my shoulders. I have to stoop and so did the tax men and thus the authorities always met him on his terms.
The door for the restaurant is open. I poke my head through. The proprietor greets me with a perplexed look on his face.
“Može?”, I ask. “May I?”
One of the things that makes Serbian easy to understand is that they always say everything twice.
“Ali” is also the word for “but”. What follows escapes me until I enter the building.
It is pitch black. This must have been the “but” thing. No electricity. I ask if can I get something to eat.
Hunger outweighs scepticism and I am shown to a table.
By the aid of a candle and a chink of light from the door I read the menu. A waiter emerges from the darkness and asks what I would like to drink. I order everything using the phrase ima — “is there?” or “could you possibly manage?”
“Ima pivo?” — “Could you possibly manage a beer?”
“Ima ima!” — “Yes yes!”
This is the case for everything I order. The Serbs are masters at rustling up a five-star menu using only a fridge and a barbecue. Improvisation is a skill we have largely forgotten in the west.
For the sake of reference, and in case the same should ever happen to you, this is what I ordered. Ćevapi sausages, a salad, bread, chillies in oil, hard cheese, two beers, two glasses of wine and two glasses of plum brandy.
The only excuse I can offer for the alcohol is that it calmed my nerves. If a face emerges at you out of the blackness every few minutes offering you booze, you are unlikely to say “no”.
Just as I am starting to enjoy myself, the lights flash back on and the radio belts full blast. There is a cheer from the kitchen and I join in. I pay the bill and stagger out into the rain. No two days out here are ever the same — but where else can you get a candlelit dinner at ten past one in the afternoon?
I zigzag the three hundred yards up the street to the carpet shop. One thing is clear, even if it isn’t necessarily my vision. I am in the mood to spend money. Having had two glasses of plum brandy at eighty cents a shot I am in bargain-hunting mode. Little Ali, I sense, is sniggering.
This could all be academic of course. I can only buy a carpet if the carpet shop still has one to sell. I enter and I ask the question:
I come out with a beautiful hand-woven Pirot carpet. It is an earthy off-purple; it comes with a certificate; it radiates love, energy and good fortune and it fits nicely into the palm of my hand. I feel warm and wonderful. Don’t worry, be happy.
As it turns out, the last time I visited I had every right to be worried — but times have changed since. Money has come through from the Bulgarian government and the UN and the cooperatives are now taking on apprentices to carry on the tradition.
I buy two. One is even big enough to cover my coffee table. If you want anything bigger than that then you have to pre-order it. The manager hands me a glossy brochure.
I pack them into my rucksack to protect them from the elements and head out into the rain. I dash to the nearest café bar and order a beer.
They do not sell Worthington’s Bitter any more. Discontinued due to lack of interest. Common sense has prevailed on that score.
What’s more important is that the Pirot ćilim is alive and well. Long may it reign. That’s one in the eye for globalisation.