Monthly Archives: June 2017

The heart of southern Serbia

Time-travelling: Naissus and beyond

Name an epoch you want to go to and Niš will take you there in the blink of an eye. Once known as Naissus, southern Serbia’s main city was the birthplace of Constantine the Great, famous for issuing the Edict of Milan and making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The archaeological site of Mediana (Constantine’s 4th-century residence) features recently renovated mosaics and other remains from the Roman period. To learn why Naissus was of one of the major stops on the ancient Romans’ Via Militaris, visit the Archaeological Hall.

Niš fortress, in the heart of the city, hides several Ottoman-era architectural beauties including the Hamam (a lavish Turkish bath turned into a restaurant) and the gorgeous 16th-century Bali-Beg Mosque. A gruesome yet fascinating sight, Ćele Kula (Skull Tower) tells the story of the struggle for the liberation of Niš in the early 19th century: yes, it was built from real skulls – the ones of Serbian soldiers – as a warning to all who tried to rebel against the Ottoman Empire.

There are more fight-for-freedom stories to be found in Niš. The Red Cross Concentration Camp is one of the few preserved Nazi concentration camps, from which the first mass escape in then occupied Europe was organised in 1942. The local spirit of liberty also lives on at the memorial park on nearby Bubanj Hill, where three gigantic fists rising from the ground symbolise fighting and sufferings of men, women and children, the victims of WWII.

Nišville: jazz Balkan-style

Mixing Serbian folk, Romany and Turkish tunes with various other influences and genres, Niš has created its unique musical identity that’s nowadays best represented by the widely popular Nišville International Jazz Festival. Held between the walls of Niš fortress, Nišville is acclaimed as one of the top European events of its kind, attracting big-name jazz, R&B, soul, funk and reggae acts from around the world every August.

Fans of pop, rock or electronic dance music are sure to have some fun at the city’s other festivals, Nisomnia and Naissus Fest. Adding to its merak credentials, Niš was also the home town of the legendary Roma singer Šaban Bajramović, hailed across the Balkans as the ‘King of Romany music’. Today the late musician is honoured with a monument on the quay by the Nišava River, a popular place for taking a stroll or just chilling out over drinks with friends.

Foodie feast: the home of burek

According to the old saying, you can’t put a price on merak and anyone who visits Niš will quickly learn that. Compared to Balkan capitals and other popular regional cities, the gastronomic offer in Niš is exceptionally tasty and incredibly cheap. With dozens of charming Serbian kafane (taverns), Kazandžijsko sokače (Tinkers’ Alley) is a must-visit for both food lovers and party-goers.

If you’re already familiar with local carnivore favourites ćevapčići and pljeskavica, don’t miss the famous grilled ribs with kajmak (delicious, creamy dairy product) at Kod Rajka for less than €4 – or try ham hocks baked in cabbage with bacon on top at traditional Čardak restaurant for the same price. Add to the list a large portion of šopska or moravskasalad on the side and a pint of a cold local beer (hint: there’s even a beer called Merak).

For Balkan basics, any fan of burek probably knows there are a few versions of this mega-popular pastry. The round burek, which is usually cut in quarters, is the all-time-favourite in most of the region. Fun fact: it’s believed burek was actually created in Niš in mid-15th century – so head over to Kalinka, a small but very well-known bakery, for the best burek in town.

Niš adventure: up above and down below

Merak isn’t the only thing that matters in Niš. The surrounding area is a paradise for all sorts of outdoor activities. Sićevo and Jelašnica Gorges (both a 15km bus ride from the city) are the perfect setting for some adventure in untouched nature. Adrenaline junkies can choose between free climbing on the gorges’ limestone rocks and paragliding – since Niš was the host of the 2017 Paragliding World Cup, it’s safe to say that the location won’t disappoint.

If you’re not a fan of heights, try venturing deep into the ground and visit impressive, more than 6km-long Cerje Cave, some 14km from Niš. Over two million years old and rich in ornamentation (including seemingly gravity-defying helictites), this massive cave is only partially explored and it’s still not regularly open for tourists;

Visiting the northern half of divided Cyprus

Visiting the northern half of divided Cyprus is a bit like holidaying in the 1970s. It might lack a certain slickness, but there’s also a pleasing lack of development. Some of the Med’s most unspoilt sands are here, especially along the wild Karpaz Peninsula, where you’re more likely to see donkeys and turtles than other people. Indeed, turtles visit North Cyprus regularly, and from June to late September, the Society for the Protection of Turtles runs guided, eco-sensitive night tours to view them from its base at Alagadi Beach, just east of Kyrenia’s harbour.

September is a fine time to visit: the crowds have gone but weather and waters are warm. It’s ideal for hiking between ruined Crusader castles in the Kyrenia range or strolling the well-preserved ancient city of Salamis. Don’t miss Lefkoşa, the world’s only divided capital. Amble the minaret-speared streets before passing a checkpoint for a weird wander into the bullet-scarred no man’s land that separates Turkish north and Greek south

Enjoy a trulli tasty break in Puglia, Italy – without the crowds

In September, Puglia is the place to lose the crowds, still enjoy warm sunshine and indulge in both autumnal bounty and year-round local specialities, such as Burrata cheese, orecchiette pasta, seafood, endless breads (the Salento region alone has over 100 types). Hunker down in a converted masserie (fortified farmhouse) or, better, one of Puglia’s trulli– mysterious conical limestone dwellings that pepper the peaceful countryside. Explore from your atmospheric base.

Learn to dive in Whitsunday Islands’ bath-warm, translucent waters

Some places are easy sells for tourist boards. Exhibit A: the Whitsundays, a string of 74 emeralds ringed with white gold, afloat in warm turquoise seas sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef. See? September, with rain-free days and clear seas, is prime time to explore.

Many visitors simply loll on the deck of a yacht or find a patch of pristine sand – perhaps Whitehaven, which regularly tops world’s-best-beach polls – but this is also a great place to learn to dive or develop your sub-aqua skills with short courses and liveaboard dive vessels cruising among the islands and out to the Great Barrier Reef. As well as seeing countless dazzling reef fish, you could observe sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and manta rays, which feed around the fringing reefs from May to September.

The Île de Beauté is beautifully un-busy

There’s barely a straight road on the wildly rumpled Mediterranean isle of Corsica. Tarmac has to twist around mountains and through the herby maquis shrubland that blankets the interior. As such, you don’t want to tackle these roads in high summer, when the whole of Francedecamps to Corsica’s gorgeous shores. Instead, wait until September, when the air and sea are still warm, and the beaches – arguably Europe’s best – are empty again.

Also amble the precipitous, cliff-perched town of Bonifacio; feel the introspective vibe in hilltop Sartène; hit the Napoleon trail in lively Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte; or tour the tiny fishing ports of offbeat Cap Corse. The seemingly impenetrable interior is laced with hiking trails, including the tough but epic GR20. Tackle it all, or just a section, or book a villa in the hills, crack a Pietra beer, nibble brocciu cheese and simply contemplate the wilderness instead.

Europe’s oldest languange

From my car window, I watched Spain transform. From Madrid in the country’s centre to the coastal north, empty land and grazing cows turned to misty green mountains and a shimmering harbour full of boats. I had driven north before, but this was the first time I’d stopped in Getaria, a medieval fishing village with beaches, vineyards and the 15th-Century baptismal church of native son Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first person to sail around the world.

In the early afternoon, on a narrow street, hot smoke rose from seabream sizzling on an outdoor charcoal grill. Two men standing behind a seafood delivery truck were speaking a language I’d never heard before. The staccato sounds they exchanged mingled with the light drips of rain on the pavement that March day. Later, I realised they were speaking an ancient language that has teetered on the brink of extinction.

Euskara, spoken in the autonomous communities of Navarre in northern Spain and the Basque Country across northern Spain and south-western France, is a mystery: it has no known origin or relation to any other language, an anomaly that has stumped linguistic experts for ages.

“Nobody is able to say where [the language] comes from,” according to Pello Salaburu, professor and director at the Basque Language Institute at The University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. “Scholars used to research this problem many years ago, but there are no clear conclusions.”

The distinct language is a point of pride for Basques. An estimated 700,000 of them, or 35% of the Basque population, speak it today. But it was a target for Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who enforced the use of Spanish and forbade other languages, including Euskara (also called Basque), during his rule from 1939 to 1975.

When Karmele Errekatxo was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, she attended secret classes in a church basement in Bilbao, Spain, the Basque Country’s most populous city and home of the famed Guggenheim Museum. It was here that she learned the forbidden language of Euskara.

If you take language from a place, it dies

“Language is the identity of a place,” said Errekatxo, now a teacher in Bilbao who speaks Euskara in her classroom. “If you take language from a place, it dies. The dictatorship knew that and wanted Euskara to disappear.”

A group of parents set up a hidden Basque school, or ikastola, in 1944. By 1970, these secret learning institutions had more than 8,000 students, according to Salaburu.

Salaburu was required at his 1951 baptism to take the name ‘Pedro Maria’, the Spanish version of his Basque name. He spoke only Euskara as a child and learned his first Spanish words at a non-Basque school in Navarre when he was six years old.

Bilbao, the Basque Country’s most populous city, is home to the Guggenheim Museum (Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images)

At this time Euskara was still spoken in isolated towns and farms in the Pyrenees Mountains and along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, where it was the only language many families knew. But it was silenced in cities, where informants reported Euskara speakers to the police.

“Euskara was relegated to the intimate domain of the home,” Errekatxo said. “But in the cities, even the walls seemed to be listening.”

Euskara was relegated to the intimate domain of the home, but in the cities, even the walls seemed to be listening

One day in the 1940s, Errekatxo’s grandmother was heard speaking Euskara to Bilbao food vendors from her hometown of Bermeo, a small seaside village 34km north-east of Bilbao. She was arrested, taken to jail and forced to pay a fine. Before she left, her jailers shaved her head to humiliate her.

As a result, her grandmother did not pass Euskara to her children, including Errekatxo’s father.

“The repression against the language had repercussions,” Errekatxo said. “Many families that spoke Euskara, because of fear, were losing the language. The language was not transmitted in some generations. It came to a sudden stop.”

Francisco Franco forbid the use of Euskara, so Basque schools were established to teach Euskara in secret (Credit: Oscar Fdez. Santana/Alamy)

But Euskara outlived the dictatorship, just as it had inexplicably survived several millennia.

Speleologists recently discovered an ancient cave in Errenteria, a town in the province of Guipuzcoa in the Spanish Basque Country, where people left drawings about 14,000 years ago. Other prehistoric caves in the Basque Country (including Santimamiñe in Biscay and Ekain in Guipuzcoa) were inhabited by people about 9,000 years ago.

“We don’t know the language spoken in the caves, of course,” Salaburu said. “But, unless we have other data proving the contrary, we should assume that that protolanguage is related in some sense to current Basque.”

When people from the East, or Indo-Europeans, began arriving in Europe 3,500 years ago, they brought their own languages from which most European languages originated. But Euskara does not have the same Indo-European roots, and is instead “completely different in origin,” Salaburu said. It’s the only living language in Europe with no relation to any others, he said.

The abandoned Island

Sailing to a place where time stopped long ago. Ahead, on the cusp of the horizon, a whaleback island rose up, caught between surging tides and the setting sun. A little-known, uninhabited isle in the Orkney archipelago, just north of Scotland’s mainland, this was Eynhallow: a place of pilgrimage and ritual, folklore and ghosts.

If Scotland had an Atlantis, Eynhallow would be it.

As the island drew near, the boat continued its westward chug, passing farmsteads, pastures and peaty fields. The passengers chatted excitedly. An American family, feverish and camera-ready at the prow, even had crossed an ocean to be Scotland. A Spirit of its own.


“I see it every day,” said Bob Nelson, a retired farmer who watches the island from his house across the water. “And yet I don’t understand it at all.”

Now, the boat made landfall and the scramble to shore began.

Comparisons with Plato’s legendary island may be far-fetched, but they are apt. If you consult a large-scale map of the Orkney Islands, you’d struggle to place Eynhallow. Squashed beneath the larger islands of Mainland and Rousay and measuring no more than a half mile (900m) across, the heart-shaped isle barely gets a speck of ink on an atlas. It lies low, reaching only 40m at its highest point, and is characterised by little more than heaps of leather-like seaweed and storm beaches made of weather-beaten stones. It has the same colours and contours of thousands of other Scottish skerries. But unlike them, everything here is paused, almost at a standstill.

Seaweed, storm beaches and the sense of time standing still characterise Eynhallow (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Like Atlantis, Eynhallow has its fair share of mysteries. Orcadians grew up listening to stories about the haunted island. According to legend it was under the spell of mythical sea trows – evil Norse spirits who would make the island vanish into thin air should anyone attempt to set foot on it. Others were told more fantastical stories about the finfolk, or mer-people: watery shape shifters who only came on land in summer.

This oral history has helped make the island an enigma. References to Eynhallow throughout time are spurious and its precise beginnings are difficult to identify. In the Orkneyinga saga, the historical narrative written in the 13th Century about the Orkney Islands, Eynhallow is only passingly mentioned. But while many of the archipelago’s other islands have a beginning, Eynhallow’s true origins have almost completely disappeared.

“Locals say the island exists between worlds – both geographically and historically – and there’s plenty of truth in that,” said Dan Lee, an archaeologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands. “A plague hit in 1851, causing the families that lived here to flee. Then to disinfect the land and make sure no one would return, the Laird dismantled all the roofs of the houses. And it’s been uninhabited ever since.”

We crossed an overgrown field of flourishing thistles and wildflowers before stopping at the ruins of an ancient stone monastery. Here, Lee explained, archaeologists had found echoes of a refectory, cloisters and bell tower, as well the rounded archway of a nave. Beside the chancel walls, there were traces of medieval land use patterns in the dykes, ridges and furrows – all pointing to a much older history. Prehistoric sites had been found, as had burial mounds and Stone Age walls. All of it was a map to an undiscovered world.

“Eynhallow translates as the Holy Isle, or ‘Eyin Helga’ in Old Norse, but the importance of this was something the island residents never fully understood,” said Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, another archaeologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands. “Orkney is the only place in Western Europe without a confirmed monastery, yet everything points to it being on Eynhallow. And this one could date back to the 11th Century.”

Such a wealth of archaeological mystery would normally be rewarded with research grants. But with so much competition for resources in archaeology-rich Orkney, Eyhallow’s riddles never have been fully scrutinised.