I sat on the couch and stared down at my feet. At least they should have been my feet, but it was hard to tell. Despite all of my inclinations to the contrary and against what little fashion sense I possess, the feet that I saw there were wearing crocs. They certainly looked like my feet, what I could see of them, anyway. They were also attached to my legs, which were attached to me, but the crocs were a definite incongruity. I would never wear crocs, therefore those must not be my feet. And yet, when my brain sent the signal to wiggle my toes, I saw corresponding movement through the rubbery, Swiss cheese footwear below. That, and the fact that I clearly remembered putting them on a moment earlier at the behest of my host, seemed incontrovertible evidence. They were my feet after all.
Before me on the table was a cup of Serbian coffee. ‘It’s not really Serbian,’ Tatjana, owner of the Happy Hostel, corrected herself. ‘There’s no such thing as Serbian coffee. This is Turkish, of course.’ Of course. I hadn’t wanted coffee. Coffee is bitter, and I don’t like it. I accepted her offer the second time she made it, however, because she and her husband were going to have some, too. I wanted to be social. As I sipped the thick and ancient tasting beverage, I was glad that I had acquiesced. It was actually quite good. Perhaps it was the sugar and the milk that Tatjana had added, but it made for a very nice drink. It certainly wasn’t my first Turkish coffee, or even my 17th. I drink Turkish coffee far more often than any other kind, even though I rarely choose to partake. ‘Milk and sugar,’ I will remember from now on. Just a little bit makes quite a difference.
If the coffee in my cup hadn’t done enough to make me forget about the ‘shoes’ on my feet, my mind was soon drawn even further away from those rubber monstrosities by Tatjana’s playful daughter, Aleksandra, whom she called Alex. Tatjana had been trying to coax her into showing off her English. She was only seven, but Tatjana insisted that she already knew lots of words. I believed her and assured her that no presentation of Alex’s skills was necessary, but Tatjana was unshakable. Alex must have known this even better than I did. All of a sudden the girl broke into an anatomy lesson. ‘Eyes!’ she shouted, poking her finger sharply and dangerously close to the identified body part. Leaping lizards, I thought her finger was going to fly right in there. ‘Nose!’ she went on, her finger showing me that she knew precisely what she was talking about. ‘Mout!’ Alright, ‘th’ is tough to say. I’ll give her that one, too.
The demonstration continued from head to toe until I had no doubt that her English teacher had secretly wanted to go to medical school. Tatjana’s laughter was encouraging and proud. Milan, her husband, returned about this time and drank his coffee cold as Tatjana beamed about their daughter. It was an adorable little family, and I was very glad that I had taken that coffee. Milan was off again almost immediately, and I was once more left alone with Tatjana and Alex. We discussed Serbian cuisine, specifically how one makes kajmak and ajvar, two of my favourite condiments.
Ajvar, I knew, consisted mostly of bell peppers, but I had no idea what a process it was to make it right. Hours of cooking and straining, and unlike the kind you find in the store, Tatjana’s had only bell pepper and a little garlic. Her solemn nod told me that this was a far superior recipe. Conversely, kajmak, which is a spreadable cheese that has almost the consistency of butter, has a much simpler method of preparation. ‘Boil milk,’ Tatjana informed me in her delightful, Serbian-flavoured English, ‘skim fat from the top, boil milk again, skim fat again, over and over and you have the kajmak. Just add some of the salt.’ Amazing. All this time and it was just skimmed-off milk fat.
After that it was time to head into Niš. Lonely Planet described this southern Serbian town as being a charming throwback to medieval life. Cobblestones and horse-drawn carts were to be seen alongside the more modern buildings of the city. While I did see a donkey cart (awesome!) on my way out of town two days later, I must have missed those cobblestone streets. No bother, Niš was a truly awesome place even without all of that. For one thing, Niš has a huge fortress just hanging out in the middle of the city, right alongside the river. Niška tvrđava, it’s called, and although the part you see on the outside is only the three hundred year-old Turkish fortification (only), this is built on the ruins of earlier fortresses dating back some two thousand years to Byzantine and Roman times. Today, the fortress encloses a gorgeous park that spreads out as far as the eye can see (or at least pretty far…I don’t remember if my eyes were capable of seeing beyond it, but they probably were, since my eyes rock), and the tiny Bali-Bey Mosque, constructed sometime in the early 16th century, which is now a gallery.
After wandering around the fortress park for a while, I decided to head into the center of town. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge than I expected. Crossing back over the river (the bridge itself is a monument to the city, feeding almost directly into the fortress on the north side, with smiling people selling their wares at either end), I went through the exciting King Milan square and headed straight for the pedestrian underpass that would take me into the heart of the city. The street that I avoided crossing was not especially large, but it looked busy, and everyone seemed to be heading down into the walkway. I followed, having no idea what I was in for. Below the street begins an underground shopping extravaganza. Crowds of anxious consumers break apart and coalesce along the straight and seemingly endless shop-lined path. Everywhere I looked were colourful stores offering shoes, clothing, electronics, jewelry and countless trinkets. It was hypnotizing, and all I could do was walk forward in awe of this unexpected sight.
After a time, the allure of this activity wore off and I realized that I had been down there for quite a while. I felt that I surely must have crossed the street by then, and yet I could see no end to either shop or shopper, and no stairs that would hasten my escape to the surface. I trudged on, determined to find a way out, but the further I went the longer it seemed I would have to go. The storefronts continued, telescoping out from me like a scene in Vertigo. I began to grow afraid and looked around in panic (this is me exaggerating just a little), and that’s when I caught sight of a staircase off to the left. At first glance it had looked like the entrance to a nail salon or something similar, but as I looked more closely I spotted the exit. Climbing the stairs to freedom, my mind leapt back to childhood and the movie Labyrinth. This entire place was like that first scene in the…labyrinth…where Sarah is looking for the twists and turns that she knows to be traditionally associated with a…labyrinth. It’s not until she meets a (sort of) helpful little worm, that didn’t say hello, but rather ’ello, that she realizes she has to go through a wall. If all of this meant that I was going to get to see David Bowie up on the streets of Niš, I was pretty excited.
The view from outside was like an open-air replica of what I had just experienced, except that the street was much wider and there was food everywhere. I emerged gratefully and hungrily and made my way to a bakery to try some of the meat-filled pastries I had heard about. Delicious! Backtracking now, I noticed the entrances/exits to the prison of commerce I had so narrowly escaped. The winding staircases had walls on either side that came up out of the ground a bit and disguised their purpose. They looked for all the world like concrete seashells spiraling down into the earth. I could only imagine that they likely provided air as well as passage to the subterranean world below. Armed with the knowledge of how to navigate these tunnels, I plunged back down and only got lost once before making my way to the other side of the street.
I returned to my hostel to find Vane, a Macedonian man whom I had met briefly earlier, having a coffee with Tatjana and Milan. ‘Peter,’ Vane called to me, ‘come sit here.’ It was not a request. Well, it was and it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t a command, but I could not imagine refusing. I sat and had another coffee, discussing my day so far and my plans for the rest of my stay in Niš. I had to see Skull Tower, they told me, and I had to try pleskavica (the Serbian version of a hamburger, with a thinner slice of meat) and burek, the multi-layered hot pastry with meat or cheese that is to the Balkans what pizza is to just about everywhere else. The fact that I had had these things in Slovenia was not good enough, of course. They would not be able to compare to their Serbian counterparts, and I would be mistaken not to try them in Niš. How could I refuse?
The following day, after a truly delicious pleskavica, I was walking toward the bus station to by my ticket to Macedonia. It was there that I encountered a woman, walking in front of me, who kept running her hand across her backside. If she were smoothing down a skirt that would have been one thing, but she was wearing tight pants and didn’t appear to be making any kind of adjustments. I must have seen her do it ten times, just running her hand across it briefly, every few seconds, as if checking to make sure that it was still there. I can only assume that the thing ran off on her once, and she’s now terrified it will try to get loose and escape again. Before long our paths diverged, and I never got to find out if it managed to make a break for it.
I made my way back toward King Milan square, curious about this Tower of Skulls, but before I got much further I discovered a collection of statues. Two men sit at a table, having a drink and telling stories. There is evidence of paper of some kind on the table next to the listener, and perhaps he is a writer. A dog looks on with interest as the other man’s story is in full swing, and you can almost hear him relating some tale of adventure or historical event. But the dog does not appear interested in the story itself as much as the listener. I’ll leave it to you to decide what this means, but my favourite part of this collection is the empty chair on the other side of the table. It is there as if to say that a guest is welcome to join these two, to have a listen or share a story of their own. This is the feeling I got from Niš, and these statues had summed it up perfectly.
I eventually made it to Skull Tower. The road there was fraught with its own perils, by which I mean that I lost my way several times (on this occasion due to the markings on my map which appeared to place the tower in a residential area). It was during this odyssey that I saw a lady trimming her fingernails over the side of her balcony. Snip, snip, snip went the nails and onto the ground below. She seemed immensely satisfied by the entire endeavour. It occurred to me that if it had been a windier day her downstairs neighbour might have gotten some blow-back, but the clippings did not deviate from their downward course, and gravity won out over the gentle breeze.
Skull Tower, a healthy jaunt away from the center of Niš, is worth getting lost to find. It is quite literally a tower of skulls and dates back to the early 19th century. The first Serbian uprising against the Ottomans took place between 1804 and 1813, and in 1809 the Serbs suffered a major defeat at a hill near Niš. The Ottoman commander, after securing victory, ordered that the insurrectionists be decapitated (they were already dead) and their skulls built into a tower. The tower stood outside until 1878, when the Ottomans were pushed back from the area, and originally contained 952 skulls. Today, there is a chapel surrounding the tower, and the number of skulls has fallen to 58. Standing inside this chapel and looking up at this monument to death is disturbing enough. Learning that there are so few skulls left because relatives searched desperately to recover the remains of their loved ones for burial is downright gut-wrenching. It offers a sobering contrast to the happy and helpful people of Niš, and it is a reminder of the horrors and atrocities that this region has faced for hundreds of years.
All in all, it was a lovely couple of days in the south of Serbia. There were even some throwbacks to a simpler time after all, with sightings of a man selling ducks and chickens from the basket of his bicycle, to the gentleman leading his donkey through the city center. Most of all, though, it was the people I met that made it great. It was the coffee that I shared with Tatjana and her family, along with Vane and his girlfriend, and the conversations that we had about food and culture and the city that they called home. This all made leaving Niš difficult, even though the beauty of Macedonia was awaiting me just a few hours south. But as my bus drove on, I saw a rainbow out of the window and smiled. It seemed like the perfect way to end such a good trip, and I took it as a sign of good tidings for the road ahead.