30 May 2006

Travel Journal: Belgrade to Berwick

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 20 May 2006

Straight as an arrow and smoothly paved, there is nothing outwardly menacing about the Road of Brotherhood and Unity. But like no other motorway I know, the Bratsvo i Jedinstvo motorway across Serbia and Croatia suffers from a bad mood. I feel mildly ashamed to confess such irrationality but I cannot help suspecting that it is haunted.

Set off from Belgrade on a crystal-clear day and one frequently encounters the most improbable pea-soup fog, downpours or blizzard conditions within the hour. The regularity with which my trips to Zagreb have been spoilt in this way is a strange fact, cast in an even stranger light by an apparent miracle my family once experienced on the road.

The Fiat containing the three of us suddenly spun wildly out of control on black ice in a snow squall. With a concrete wall on one side and a deep ditch on the other, catastrophe seemed almost certain. Then, in a way wholly unrelated to my frantic tugging at the wheel, unseen forces brought us out of our tailspin and guided us to a halt, with our back bumper gently kissing the centre reservation. We were facing backwards against traffic, but safe and intact.

Yet hauntings and miracles were far from the mind as we prepared to leave Belgrade one last time, bound for Northumberland at the end of a four-year Balkan sojourn. An emerald-blue sky and glorious sunshine presented themselves as antidotes to morbid superstition. With the great task of packing and loading completed, we belted ourselves into place. The domestic disorder invited by departure had been brought heroically to heel. We filled the moment of transition that precedes every long road trip - when one turns from the frenzy of preparation to the journey itself - with a brief prayer: Lord, have mercy.

He always does, of course. Nevertheless, within the hour our long-suffering Fiat was creeping at a snail's pace through a blizzard that had rushed up to meet us, burying the Brotherhood and Unity in white.

This time we did not join the jack-knifed trailers and cars stalled on the hard shoulder. After an exhausting 10 hours we passed through the storm. The feeling of relief was powerful, because we were so keen to leave.

Few citizens of the world are familiar with the Balkan stomach ache. It is a chronic, contagious condition, whose primary symptoms are intense self-pity, guilty despair and political vertigo. These symptoms are, of course, the predictable and direct consequences of war. But stay in the region long enough and one becomes convinced that the disease, which afflicts whole nations, infects the air itself.

So when we reached tranquil Bled, Slovenia, with the Balkans firmly behind us, stepping out and filling our lungs with crisp Alpine air, it was as if yet another miracle had happened: we had only to enter the spotless foyer of that vast and impressive spa called the European Union to start feeling cured.

If Bled, with its oxygen, Jungendstil guest houses and fairytale scenery - a sparkling mountain lake with a frosty island in the middle - initiated the treatment, then it was reinforced by other pleasures along the way. Everywhere the mundane leapt out at us as if it were exceptional, for there is nothing like the profound joy of diving back into a place that "clicks" after living in a place that does not.

Constantly through the Alps there was the admirable state of the roads, so immaculately kept. No sooner had fresh snow fallen in the Tyrolean Alps than legions of ploughs arrived to take it away. The contrast to our experience in Serbia and Croatia, where snow had made driving almost impossible, was extreme. People who expect proper ploughing, perhaps the Austrians above all, take it for granted; but one must remember that in most of the snow-prone world, well-maintained modern machines remain scarce. Ploughing remains the exception and paralysis the rule. Being accustomed to paralysis, we were positively amazed.

In such a spirit of wonderment my wife and I ogled the rich shops and sampled the fine bakeries in the Austrian town of Bischofshofen as if they were entirely novel to us - though in fact they were not. Down the road I was charmed by the genteel manners of an OMV petrol station attendant and by his colleague, a similarly refined lady, sitting behind the till, where she had the station's sound system piping soothing baroque choral music directly into customers' souls.

By nightfall, having rolled between the jagged peaks crammed around the Deutsche Alpenstrasse, we reached the Bavarian village of Aschau im Chiemgau, familiar to us from our honeymoon. As if offering final confirmation of the health and wealth of the west, Aschau's humble streets were aglow in the evening with log fires, free mulled wine and the music of a local brass ensemble.

But the next stop, the Rhein valley, offered first reminders that the west, in all its wealth and glory, also suffers from imbalances.

We passed through Bingen - home of Hildegard, mystic songstress of the 12th century - and stopped in Bacharach, namesake of our own age's pop maestro, Burt. The maze of tiny lanes and tilting timber-frame houses that comprise Bacharach's town centre is a medieval marvel, situated in the shadows of a ruined shrine and surrounded by the eye-catching asymmetries of preserved town walls and the vertical vineyards that in past centuries were the burghers' chief source of wealth. But where were the burghers?

Bacharach, it seems, has almost no need of itself during the winter. Summer tourism is the big business. Walking through empty streets, searching almost entirely in vain for a working guest house - a working anything - I felt I was lost on a film set.

With local industry comprehensively outstripped by national and multinational industry, the town as a thriving organism had perished. Pretty little Bacharach stood as a monument to herself, her beauty now like that of an ornamented mummy - a relic of sumptuous but extinguished splendour.

We slept in the only available pension. The proprietress, a kindly Filipina, gave the vaguest explanation for her residence there: "Well, it's so beautiful, isn't it?"

A fast drive through grey rains brought us to Ijmuiden on the Netherlands' North Sea coast, and a ferry through the black night carried us to Newcastle.

Our wonderment was revived as, driving up the Northumbrian coast, we beheld riches ancient and modern and relished the familiar green countryside, so utterly peaceful and so utterly oblivious to peace's rarity.

Before us lay Berwick-upon-Tweed, England's northernmost city, and nearby the hamlet where our farm cottage awaited us.

Berwick, an attractive, stone-built settlement, where the Tweed river meets the sea, offered yet another inspiring vision of western wealth, with its arched bridges, graceful towers and busy high street. We stood in awe of it, relishing the sight. Berwick, unlike Bacharach, lives and works all through the year.

But we forgot at first - until neighbours reminded us - the party line. This, after all, is the hard-bitten north. Berwick: a place of chill winds, toil and sacrifice. This must be remembered, even while one shops for fun in the handsome city centre. One detects a trace of something oddly familiar in the air. Is it really? Could it be . . . self-pity?

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