Our guide Kristina had pre-sold Valjevo well. One part 19th century Austro-Hungarian, one part Ottoman. A mixture of the renovated and the deliciously crumbling. Multi-story mansions, tile roofed houses and workshops. Threaded by the Kolubara river. And only half an hour from our Belgrade base.
Yes please we say and are soon on foot crossing a bridge over the Kolubara and into a film set quarter called Tesnjar. Because of its authenticity, mostly renovated and preserved, utterly charming rickety stone, brick and wood houses and shops with sagging tiled roofs this street has been used for countless Bulgarian TV and film historical epics.
As we approach this the most ancient part of the city Paul is drawn into the oldest continuously working barber shop in the quarter enticed by the offer of coffee and a bargain shave. Fred meanwhile continues down Bircaninova street in search of a reviving coffee and the elixir known as rakia. As he passes an outdoor table of three local worthies one of the three spots the camera, flies out of his chair, grabs Fred by the arm and steers him into a tiny, sparsely furnished kafana. All the while the abductor is jabbering in Serbian and pointing to a cheerful looking chap in a white sweater who is in the midst of a card game with two pals.
Now Fred, with a minimal-to-nil grasp of Serbian, begins to fear the worst, breaks for the door and shouts for Kristina who is just emerging from the aforementioned barber shop. Kristina comes running, engages Fred’s abductor in earnest conversation and is within minutes convulsed with laughter.
See the guy with the white sweater?’ says Kristina. ‘Apparently he had a dream last night in which his deceased mother and father appeared.’ White sweater guy is now grinning at Fred like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. The other four or so patrons are beginning to chuckle while still attending to card play and quaffage.
In this dream, Kristina continues, his dead mother said that he (white sweater guy) would soon be joining her. More chuckles all round but no more clarity on Fred’s part. Also, says Kristina, deceased father told white sweater guy not to bother paying this month’s electricity bill. More chuckles.
Imagine Fred’s confusion not to mention increasing dryness of mouth. What the hell has this got to do with me?
You know, says Kristina, that Serbians put photographs of the deceased on the gravestone. Fred does, having visited a Serbian cemetery that very morning. Well he would like you to take his picture. For his gravestone. And fairly quickly.
At which point white sweater guy jumps up, flings an arm around one of the other elderly card players and shoots some more Serbian at Fred. Uh...says Kristina...he asks if you could also take one of his friend who isn’t feeling too well.
The bar explodes with one jolly chap snorting his beer all over the table. We are now truly ensconced at the invitation of Fred’s original abductor, Borivoje Dragojevic...Bore for short. Hence the name of the kafana, Kod Bore. Coffee, beer, rakia and stories begin to flow.
But not before another bizarre interlude. Blocking out pretty much the whole of the smallish entrance to the kafana comes a youngish guy who appears to be about 6’7” and also looks as if he’s just come from basketball practice. Which is probably because he was 6’7” and had just come from basketball practice! Basketball is big in Serbia, almost as big as football. In fact, one of the patrons was just off with a giant bag of chicken parts to get them barbequed in time for a major basketball game on the inevitable wall-mounted television in the bar.
Several hours after Fred’s abduction, we roll out of Kod Bore having discovered the camaraderie – not to mention native wit - of a ‘typical’ local Serbian kafana.
As Bore puts it ‘you enter a kafana alone and you leave with three godfathers.’ By the way he wouldn’t accept one penny for what we drank.
Words and images by Fred and Paul, the Balkan Caffeinators
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Our mission is to explore why coffee and cafés are central to the Balkan way of life.