Encounters at a Water Meadow
Since the Balkan Peninsula has for centuries been a place of mystery, paradox, and wild confusion, it may not be too out of place to recall that this narrative properly opens — in the late summer of 1977 — at a place that did not then exist, next door to a country that had at the time not been created, and among a people who, though sentient human beings in every accepted sense, had in another then not even been born.
In particular it started beside a water meadow of singular loveliness — all cypresses and lime trees, small olive groves, and cool and lush green grasses — that lies on the left bank of a prettily rushing little stream known as the Lepenec River. The river, which ultimately flows into the Aegean Sea by way of a gulf between the sacred mountains Olympus and Athos, rises in the snows of a small north-south line of hills known as the Sar Range, which themselves are a mosaic part of that formidable swath of geological wreckage — that has helped foster all the long confusion of the Balkans — the high Dinaric Alps.
This one cool alpine meadow, which first caught my eye on a sweltering afternoon in mid-August, lies at the southern end of a deeply incised and, in theory, highly strategic mountain pass, a gateway through the karst massifs of the Sar Range that is referred to by soldiers to this day (in memory of some long-forgotten hero) as the Kacanik Defile. Military maps published until very recently show that the defile and the water meadow at its lower end lie well inside the sprawling southern European entity that was known after 1929 as Yugoslavia. Since when I first went there it lay within the country’s frontiers, it enjoyed no practical strategic role at all: it was merely a dramatic canyon, a place known only for occasional banditry and for the sighting of bears, wild birds, and at least six varieties of venomous snake.
This is no longer the case. The Lepenec water meadow and the Kacanik Defile into and from which it leads, have lately come to play a crucial and terribly symbolic part in the awful human drama that has once again engulfed the wild and refractory peoples of the Balkans. What makes it especially remarkable, in a strictly personal sense, is what I discovered when I found myself at the meadow during the first of two crucial moments during 1999: that I had been there once before, and when it was in a very different state, in more ways than one.
Twenty-two years earlier I had been en route from Oxford, in my somewhat battered old Volvo, to take up a new job in India. It had seemed to me at the time that, rather than fly to Delhi, it might be more agreeable to drive there. A look at a good map swiftly shows that the Kacanik Defile is far from being on any obvious direct route between Oxford and New Delhi: The fact that on the journey to India I eventually arrived at this particular Balkan meadow was entirely due to the liverish mood of an American friend of mine, an archivist from Washington, D.C., who had telephoned on the eve of my departure to ask if I could possibly give him a ride to Tehran.
Albert Meisel, who has since died, was to become an unwitting agent in this story because of a remark he made as we drove down a motorway in southern England. Up to that point all had been going flawlessly: As soon as I agreed to take him along he had flown across the Atlantic, made a perfectly scheduled rendezvous with us — I was traveling with my then wife and twelve-year-old son-outside the Guardian office in London at noon on the appointed day, and we had taken off promptly to catch the three o’clock Calais packet-boat. However, about an hour out of London, as we were speeding southeastward along the M2 in Kent, Albert suddenly glimpsed the towers of Canterbury Cathedral going past in a blur on the left, and asked, in what I thought an unnecessarily querulous tone, why we weren’t stopping to have a look?
I replied, with what was probably some asperity, to the effect that I was in no mood for tourism, that I was in a hurry, and that I wanted to catch the ferry and make Mons that night-for the simple reason that I planned to make India well before the middle of September. I knew that the roads in the Punjab would be tricky with postmonsoon mud; I planned to be at the Khyber Pass in three weeks’ time. Albert grunted. This was not, he muttered, going to be the pleasure trip he had imagined.
It was much the same the next day in Germany, as we sped past the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral, and then again as a succession of ever prettier Bavarian villages vanished in the rearview mirror. Albert was sulking in the backseat, his mood becoming ever blacker. But I didn’t care: I now had the bit between my teeth, and though the car was going well, the roads were said to be treacherous all through Afghanistan and there might well be delays. In my view there was simply no time for standing and staring, not in this early part of the trip.
But the next day, under the emollient persuasions of my wife, I backed down. I apologized for behaving like a tyrant and, once I had looked at the maps, offered a compromise: Instead of barreling down the main trunk highway from Vienna to Belgrade and then on to Sofia — along a series of roads of insufferable tedium, jammed with long-distance trucks and littered with speed traps I would go to Istanbul along the scenic route.
We would, if all agreed, drive through the Tauern Mountains of western Austria, go through Kitzbilhel and Spittal to Villach and thence to the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt, reputed home to more ex-Nazis than anywhere else in the Teutonic world.
From THE FRACTURE ZONE. Copyright © 1999 by Simon Winchester. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.