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  1. musicians in BelgradeI’ve reached the Adriatic and the end of my Balkan trip. From my arrival at the decrepit Macedonian border station to the aquamarine coastline of Croatia’s holiday resorts, this has been a journey of contrasts and contradictions. The magnificent frescoes that spell out a call to arms. The beauty of those mountains whose geography makes them so lethal when peace talks fail. The friendliness you meet amongst people whose political views can be so hard to stomach. Well, I’m not going to gas about it in any detail right now – I’ll leave that for the book! Instead, here’s a few memories of rakiya – the innard-burning, transparent liquor made from the distillation of fermented fruit. It’s served up at any occasion and it’s often the only way in to a proper chat…

      Shot glasses of slivovica (plum rakiya and the most famous form) slammed on the tables in Krusevac, in a bar near the bronze statue of a medieval king. Old town musicians squeezing their accordions and blasting their trumpets on the cobbled streets of Belgrade’s Skadarlija, taking a break to drain a brace of glasses. ‘We always drink three,’ says old-timer Djordje, in a bar in Visegrad, ‘the first two you sip, but on the third, it’s bottoms up! You better not betray me!’ I’m under pressure to hurl it down my throat – otherwise he’ll chalk me down with Winston Churchill as another ‘British traitor.’ A cosy drink under a pergola, with a master craftsman whose rakiya bottle is fashioned out of tree bark. The shots are poured, our livers boil, and out comes the gusle – the Serbian fiddle – for a round of medieval-style minstrelsy.

      Keeping up with the rakiya flow can make some evenings a blur, but it also has a tendency to telescope experience: the long, uncertain search for connection compressed into a haze that billows into the liver-toasting excitement of the encounter. ‘Jiveli!’ my companions roar. Glasses are raised, high-tar cigarettes plume the room… your eyes water, your back convulses… you’ve made it through another round! Now it’s time to ask them the questions that brought you here…Sarajevo chess players

  2. 20170525_174410It's said that Odysseus managed to hike across Ithaka in a single day - from his arrival, loaded with Phaecian gifts, in a cave by the shore, to his arrival at the spring where Eumeaus the swineherd was watering his livestock. Well, Odysseus was a god-favoured superhero, and his upbringing on the slopes of Ithaka must have habituated him to their crazy gradients. For me, the slopes were hell - at least on the uphill. But hiring a bike meant that I always had something to look forward to - after the thigh-aching uphill stretches, the downhill plunge! Wind blasts in your face and chest, cool on the early morning rides, the heat pressing down on your shoulders in the afternoons, the road slides back behind you, like it's being pulled out from under your tyres. Far more than para-gliding or any of those knotty activities with all their safety measures, it's this - rolling down the precipitous slopes in which Ithaka specialises - that feels like the closest I've been to flying. 

    Ithaka is of course famous as the home of Odysseus - and that's why I'm here on the tip of a journey that's taken me from the Homeric battlegrounds of Troy. The epic tale is referenced in all sorts of ways here - from a jewellery store named after the Phaecian princess Nausicaa, to the Calypso Studios and Odyssaion Apartments, to a bust of Homer and a statue of a sea-wracked Odysseus on the waterfront of the island's main town, Vathy. The most fitting tribute to the Odyssey I've come across here wasn't on a pedestal or plinth, but moored on the waterfront - a Hungarian yacht, whose captain had sailed all the way from Troy, tracing Odysseus's sea journey according to his interpretation of the clues in the poem. 'It's a bit easier for us,' he admitted,  'as we have a modern ship and better navigational equipment.' Although like Odysseus, he had faced storms and volatile winds. A reminder of the best of Odysseus: a cipher for the adventuring spirit. 'Blessings from Odysseus,' as the local traveller's motto goes. It's amazing to think how many travellers this fascinating hero has inspired.20170526_215814