Rakiya Road

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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

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