Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Novi Pazar (the New Bazaar) in the hills of southern Serbia turns out to be a town with a difference. Guest contributor Laurence Mitchell explores this Muslim town close to the Kosovo border.

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Some of Europe's most interesting towns are the ones that don't seem entirely at ease with the countries of which they find themselves part. Oftentimes it is an echo of history that gives a sense of foreignness. Like the unmistakable whiff of Italy in the Slovenian coastal town of Piran or in Zadar in Croatia. We once ran across a little area of South Shields (on the bank of the River Tyne in northeast England) that seemed a happy outpost of Yemeni life in England. And throughout the Balkans there are communities, that, in their architecture and demeanour, carry the veneer of the East. hidden europe guest contributor Laurence Mitchell, author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Serbia, reports from a town that sometimes seems more Turkish than parts of Turkey.

It is the end of another summer's day and the sun's descent behind bare, low hills is the signal for the switching on of street lights in this southern Serbian town. As elsewhere in the Balkan region, twilight is also the prompt for the town's youth to set out on the korso, the traditional evening promenade. There is something a little different here though: rather than courting couples and groups of friends strolling sociably together, there is a marked prevalence of tough-looking young men clinging together in packs, while those females that do participate keep mostly to small, girlish huddles of their own. Unlike most other provincial towns in this region, they do not affect the skimpy tops and tight jeans that is the outfit of choice for the majority of Serbia's young women; instead, they are far more modestly attired, with many of their number donning headscarves or even the local version of the chador.

As daylight fades, another signal penetrates the still evening air - the sound of an amplified muezzin announcing the call to prayer. This is Novi Pazar ('New Bazaar'), a predominantly Muslim town close to the borders of Montenegro and Kosovo. Novi Pazar is the largest town in a region that many refer to as Sandzak, a large swathe of valleys, pastures and bleak uplands that stretches southwest across the Montenegrin border. The name is derived from the Turkish sanjak, the word for a former administrative district, which, like many other cultural references here, serves as a link with the region's Ottoman past. Despite - or perhaps because of this - most Orthodox Serbs prefer to call the region Raska, a name drawn from the ruined town of Ras, an important Serb settlement in mediaeval times.

Novi Pazar is the sort of place that seems as if it should belong somewhere other than where it finds itself on the map. Approaching from the Ibar valley to the north, past the dark, forested hills of Serbia's heartland, the town comes as a complete surprise. In terms of cultural geography, it is an anomaly, an atavistic variant in a landscape that, just a few kilometres to the north, is homogenously Orthodox Serb. The first thing you notice is the vaguely conspiratorial air of the place, as if you are the only one present who is not party to some sort of badly kept secret. Kosovo is just twenty kilometres away, and the border with Montenegro only about forty kilometres distant. So Novi Pazar has all the makings of a frontier town, sitting as it does on a cultural fault-line in this uncertain, liminal zone.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 7.