There’s a story. It's been told to me twice in recent days, so it must be true, and it goes a little like this.
In the 1970s a young, hungry and penniless Robert De Niro found himself in this part of the old Yugoslavia. Taken in by the locals, he stayed for some time to recover his strength and was treated with such hospitality and generosity that he would never forget them. Many years later he named a daughter after their mighty river, Drina.
In the last couple of days we have followed the course of this fast-flowing river, immortalised by Ivo Andric (Yugoslavia's Nobel Prize winning writer) in The Bridge on the Drina, and inspirer of Hollywood’s finest. As if the romance of the De Niro story weren’t enough to want to believe it, the landscape and the warmth of the people gives it greater strength.
On Monday, a little like Robert De Niro, I fell in love with Šumadija. We stayed in the village of Tršić, birthplace of Vuk Karadžić; the man - the national hero, who gave Serbia it's first dictionary and it’s alphabet. Tršić is a sort of garden, preserved and rebuilt to reflect what must once have been, with typical steep-roofed timber buildings. If Tršic is a garden then Konak Mišić is the quiet corner you always seek out.
This small eco-lodge is run by Pedja, Gitta (his Dutch wife) and Pedja’s parents. In the evening Pedja and his mother prepared a sumptuous meal and then to crown it off we spent the night drinking rakija and wine, laughing and chatting with our hosts. We turned in not long before midnight. I don’t know if they do this for all guests but we felt, not like paying customers, but as if we had been welcomed into a family like long lost friends.
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The next day we walked up the narrow valley behind Tršić, along a waterlogged path towards Tronoša, frequently crossing the cool mountain stream that waters the lush fields. We saw many yellow-bellied frogs, two grass snakes and enjoyed the shade offered by the often over-grown hedgerows. Emma was a trooper, walking up a steep slope and enjoying the adventure of fording the tiny watercourse and, when the opportunity arose, discarding her shoes to wade in or, better still, splash madly in her trainers to cool off.
When my wife and daughter stopped to enjoy to dappled shade of a walnut tree, I wandered on. This is the moment I fell in love Šumadija; heat, small hill farms, thick woods and a real sense of the abundance of nature. I walked in the shade of walnut trees, hazelnut, oak, beech, birch and plum trees, weighed down by such a bounty of fruit that their branches barely moved in the breeze.
In the afternoon we drove South following the river to Tara National Park and to Mokra Gora. This is bear country and walking up to the famous viewpoint of Banjska Stena, overlooking Lake Perućac; a narrow lake flooded by the Drina, there were signs, both man made and bear made, to remind us.
A few hundred metres from the rooms in which we are staying the bears come to drink from the creek. The man running the local bar told us that recently a woman was walking her dog by the water's edge when they encountered a bear. The dog, feeling some attachment to its owner, stood its ground and the bear took it out with one swipe of its paw.
All good stories probably get exaggerated with every minute that passes, but this remains a wild land. There aren’t the hordes of humans that such an area would attract in other countries, nor, in truth all the facilities that go with it but I am glad I we are here now.