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Phespirit goes to Serbia
Niš     September 2006

It began with Phespirit looking forward to his holiday in Bansko, Bulgaria, and planning a little side-trip to Skopje, F.Y.R. of Macedonia. He visited the web site of the Matpu-96 bus company, found a drop-down list of destinations that included Macedonia, and couldn't help but be distracted by the country at the top of the list: Serbia. Cities on offer were Belgrade, Pirot and Niš. Belgrade seemed a bit too far to travel for a side-trip, but Niš looked quite do-able. Why bother, though? Never heard of the place. Anything there? Yes! A Skull-tower! Duly, Phespirit amended his travel plans to incorporate Serbia. He'd never been there before, plus at Niš there is a Skull-tower.

Phespirit travelled overland by train from Skopje to Niš, arriving at ten to one in the afternoon, nearly an hour late. With the last coach to Bulgaria leaving at five o'clock, he had a little over four hours to explore the entire city. Before starting, however, he walked across town from the train station to the bus station to get his departure ticket (it saves having to worry about how much time to spare at the end of the day). He found a bureau de change in a nearby market, converted ten U.K. pounds sterling into Serbian dinars and then tackled the Balkan-standard labyrinthian layout of Niš bus station. The ticket to Sofia cost him 820 dinars (roughly £6.70).

Time to commence sightseeing. Phespirit backtracked via the colourful indoor market to Trg Kralja Milana, the main square of the city. On the way he passed by the mighty Niš Fortress (Tvrdava) - which he intended to make his last sight-to-see - and crossed the bridge over the River Nišava. The Skull-tower was his number one objective so he set off in its direction without delay. The tower is a couple of kilometres away from the city centre but the route is a fairly straight one, via two main boulevards. The trouble was that Phespirit didn't know exactly what he was looking for. A large tower with human skulls embedded in its sides ought to be quite recognisable on its own, but the Serbs have built a chapel around it, which in turn is surrounded by trees and a fence. The further Phespirit walked, the more his confidence wavered, but happily a small complex appeared in view more-or-less exactly where he had reckoned it ought to be.

At a ticket cabin outside the fenced area, Phespirit paid the entrance fee of sixty dinars and bought a slim booklet on the history of the Skull-tower for a further fifty dinars. An English-speaking guide then emerged from the cabin and escorted Phespirit down to the chapel, unlocked the doors, and left him to his own devices. The Skull-tower is a hefty cubic mass of stone and mortar and human heads, with the chapel fitting snugly around it. There is no room for standing back and taking photographs of this bizarre object, so Phespirit simply snapped a few close-ups of each side. As he walked around the tower his feelings were ones of intrigue and fascination for the physical entity rather than, for example, revulsion at human cruelty or sadness for a human tragedy. The humanity, like each one the skulls, has been bleached bare. This monument is a reminder of a violent past in a land that has seen more than its fair share of violence. Phespirit remarked to his guide that he had never seen anything like the Skull-tower before, and doubted he would ever see anything like it again. In turn, his guide asked questions that had Phespirit wondering whether she felt the same way about English visitors.

Walking back towards the city centre, Phespirit detoured via the football stadium and park, and then cut along some back streets lined with ageing tower blocks and modest little shops. He visited the National Museum on Nikole Pasica street, only to find it closed due to a lack of exhibits - it was scheduled to re-open the following evening - so he continued along the pedestrianised street of Pobeda, all the way back to Trg Kralja Milana. From there, he crossed over the River Nišava and entered Niš Fortress via the mighty Istanbul Gate.

Vital statistics for Niš Fortress are as follows: its fortifications were built by the Turks at the beginning of the 18th century; these stand upon earlier fortifications of Roman, Byzantine and mediæval origin; the total area covered by the fortress is an impressive 22 hectares; its walls are eight metres high, average three metres wide, and extend to 2.1km in length. Inside there is a Turkish bath, now converted to a restaurant; there is a local craft shop; there is a 16th century mosque that now serves as an art gallery; there is a 'Lapidarium' that displays Roman gravestones found within the fortress area; but most of all there is a lot of green space in which to pass the time, away from the oppressive concrete of the modern city.

Phespirit enjoyed his last half an hour in Niš, simply wandering around the footpaths of the fortress until, finally, time was upon him and he had to wander to the bus station instead. As he awaited his return journey overland by bus from Niš to Sofia, Phespirit reflected that whilst Niš is not the most glamorous city, and that Serbia is not the most fashionable country, that he himself felt well rewarded for his poor fashion sense, and was pleased with his one-day detour into a historic land.

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