The village of Küstendorf and the Šargan Eight narrow gauge | Mokra Gora, Serbia

Maybe because of my passionate love affair with New York and Berlin – two cities which always lose the battle for traditional beauty to Paris, Prague or Venice, or the fact that I was born in Sofia – which requires quite a stretch of the imagination to be called beautiful, I often find myself slightly suspicious and ill at ease in places that are pretty in an unquestionable way.

I distinctly remember the eerie feeling, as if walking through a film set, that I got last fall, when I took a stroll around Warsaw’s Old Town. After the Second World War, during which it was blown up and destroyed, the medieval city was meticulously rebuilt from scratch, based on drawings. More recently, in Ljubljana, I also felt like it was too beautiful and too quaint, which is nice to look at but couldn’t get under my skin the way grittier cities do.

Sometimes, as a reaction to overwhelming quaintness, I try to find unintentional things that somehow ruin it, as I did in the tourist paradise of a town, Tryavna.

All this is to try to explain my reaction when, on the way back from Sarajevo to Sofia, we stopped by the village of Küstendorf in the Mokra Gora region of Serbia. Also known as Drvengrad – meaning ‘Wooden Town’, it was built up from scratch by Emir Kusturica for his film “Life Is a Miracle.”

The village’s wooden, Hansel-and-Gretel-like houses and structures have a variety of functions and names – the Ivo Andrić Library; the Stanley Kubrick Bioscope (cinema); the Saint Sava Church; a café, a souvenir shop, a hotel; and even a place named the City Prison Humanism and Renaissance, with the faces of George W. Bush and a villain I couldn’t identify painted behind bars on its gate.

The streets between them, also lined with solid wood, carry the names of a variety of historical and show business figures – from Nikola Tesla and Ernesto Che Guevara, to Federico Fellini and Bruce Lee, and even sports starts, including Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic and football superstar Diego Armando Maradona, seemingly united by nothing more than Kusturica’s personal sympathies.

Even the place’s name is a joke – a word play on the German word dorf (‘village’) and Kusturica’s nickname, Kusta.

My favorite was the Johny Depp “statue,” which I had read about when it was first unveiled at the beginning of this year, by Depp himself who came as a special guest of the last edition of the film and music festival that takes place in the village every January. Though the concept of any kind of statue of Johnny Depp can’t be entirely serious, I was nevertheless imagining something bronze and stately. In reality, it turned out to be a flimsy, smaller-than-life-sized figure, which had all the grandeur of Madame Tussauds’ wax figures. Cross-armed, the pale copy of my high-school crush, leaned on a pole with one foot lifted against it and a brooding expression on his papier-mâché face.

So, yes, it was all a bit much. So much, in fact, that after initially being overwhelmed by the complete artifice and kitsch of the whole place, I started to find it funny. I no longer felt strange, as if walking through a film set, because I was in fact walking through one. Unlike Warsaw’s newly rebuilt Old Town or Ljubljana’s quaint center along the river, the place was screaming that it was completely made up. It was nothing more than an extension of Kusturica’s absurd, farcical humor and materialized product of his sense for the fantastical. And nothing less.

Another attraction stood on a neighboring hill on the other side of the main road – the so-called Šargan Eight – a unique narrow gauge railway, which when viewed from the sky looks like the number 8.

The 76-cm gauge railway was an important part of the former narrow gauge main line between Sarajevo and Belgrade, which closed in 1974. In the early 2000s, Kosturica joined the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and the state railways company in reconstructing it, and filmed parts of “Life is a Miracle” along the rails and in a specially built railway station.

We sat at the restaurant by the station – which boasted what was possibly the worst service in the history of the Balkans, and watched the retro-looking train take tourists on a tour around the surrounding hills.


Is there a time for keeping your head down | Niš, Serbia and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Nišava River in Niš, Serbia

Miljacka River in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Not entirely by accident, I just listened to U2’s “Miss Sarajevo.” In it, Pavarotti sings a part in Italian, which translates like this:

You say that the river
finds the way to the sea
and like the river
you will come to me
beyond the borders
and the dry lands
You say that like a river
like a river…
the love will come
the love…
And I don’t know how to pray anymore
and in love I don’t know how to hope anymore
and for that love I don’t know how to wait anymore

On a different note, it seems that, while not all rivers flow through great cities, all great cities have rivers flowing through them.

Next time I’m in Berlin, London, Paris and/or New York, I have to remember to take pictures of die Spree, the Thames, la Seine*, the East River and the Hudson.

Sofia, on the other hand, has the tiny Perlovska River passing through it. Flowing seems too powerful of a verb to use in reference to its meager stream, which is easily negligible and really only seems to be an excuse for a river. Popularly known among its residents as The Channel, its name has been appropriated by one of the city’s main road arteries, the Evlogi Georgiev Boulevard, which runs along its two sides.

*Update: A mere year and a half later, I’m happy to report that taking a photo of the Seine has been accomplished! See here. In the meantime, I also managed to hover on bridges over several other rivers, including the Ljubljanica River in Ljubljana, the Nervión River in Bilbao and the Tarn River in Albi.