Published on January 28th, 2015 | by Boris
THE ARCHDUKE AND THE SERB – KTM 1290’S HIGH HOLY DAY
The last time a Serb got up close and personal with an Austrian Archduke, there were 37 million casualties. On Sunday, 28 June 1914, at approximately 10.45am, Gavrilo Princip, the Serb, put a couple of rounds into Franz, the hysterical heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and the world went to war. Empires crumbled and the echoes of those shots are still heard today.
But there would be no casualties this weekend. More than 100 years had passed, and the only thing I wanted to hear was the deep, muffed growl of a powerful Austrian V-twin. An Archduke I could sit upon, as it were.
There would certainly be some delightful historic resonance in that scenario.
Besides, this Archduke, KTM’s impossibly brilliant 1190 Adventure R was not at all like ol’ Franz, who had been variously described as “a man of uninspired energy, dark in appearance and emotion”, and someone “who felt no compulsion to reach out for the unexplored region which the Viennese call their heart”.
Quite the contrary.
Astride the Adventure R, a man not only wants to explore the unexplored, he burns with a desire to hammer through the bastard spraying rocks, dirt and mud at the heavens. It’s that kinda bike. And it’s more than that kind of bike, too. Much more. On Australian roads, in terms of point-to-point travel-times, comfort, ease and sheer ability, there’s not much that can touch the Adventure R. With a set of sticky road tyres, a competent rider will stay with any sportsbike you’d care to name. A really good rider will leave a sportsbike in its dust.
Five of my mates own KTM Adventure Rs. One of them is uncatchable. And the Road Gods know many have tried. The others are all guaranteed podiums on every ride.
Certainly shod, as mine was with dirt tyres, a podium was unlikely to happen if some swine on a Gixxer came mincing along, but there are some pretty damn fine dual-purpose tyres available for these things. And some very upset Gixxer riders as a result.
Verily, the Archduke is a force to be reckoned with.
But so was where I was taking us.
Sunday was the feast-day of the greatest of all Serbian Orthodox saints, Saint Sava (pronounced ‘Sah-vah’). In terms of greatness, Serbs just don’t come any greater. Sure, we love Gavrilo for offing Franz, but we venerate Saint Sava on another level altogether. He was special.
He was born Rastko Nemanjic in 1174, the youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, the first ruler and founder of the Serbian medieval state. Rastko become a monk in his youth and founded the legendary Hilander Orthodox monastery on Mt Athos in Greece. In 1219 he became the first Archbishop of the Serbs and authored the original constitution of Serbia, the Zakonopravilo, thereby securing political and religious independence for his people. In 1220, he crowned his brother Stefan, as the first king of Serbia.
Sava died on January 14, 1235. He was originally buried at the Cathedral of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Trnovo, Bulgaria, but in 1237 his sacred bones were disinterred and moved to the Mileseva Monastery in southern Serbia. Three hundred and sixty years later, aware of the reverence the Serbs held Sava in, the Ottoman Turks dug up his bones and burned them in the main square of Belgrade. Which did not go at all well. The Turks had to go home to Turkey not long after that happened. Saint Sava has appeared on the war flags of Serbia since that day, and his eponymous cathedral, the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world, now stands on the place where the Turks desecrated his remains.
His importance to the Serbs cannot be over-stated. And he understood with damning clarity what made Serbs uniquely Serbs. He even wrote about it in a letter to his friend Ireneus:
“At first we were confused. The East thought that we were West, while the West considered us to be East. Some of us misunderstood our place in the clash of currents, so they cried that we belong to neither side, and others that we belong exclusively to one side or the other. But I tell you, Ireneus, we are doomed by fate to be the East in the West and the West in the East, to acknowledge only heavenly Jerusalem beyond us, and here on earth—no one.”
And down here in Australia, just outside of Canberra, the Serbs have built a church and an adjacent monastery in his name, and each year for three days, Serbs go there…and, well, get their Serb on in his name and on his Feast Day.
The monastery stands on 25 pretty and rather verdant acres and boasts a lake, a large undercover area with extensive seating, a fully stocked bar, a functioning bakery, and I counted nine spits.
It was thus the perfect place and the ideal weekend to take the Austrian Archduke for a bit of a ride to there. He could get his Serb on as well. The poetic justice of the situation made me grin with an ancient vengeance.
I took the back ways into Canberra. To ride down the highway on the Australia Day long weekend on a 170 horsepower missile would be the height of arrogance and rudeness. Far better that I deploy it along the secondary roads; byways not patrolled on double-demerit weekends, simply because the police feeding frenzy takes place where the dishes are never-ending.
As it turned out, the Archduke and I did some of our best work between Tarago and Bungendore. I almost felt like painting the image of Saint Sava onto the plexiglass screen and riding into the Turkish embassy.
Instead, I rode out to the monastery and took some pictures before the crowds arrived the following day.
That night I hooked up with my Serbian mate Elvis and my ginger brother, Biff. We got very drunk. Canberra’s benign vibe seems to encourage that, and the bouncers are all rather small and unprepossessing. When three large tattooed men, one of whom is wearing shorts and thongs, can freely and loudly swill alcohol in the doorway of a fancy nightclub, the place can only be termed ‘benevolent’.
The next morning, Elvis and I rolled out to the monastery to eat burek, drink rakija and be blessed by priests; a combination guaranteed to destroy our murderous hangovers.
Other Serbs were clearly and busily destroying theirs as well. Stan and Zel, mates of Elvis’s, greeted me like a lost brother, even though we had never met. By the end of the second day (and remember, this was Saturday morning and the celebration went until Sunday afternoon), we may have well been birthed by the same woman. Interestingly, Russians and Serbs refer to their respective countries as “Mother Russia” or “Mother Serbia”, so there may be something in that.
Just as interestingly, because we are a profoundly warlike tribe, we will set upon each other if there is no-one else to fight with. As Stef put it, “Fuck, I’ll argue with my reflection in the mirror.”
The only remedy we have discovered that stops us all murdering each other in drunken, medieval fury is music.
If we are singing and dancing then we cannot, in all practicality, also be beating each other to death. It works a treat, too. Serbs who are drunk unto madness and giving each other the death-stare, will immediately dissolve into teary smiles and hugs, and with arms around one another’s’ shoulders, sing ancient battle hymns together the second the band starts to play one of the many great old songs that every Serb seems to absorb from his mother’s breast-milk.
Most of the time, any way.
We dance a lot too. The kolo, mainly. That’s when we all hold hands and dance in giant rhythmic circles. It’s not a hard dance to learn. But it can be an extremely complex thing to behold if you’re not a Serb, and it can be performed with astonishing virtuosity by really good dancers.
So, yeah. Dancing and singing keeps us from each others’ throats. Pretty much.
We have a few other unique traditions which always astound casual observers. Behaviours like “ordering music” always raise eyebrows. It works like this…
If there is a band or a singer (male or female) at a function, and you want to hear a particular song and you want to hear it now, you pull out a bill of a non-insulting denomination (in Australia it had better be a yellow one or a green one) and hold it in the air. The band or the singer will make their way to you even as they play or sing. Or you can walk up to them while they’re performing if you’ve a mind to, too. It doesn’t much matter. No-one is offended. You then shove the note into a) the accordion player’s bellows (there is always an accordion player), b) lick it and stick to the forehead of the male singer or lead instrumentalist (yes, I am perfectly serious), or c) in the case of a female singer, push the note into her cleavage.
Then you tell them what you want to hear. If they’re good, they will segue seamlessly into the tune you just paid for, and if you wanna hear that same tune five times in a row, or a six-minute version of it, then so be it.
We are a great people in that regard. The Greeks, by comparison, break plates at their parties. Fucken democrats.
I certainly felt great making my way back to Canberra that evening to meet my brother Scotty, who felt he had to come and see what this Serbian business is all about. He’s a Catholic Aussie from Gosford, so it’s natural for him to be curious about his religious enemies.
I reassured him that he had nothing to worry about. He was majestically bearded, so there was no mistaking him for a woman, and he had some heft to him, so he would probably survive the initial blows, if it came to that.
I’m joking of course. Serbs are the most hospitable people on this earth, as Scotty discovered for himself on Sunday when we rode back out to the monastery.
I even took him inside the church so he could behold the Orthodox rite – a very different ritual to what the Roman Catholic heretics get up to on Sundays.
Then I took him down to the covered eating, drinking, dancing, and singing arena and poured alcohol into him. But I was not alone in that. Other Serbs poured alcohol into him as well. It’s what we do. It’s another one of those cultural idiosyncrasies. Drinking is as endemic to our cultural identity as is martyrdom, ferocity, stubbornness, pathos, bathos, self-effacement, and the wondrous curse/blessing of inat – a concept impossible to translate, but certainly worth Googling. And while we do drink alone, we would much rather drink with others; preferably Serbs because they know the same songs, but most anyone will do.
So, as Scotty discovered, random Serbs will buy you drinks even if they don’t know you. They may know someone at the table, but it would be an insult to buy just that person a drink, so they will shout the entire table. If you’re standing in line at the bar, it is not unusual for the bloke in front of you to buy you a drink just because. After all, who knows? You may have your arms around each other later while you’re singing about the death of the Sultan Murat in 1389.
By the time I returned to the table where I’d left Scotty, Zel and Steff had re-christened him ‘Nebojsa’ (pronounced ‘Neh-boy-shah’) and were teaching him Serbian.
I think Scotty left about four that afternoon, just as things were starting to get seriously wound up. It was probably just as well. When large groups of large men begin to sing the songs their dead ancestors brayed before riding into battle, it’s best you know the words. Otherwise you’ll just feel out of place and maybe a little awkward.
I got myself back to my hotel sometime that evening and went to see if the KTM was still there or if some junkie had made off with it. The Archduke was looking arrogant and haughty under the car-park lights. Typical Hapsburg, I thought.
The next morning I took another long way back home. I stopped at lookouts I had always wanted to see. I rode down dirt roads – though any serious dirt-riding is over for me after my accident last year – and I marvelled over and over at the sheer ability of the KTM. It’s a delight to ride. Hard or easy. Bitumen or dirt. It’s just such a damnably capable bike. And as a result of these capabilities, you’re encouraged to extend yourself as a rider and are rewarded for those efforts. What more could one ask of one’s bike? That it can go anywhere anytime at pretty much any speed you’re brave enough to dial in? Sure. Ask away. It’s up for it.
How much more capable the new 1290 Super Adventure will be when it finally lands here in a few weeks time is anyone’s guess.
But I’m pretty sure Saint Sava already knows. Next time I’m visiting, I’ll ask him.