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2017 Athen-Kassel-Ride

documenta: What a ride

Four riders try to get from Athens to Kassel on behalf of the documenta. How do they experience Europe on their 3,000 kilometers? A report by Tim Ackermann

ZEITmagazin No. 24/2017 June 7, 2017, 5:01 pm updated on June 10, 2017, 8:08 am




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The swallows have built a nest above the window of the Kilkis veterinary office. Every few minutes the mother or father bird swoops in, brakes abruptly, hops elegantly into the nest, feeds the little ones and swoops off again. It is a reassuringly peaceful spectacle that nature puts on out there, while a bitter paper war rages inside. In the office, a man with a cowboy hat, dirty riding boots and a white beard sits on the chair in front of the desk. Peter van der Gugten, a trail riding guide from Switzerland, has been talking to a still skeptical veterinary officer for an hour now, trying to explain to her why he urgently needs a stamp on his customs papers. The case is already occupying the highest circles in distant Athens and the ministry is involved. Now the head of the office himself comes in the door and puts the stamp on the table. Discussion in Greek. The head of office leaves the room. The official gets up and carries the stamp after him. Situation unresolved. And a grin spreads under the cowboy hat, half amused, half exasperated. Outside the window, a swallow soars into the blue of the morning sky. Swallows are migratory birds. They don't have to worry about borders. That sets them apart from other animals. From horses, for example.

Three years ago, Scottish artist Ross Birrell and Polish curator Adam Szymczyk developed an unusual project during a train journey together: They would have a troop of itinerant riders move through south-eastern Europe. And now Birrell's mobile artwork The Transit of Hermes has actually become part of documenta. The most famous art exhibition in the world takes place every five years. In Kassel - where it was invented in 1955. This time, however, Adam Szymczyk, the current artistic director, has changed the rules: One half of the show already opened in April, in Athens. So documenta 14 is taking place in two cities. And Ross Birrell's artwork has become a symbolic bond that connects the two places: four riders and their horses cover 3,000 kilometers from Athens to Kassel. Country lanes and mountain paths lead them through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany. The troop set off on April 9, and when they reach their destination on July 9, the riders will have been on the road for almost 100 days, based on the duration of the documenta as a "museum of 100 days". In short, it is a modern heroic tale with heroic deeds, unusual encounters and the assistance of a heavenly companion: Hermes is his name.

The Greek messenger of the gods we are talking about here has dark gray fur with white spots. Hermes is six years old and a beauty. Birrell bought and baptized him a year ago in Arcadia, the mythical pastoral region of the Peloponnese. As the fifth horse in the troop, Hermes does not wear a saddle, runs along as a packhorse and is nevertheless the star of the journey. The little Arravani is supposed to prove that this almost vanished breed of Greek gaited horses still produces fighters who can endure such a ride. "Without Hermes, the work would be incomplete," explains Birrell at a meeting in Athens. Worse still, it would have seemed that the documenta organizers from the north wanted to go through with the project without a local connection. That is why the four-hoofed god of travel is now trotting from Greece to Germany.

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Four horses and four riders set off on a journey through wild Europe. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

The journey leads from Athens to the documenta in Kassel. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Setting off in Athens: David Wewetzer, Zsolt Szabo, Tina Boche, Peter van der Gugten (from left, sitting in the saddle) © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Artvin, one of the horses © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Zsolt Szabo at the ranch near Thessaloniki. It was the last overnight stop before the Greek-Macedonian border. Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

At the last farm before the Greek-Macedonian border: the horse passports and health documents are checked by the vet. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

In no man's land before the Macedonian border, the horses had to be temporarily loaded. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Snack at the border between Greece and Macedonia. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Before Macedonia, the horses have to get into the transporter, otherwise they won't be allowed to cross the border. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

A border official at the border between Greece and Macedonia takes a selfie of herself with the horses. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Across the border: Peter has breakfast in Macedonia. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

The artist and initiator Ross Birrell with Hermes in Serbia. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

For once, things are moving fast: Gallop in Serbia - in Šumadija. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

After a long day, the riders relax around the campfire. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

A family in a small Serbian village. They cooked for the riders. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

The horses have lost a few kilos, the saddles barely fit them. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

Hay is a renewable fuel. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

A Serbian children's choir is delighted with the documenta art project. They rarely come by otherwise. © Lukas Gansterer for ZEITmagazin

The report of an experience from horseback is not an entirely unknown genre. Even Goethe did not view the world solely from the back of a carriage for his Italian Journey in 1786. The inspiration for Transit of Hermes, however, was the legendary gum ride by Swiss rider Aimé Félix Tschiffely, who covered the 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to New York on two Argentinian Criollo horses from 1925 to 1928, overcoming mountains, jungles and deserts in the process. "I think Tschiffely is an artist," says Birrell. "Because he had the will to create something unthinkable." Spectacular endurance projects are actually an old shoe in conceptual art: walking artist Hamish Fulton crossed the British Isles from the northern to the southern tip back in 1973. And the theory to go with it has been around a little longer: in 1955, the Situationist International group of artists led by Guy Debord coined the term "psychogeography" to question how spaces control our perception. It is also a funny coincidence that the academic discipline of "stroll science" was invented in Kassel in the 1980s. It attempts to gain insights into our environment using the method of experimental strolling. In his basic essay published in 1995, Lucius Burckhardt, sociologist and founder of promenadology, writes: "If during a walk on foot or on horseback - crossing a village, river, valley, hill - the peculiarities of a limited landscape can be integrated in the mind and thus perceived, much larger landscape units are traveled by car. Much more heterogeneous impressions have to be integrated into a much more abstract ideal landscape." This is an important point: it is slower, but easier, to grasp the space being traversed with the foot or hoof. When riding from Athens to Kassel, across six national borders, is it perhaps even possible to understand such a highly abstract entity as Europe? To answer this question, we first have to go back to the beginning of the route.

April 9: Departure from Athens

Dionysiou Areopagitou is the name of a street reserved for walkers on the southern slope of the Acropolis. The green pine trees along the way provide a magical backdrop to the white of the crumbling Parthenon architrave at the top of the hill. Just a few steps away, in the Dionysus Theater, the ancient world first listened to the verses of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Against this backdrop, the zero kilometer of Attic democracy, so to speak, the Transit of Hermes sets up for the departure group photo: Peter van der Gugten squats on Artvin, a black Kabardian, his cowboy hat pulled low on his forehead. The Hungarian ride leader Zsolt Szabo provides the folkloristic eye-catcher: traditional costume, headband and long gray mane. The Criollo Sanchez beneath him is more of a beige color. David Wewetzer's white crash helmet represents the safety aspect. The lecturer in computer science from Bremerhaven rides a light brown Karabagh called Issy Kul. And Tina Boche's gray gaucho hat brings the style of the Argentinian pampas to Athens. The ranch owner from the Augsburg district will complete the 3,000 kilometers on her blonde Haflinger Paco. Hermes is keeping a low profile for the time being.

This article is from ZEIT No. 24/2017. You can read the entire issue here.

The midday sun roasts the necks of the Athens audience. And as with all symbolic acts, the ceremonial excitement surpasses the actual experience. The riders don't ride, they stand around. Nevertheless, the press crowd is immense. A journalist pushes Ross Birrell, who is filming, out of the line of sight. In his speech, Documenta director Szymczyk practices vagueness: "This ride is not a metaphor, it is first and foremost a physical act," he muses. Meanwhile, Sanchez gets a little water from a bottle. David Wewetzer, whose unwavering seriousness makes him the spokesman for the group, then announces the riders' actual goal in more concrete terms: "We want to remind people that the horse in the landscape is part of Europe's cultural heritage." Trail riders often subscribe to the Reken Charter, which calls for the unlimited use of the continent's old trade routes for horses. However, these are overgrown by the jungle of European bureaucracy. And so you can already guess that the success of the project will not be decided on this day. We agree with the riders that we will visit them twice to accompany them on their journey.

April 28: From Kilkis in Greece to Balintsi in Macedonia

The landscape north of Thessaloniki has the visual excitement of Westphalia with its gentle green waves. Our destination is Rancho, a riding stables run by Sotiris Patsiouras and his wife Yiannoula Mitona, which transports a real Wild West feeling to old Europe. Dolly Parton is blaring from loudspeakers across the riding arena while teenage girls ride their horses. The sun is shining. The flat horizon is full of promise.

Three weeks, packed with new impressions, lie behind the riders. They are still raving about the rugged beauty of the Pindos Mountains, which demanded a lot from them: At 1700 meters, snow walls had to be avoided. Elsewhere, dense bushes tore at their pants and hands. The path marked on the map often disappeared completely a few kilometers after the last village. "In the Andes, I can still ride at 4,000 meters without any problems," says Tina Boche, who was born in Buenos Aires, "because the paths there are constantly used by shepherds." She cites sunrises and starry skies as a reward for the exertions. After three weeks, the group has found its daily rhythm. Trail boss Peter van der Gugten wakes up around 6 a.m. and they set off two hours later. There is a long break at lunchtime, when bread, cheese and salami are eaten, and from 6 p.m. the riders look for a suitable meadow to camp in for the night. The rough route is fixed, but they never know how far they will actually get in a day. They usually sleep under a tarpaulin in the open air.

But there is one piece of bad news: David Wewetzer has fallen off his horse and is no longer with them. Behind Delphi, a hunter's dog burst out of the bushes. Issy Kul jumped to the side in fright, Wewetzer slid to the ground. The 52-year-old is now back in Germany for a check-up and recovery. So Issy Kul is running without a rider. And because he's not stupid, he prefers to take the bridge alone, even if he has to walk another hundred meters back while the others ride through the river. That's fine. "For us, the horses are partners and not commodities," explains Peter van der Gugten. "And a horse doesn't give you respect if you're not prepared to respect the horse." You will never find a bit or locking strap - the compulsory instruments of classical riding theory - on the bridles of these trail riders.

At half past nine, van der Gugten and Sotiris drive to the veterinary office in Kilkis. And that's where the battle for the stamp that the riders need to enter the non-EU country of Macedonia begins. There are bitter arguments about paragraphs, horse passports are taken from the other person's hand and held out again. At some point - the ministry has called, the coveted stamp has appeared and disappeared again without result - Peter van der Gugten holds the official gently by the sleeve of her blouse in the heat of the moment. She puts her hand on his, and in this small gesture of fraternization there is a hint of a happy ending.

Peter van der Gugten, born in Zurich in 1954, trained - it's hard to believe - as an administrative clerk. It wasn't quite right for him, so a few years later he founded a water and fire damage restoration company in Munich. It was his American wife who first got him on horseback, and when the children moved out, he gave up the business to focus entirely on trail riding. Van der Gugten is the tireless driving force behind the group. In the Canadian wilderness, he once led his lame horse through a riverbed for three days in order to catch his return flight. He waded from morning to night. Ross Birrell describes him as "extremely strong-willed": "Saying no is not an option for Peter." At just before twelve, the veterinary officer presses the stamp on the paper.

The riding route

© ZEIT graphic

Valid passports do not mean that you are allowed to ride across the border. That's why there are two trailers with two black documenta SUVs. Mark and Sam usually do the driving. During the day, Ross Birrell's young assistants look for meadows and hay. Sometimes they bring the riders pizza. Above all, they document the ride for a later video artwork in Kassel. Every morning, Peter van der Gugten shakes them out of the roof tent that they have strapped to one of the cars.

It's an hour's drive to Idomeni. A year ago, there was a camp here with over 15,000 refugees. Now there is nothing left to see at the border. Instead, a new fence topped with barbed wire demonstrates the determination with which the Republic of Macedonia is blocking the migration route. Although the German embassy in Skopje, startled by the word "documenta", has phoned ahead, the dreaded odyssey begins: from customs to the forwarding agent and from the forwarding agent to the parking lot for trucks. There, in an unadorned office, sits a veterinarian chewing on the temple of his glasses with a concerned face. He says: "You understand, I want to let you go." But unfortunately there is a problem: EU horse passports are not valid for entry, you need a Macedonian form. It is not entirely clear why the vet does not transfer the information from one form to the other. Instead, he picks up the phone in the hope of reaching his boss in Skopje on Friday afternoon.

Outside in the parking lot, Zsolt Szabo takes the horses for a walk. With Hermes on the reins, he looks through the fence to Macedonia. The German-born Hungarian has experience of borders. In the 1980s, he fled to Stuttgart with a forged passport. The light blue Intersport bag with the pink Velcro fastener that he bought in Vienna along the way is still with him today. At the moment, it contains his spare underwear. Szabo moved to Freiburg, brought his wife and two sons from Hungary and set up a company, also specializing in water and fire damage restoration. That's how he knows Peter van der Gugten. They have been riding together for two decades. At the age of 47, Szabo handed the company over to his sons and went to Hungary to keep horses, sheep and chickens, grow vegetables, bake bread and make cheese. The 61-year-old's areas of responsibility in the team today: equipment and trail philosophy. "What's important in everyday life becomes unimportant on the ride - and vice versa," he says. "You learn to appreciate a match."

Five hours pass, little happens. A truck with frozen chickens puffs along, the driver collects his stamp from the office and disappears again. "It's much easier to get dead horses across this border than live ones," says Peter van der Gugten. "Unless you're driving your sport horse directly to a competition. But if you want to enter a non-EU country with your horse as a trail rider, there is no regulated procedure." A little later, the vet announces that his boss and he have decided to issue the entry documents. However, the printer goes on strike while they are being printed. And the vet quotes an old Macedonian proverb with a quiet smile: "One problem is no problem. Two problems is one problem!" At some point, the technology comes to its senses: Peter van der Gugten gets his papers, trudges to customs on foot - and returns half an hour later with a red head. The customs officer has snapped at him because he had to clear him so close to closing time. Cursing loudly, van der Gugten jumps into the SUV, steps on the gas, speeds past a queue of waiting articulated trucks on the opposite lane and rounds the parking lot attendant's barrier. The mobile work of art owes the state of Macedonia the parking fee.

Beyond the border, the plain narrows into a valley cut between mountain ridges by the Vardar River. The villages seem poorer than in Greece. Macedonians earn around 5,000 euros a year on average. Dusk is falling and it is high time to find a pasture for the horses. In the village of Balintsi, a rescuer in a soccer shirt and slippers stands by the road: Gregori, in his early thirties, friendly face, points to the meadow next to his parents' house. It belongs to his cousin. A fence has been erected within minutes. Van der Gugten invites Gregori and his cousin for a meal, and the two of them talk about life in a country that has long been ignored by the rest of Europe. Macedonians have only recently been allowed to enter Greece on tourist visas. On this evening, the riders are not told that a nationalist mob had stormed the parliament in Skopje the day before. It is not an issue. Instead, over beer and rakia, a high-proof fruit brandy, Gregori's message to the world outside is fulfilled: "Macedonian people - not a lot of money, but big heart!" Van der Gugten and he become Facebook friends.

May 20: Serbia, from Kamenica to Rudnik

The Šumadija is one of the most beautiful places in the Balkans. Between picturesque mountain peaks lie dense deciduous forests and valleys with meadows and fruit trees. In the hamlet of Gornja Crnuća, the resistance fighter Miloš Obrenović is said to have held the rebel flag in the air in the spring of 1815, sparking the ultimately successful Second Serbian Uprising. Obrenović wanted his homeland back from the Turks. You can understand that, as wonderful as it is here.

The day begins in the village of Kamenica, just under two hours' drive south of Belgrade. Nana and Igor Schönenberger Gajic have been running a trail riding business here for three years, and Igor will be accompanying the Transit of Hermes as a guide for the next few days. Wewetzer is also back! Today he wants to sit on Issy Kul again for the first time, as long as his back can take it. Ross Birrell has also arrived to film the riders he hasn't seen since Athens. "The beards have grown longer and the horses are leaner," he notes.

The group has now been on the road for almost six weeks, with around half of the route to Kassel still ahead of them. The constant strain can be seen on the horses' bodies. "The muscles change," explains Peter van der Gugten. "A Haflinger sprinter like Paco has to retrain to become a marathon runner." The result is that the tailor-made saddles no longer fit properly. And so Szabo and Tina Boche tweak Paco's saddle that morning. An opportunity to ask the question: do the riders actually see themselves as a work of art? "No," answers Szabo immediately, but Tina Boche disagrees: "Art is often a provocation, something that makes you think." It can also be something that just happens - like this ride. And then Boche tells us that she is the great-granddaughter of Johannes Baader, the Dadaist and good friend of the artist Raoul Hausmann. She herself paints and occasionally sells a picture. "Now I'm part of the documenta as a local artist from Augsburg," she says. "That's fun, but also secondary: Because above all, I want to ride!"

The 54-year-old tends to stay in the background in the group, but Tina Boche is actually the one with the longest riding experience: her parents had a ranch near Buenos Aires and she first sat on a horse in the womb. She came to Augsburg in her early thirties and worked there for 15 years in the riding school of Fred Rai, the "singing cowboy" from the SWF hit parade and advocate of non-violent horse handling. In short shows, she demonstrated that you can also ride without a bridle and saddle. In 2010, she founded her own riding school, and while she is now on the road, her daughter has to manage the business. Tina Boche is the only one who didn't know Peter van der Gugten before. She signed up for the ride herself and had to tremble because it looked as if there was no place for her. But everyone is happy that she is there. Not least because she got van der Gugten's aching leg back in shape - with globules from the saddlebag pharmacy.

At half past seven, the riders brush the sand out of the horses' coats and put on blankets and saddles. Sanchez's back remains bare. He has a thick, chafed blister just below the withers. "The saddle slipped forward and Zsolt wasn't paying attention," says van der Gugten. "Now he has to ride in the car." The others start on time at eight. They ride along the sandy village road of Kamenica, past wooden fences and open haystacks, down a narrow dirt track lined with brambles and acacias, then along the country road for a while and over a small iron bridge that offers a wonderful panoramic view of the fields and villages of the valley, up a gentle hilltop and steeply down again into a stream bed that has to be crossed before the first steep climb between meadows on a mountainside. Grains of sand and small stones under your hooves make for rhythmic crunching as your eyes and thoughts wander. Walking scientist Lucius Burckhardt would have been delighted with the impressions he collected and integrated them into a picture of a perfect world in his head.

After two hours, the group reaches a small wood with a picnic area. The horses are allowed to graze here. As their bodies are constantly producing stomach acid, their bellies should always be full, otherwise the acid will attack the stomach lining, leading to pain, stress and, in the worst case, ulcers and colic. Sudden unrest in the herd: Guide Igor's horse, the newcomer to the troop, gets too close to the others. Sanchez lashes out with his hind legs and gives him a good kick. "He's defending the herd," says Peter van der Gugten with a smile. The following slope is ridden at a gallop for a change. After another two hours, the Transit of Hermes reaches the small paradise garden of farmer Miloš in Gornja Crnuća: sheep graze under cherry trees, the table is set with coffee, beer, home-made acacia honey and spinach pie. There are gingerbread hearts for dessert.

The friendliness and helpfulness of the people along the way is one of the strongest impressions the riders take home with them. They encounter a Europe that seems much more intact, much more hopeful than the image the media conveys of this continent. "The problem, however, is that freedom is being restricted," says Peter van der Gugten. You only have to look at the refugees who are constantly running into barbed wire fences. "The interesting thing for me," interjects Ross Birrell, "is that this work of art looks at an anachronism - the horse - and yet it is constantly gaining relevance. The documenta opened at the beginning of April, and a week before that Theresa May initiated the UK's exit from the EU. Europe is under tension, and this work reflects that." Conversely, should the movement be seen as a manifesto for freedom of movement? "We don't really want to turn it into a political ride," says van der Gugten. "But you can absolutely see it that way!"

In the early afternoon, the group starts the ascent to Mount Rudnik and the mining village of the same name, the destination of the day's stage. And perhaps it is thanks to farmer Miloš's homemade fruit schnapps that the riders almost forget about Hermes as they set off. After 20 meters, they notice that Arravani is still on a lead in front of the barn.

At the time of writing, the messenger of the gods is already trotting through Slovenia, and the riders will still be a good month away from Kassel. Will the Transit of Hermes make a difference? Perhaps. Perhaps it will change people's awareness of the importance of horses in society, perhaps the people who see the riders pass by. But maybe that's not so important. Perhaps this one sentence, which Tina Boche shouts as she gallops up a meadow past buttercups, blue vetches and white flax, stops, turns around and looks at the mountains on the horizon, is enough. She exclaims: "This is so beautiful, I want to die!" And Szabo says to her: "Wait and see, tomorrow will be even more beautiful."

Tim Ackermann is an editor at "Weltkunst", the art magazine of DIE ZEIT

Athens Kassel 3000 km Through Europe



3000 km Europe.... From Athens to Kassel...

We are well on our way. After 16 days we have covered 650 km. Nevertheless, we are only 2/3 through Greece. Greece is a paradise for trail riders. But not for those who are already tired after 25 km. The villages are 40-50 km apart, at least the ones that are inhabited.

But the paths are phenomenal. All gravel or natural paths and hardly any tar. However, they stretch endlessly along the valleys. That can add up to 60 km a day.

But the landscape is fantastic, the people incredibly generous and hospitable. The horses run like clockwork and apart from a few scratches and bites, everything is in great shape. We have integrated the Aravani stallion well into the herd and even though there is no rider now, the two hand horses are doing very well. They simply run freely with the group. Except when there are wild Arravanis in the area. Then we have to keep an eye on our youngest. Because he's got it thick as a fist behind his ears.

We started in Athens on the Acropolis with 200 journalists from all over the world. And then we got to know the mountains of Greece. In snow, sunshine and sleet showers. But

Although trail riding is unknown here, the terrain is perfect for it. However, you have to bring some time with you, because instead of as the crow flies x 130%, it's better to calculate as the crow flies x 300%.

At 1700 meters there were still 3 m high snow drifts, which made some work for us and gave us a few days of snow riding. But when the sky is cloudless, you can cope with minus 3 degrees in the morning. We had unbelievable adventures to overcome, paths that were simply gone, the river took them away, landslides that had to be overcome, we don't even want to talk about trees and barely passable paths. But the team fits and the horses do an incredible job. The maps could be better, but then where would the fun and adventure be?

Today was the first time that we had to turn back without having achieved anything, because the path, barely visible, was so thick with bushes and steep in the deep scree that we didn't want to drag the horses up there. So we took a day's break. And so I get around to typing the report.

We'll be reporting from Serbia again next month. Tomorrow we cross the border into Macedonia and I'm already looking forward to the new adventures......

Happy trails

Athens-Kassel 3000 km through Europe

The last few days have been really relaxing, finally back in the saddle, finally on the road again .... Even though it's very hot and that's why we shorten and load the route each time... But from the beginning.

Entering Macedonia was a lengthy process and characterized by the attitude of the people, just don't make any mistakes, and above all pay attention to every detail of the small print.... But then there was another Vet who said that the papers from Greece were not 100% in order, but it was Friday and nobody was available. So he and his boss would take responsibility and solve the problem... The point was that on the ATA carnet, only the name of the vet in Greece was mentioned as the sender, but I myself was not mentioned as the forwarder. Well, the whole border procedure is characterized by typewriter technology anyway. The customs officer sends me to the Greek vet without processing the export, who explains to me at length that the paper from Arcadia from the vet there is not complete and that this would lead to problems at Fryom Vet. I should go to shipping company x, they might be able to sort it out. So to the forwarding agent, who then knocked 2 hours of data for 5 horses into the PC and then carried these papers to the Greek vet. They take the papers, check them and give them to us so that we can take them to the Macedonian (Fryom) vet. But first we have to present our CArnet ATA to the Greek customs authorities and make the export. This works surprisingly quickly, about 20 minutes per carnet, we only have 3, and then we go to the Macedonian vet, who first sends us back again because we now have to pay the tax for his work at the post office. There I receive 3 receipts per horse, all of which are manually recorded and printed out with the full address. The total amount per horse is 15 euros. But I have 15 receipts. Back to the vet, who now enters the shipping company's data into his system. After 2 hours, I go to check carefully and he explains that his printer is on strike. But he also says, 1 problem - no problem, two problems, like one problem.... And calls the forwarder over. He explains that he can't print out the form with the invoice for his services and has therefore sent a copy of the invoice to the freight forwarder. The freight forwarder wants to use MS Paint to transfer the data to me and print out the invoice. No sooner said than done and I have an invoice form from the Maz. Vet's invoice form, which I can now pay in at the post office.

I present the payment receipt to the vet and he gives me the papers with which I can go to the Macedonian Customs Import Administration. There I am once again told how incompetent the Greek officials are and the country Fryom printed on the Greek form is crossed out and replaced with the word Macedonia. Again it is pointed out that I have no proof of ownership for the Greek horse and that I am not registered as a forwarding agent. Yes, I know, but the horse's passport is in my name.... well, if that's the case, we don't have a problem.... Well who's to say, after 6 hours we're in Macedonia....

We only have the map and a trail and as it turns out, the trail is quite inaccurate. But we make good progress and even if the area seems quite flat and monotonous at first, we soon reach higher ground and the paths become sandy and easy to ride. We spend the night in an old hunting lodge and the next day we reach very beautiful wooded hills, similar to the Vosges, with views in all directions. After the lunch break it starts to rain, and while the heavens open the floodgates, the path leads us in endless loops down the forest to the village where we are supposed to spend the night. There is no end to it and we are soaking wet when we finally find a path that takes us directly down the mountain. In the village, we have to decide whether to go left or right, and we decide to go where the path we left at the top leads into the village. But unfortunately we can't find the boys. The phone doesn't work either, and I go in the other direction, because in an earlier phone call, someone said something about a hotel and a football pitch. I pass our path and walk another 3 km in the other direction as I stand in front of the 5-star hotel with football pitch and finally have cell phone reception again. The boys had walked up the path and were waiting for us at the top. Ok, we all get together and move into the hotel to dry our things. 45 euros including breakfast is worth it to us to get dry.

We take a break for another day and then spend the night about 2 km further up in a small valley. The next day we continued over the mountain towards Skopje and then met Vasco at his winter quarters the next day. The next day we went back with Vasco to Mavrovo National Park, where he showed us his riding area. Fantastic landscape similar to Mongolia, smaller but a dream to ride and we really enjoyed this day with him. The following day was very rainy and we had to help a US-American woman out of the swamp with our vehicle, who had sunk her vehicle on the off-road track.

The horses enjoyed the break and the next day we continued on to Serbia. The boys had driven to the border on Friday with all the papers to check that everything was there and were told that everything was in order and we could cross the border on Monday. So we are in good spirits when we come up to the border on Monday, make the export from Macedonia, go to the Serbian vet and present him with the documents. It's a different vet from the one on Friday, and he seems grumpy and unfriendly. But he sends us to the forwarding agent to do the paperwork, which we take as a good sign. The papers are taken to the vet 2 hours later and we don't hear from him for the next 2 hours. When I ask, he suddenly says that a document is missing, namely the invitation from Igor from Kamenica, which is necessary for us to be allowed to ride in Serbia. However, the document had already been sent to the forwarding agent on Friday, but they didn't have it because it was on the boss's computer and he was the only one with access to it, but he wasn't there. So we call Igor and he wants to send the document again, but this time directly to the vet, who receives it but declares it incomplete because an official stamp is missing. Igor argues with him for over an hour and tries to explain that he has been told that he can invite us as a private person and that as a private person he does not have a stamp.

The vet is not interested, we cannot enter the country without a stamp. Now Igor gets in touch with the local tourism association in Kamenica, has them issue an invitation with a stamp and sends it to the Vet, whereupon, oh wonder, we are allowed to enter Serbia after a 7-hour wait.

Serbia is beautiful and the people are incredibly helpful. We are constantly invited for coffee (i.e. raki) and can't even take in all the invitations. The roads, when we find them, are great to ride on, but when the tracks become very soft on the 2nd and 3rd day, trotting is no longer possible on many stretches. We fight our way through the southern Serbian regions, where even Igor is not yet so familiar with, and have to take some adventurous routes.

But on the whole we make good progress and to relieve the horses, we drive a little way to Igor's ranch to take a break there. Ross Birell has announced his arrival and other reporters will also be there. We have two enjoyable days with folklore and singing bowl music and the day after next we ride further north with the help of guides. Unfortunately, the hospitality doesn't extend as much to the horses as it does to us, and the fact that we are more interested in food and water for the horses and less in raki and lunch for us is not always immediately understood. But other cultures tick differently....

Kafka at the EU border

Thursday, 26.5.2017

We are assured by the stud farm manager in Mitrovica that everything will be in order when we arrive in Mitrovica. The vet has been informed, all the paperwork can be completed immediately and we will get as much hay as we need.

We arrive in Mitrovica at around 2 p.m. and are greeted by the prison director (owner of the stud farm) and his stud farm manager and various other gentlemen. At around 5 p.m., a reporter arrives who wants to interview us, but I'm told to sit down with the veterinarian to make sure we get the necessary papers.

The vet comes and we sit down together, I explain to him which document we need and that we should get it from the local vet inspector in Mitrovica. He calls there and we talk on the phone for about 30 minutes. Then he says we have to drive to the vet's office and speak to the vet there. In good spirits, I drive to the ministry in Mitrovica at around 4 p.m. together with two vets to get the papers there.

Unfortunately, we are only met by secretaries, who explain that the vet inspectors all have appointments outside and that we should come back tomorrow morning.

Friday, 27.5.2017

This time there are only two of us going to the Ministry and we arrive there at 9.00 am. Mr. Civic, an older man in his mid-50s, takes care of the matter and I explain to him that we need documents to re-import our horses into the EU and explain the special circumstances, namely that we are not in transit but have been in Serbia for 20 days.

He refuses to accept his responsibility and tells me that I have to obtain this vet confirmation in Kamenica, as my horses had been there. It takes him until about 11 a.m. to realize that we were not in Kamenica and that we had spent the night in a different place every day. He calls the ministry in Belgrade several times and gets to speak to a Liliane (his boss and I explain the situation to her in English). She agrees to look into the matter and to call back as soon as she receives the papers by e-mail. The papers are sent to her and after an hour I ask if he could give her a call. He refuses at first, but at my insistence he gives in and gets the answer that she has the papers but hasn't looked at them yet. Ok, we keep waiting and I try to find out from the vet why it's taking so long. During this conversation it turns out that even if this vet had to take care of the paperwork later, he didn't have the necessary documents and I would have to get them myself in Belgrade. I then ask for the phone number of the supervisor and try to reach her without success. The lady on the other end simply tells me that she is not there and that I should call back in an hour. I leave the office, quite angry, and am already on my way down the stairs when the stud's vet calls me back and says that the boss is talking to Mr. Civic and that she has a solution for us.

she had a solution for us.

Mr. Civic is suddenly in a hurry, he gives his colleague in the office instructions on what to do and hurries out of the office. The Greek documents that I had had issued by the veterinary office in Arcadia were taken, handwritten and declared that the horses were disease-free, stamped and signed, and I was told that this would get me across the border.

Ok, we leave the office and drive back to the prison stables and load up the horses to drive to the border 50 km away. We pass the control, finish the export from Serbia and drive to the Croatian vetrenary. He had already been informed by the German consulate in Croatia that we were coming and when I handed the relevant documents to the lady called Bogic at the counter, she literally explained that it was toilet paper. I explained that I had been trying for 6 hours to obtain the required document and that all the relevant data was available and that this document was recommended to me by the manager from Belgrade as sufficient. However, she categorically stated that I would not enter Croatia with this document, as it was not an original, but only a copy with official stamps, and that she would take me back to Serbia with the police. I asked her to do so, but again she didn't have time. I tried to keep talking to her, but she left the room and just left me standing there. So I went back to the cars and we wanted to go back to Serbia. But the lady at customs explained that we first had to go to the Serbian vetrenary to authorize our entry into Serbia, even though we had left Serbia for customs purposes but had not actually entered Croatia. So David and I went to the Serbian vetrenary, a lady about 50, a bit stout and very tired, stared at us with dull eyes and explained that we had to get a written explanation from the Croatian vetrenary as to why we were not allowed to enter so that she could give us permission to re-enter Serbia. All attempts to point out the absurdity of this request failed due to our lack of language skills and so David and Tina tried to obtain this explanation from the Croatian Vet's Office. They returned without having achieved anything, as the vet's office had closed in the meantime, although it was supposed to be open until 6 pm.

The lady at the Serbian vet office explained categorically that there was nothing she could do and that we would have to wait for the shift change and the new vet would take care of the matter. However, as he didn't speak any better English, the atmosphere became more tense, as he didn't want to give his name or that of his boss, who we also tried to change her mind by phone, while others contacted the German embassies in Croatia and Serbia.

However, they couldn't do anything concrete either, apart from offering us comfort and best wishes. Several attempts to change the mind of the head of the Serbian Vet failed, and the Vet himself became more and more stubborn. We were caught in a no-man's land between the two borders. When it became clear around 9 pm that we would not be leaving the border, we looked for a place where there was some food for the horses and I myself went to the Croatian side, as our guides from Croatia were waiting for us there. Tomislav immediately offered to help us, and he seemed confident that the problem could be solved, but his interventions with the Serbian doctor didn't help either, who explained that we would have to return to Igor in Kamenica and go into quarantine there until the matter had been resolved. With the help of a friendly policeman from Croatia, we were then allocated a piece of meadow to graze in for an hour, and when we explained to him that this was not enough, he allowed us to graze the horses until 6.30 am, contrary to his boss's instructions. We set up camp at 11 pm next to the truck parking lot and fenced our horses in a good meadow so that they at least had good feed and hay available. We slept right next to the fence under our tarp and were woken up punctually at 6.30 by the policeman.

After a quick breakfast, we went down to the Serbian Vet Office at 7 a.m. and the vet from last night was no longer on duty but another one who made a much more alert and dynamic impression. He first explained that we needed the written refusal from the Croatians, so we walked the 2 km back and waited until 8am at the Croatian Vet Office to get this document. It would take 24 hours to create the document and it would cost 100 euros per horse. With this information, we returned to the Serbian vet. He listened to our request and when I explained to him that I was not prepared to spend another 24 hours here at the border, nor to invest 500 euros, and that we wanted to go into quarantine in Mitrovica with the prison chief, he agreed to call there and clarify whether we were welcome there. Fortunately, the Hungarian-speaking stud manager was immediately available and so the vet gave his approval for us to apply to the forwarding agent for the papers for the return journey to Serbia. Tomislav was a valuable help as translator and so the forwarding agency was commissioned for the return journey.

So we drove the trailers out of the Croatian customs truck parking lot again, but first had to get permission from the chief of police, who sat grumpily in his office and had Tomislav explain the whole story to him in great detail before he gave the order for someone to open the side gate for us so that we could leave the truck customs area.

After the forwarder had completed the paperwork for the vetrenary at around 10.00 a.m., we had to pay the invoice for 120 euros in taxes and for his service and wait again at the vetrenary until around 12 noon until he had also completed the paperwork. Then we went to customs, where we had to re-import the horse to Serbia, but now there was a new problem, namely that the sheets of paper, which are counted for the whole trip in the Carne ATA, were not enough to travel back to Serbia and the lady first had to clarify how she would get her documents if one was missing. So she went to her boss and the discussion about this missing piece of paper lasted around 40 minutes until they agreed that she would take one of the yellow sheets and rename it so that she could create the re-entry. No sooner said than done, it then only took another 60 minutes until we were finally allowed to drive and so, after a night in no man's land, we returned to Mitrovica at 4.00 pm. The horses were fenced in and Tina, Tomislav, Sam and I drove back to Croatia where we were expected by Tomislav's friends in Otok. At 5 p.m. someone from the veterinary office arrived to check whether the horses were really stabled at the prison.

We spent Sunday with Tomislav's friends in Jacovo, where we visited the Lipizzaner stud farm and the cathedral and then took part in an equestrian parade.

On Monday we drove to Belgrade early in the morning and, to my astonishment, we managed to obtain the relevant papers quite quickly, which we used to drive back to Mitrovica. In the meantime, the vet inspector Civic, who we had notified, had already contacted the VEt of the stud farm and he asked to be picked up so that we could receive an official health certificate from the local vet. So we go to this vet, who also sells pet food, and he issues a form confirming that our horses are healthy and disease-free and have all been tested for cogs. (

With this confirmation, which cost us 10 euros, we drove to the veterinary office in Mitrivoca, where the veterinary inspector was already waiting for us. This time the discussion was not whether he or Kamenica were responsible, but how the form should be filled in, because although we had a sample of a completed form with us, the requirements were so high: 3 horses from Switzerland, 2 of them in a 4-seater trailer and 1 in a 2-seater trailer, then a horse from Germany in a 4-seater and 1 horse from Greece in a 4-seater, that it took 2.5 hours for the two gentlemen to fill in the forms so that they could be meticulously checked again and then stamped.

One of them asked me at least 5 times if there were really only 3 horses from Switzerland, one from Germany and one from Greece and how to spell my name.

However, there was another catch, namely that my address in Switzerland was somehow not identical to the address in Greece, which led to a lot of confusion. And it was only when I simply entered Konstantinos' address in Arkadia in the corresponding column that the faces of those present brightened. Then I was told that the trailer had to be disinfected, and while I tried to explain that this was nonsense because the trailer was brand new and the only horses in it were the ones that had to be transported now, it turned out that the Hungarian at the stud had already carried out this instruction in anticipatory obedience and the invoice was already ready.

So we returned to the camp, loaded our horses into the supposedly disinfected trailer and drove the 50 km to the border. We stopped in a parking lot before the border and Tom and I drove in the car to the border and the Croatian vet station, where the vets present had already received the documents sent to them, but had not yet seen them. Since the good Mrs. Rogic was also present at the Vetamt, I decided to let Tom have the hearing so as not to negatively influence the mood. I waited outside for about 40 minutes, listening to Rogic's voice getting louder and louder, without understanding exactly what was going on. After a while, Tomislav came out and explained that there was a problem with Hermes' cogging test and that I wanted to come in because the vets were trying to sort the papers. I wanted to know exactly what the problem was, and it turned out that they didn't understand how it could be that, according to the Traces document, we wanted to return to Greece with 4 horses but now with 5 horses.

When I had clarified this situation, I left the room again accompanied by Tomislav because Mrs. Bogic and the vet present seemed to be taking care of the matter and while Tomislav was talking to the head of the two vets I received a phone call from the desperate sounding son of Mr. Civic (who works in the same office under his father) who accused me of having lied to his father and that there was now a big problem. Due to the poor connection and the noisy trucks on the premises, it was not really possible for me to understand him. I just explained categorically that I hadn't lied to anyone and that Tom would call him back as soon as he had finished talking. Tom, meanwhile, spoke to the head of the two Vets and tried to get him to speed up the story.

The Vets explained that we had to go back to Greece to get the correct paperwork for Hermes. I stated categorically that this would not happen, which led to another hour of heated discussion between Tomislav and the two Vets. At Tomislav's insistence, the original Hermes document was also found on the Traces system, but the destination country was Austria and not Switzerland, which again led to problems. But at least our papers were now complete. Mercifully, the request to return to Greece to get the correct paper was dropped. Suddenly, the allegedly missing cogin test was no longer the problem, but the fact that the two VEts in Mitrovica had not noted the date of the cogin test on the form.

(This was the content of the call from Mr. Civic's son). At 5 p.m. we were told that the horses were now allowed to enter Croatia, but that it was unfortunately too late to carry out the process and that we would have to come back tomorrow. When Tomislav then called the Civic at the Vetamt at 6 pm, he was still offended that the gentlemen from Croatia had accused him of not filling out the forms correctly, but the issue that I had done something wrong was suddenly off the table. Everyone can make up their own mind about the quality of the work and the performance of the two carriers in Mitrovica. We tried to hand over the papers to the forwarding agent so that they could be prepared during the night, but the forwarding agent insisted that we had to be present and come back the next morning.

So we returned to Serbia and on the way down to the parking lot, where the horses were grazing, I saw a sign on the right-hand side saying restaurant, and we drove straight off the highway onto the forest road leading to a former hunting lodge of Tito. Pleasantly surprised by the generous and friendly atmosphere, we decided to spend the night here and not return to Mitrovica.

At 7.30 a.m. I drove Tomislav to the haulage company and now we were told that we would have to wait 1.5 hours before it was our turn, and no other haulage company was interested in our horses. So I dropped Tomislav off there and drove back again. At around 10 a.m. Tomislav called to say that the horses could now enter the country and we loaded them up to drive to the border. However, we decided to change the procedure and only export the horses once we were sure that we could actually enter the country.

So we went to the shipping company, which was only now starting to prepare the papers for the Croatian Vet, and waited until these were completed. For the tax invoice, I now had to give David Wewetzer's address, which I didn't have with me and which I was asked to get. I explained that my address was sufficient and after some discussion they relented.

We were told that we had to enter the terminal for the trucks, which I refused to do, saying that we were private transporters and therefore had no business there. I paid the bill for the vet inspection and we drove up to the veterinary office to hand in the papers and get the okay for export and import. But far from it. In a rude tone, I was told to drive the horses up to the office, that I could not be expected to walk the 250 meters to the horses. So we turned around again, turned the horses across the border yard and sorted them into the row of trucks. 40 minutes later we are back at the vet building waiting for the gentlemen to inspect the horses. But again nothing happens. The chip reader supposedly still had to be fetched, so a young man was sent away, who then came back an hour later, and then the gentlemen were able to read the chip numbers of the horses with a piece of paper in their hands.

However, they didn't do it on their own, because they were afraid of that, but they handed me the device and told me in Croatian to read the chips. The chip numbers were all correct and we were instructed to drive the vehicles to the other side of the building as there was more shade there. They would now have to record the data and then let us know. It is now 2 p.m. when one of the Vets comes out to ask for the Carnet ATAS. When I asked to understand why they needed it, I was told that the forwarding agent had neglected to copy it. The young man from the forwarding agent then appeared and asked for the carnets again, but they were already with the Vet. I asked him whether it was usual to copy the carnets? He said he had never had to do this before. Another hour later I went to ask what was going on, we had been here for another 5 hours. One of the vets was in the process of photocopying the last page of the 2nd carnet front and back and I was told to wait. I had had enough and told him that I would no longer tolerate this sham.

We called the consulate and started to write this article. At 3.30 pm the young man from the shipping company was finally back, he explained that we could now take the horses through customs, but would have to pay the shipping company's bill first. So back to the customs building, to the forwarding agent, to pay the bill for the forwarding agent, marched to the Serbian Vet with all the papers of the Croats to get the ok from him for the export from Serbia and went to Serbian customs. There it was established that a form was now missing from the ATA carnet for export. We had a long discussion with the boss, who finally decided that we could use a different colored form and that the line import would be deleted and replaced with the term export. The lady was very nice and correct and completed the export in just under 15 minutes. Now we went over to Croatian customs for import and the lady started to study and sort the papers. Then she stood up and explained that we had to go through another customs procedure because something was wrong with the papers. I explained that this was not correct and insisted that she come with me to the forwarding agent. There, the manager confirmed my opinion and we all returned to the customs office, this time to speak to the head of customs. However, he had already been informed about the whole story and explained to the lady how she should proceed in this case. So the documents were sorted again and she began to process the 3 Carnet Atas. Now another problem was discovered, namely that the vet's details of which horses were being transported in which trailer did not match the carnets. There was a lot of moaning and when I asked for this to be corrected by hand, this was first refused and only after the boss gave his approval was I allowed to correct the information on the form so that it matched the data in the EDP system for the carnet. Then came the problem I was already familiar with, that the German carnet did not have enough papers, and we were told we had to return to Germany. After a further discussion with the head of the customs authority, the lady was then also allowed to use a wrong colored sheet of the carnet, but the destination address had to be Tomislav's address, and he also had to give his telephone number so that he could be reached if the wrong colored paper caused problems.

Finally, at around 4 p.m., the import to Croatia was completed and we were able to collect the horses from the Vet Office, but now the two trailers were suddenly no longer where they had been.

There were two policemen at the Vet building looking for fugitives. David went to them to explain that he would now move the horses over into the shade to where the two were standing. The one policewoman immediately agreed to go and ask her boss, and David held her back by explaining that he hadn't asked to be allowed to park here either, and that if there was anything wrong with it, he would take responsibility. Relieved, the young woman turned away and soon left her vantage point.

Tina soon found me and Tomislav and after 6 days and 6 hours we were able to successfully enter Croatia and the EU.

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