Hiking the Sultans Trail

by Mariette van Beek

Walking the Sultans Trail from Vienna to Istanbul you will experience Europe as it always was: a melting pot of groups, cultures and religions. You also discover, one step at a time: the other looks like me. Christians and Muslims share not only lands and old wounds, but also saints and prophets. In the footsteps of the Ottomans, you really become a blessed pilgrim, I experienced.


“The Angry Turk, the Angry Turk!” I suddenly remember it along the Sultans Trail: the sublime magic lantern show that Turkologist Alexander de Groot once treated our group of Leiden students to. The point of his story? The Ottoman army came to Vienna and the terror that this caused in Christian Europe is deep, very deep in the collective memory. In other words: Islamophobia is not of today. With the lantern slide that depicts Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, we still laugh the phobia away. But walking helps just as much.

Peace Path

The Dutch-Turkish entrepreneur Sedat Çakir (61) also thinks so. In 2008, he took the initiative to develop a long-distance hiking trail between Vienna and Istanbul. The trail follows the old road Süleyman’s army once traveled, but in reverse. For those who are afraid of Islam, that may be so therapeutic. The old war path is now a peace path anyway: diversity and tolerance are the keywords of Sedat’s mission: “I too still have many prejudices. While walking I try to get rid of it.”


Between Popsvac and Osijek on the river Drava in Slavonia, a somewhat forgotten part of Croatia, I walk up with Sedat at the end of November 2012. And even though I start a bit haphazardly in the middle of the Sultans Trail, it’s the perfect start for reflection. Because every step in this border area with Serbia and Hungary is a meter of turbulent history.

War of independence

There is not only ancient sore in the Balkans. The Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) raged here at its fiercest. Dramas are still hot and issues are sensitive. In the village of Popsvac there is nothing to notice for the time being. At least, if you’re not looking for anything else behind the Croatian flag with its red and white checkered coat of arms, which hangs prominently in a yard here and there. Past the church and barking dogs, the Sultans Trail heads up into the hills, past half-timbered farms and clayey fields. Dressed in damp autumn fumes, enveloped by the yellowish foliage of the trees and vines on the slopes. A moody environment for contemplation.

Holiday homes

Did Süleyman really move through the landscape like us? “Using historical descriptions, we try to get as close as possible to the original route,” Sedat says as we climb a small hill. A sublime view over Beli Manastir and the surrounding plains awaits at the top.

Where the Ottoman garrisons may once have camped, there are now holiday homes. With a veranda, an orchard, a barbecue and a cafe around the corner: all the things that make life good in summer. Wood-carved hearts in shutters indicate a love nest. Croatians are known as epicureans. The ‘villas’ are now deserted, but further on, men are having an early Friday afternoon drink near a construction site, with coffee and spirits. A woman stands alongside with a child on her hip. “Dober then!” (Good day!) and they watch us as we descend again.

Cultural diversity

From fresh gravel paths we now quickly walk on the asphalt of Beli Manastir. It’s almost getting dark. A few hours later it is time to feast in the picturesque Karanac. In the village’s only restaurant, fish from the Drava is strung directly on grill pins in the open fire. After Turkish coffee, you know you’re on the Sultans Trail again. But like many traditional houses in this area, the restaurant has a Hungarian feel. “The color of the flower stencils on the outer walls betrays the origin of the residents,” says a local. “Green stands for Hungary, brown for Germany. Others choose what they want.” Despite the great human losses during the war, thank goodness the cultural diversity is still everywhere.

Patron Saint of Travelers

The geese on the part of B&B farm Sklepić escort us out the next day. On the horizon of gently sloping, barren fields, deer make a silent appearance on their way to the village of Kneževi Vinogradi, only to disappear into the mist at a gallop. The sun gently takes their place. The village breathes Saturday calm.

A painting above the gate to the Serbian Orthodox Church reveals its name: the Presentation of Saint Mary. The colorful Bible scene also shows her mother, Sinte-Anna. I know Anna as a pilgrim and patron saint of travelers in the Alps (Sainte Anne, protège les voyageurs), but she is also well known in all countries of the Sultans Trail. For both Christians and Muslims. “Anne means mother in Turkish,” said Sedat. No coincidence, because Anna is also recognized within Islam. Just like other persons from the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the way, including many prophets. Those common roots can be found all the time on the Sultans Trail.

Vineyards of Baranja

Reality gives rise to nuances, contradictions fade, and so it is with the bad image of the Serbs. Because how can they still live in Croatia and profess their faith? Darko Mrkonjić from the local tourist office quickly makes it clear to us. He does not like to react to the Serbs: “I have several Serbian friends who fought with the Croats during the War of Independence.”

Immediately around the corner from the Serbian church it is time to switch back to Süleyman’s time, but we get help from a great partner: wine. Originating from the vineyards of this region, Baranja, and a household name for centuries.

A wine tasting in the cellars follows. We have a good excuse to sip, because these cellars used to house the Ottoman cavalry. Although Graševina – a Croatian Riesling – was impossible part of the ration.

Village children, giggling, guide us back into the clay fields that make Croatia a little bit like Groningen with dykes, sugar beets and sheep. Dusk falls between Grabovac and Darda. Tall grain silos and the fire outside a dilapidated Roma settlement point the muddy road back to civilization.

The bridge

The next morning we suddenly find ourselves in front of De Brug. Behind Darda’s desolate Esterházy Castle, three cleaved posts are visible in a pool between the reeds. All that remains of the span that passed for the eighth wonder of the world in Suleymän’s time. A makeshift, but magnificent wooden construction over which the Ottoman troops moved towards Osijek, 8 kilometers long through the swamps. Local authorities are still arguing about whether that bridge should be reconstructed. It would be nice, because until Osijek it is now just a matter of slaloming between parks and asphalt for the walker. Fortunately, something of the grandeur of the bridge can be seen in the old and new bridge drawings that we find on panels on the promenade along the Brava once in Osijek. About this spot the bridge entered the old town from the swamps.

Tvrda Fortress

A visit to the later Habsburg star fortress Tvrda is a must. The ‘Turkish Street’ runs behind the Franciscan Church of the Holy Cross, built over the remains of an Ottoman place of worship. The men of Francis’ pacifist beggar order used to be able to move freely on the Ottoman side of the front.

Churches and Ottomans meet in more places. In front of the Jesuit St. Michael Church on the well-known Trinity Square, also within Trvda, yellow stones in the pavement mark the foundations of a mosque named after Kasem Pasha, the first Ottoman governor of Osijek.

Polish sultan’s wife

A few hours later we are almost in the harem of sultan Süleyman. The harem part of Ivan Zajc’s nineteenth-century opera Nikola Šubić Zrinski is performed in the Croatian National Theater of Osijek. The opera tells of the Battle of Szigetvár in 1566 in which Hungarian and Croatian armies inflicted heavy losses on the Ottoman superior force under the personal command of the great Süleyman. An opera singer chants between veiled women: “Sultan Süleyman! Sultan Suleyman!”

The musical drama is incessantly popular; the sultan is still alive along the Sultans Trail. However, it is in Istanbul that he was buried with his Polish wife Roxelana. In the backyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque, that eye-catcher high above the Bosphorus. So just walk through. On to the ‘Evil Turk’, somewhat the worldly counterpart of Saint James the Moorslayer. At least, for a Sultans Trail and Camino-goer like me.