Ships Swarming through the Morava Valley
Is it possible to conquer an altitude of 325 meters near Bujanovac, with a canal from Thessalonica to the Danube? Will Niš then be a large sea port? Dreams exist to be dreamed, so one would tend towards their realization, to, finally, be realized. A legend says that there is nothing in reality which previously hadn’t been in a dream. Borches: ”If I cease dreaming of the world, it will cease to exist.”

By: Branimir Stanojević

The passersby watched the gymnasium professor Jovan Puljević with deepest respect while he would, huge and one-eyed as he was, and always deep in thoughts, move slowly down the cobblestone streets of Vranje. I don’t know what he was doing there, I didn’t know it then either, but I remember the solemn silence surrounding him while he was walking, and only a few quiet and insecure greetings, completely shy, cautious and soft, filled with fear they would interfere with the professor’s thoughts with some violent move or too loud a word, as not to entangle his mysterious calculations and thereby absorb themselves into a world of miracles from which, perhaps, there is no return nor exit.
It was the time when there were no larger industrial plants in Vranje, only workshops and cooperatives, people still talked about the beautiful Koštana with melancholy, they sighed for some simpler life and the town remembered by merchants, craftsmen, musicians.
People traveled in their memories to the north and the south, down to Thessalonica, up to Belgrade and further, made good business deals and returned back to the peacefulness of the town. Only the Monopoly building exceeded those dreamy centuries, threatening and silent, it brought profit, and announced new times of industrial development.
The streets rapidly turned into little rope factories. Winches, windlasses and trapezes were brought out, those utterly thin and those thickest ship ropes were made, the same ones that had been so well sold in Belgrade and Thessalonica during the entire XIX century. Frames filled with strings of tobacco, already of golden color, were taken out in front of houses, where the tobacco growers continued to dry them, proud of what was accessible to the ray of sun and eye of each passerby.


Meanwhile, the professor would pass quite a distance from the last houses of lower Vranje, towards the Južna Morava river, at the time a few kilometers away from the town and completely clean. He would walk like that, always to the same place, which would be hard to recognize now, but, I remember, it was near the railway tracks and near some Canadian poplars, with leaves which, as according to a music written long ago, would gently fall into the water, fast in that place, and disappear down the river. The professor would sit down, take a bundle of papers out of his pockets and carefully sharpened pencils of different colors, and start writing symbols and numbers of endless formulas and graphs. The work would sometimes be briefly interrupted by a train, toppling as fast as forty kilometers per hour through the tobacco and corn fields, leaving behind it clouds of smoke and a scent that would, long after the train passes, stretch along the river. The professor would absentmindedly, almost sleepily, follow that steam wonder with his glance and then turn back to his work. Finally, he would put away his pencils, carefully arrange the sheets of white paper, which now had drawings and calculations for the dams and ship locks, from Thessalonica by the Vardar, to the Danube by the Južna and Velika Morava, by a canal through which ships sail. Then he would make a small ship out of each of the paper sheets, and let them sail along the river. A whole fleet of those white little ships, colored with dreams, would fight the waves while leaving towards the Danube.
The professor would stay long, until sunset, thoughtful, in a pose of a patient observer who welcomes and sends off large ships still smelling of sea salt, carrying mysterious loads and tired and sleepless sailors, ships which sea gulls persistently follow, as if they were somewhere at sea, somewhere far away from the Vranje valley. In his dreams, those paper ships that disappeared from sight are now large, serious ships sailing through the cultivated fields along the Morava, protected from frequent floods with a canal, continuously and well irrigated. As some ships arrive, others leave the ports; Leskovac, then Niš, the real big port, then Stalać, Paraćin, Smederevo, heeeey… Up to the Danube and further.


The rags of low clouds are fluttering above his head, as if they were flags on ships of many countries of the Mediterranean and Middle Europe, the scent of faraway lands is felt in the air and muffled shouts of ship sirens is already heard from afar.
Profesor Puljević is gone. Lost in thought as he was, he boarded one of those ships or one of those ragged clouds above his head, it was never determined for certain, and he was gone. His dream remained. Well, let’s see if it was only a dream.
I don’t know if anyone captured the professor’s little ships along the river, but already in 1966, the program of works along the Velika Morava was adopted. It included cutting the river meanders, drying the ”moravište”, which is only another name for swamps, building a large number of dams, to enable better utilization of the river water, and, what a miracle, sailing, during lower water levels, of 60 tons ships and then 120 tons ships, first to Ćuprija and then to Stalać.
At the same time, plans for the canal and oil pipeline from Thessalonica to Skopje began, in the length of 320 kilometers, which reduced professor Puljević’s dream to 250 kilometers, from Skopje to Stalać, through the Kumanovo valley and along the course of the Južna Morava.
By cutting 23 of 66 meanders on the Velika Morava, during the works that followed since 1966, the river course was reduced by as much as 60 kilometers. And that’s where they stopped. Decades went by.


In 1867, and then in 1869, while steamship traffic was slowly being established in Serbia, by the Sava, the Danube and the Drina, one ship, white as a bird and slender as a buck, by the name of ”Morava”, bravely sailed into the Velika Morava and sailed slowly, as if feeling her way between the shallows, sunken tree trunks and roots, all the way to Paraćin, later to Stalać, as much as 245 kilometers. The cleaning and regulation of the river would probably start even then, if it wasn’t for the railway tracks, which slipped through the valley like a snake, casting a shadow of oblivion on this sailing attempt.
Kosta Bobrov, engineer, made a plan of arranging the Velika Morava bed a long time ago, according to which, the 70 meters of altitude difference from the confluence to Stalać would be overcome with eight lower dams with ship locks, which would enable sailing for up to 1.500 tons ships. This would be possible to realize within the project of building the Danube – Morava – Vardar – Thessalonica Bay canal, 612 kilometers long. Three projects have been done up to now, and all of them are sleeping somewhere.
Engineer Negrelli entered the history of this civilization by building the 160 kilometers long Suez Canal, thereby shortening the way from Europe to India by as much as 8.000 kilometers. According to historical documents, people have been dreaming about this canal for more than two thousand years.
In 1882, Lesseps began building the 78 kilometers long Panama Canal. It is hard to even imagine how much this canal shortened sailing routes, but it is much easier to assume how much glory it brought him.
The old dream about building the Corinth Canal ended in 1893.
Although not so long, a little more than six kilometers, it cuts through a 79 meters high stone hill and links two seas, the Ionian and the Aegean.
One of the longest built systems of canals, already finished, the Danube – Main – Rhine canal enables sailing from the North Sea to the Black Sea, 3.500 kilometers in length, connecting countries, regions and cities along these river courses, almost the whole continent, into an inextricable knot of interest and cooperation.
Imagine, one day, some captain with a stern voice will order the steersman to, somewhere below Belgrade, direct the ship from the Danube straight to the south, because something needs to be unloaded in Ćuprija, something unloaded and loaded in Niš, some new ropes need to be purchased in Vranje, and then further to the south, to the warm seas.





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