Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 15 May 2010 12:01 UK

In the footsteps of Turkish dervish Sari Saltuq

Buna river, near the town of Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Built around 1520, the Blagaj Tekke monument attracts many tourists

On his travels around eastern Europe, the BBC's Nick Thorpe describes his three separate encounters with Sari Saltuq, a 13th Century legendary Turkish dervish.

I first came across Sari Saltuq in Bosnia - at the source of the Buna River - at Blagaj, where the river flows blue and fully-formed straight out of a sheer cliff.

To say "came across" him requires some explanation.

I sat quietly at his graveside.

Green felt covered the raised coffin. I was inside an ancient tekke, a place of worship traditionally used by Sufi Muslim dervishes.

Zijo, the wild man who slept among the graves when the Croats were shelling Blagaj during the war, told me how he put a dish of water by the head of the tomb each night and how it was often gone, drained to the bottom, by morning.

The rooms next door were for praying, talking, and drinking tea and coffee.

There was even a sort of bathroom where you could shower, once upon a time, but only when it was raining, as the water flowed through star-shaped holes carved in the stone of the domed roof.

'Flying carpet'

Map of Romania and surrounding countries

I came across Sari Saltuq next in Babadag, in the Dobrugea region of Romania, close to the Black Sea Coast.

Legend has it that Saltuq, a Muslim holy man and worker of miracles - sometimes synonymous with Saint Nicholas in the Christian tradition - arrived here by flying carpet in the mid-14th Century.

On the edge of Babadag is a graceful mosque - a surprise in Christian Orthodox Romania. Outside it is a hexagonal turbe, or tomb, of pink and yellow stone.

And once again the green, raised coffin, with a dervish mitre at the top end: Sari Saltuq's grave.

Slow journey

The view from Kruje
The city of Kruje sits alongside a panoramic mountainside location

I ran into him again in Albania last week, beneath the head of the mountain over Kruje.

Our little minibus climbed slowly up from the coastal plain, filling almost to bursting as we went.

I counted 15 people already.

As the driver negotiated the potholes, two young fellows sat next to him on the front seat. In the middle were the older men, clutching walking sticks, one of them missing an arm. Then there were little girls sucking fluorescent lollipops, sitting on their mothers' laps in the back.

Before leaving the bus, each passenger passed a few scruffy lek notes - the Albanian currency - to the driver, who handed several scruffy lek notes back, and it was hard to believe that any payment was actually being made.

It was rather as if the money was just being recycled from hand to hand.

Socks and bells

The first scarlet poppies of this late spring sprouted by the roadside.

Kruje bazaar
The name Kruje comes from the Albanian word for water source

Up ahead I thought we were driving into the clouds at first, but no... those really were mountains.

It was sweet revenge for all those daydreams as a child, when those longed-for mountains dissolved into clouds.

Kruje is a small, handsome town, hanging like a necklace beneath the chin of Sari Saltuq's mountain.

In the old bazaar, on the walk up to the castle, you can buy hand-knitted socks - warm enough for the highland winters - wooden cockerel stoppers for brandy bottles, and brass bells as worn by sheep and goats on steep pastures.

There was even a deluxe bell, with a whirling dervish on the top, for the dinner service of the devout.

Saltuq's bravery

Kruje is a Bektashi town, and Sari Saltuq was a Bektashi saint.

The Bektashis are one of the most remarkable of the dervish orders in Islam, closely associated with the Jannisary fighters who brought Islam to the Balkans in the Middle Ages.

But while the Janissaries wielded tempered steel, the Bektashis are famous for their wooden swords and their kindness to Christians.

Sari Saltuq, himself, chopped off the seven heads of the dragon that used to live in a cave on the top of the mountain at Kruje.

The dragon had an unpleasant habit of eating young local girls and the king was so relieved to be rid of the dragon that he offered him his daughter's hand in marriage.

Sari Saltuq, already an old man, nobly declined, asking nothing more than permission to live in the cave.

Happily installed, with a magnificent view of Albania's Adriatic Coast, his followers brought him food each day up the mountain until he was warned that jealous local men were plotting his assassination.

Infuriated by their ungratefulness, he leapt down the mountain and across to the island of Corfu in just three steps.

'Fleet-footed traveller'

Our progress downhill was more laborious, but the bus stopped for a few minutes to inspect the shrine of his footstep in the marbled rock, just below the town.

Slightly larger than my own, the footprint is deep and polished by the touch and veneration of several hundred years of visitors.

Then our bus took us back to Tirana.

The driver doggedly refused money from most of the passengers, in a great hilarity of jokes about politics, village meetings and sport.

Hearing my English, an old man said he knew someone who went to Las Vegas once.

The fleet-footed traveller Sari Saltuq, perhaps.

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