Serbia, we love you and leave you

Today is probably our last day in Serbia. We are sad to say goodbye to this country full of lovely people and calorie-dense food. Today is also exactly one month since we left Amsterdam and we have decided we’ll do another month since this is just way too much fun.

Belgrade

After leaving the kayak club camping spot we made our way to Belgrade where we spent two nights with friends of my friend Zoran. We felt as if we had been taking it relatively easy but we crashed and burned. A planned 10 minute afternoon nap turned into a deep three hour sleep. We were very grateful for our new friends Ana and Beli and their little princess dog Kiki who were looking after us. Well fed, well rested and with freshly washed everything we left, with a promise to come back. We only had a little taste of the city but Belgrade has a great vibe, tree lined streets with little cafes. Domineering plattenbau Brutalist housing blocks greeted us before we entered the old city around the citadel. The biggest attraction of Belgrade however was feeling truly at home for a day, with our new friends.

Big city cycling: no thank you!

We are no longer very keen about heading into big cities. It is difficult and dangerous on a bicycle, and somehow we don’t feel like doing the things we have always enjoyed on city trips such as going to museums. We feel a little bit restless when we are not outside on the bicycle and want to keep going. For the first time I notice how dirty the air in cities is, and how people live so close together without making any kind of contact. How I am constantly enticed to spend money. Right now the biggest attractions of the city are meeting up with people and doing practical things like laundry, writing and organising our (visum) administration. We much prefer traveling in the country side. A friendly greeting, fresh air, a laid-backness, quiet, and nothing to spend our money on but food.

Leaving Belgrade was a lot easier than going in. When we entered we had to endure a long stretch of choking two-lane busy road with little space for us, plus we were being chased by a thunderstorm. On the way out it was bright and sunny and a local cyclist guided us across the bridge. Within 15 minutes we were on a 15km stretch of off-road Duna dyke.

Camping by the Serbian Danube

We only did a modest 50km day before finding a little well-kept caravan park where Belgradi’s enjoy their weekends. The owner let us stay for free, indicated with a shrug when we enquired about the price. The other residents however seemed a little bit miffed by the cycling hippy invasion of their little dacha paradise. It didn’t help that we accidentally put up our tent in the middle of the path to the well which the whole campsite used to get their fresh water. A few residents ‘accidentally’ almost stumbled over the tent. If I had been walking back and forth for the last 20 years I would be annoyed too if someone put a tent and a pile of Ortliebs in my way. The next campsite was a caravan park in a little resort town. A small Costa Del Sol on the Danube, lined with ice cream sellers, cafes and restaurants. We were obviously not their target audience but again we were very impressed with the incredible hospitality and fun spirit of the Serbs. A relaxed evening, sunset with the deafening roar of croaking frogs.

At Golubac the Duna landscape changes dramatically. We cruised into a huge gorge of steep cliff faces. The first serious climbs! We had to go through 23 tunnels but luckily most of them were very short. The cycling route took us from quite hight up on the cliff face down into a smaller gorge, which we also had to climb out of again. It was well worth it, with the added excitement of having to cross a small river with our bikes.

Reflections on Serbia’s recent past

Serbia has been our best experience yet, and it’s hard to believe these lovely people were at war with their neighbours not long ago. People we meet are eager to talk about the war and how it’s affected them and their families. The prevailing sense seems to be bafflement. How could this happen? Before it started there was no tension between the different nationalities and religions in former Yugoslavia. Then, all of a sudden, divisions appeared and violence erupted. People talk about mixed families, friend groups and marriages. Now people can no longer talk to eachother because of the horror of what happened between Bosnians, Serbs, Croats. The people here are not very optimistic about the future. There is no work, educated people leave if they can. There is a sense of nostalgia for Tito’s days, when everybody could have a good education, a job and a house.

To Bulgaria

We are about to set off for our last day of cycling between the high cliffs of the Duna Derdap National Park. Then tomorrow we’ll head into Bulgaria, to follow the Duna for another couple of days before we will start climbing.

(sorry, no pics. Internet is also very laid back here. Uploading goes with the speed of a horse drawn cart on a hot afternoon 🙂

Dober dan Serbia!

On 22 May we cruised into Serbia, after a good nights sleep next to the Donau dyke just outside Ujmohacs. Bye bye Hungary, dober dan Serbia!

Our first ‘real’ border crossing: two checkpoints and the first stamp in our passport. A huge sign that welcomes cyclists to the country greets us upon arrival. Nice!

Welcome sign to Serbia
Welcome sign to Serbia

We love Serbia

The change in atmosphere is immediate. People smile and wave, sun is shining, the asphalt is smooth, the dogs are cute. Life is good to cyclists in Serbia. We find a perfect well-kept little campsite where we also have a catfish dinner cooked by the manager.

TLC for the bikes at the campsite
TLC for the bikes at the campsite

The next day the Serbian adventure begins for real. The three weeks on the road mark has been passed, meaning we are now beyond the normal time frame for a cycling holiday. Cyril wonders when we will start to feel like real road warriors instead of relaxed holiday makers. Turns out today is the day.

Into the wild boars

First, we head into the Upper Donau national park. It is very hot, well over 30 degrees, but we are going fast on the dykes with a steady wind in our back. We see some (dead) snakes and not many people but enough to be sure of food and water. The landscape is flat but less rigidly manicured than Hungary. We are loving it and devouring the kilometres, we will make 136km in total today, breaking my personal record for daily distance with a fully loaded bike. We cross a woodland and hear little wild piglets squealing, which is cute but also a bit scary since it means big mama is nearby and possibly upset. A bit later we see a big boar crashing across the bike lane. We didn’t see it coming because the grass on either side of the path is very high. Further along the road is a whole family of piglets and boars; the jump into the primordial swamp next to the dyke with big loud splashes and grunts. We disturbed their lazy afternoon nap in the mud. This is starting to feel like adventure.

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Slivovice lunch

After the wild pig excitement we find a little camp with old caravans sitting on the shore of the Danube. It looks like a little collection of man caves for local guys who like to fish and enjoy a beer in the outdoors. Completely deserted because it is a week day, we decide to have a little break in the shade. Turns out there is one older man on his own at his caravan. Nikola ambles over to us and we have a lovely chat even though he only speaks 4 words of German and 2 words of English and we have only just learned how to say hello and thank you in Serbian. He brings out the slivovice and a nice prune brandy ‘for the lady’ and cooks us our first Serbian Turkish mud coffee. Nikola has been a truck driver for 40 years and all it got him was a triple bypass. This sweet old man completely agrees with our mad idea of quitting our jobs and cycling the world for a year. He misses the good old communist days when there was little stress but fishing brings him peace of mind. A lovely man, we are very glad to have met him. Cycling with a shot of moonshine and strong coffee makes everything a little bit surreal. Since there is no traffic we are free to enjoy the buzz.

Kayak camping

Our goal for today is Bačka Palanka where the guidebook promises us a camp site. We arrive after 136km, tired, hot and hungry, but no camp site to be seen. After asking around for a place to stay the local kayak club welcomes us to put up our tent on their grounds. Staying safe within the fence, the club keeper comes to check on us with his torch light after we’ve enjoyed cevapcici and a beer by the waterside. When we are clean, warm, fed and cozy inside our sleeping bags a thunderstorm breaks and it starts to rain. Today was wonderful and we are starting to feel like real bicycle adventurers.

Backa Palanka kayak club camp
Backa Palanka kayak club camp

 

Hungary, also known as Magyarország

Our first taste of culture shock happened a while back. We crossed into Hungary on Monday 16 May and couldn’t understand or read a word of the language, and had to spend thousands for the grocery shopping. We didn’t realise quite how much we had become used to gentrification until it was no longer all around us.

Sneaking into Slovakia

Before crossing into Hungary we spent one night in Bratislava, a pleasant town which is well equipped for the discerning bicycle traveler. Beer, cheap food, interesting architecture and a generally good vibe.

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava
The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava

Hungary: our first culture shock

Crossing into Hungary therefor felt like getting out of our comfort zone for the first time. It didn’t help that the weather was overcast and that it was a Catholic holiday. This meant that all villages looked like the zombie apocalypse just happened. The North of Hungary was in Soviet times well known for its large scale farm operations and these still exist. Huge flat fields with the same crops, no animals. We covered 135km since there was nothing to do but cycling and camped in a field. We did not know how we would explain ourselves if an angry Hungarian farmer would find us. Still, there is nothing like cycling for a day to make you sleep like a log.

Next stop: Esztergom, a.k.a. ‘The Rome of Hungary’. A huge kitsch basilica towers over the pleasant little town. We enjoyed a stroll around, pizza and ice-cream, and met up with another bicycle tourer on our campsite.

Budapest

Rolling into Budapest brought us back into our comfort zone with all the creature comforts the city brings. For three nights we enjoyed the hospitality of our charming couchsurfing host Valentine, another new friend we hope to see again when we come back to Amsterdam. I cooked a meal for him, his family and another couchsurfer which made me feel right at home.

Budapest was also the first goal we had set for ourselves. Coincidentally we touched 1000km just before we rolled into town and treated ourselves to a day in the baths to celebrate.

Somehow we didn’t feel like another few days of Hungarian countryside. The guide book promised us the single highlight of a paprika museum set in more flat farmland. We decided to hop on the train and skip one of the most boring bits of Danube. A good decision since we are falling a bit behind and we are scared of running into the winter in Tajikistan. We cycled to the excellent Soviet sculpture garden of Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest and from there hopped on a train to Baja.

Camping

We spent our last 2 nights camping in Hungary, one wild camp next to the Danube dyke (the local campsite no longer existed) and enjoyed a great little campsite just before the Serbian border.

Wild camping by the Danube

I’ll add the skinny about kilometres cycled, budget and accommodation tomorrow, when we get to Beograd tonight. Hungary was somehow a little bit underwhelming, so we might have to go back someday and explore the mountains. The land has been disputed and as a result ravaged so many times there is a lot less visible of the incredibly rich and interesting history then I expected. The people were friendly enough with curt greetings in passing. Cruising into Serbia on the other hand was a case of joy at first sight, what a difference a border crossing can make.

It’s 7am now, time to get up, pack up and get going. We stayed up way past our usual bedtime last night, until 9pm. Who told you bicycle traveling was rock ‘n’ roll!?