A ride through Greece, and we briefly call Athens Home.

Both Astrid and I were pleased to be back in Greece, as it was one of our favourite countries on our way to London. It certainly didn’t disappoint this time round either.

While the last time we had pedalled through Greece it had been the beginning of spring, we were now in the final throws of autumn. The landscape was a faded brown, the last of the leaves clinging to the trees, the sky a washed out grey. Our riding days were cold, but at night we were able to build fires to keep warm. In Greece there is space to be free. This my spirit could really feel, and we embraced our nights by the fire surrounded by nature, our last wild days of Europe.

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Winter is nearly upon us. Always good place to camp in Greece though.

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The slightly barren landscape

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so much space to wild camp

As we headed south towards Athens, the weather changed. The cold – but until now dry autumnal days became wet, and the riding became tough. It rained and rained, descents were painful – water in eye, half blinded, hands gripping in sodden gloves. Cafes and Tavernas were our haven, and on one day we decided to drink tsipero to make the bleak, cold riding more fun. It certainly worked, and we got more than we bargained for when the locals kept insisting on buying us tsipero. Greek hospitality! We certainly left that taverna in better spirits than we entered it!

The rain was so constant and we were so soaked that we began staying at hotels. They were such a haven and to have somewhere to thaw out at the end of the day and to dry clothes was such a treat. It made the rain soaked days bearable.

Our final day into Athens, the rain had finally ceased. We’d had our last wild camp of Europe the night before and were ready for the Greek capital and Astrid’s birthday celebrations. First we had 130km to pedal and our day was rather eventful. Firstly, the secondary road stopped and rather than take an epic detour we had opted to try our luck on the motorway. This was totally illegal of course and we were soon being shouted at by a highway police kind of person, he was especially irate at me as he had seen me cruise passed an exit and ignore his frantic gesticulations from the other side of the motorway. Oops. In the end, we achieved what we had set out to do, as he made as get off at the exit we were going to take anyway. After that we basically ran out of food. There were no shops anywhere, the many cafes indicated on the map were closed. Luckily we were finally saved by a guy in a fast food van who happened to be the Greek voice over guy for Donald duck. I mean of course we would meet someone like this! Not only did he refuse payment, but he also made us a sandwich to eat later. The Greek people are so kind. The last part of our day we pedalled through the suburbs of Athens in the dark, having sneaky sips of tsipero for fun. Rolling up to have a beer just beneath the Acropolis felt epic; we’d made it.

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Hot springs!

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There are a lot of smooth roads in Greece

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This is more like it

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So nice to see the sun

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The voice of Greek Donald Duck. Awesome guy.

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Feeling shattered on our ride into Athens. Taking a 5 minute nap

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On the outskirts of Athens, time to drink Tsipouro!

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Made it!! Beer time

Some of our friends were already in the city and we joined them for much needed food and probably not so much needed more alcohol. We were both exhausted but very happy.

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Dinner after making it to Athens

The following day more of our friends began to arrive and we moved to an epic three storey apartment we had rented to celebrate Astrid’s 40th. Now we were able to settle into some serious celebration. I was also finally able to give Astrid her giant vegan cheese wheel, which had taken quite a combined effort to make it to Athens.  Before we’d become vegan, Astrid had always said she wanted a giant cheese wheel for her 40th. Initially, I thought that it wouldn’t be possible, but with some research I was able to find a vegan cheese maker in East London (of course!). She took on the job with much enthusiasm (she’d never before made a giant cheese). From there Abi took over as cheese delivery coordinator; an east london motorcycle paramedic was commissioned to pick up the cheese and it was then stored in a fridge at an ambulance station before finally being brought to Athens by Abi. I could not have done this without help! And the look on Astrid’s face made the whole thing so very worth it.

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Handing over of the cheese..

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Happiness is a giant vegan cheese

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More cheese glee

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It was so delicious

Our days were filled with a lot of fun; we had a roof top barbecue, champagne breakfast, went on a walking tour of the city, explored the Acropolis, ate delicious Greek food, drank too many beverages of an alcoholic nature, danced, talked, had a house party, made friends with the owners of a local bar, and generally behaved like silly adults. It was so wonderful to see our friends again, for while this life of travel is wonderful, I do find myself missing conversations and shared moments with the other people that make up my world. There was so much hugging and love and joy. We are truly very lucky to have these amazing people in our lives. A deep and heartfelt thank you to all of you who were able to make it to Athens for Astrid’s birthday.

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Breakfast before we moved to our epic place

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Our lovely apartment

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Hadlee and Abi on the roof

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Afternoon drinks, day one.

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Birthday breakfast

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Astrid, Ally and Jo looking out over Athens

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The Acropolis

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View over Athens

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Abi showing off her house

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Most of the team

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More stunning architecture 

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So happy to see this one

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Being a zombie?!

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Abi, Bec and Javier are excited about ice cream!

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Daniel and Erica

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Phoebe, Pat and Christina 

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Javi and Abi 

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Wine in a blanket

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Dancing and hugging at Pspsina 

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Hadlee and I

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Freaking out about giant bread

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Ally and Astrid

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Astrid looking super cute

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Hangover face

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Everyone leaving was of course quite difficult. Astrid and I both felt sad, even though we were excited too, as the next leg of our journey was soon to begin. First though, we had a mountain of life admin to do. Our bikes needed work, this blog required updating (moderately successful), we needed to research our route, visas, vaccinations to name a few. What we needed was a base. This is where hanging out at the same bar a few nights in a row comes in handy! We’d befriended the wonderful owners of Pspsina and they had offered to rent us a room opposite the bar. Perfect.

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Pspsina at night

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‘Our’ street

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Mornings of writing and reading

Our days in Athens began with coffee and breakfast at the bar, reading and writing, before beginning on all our chores. For lunch we almost always went to the falafel place around the corner, and in the evenings we always dropped by the bar for a chat and at least one drink. We were probably less productive than we could have been, but it was delightful to have a base. I even managed to go running a few times, and it was an incredible feeling just being able to marvel at the Acropolis as I passed by. We explored Athens a little, spent time talking to George and Evi and everyone at the bar, watched films and generally settled into life in Athens. It’s a city I will always remember with much love and warmth; the street art, the bar, the slight edginess, mildly crazy traffic, casual ruins of the ancient world, being offered drugs by the same guy for two weeks and gradually getting to know the neighbourhood we were calling home. Mostly though it was our wonderful ‘Greek family’ at the bar that made time in Athens so memorable though. Evi and George, John, Bobby, the other John and Carlie.

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Astrid looking cute and feeling a bit ill

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It felt good to rest and we were less productive than we perhaps could have been

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Soup and wine!

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Felafel house, we ate here every day

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Relaxing in our room with Asian soup

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Back to cooking cheap dinners in the bathroom…(:

For a treat, and to celebrate 9 years together, Astrid and I took a ferry to the nearby island of Agistri. Turns out, Greek islands in November are almost deserted. We did manage to find a hotel that was open and one taverna nearby where we ate every night. In a way, even though it would have been more vibrant in the summer, with more choices, we kind of loved it. Our days began slowly, with breakfast overlooking the sea, and we then went running and hiking over the island. On one day we found a deserted beach, built a fire, cooked lunch, drank whisky and went for a skinny dip in the still warm Mediterranean. Pretty idyllic, and certainly not possible in the high season when this beach would not doubt be packed.

Our island adventure over and our bikes almost ready, the time to move on was almost upon us. We’d wanted to try and find a yacht to take us across the Mediterranean, to avoid flying. This in theory is possible, and we know of many people who travel like this, by boat and bike. However, we now have a dead line as to when we want to be back in Melbourne, and finding a boat can be time consuming (it was also not the most popular time to be sailing across the med it seemed). With more than 12,000km in Africa to pedal, and then another few thousand across Australia, we were conscious that we need to keep moving, unless we want to rush the cycling, which we didn’t. So we compromised and booked a flight to Cairo for the 18th of December.

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Final night at Pspsina

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we need to get these bikes and our boxes on the metro…

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Getting to the platform proved epic

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Waiting for the train

So, this is how our first leg of the journey draws to a close. Our last evening, we did of course have a little party at Pspsina, saying a heartfelt goodbye to everyone there. It has truly been a wonderful experience living in Athens and getting to know all these wonderful people. Thank you!

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And we are off to Africa!!

Controversy in a name: FYROM, to the Republic of Macedonia and now North Macedonia…

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Happy to have arrived!

The naming of the country north of Greece has a long history of controversy, which dates back to World War II, although it wasn’t until the break up of Yugoslavia that it really became an issue. Greece claims the only Macedonia is that of its northern region, and that (North) Macedonia is attempting to appropriate Greek Culture and symbols (Alexander the Great for one). The most hard line Greek nationalists feel that if (North) Macedonia is allowed to keep its name, it will eventually lead to armed conflict and taking of their land. The majority of people living in North Macedonia are an ethnic south Slavic people, speaking a slavic language. However, North Macedonians see themselves as direct descendants of Alexander the Great, also claimed by Greece…

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Love this flag, it is so very bright!

You can see where this gets complicated. In fact, Skopje has a whole plethora of neo classical statues (built in 2014), which aims to reclaim its history back from the Greeks. It’s complicated, and we certainly felt the hostility later on our journey when we accidentally referred to Macedonia (then its actual name) as Macedonia, not FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). In Greece, that’s what you call it, otherwise you get a death stare.

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Lake Ohrid

By the time we were pedalling through this country with a controversial name, a referendum had been held to change the name, thus making way for the country’s entry into the EU and NATO, which until then had been blocked by Greece. And as of early 2019 The Republic of Macedonia official became North Macedonia. Apologies if any of my facts are wrong, this is a complicated issue and I’ve done my best to try and break it down a bit.

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So happy to be here

We reached (North) Macedonia after climbing for an hour on the Albanian side. After being stamped in, we free wheeled down towards Lake Ohrid. At one point I hit a pot hole so fast, my rear pannier came off. First time on this trip. After a lovely descent we were soon riding along the shores of the incredibly beautiful lake. There had been no rest days since Mostar, three countries ago, so we were looking forward immensely to some time off the bike. As it was my birthday the following day, we’d treated ourselves to our own flat, overlooking the lake. Now we just had to get there.

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Pedalling into Ohrid

It had been a long, gruelling morning of climbing through Albania, but now we were so close. The sunset over the lake and mountains was spectacular; a hint of what was to come. I had been keen on Lake Ohrid ever since I’d heard about how beautiful the town and lake were supposed to be, back in 2015 when we were first cycling through the region. It did not disappoint.

 

As we pedalled into the town of Lake Ohrid, the call to prayer was being sung, and I could see many churches. While I am not religious, I deeply appreciate these places – were religions exist side by side. It shows us the better side of humanity. Ohrid once had a church for each day of the year. That seems a little over the top!

 

To reach our flat, we needed to negotiate the narrow and steep medieval town of Ohrid. That meant full on standing up in first gear, pumping the pedals, after having already been on the road for 10 hours. Mildly exhausting! Our phone GPS was freaking out, and a few times we came up against narrow and steep stairs and had to turn back. Finally, after bumping our bikes down some steps we made it. Our hosts let us in and then it was just us and our own little space for a few days. Bliss.

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Tea in the sun happiness

After a shower and overloading the washing machine with our filthy clothes, we headed out in what clothes we had left. Ohrid is simply a magical little town, full of steep winding steps, paths, churches, cobbles stones and beautiful views of the lake.

 

I woke on the morning of my 35th birthday with a view of the lake from my bed. Amazing. I had a wonderful day of phone conversations with friends and family, messages, amazing food made by Astrid and relaxing in the sun. An explore of the town, sunset wines, more amazing food and a sneaky whiskey on our balcony to finish off the day. Perfect.

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Birthday breakfast

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I don’t think I would ever get sick of this view!

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Exploring

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Waiting for the sunset

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Sunset drinks

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So crazy beautiful

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We spent the next few days relaxing and exploring Ohrid. Our almost 6 months on the road was beginning to be felt; we were tired and extended our stay by one night. Finally though, we needed to leave. Greece was calling and Astrid’s 40th was now only 10 days away.

 

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Leaving Ohrid, next stop Athens!

A little reluctantly we packed up and bumped our bikes out of the old town and headed towards the Greek border. We followed the road out of town and then up a valley, beside a river. It was a beautiful late autumn day and felt good to be pedalling again. There was a gorgeous, empty secondary road we found in the afternoon, climbing amongst the pines. Our camp for the night was absolutely perfect, on soft grass, surrounded by trees and plenty of firewood for a warming us (it was cold!).

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Break time!

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Empty roads are the best

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Looking for a camp spot

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Found a perfect one!

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It’s definitely getting cold out here

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Bikes covered in frost

The following morning we pedalled into the town of Bitola, consumed a huge amount of Burek, poked around an archaeological site and then left for the Greek border.

North Macedonia, it’s been a pleasure. We will be back one day.

 

Serbia – the land of blood and honey

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Countries have a feeling, a vibe, an essence that you can get a sense of by slowly cycling through areas not usually explored by tourists, or even locals.  You acutely feel the changes from country to city, poverty to wealth.  Poke your wheels into forgotten corners and it is a world away from what most people know.  General poverty, mostly rural, in Central Europe has been increasing the further south we cycle, yet a sense of increasing freedom from regulations and self sufficiency is palpable.  Serbia was also the first country that I felt a mounting unrest, an underlying mix of passion and aggression.  We were told many times by locals that this is because the word ‘Balkans’ means honey and blood, making for a passionately aggressive or aggressively passionate personality to the people.  History seems to show this, as does the ever present hyper-nationalism in Serbia.  All of this was to make for an interesting time, and our cycling in Serbia can be broken into two distinct parts – the first was our continuation of the Eurovelo 6 along the Danube from the Hungarian border to Belgrade, and after a fews days of R&R in Belgrade, our journey from Belgrade to the border of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

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Happy to have arrived.

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The amazing signage for the Eurovelo 6 after crossing the border.

Much to our surprise and pleasure, some well spent funding has dramatically improved the signing of the Eurovelo 6 in Serbia.  We had been warned by friends and the internet that this ‘wilder’ side of the Danube could be tricky, but numerous large signs at the border provided directions, distances and explanations of the differing road signs we would see along the way.  Red stripe for main route, green stripe for an alternative route on paved roads and purple stripe for interesting local rides.  And besides some minor map checking and the one sign missing in Karavukovo, all signs were actually present.  It took us a leisurely 5 days to cycle the 300 odd kilometres to Belgrade.  Following the main route for the whole way, it took us along and away from the Danube numerous times, as the border between Serbia and Croatia doesn’t actually follow the confluence of the river.  On our first day we actually visited all 3 countries – Hungary, Serbia and Croatia – still a little mind blowing for a person who can ride for 4 months at home and still be in the same country.

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Following the signage.

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Double checking which way we should go.

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There are so many cycling routes to choose from in Serbia.

The first thing that struck me in Serbia was the poverty in many of the rural villages.  Half of the buildings were in ruins, another quarter were dilapidated and very few seemed occupied.  It broke my heart as many of these buildings were grand relics of the time when this northern section of Serbia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  I was glad for the friendly farming families who would wave to us from their orchards during the day and their overladen tractors of an evening, as it showed that people did actually live and survive off the predominantly barren land we would cycle through.  It has been a particularly long and dry summer in Europe, and the endless dust and maize stubs made my soul cry.  I wish that the permaculture principles of earth care, people care and fair share, would somehow infiltrate into Serbian society so that the land, people and economy could thrive rather than just survive.

Fortunately a few villages and many towns continue to thrive.  The outskirts still felt like we had entered a zombie apocalypse, but once in the centre these places were a hive of activity.  People riding bikes everywhere, restaurants overflowing with diners, students milling about as only students do, children playing on the streets, older people sitting on park benches chatting together, shoppers meandering along the pedestrian malls and everyone thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Joining the vibe of merriment, we cycled around stopping to enjoy a pekarna (bakery) treat or a cold drink while chatting to whoever was about in the continuing Indian summer heat.

The route itself was a mix of fabulous and sketchy bike paths along raised flood banks and some minor roads.  At other times we rode on minor roads almost devoid of traffic.  Some paths ended as abruptly as they began.  Others were newly paved but disintegrated to sand pits.  Luckily all were cycle-able and well used by people, and with continued funding this section of the Eurovelo 6 will flourish into the dream of a well connected cycle path across Europe.  In this part of Serbia bicycles are given equal respect as their motorised counterparts, which shows how exposure fosters a sense of acceptance and increases everyone’s safety.

In the mornings we would wake before dawn, meditate and if there were no fishermen about, we would take a morning dip before getting ready for the day.  Some mornings the sunrise was so stunning, we would have a second cup of tea just to enjoy the beauty.  We cycled during the daylight hours and as nights fell we would veer off the trail when it was close to the Danube and pitch our tent on her dry baked banks.  Once camp was established we would take a dip as the sun set and then dry ourselves by the fire while dinner was cooking on the coals.  I knew that Jude was feeling a little better from her stomach bug when she started making fires again 🙂  The days passed too quickly and our fairytale Danube ride was soon over.

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One of our stunning Danube camps.

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It’s a two cup of tea kind of morning.

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After a celebratory tasting plate of excellent microbrewery IPA’s at the The Black Turtle Brewery in Zenum, we wound our way through joggers, lovers and families enjoying their evening along the Danube promenade. Belgrade sparkled in the night, and after settling into our cosy little apartment, we stepped out ready to explore.  We didn’t get far, as the best vegan restaurant/bar in Belgrade was just around the corner.  If you are ever in Belgrade, do yourself a favour taste the vegan version of Serbian staples and spend an evening in the eccentric surrounds of Mayka.

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Celebratory IPAs at the Black Turtle Brewery

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Wine and divine vegan food at the eclectic Mayka.

During the following days cycling life was exchanged for the tourist life as we consumed many of the tasty treats that the city had to offer.  We wandered through the many districts of Belgrade marvelling at the mix of architectural styles that have been mashed together here.  Highlights were mixing with the throngs of people along the bustling Knez Mihailova, checking out the Belgrade PRIDE information space, gazing at the imposing Church of St Sava, enjoying nightly sunset beers at the Kalemegdan park and fortress, listening to traditional balkan music along the cobblestone streets of Skadarlija, paying our respects to Tito at the House of Flowers and gaining some greater historical and cultural insights at the Museum of Yugoslavia.

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As we had skipped Bosnia Herzegovina on our previous tour, we pointed our wheels southeast and headed out along the Sava River.  It was peaceful ride out of town, so when a driver with a homicidal hatred of cyclists purposefully tried to hit me with his car twice in the town of Baric, I was shaken.  Rarely have we experienced such random acts of violence and in Serbia this was the second time.  Peace soon returned after we turned off the main road and followed the smaller roads through the countryside.  Old farmhouses were nestled in farmyards, potted flowers coloured the gardens of village homes and people waved from tables set outside to make the most of the lingering summer weather.

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For those interested in our route, from Obrenovac we headed through Grabovac, Banjani, Novaci and Koceljeva, followed the Tamnava River to Osecina, warmed up our legs for the mountains of Bosnia I Herzegovina with some climbing into and out of Pecka and spent the last of our Serbian dinar in Ljubovija.  With our meandering ways, this route took us two full days of cycling and we again thoroughly enjoyed being in a part of Serbia not often visited by tourists.  On our last night of camping, perched on the edge of a mountain, the Indian summer ended.  The haze of smog that had been with us for weeks was washed away by an overnight rainstorm.  Clouds hugged the hilltops and mist hung heavy in the valleys.  We pulled out our cold weather gear that had been squirrelled away in the bottom of our panniers and forlornly packed our shorts and t-shirts away knowing that they would not be seen again until Africa.  Crossing the Drina River we waved goodbye to Serbia, but not to Serbians, as we were soon to discover in the nationalistically divided Bosnia I Herzegovina.

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Pedalling towards the Ljubovija border crossing.