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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.