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.

 

 

 

Hungary and our accidental cycle on the Eurovelo 6

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_109b2We reached Hungary in depressed spirits. It was cold, rain was imminent and we were both lacking energy having spent the better part of our last night in Slovakia awake and unwell. Our first stop was Lidl; when in doubt head to a budget supermarket. Here we reached a new low of actually eating lunch inside the supermarket. I had no idea how I was going to cycle into Budapest, or even close to it that day.

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Hungary!

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A new low? Lunch inside Lidl

After a short deliberation (between mouthfuls of ? vegan treats) we decided we needed to go somewhere else and just warm up a bit and make a plan. It was already late in the day, Astrid looked as broken as I felt. The idea of a few more hours of rain and wind, then crawling into a forest somewhere, into our damp tent did not appeal. She didn’t even really need to say anything, I got out my phone and started googleing hostels.

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So grateful for a warm space

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Cooking pasta in the shower as you do

It’s hard to describe the feeling of having a small, cosy, warm space to yourself when you are feeling low and expected to be facing several more hours of cold cycling. It’s moments like these when I just feel so grateful and lucky. To be able to occasionally pay to for a hotel and escape our common reality of outdoor living, is a privilege.

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Drying the tent outside the hotel..

From the obscure border town of Ballasagyarmat we cycled into Budapest the following day, even the unexpected rain couldn’t dampen our spirits. We passed many small villages and were buoyed by the friendliness of the people; there were shouts and waves and big smiles following us all the the way into the grand Hungarian capital. We were so excited to reach Budapest, it felt like a real milestone as we had heard so much about this beautiful city.

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Hungarian village

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Towards Budapest

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First vegan biscuits since Denmark!!

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side of the road walnuts

We’d struggled to find a host in Budapest, which we only realised later probably had something to do with the city being on the Danube and the Eurovelo 6 (meaning lots of cyclists and lots of requests). Hilariously we’d completely forgotten about the Danube cycle path, and realised with a little embarrassment that we could actually ride all the way to Belgrade on it. Some people spend months planning to ride this rather iconic path. We stumble on it quite by accident. Oh well.

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Yay!!

Eventually we did find a host, Zoltan, who so very kindly responded to our last minute request. Not only was he the loveliest human (who had a passion for craft beer like us), but he also introduced us to the Budapest Bike Mafia; an organisation of cyclists who make sandwiches twice a week and deliver them to the homeless of Budapest (by bicycle) in a radical act of kindness. I’d long been feeling like I was missing a something but hadn’t quite been able to place what it was. I certainly enjoy going to museums and exploring sites but I think I have also been looking for something more meaningful; something that would connect me to a place and it’s people in a deeper way. This can be difficult when traveling by bike, our stays are often fleeting and unless you meet the right people or happen to come across something, it can be hard to find out about projects such as these. Luckily Zoltan was exactly the right person and after spending a day exploring Budapest, we spent the evening making sandwiches, chatting to the super lovely volunteers and seeing a very different part of the city. Definitely the most heartfelt thing I’ve been part of on this adventure so far.

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Exploring Budapest

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Fisherman’s Bastion

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Pedalling around in the sun

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The palace

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The amazing Parliament

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Streets

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A treat

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Towers on our heads..

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Local craft beer

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Yes!

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Chatting and making sandwiches

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More sandwich fun

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Ready to go

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Delivering the goods

Although Zoltan couldn’t host us for the entire time we were in Budapest, everything began to fall into place; Wouter and Margot, a Belgium couple messaged me and said we could stay. Not only that but they literally lived around the corner from Zoltan. Our time in Budapest continued to be magical, the sun shone, we explored the gorgeous city and in the evening hung out with Margot and Wouter, drinking too much wine and generally having a brilliant time.

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Bike path happiness

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Happiness is giant blue fairy floss..

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A Ruin Bar

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Lying in the park on the island

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Lazy sunny days..

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Beer by the Danube

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Margot and Wouter

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_109a2By the time it came to leave, I was sick. An unpleasant stomach bug would haunt me all the way to Belgrade. To this day I have no idea where it came from. I usually have a stomach of steel and am the only person I know of who didn’t get sick in central Asia.

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In the countryside once more

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lunchtime

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The beautiful golden afternoon

We set off amongst the throng of the Budapest Marathon and it took us a very long time to get out of the city. Try pushing a fully loaded touring bike through peak hour at a busy London train station.  It was pretty much as unpleasant as it sounds. Although the atmosphere was great, and not at all like London commuter rage.

Finally free of the city, it was time to follow the Eurovelo 6. Not always easy or well sign posted, it is mostly a beautiful cycle. Sometimes we were right on the banks of the river, other times high up on the flood barrier, or on a detour through a town or village. Aside from the moments I had to run into the bushes with my stomach issues, I really enjoyed the Hungarian part of the Danube. The seemingly endless summer continued; it was hot. Only the evenings and morning were cool, a hint that this wasn’t to last, that it really was autumn. That and the beautiful colour of the leaves and the hazy golden light of the afternoon sun. Our cycle between Budapest and Belgrade we had calculated would take us about 8 days (it ended up taking 9), however due to my stomach we weren’t exactly moving fast. We also needed to decide which way after Hungary; wether we would take the possibly more developed Croatian side of the river, or the potentially slower Serbian side. These kind of decisions are best made over coffee so we sat in a cafe and weighed up our options. In the end adventure won out; neither of us had ever been to Serbia and it sounded more exciting. Decision made, now we just needed to get there.

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Such lovely pedalling

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It’s hot! Time to get out of the ninja outfit..

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This lovely man let us camp on his land

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These pumps are everywhere and are great! Took us a while to get the hang of them

At night we began finding some of the best camps of the trip so far, picking out spots where the path lay close to the river. We’d push our bikes down an embankment and invariably find a place to camp right by the water. Then we’d watch the sun set over the Danube, the sky turn a mass of pinks and reds. Sometimes we’d swim, or meditate. Later we’d look up at the stars in the clear autumn sky.  I can’t help feeling that this is what life is about. For me anyway. It feels like exactly where I want to be.

Unfortunately Hungary like several Eastern European countries is trending towards fascism. The media is becoming more and more controlled and fear and racism towards refugees is prevalent, especially outside of Budapest. No one we spoke to echoed the government’s sentiment, but as we approached the border we were greeted by scores of police. Literally every few hundred metres, on a basically deserted country road were groups of police. At one point we ducked into the forest to make camp but all night could here them patrolling and see their flash lights. It was eerie and a little frightening. I can only imagine they are there to send refugees back to Serbia, to keep them out of fortress (EU) Europe.

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Our last night in Hungary

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The road towards Serbia

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_109c8Our last day in Hungary dawned warm and sunny, we emerged from our forest camp, ignored the scores of police and pedalled towards the border. It was time to say goodbye to the EU and head into the Balkans. Thanks Hungary, you have been rather splendid.