A Wild Ride Through Serbia (Part 1)

As I have said before, the further we have traveled into Eastern Europe the more foreign the experience has become. This was definitely the case for Serbia. We were no longer your typical cycle tourers there, but instead interesting foreigners important enough to hear more from. We regularly got waves hello and goodbye and if we stopped for a water break members of the public would come up to us and ask about our journey. In fact, we were actually waved down along a bridge crossing one morning because an older man and his friend wanted us to join them for a beer while they were fishing at 10.00am. I have to admit we did politely decline this offer.

Serbia has been full of surprises and not at all like I originally expected it to be. From our first day passing through Backa Planka, which was a vibrant little border town, with the best Greek salad I have had since the trip began, to our hair raising entrance into Novi Sad. As I stated in a previous post the Eurovelo 6 pretty much disappears as a cycle route after Hungary and it becomes a series of suggested roads to take through the country. We would later realise that it is no longer worth taking those suggestions in Serbia and avoiding the dyke to go on main roads is really your only option if you want to get anywhere.

The roads were a problem from the very start in Serbia. Unfortunately even the main roads are in pretty poor condition and you spend a lot of time avoiding broken tarmac and pot holes. Also the drivers have been the worst that we have experienced in all the countries that we have visited thus far. There seemed to be no acknowledgement of cyclists in Serbia and cars will overtake you even with another car coming in the other direction on narrow potholed roads and without slowing down in the slightest.

My partner approaches our journey in a very different way than I do, he has a lot of anxiety about the route and the journey and I have more of ‘I’m sure it will be fine’ we will deal with it as it comes mentality. It turned out that his approach was a lot more useful on our journey through Serbia, however it did also mean that we spent a lot more time in the country than we had initially planned for.

It started with our journey to Novi Sad, when we were forced to ride the main road into the city and for the first time, not the last time, we were actually forced off the road by a passing truck. The general torment of the ride encouraged us to stay an extra couple of days in Novi Sad so that we could relax and enter Belgrade, another rumoured horrible road ride, on a Sunday morning. The idea being that traffic would be a lot easier to manage.

Novi Sad is a small fortressed city that played an important part in the Yugoslavian war. My partner had read a lot about the city and also knew of its status as a tourist destination because of its large summer music festival. Like Budapest, Novi Sad had a series of outside bars and ruin bars that were hidden away in the alleys between the main streets. We entertained ourselves by watching the Serbia World Cup game in one of these bars with the locals on our first evening. Following the match, in another bar, we were approached by a young man who asked us if we were cycle tourers. Obviously surprised that we were so easily given away by our dress, we answered ‘YES!’ He then proceeded to ask us if we needed a place to stay for the night and explained that he worked for a cycle company in the city that took part in Warmshowers and put people up in their offices. Delighted and amazed that we were meeting this network of people all over the world we stayed and enjoyed the evening with him discussing Serbian culture and, of course, football. Our time in Novi Sad eased us into Serbian life and we immediately realised that we really enjoyed the friendly, zest for life we were finding in the people from this country.

On Sunday we left extra early to make our journey towards Belgrade, cautious of the 10%, 10km climb on a main road that we would need to get over. Whether it was that it was a weekend or that we would soon find there was no longer any road at the top of the climb, we weren’t sure, but the traffic wound up not being our problem that day. Once again this proved that you can never fully be prepared for what is going to happen to you on the day on a bike tour. 1km to the crest of this hill that we had climbed relatively easily until then, we saw there was no longer a road but instead what looked like an avalanche of broken tarmac. Not wanting to take whatever diversion Serbia had in store for us we decided we were better off dragging the bikes through the grass on the side of the road. In hindsight this may have not been the best thing to do since we would up carrying the bikes in the end.

We finally did make it to Belgrade, in one piece, and actually enjoyed the end of the ride which takes you through a long park beside the river in what is known as New Belgrade. We were excited to have some time off to experience the city since it was our last big one before Istanbul. We spent our first day meandering up and down the cobblestone streets Skadarilija and visiting the fortress that overlooks the city.

I originally thought that Belgrade would be a dirty, less modern city, mainly because of how cheap it is there. We rented a large two bedroom apartment in a great location for only 27 euros a night. But it is a really modern, cosmopolitan city, with fancy bars and restaurants all around and large shopping areas. I actually found it to be more modern than Budapest and much cheaper to enjoy. My only negative note for future tourists is I was very excited to visit the large orthodox church in the city, the church of Saint Saga, but that really was a let down as inside all of the interior was covered in scaffolding.

We left Belgrade with heavy hearts wishing we had given ourselves more time to enjoy the city but by this point we were starting to have Istanbul in our sites and were looking anxiously forward to the end of this part of our journey.

Celebrating Modric in Croatia

IMG-20180622-WA0000We learned a lot of lessons on our journey into Croatia one being that after spending that much time solely together it is easier to forgive and understand your part in the conflict or in this case, taking rogue directions.

Riding towards Croatia started with one of the best rides we have had on this journey. We knew we had a relatively heavy day, about 75km, but the roads were so glorious on the first 40km we couldn’t imagine that it could be anything but a record speed, fantastic day in the saddle. To cross into Croatia we needed to ride on the Hungarian dyke path until we reached Mohacs where we could cross the river on a ferry and decend the rest of the way through Hungary on the other side of the Danube into Croatia. It should be noted that this is the recommended Eurovelo route, but for those who would rather skip out Croatia, you can continue on the path into Serbia towards Belgrade.

We arrived at Mohacs just as the ferry was arriving thinking we had fantastic luck on this day. Unfortunately however the ferry operator informed us that we had needed to buy tickets from a cafe around the corner before we were able to board. We had taken lots of ferries prior to this point and all of them had allowed you to buy the tickets on board. We pleaded with the man to wait 5 minutes and allow us to run over and buy the tickets, but he refused. I took this as a sign that we should continue on the dyke path (off our planned route) into Serbia with the hope that we could then cross at Batina. Possibly even saving ourselves 20 km!

This plan started off swimmingly well. We flew along for another 10 – 15km until we saw what looked like a border post. Unfortunately this turned out to be a military post with Hungarian soldiers informing us we couldn’t continue the 10km on the comfortable dyke path through Serbia to a crossing into Croatia, but instead we needed to travel an extra 40km out of our way back into Hungary around to Serbia and find our own way back to the Croatian border.

At this point, as is typical on a bike tour the weather changed, it started raining pretty heavily and as soon as we left the lovely paved path we found ourselves on terrible potholed roads which eerily had Hungarian military posts (with machine guns) about every 100 meters. At this point my partner’s anxiety really started to rise. Unlike me, he tries to plan this bike tour completely before every ride and during a momentary feeling of wanderlust he allowed me to make the call that we should go off the route.

We found the one and only cafe and realised that if we wanted to get to Croatia that evening we would need to take two major roads through Serbia. Not yet having entered Serbia and through my partner’s extensive reading of other peoples blogs who had completed the tour, we were worried that the roads might be too large to go on with bikes and that the Serbian drivers would not be very accommodating.

Luckily it was a lot of worry for nothing. We did have to ride an extra 25km over the entire expected days ride but the roads in Serbia were ok and we finally arrived at our hostel in Croatia!

Unfortunately as soon as we arrived we were informed by the woman who was overseeing the place that we would need to pay in cash and the closest ATM was 30km away. Not being able to face adding another 60km to our day, I begged the woman (who spoke no English) to help us. Before I knew it she had contacted her son who sped me to a cash point. After a tiring day it was great to finally speak to someone in our newest visited country, Croatia. Unfortunately he, like me, had a small town itch and wasn’t too complimentary about his little area of Croatia, but he did inform me that Belgrade was amazing and his words to describe it precisely were, “Belgrade is the centre of our universe” so that definitely wet my appetite for our next big city.

After all of that, we settled, exhaustedly, in to our 8th country and looked forward to a couple days off in the largest town we would visit in Croatia, Osijek.

I don’t have a lot to say about our time in Croatia, other than my extended explanation of our journey in, because we only had about two days ride in the country and we stayed close to the border on the far eastern side. I don’t think it would be fair to define a country based on this experience especially since the majority of towns and people in Croatia inhabit the far western coast of the country.

Some observations we did have, was that the roads were better maintained in Croatia than in Hungary, or the little of Serbia we had already experienced. We guessed this may have been due to their success in tourism. It is cheap where we were in Croatia, actually similar prices to Hungary (although the grocery shopping was a bit more expensive). The evidence of the, not so long ago, Yugoslavian war was very noticeable. For example, in the major towns we visited, Osijek and Vukovar, there were still many buildings covered in gun shot wounds and monuments and memorials for the war can be seen everywhere. The drivers started getting bad again as soon as we entered Croatia, and by bad I mean it is the first country that we visited on our travels which I would liken to English drivers. They don’t give you enough space and they often pass you even if another driver is passing on the opposite side of the road. It should be noted that Eurovelo 6 pretty much ceases to exist from Croatia on and there are no longer recommended bike routes, it is really just a series of recommended roads to ride, so you are all of the sudden very much amongst all of the other traffic.

Finally, and maybe most surprisingly to us was the patriotism that we encountered in Croatia which I can only liken to the immense patriotism you see in the USA. We did plan our journey into Croatia to coincide with watching their final world cup match against Switzerland and their current dominance in the tournament may have had something to do with the patriotism. But it was really interesting to see flags everywhere; on cars, buildings and parks. The support for the football team was so expansive, children and adults were walking around in the football shirts all days of the week, not only when their team was playing. They covered their cars’ hoods in football flags, and probably our favourite of these idosyncrosies were the amount of football songs that were written for the tournament and played regularly on tv. We heard at least five football songs when we were there. All of which we loved, I should add!

All in all I would say my experience in Croatia made me regretful. I wish I had seen more and my partner and I vowed we will definitely go back to the coastal side of the country. Unfortunately I really felt we only got to scratch the surface of experiencing a very interesting country.