Serbia 2nd June – 7th June

Serbia instantly excited us. As we turned the corner after crossing the bridge in to a new country for us both, the street in front of us was lined with street food vendors, people shouting across the street at eachother, people selling goods of the floor, it was lively, and we liked it! We went in to a bakery and did the usual tourist in a new country thing and pointed at food and spoke English like we were talking to a five year old. So embarrassing. We were treated to cheap and delicious heavy pastries filled with spinach and cheese. It seemed we had entered a country where it was now cheaper to buy cooked food than it was to cook food ourselves… finally! A chubby boy outside the bakery asked us for some of our food. When we gave him some he kindly took it in his left hand and he smiled a cheeky smile as he then went and picked up his giant sandwich he had on his step with his right hand. He definitely knew where to position himself.

We stopped for a beer up the road. I calculated it was 90p for a litre. Is it sad that cheap beer excites me so much? Could have stayed all afternoon but had to remind ourselves that we are on a challenge, an expedition, and not a holiday. This happens a lot. We cycled along the Danube through a place called Novi Sad. We hardly explored it yet both had an instant soft spot for it. It has a huge fort up high on one side of the river, overlooking a bustling area of riverside cafes, sports courts, runners, and two tourists on bikes dinging their bells. We could have stayed longer but decided to press on and head to the countryside to find a place to sleep. Hannah had read of a campsite with a lovely host that offered free raki (the local spirit) made from the fruits grown in the garden. The host was indeed lovely. But my she could talk. We were shattered from a long days cycle and just wanted to crash (and drink free raki), yet she spoke for hours about people we didn’t know and more interestingly about the current situation in Serbia. She was keen to tell us how innocent Serbia was in the past, how hard done by they had been and how much she liked Albanians despite sharing her long list of reasons why she didn’t like Albanians. After the three hour speech Hannah was battling to stop her head falling behind her chair and I was swallowing yawns. The reward for not informing her of our tiredness and need for sleep was free raki. We felt like we passed the test.

We woke up early the next day so we could get to Belgrade as soon as possible and enjoy most of the day there. We attempted to sneak out to avoid another four hour conversation with Mother Serbia. Mission impossible style walking failed as we were nabbed at the gate. Thirty minutes later and armed with her full medical history and neighbours cats names, we made our way to Belgrade. We were super excited to visit Belgrade as we’d read and heard great things so we booked an Airbnb for the night. Riding in to the city gave us an instant insight in to the young, fun, creative city we had been informed of. The river was lined with hundreds of bars, elaborately designed and themed boats and structures acting as cafes, bars and nightclubs. As we rode on to find our apartment for the night, we kept looking at eachother and smiling as the city’s energy gave us a buzz. We instantly fell for Belgrade. I spotted a bike shop and needed to replace my lost bike helmet. When I came out with a huge luminous yellow helmet Hannah laughed and told me I looked like a five year old. Beggers can’t be choosers. And who doesn’t wanna be a five year old!

Arriving at our apartment we realised we had not considered what floor it was on as we squeezed our bikes in to a tiny old-fashioned lift one at a time for eleven floors. It was not fun and our host was not particularly amused that we had taken half an hour to get everything upstairs and hogged the lift, pissing off his neighbours in the process. Our bikes are our babies on this trip. Needs must. Sorry. We spent a wonderful day walking the city, eating, drinking and getting lost. It’s high, possibly highest on our list of places to return to.

We left Belgrade later than intended due to the reverse process of the bike/lift scenario. We had planned a long day cycling as we wanted to make up some distance, but plans when touring never seem to happen and we were soon stuck on a sludgy mud path that then turned in to thick high grass. Hannah had her first fall, nothing major, more of a slow motion topple. Hannah thought it was my fault for braking too hard in front of her. I thought it was her fault for riding too close behind me. The “debate” continued for some time as the path continued to disappear and the mosquitoes multiplied around us. We decided enough was enough and took a big detour just to get on tarmac again. We picked up some breakfast in a supermarket. As I struggled with the new alphabet on the packaging in the shop, Hannah was becoming increasingly nervous as the number of Albanian gypsies surrounding her and the bikes was increasing. I was keeping an eye out through the window whilst deciding whether what I had in my hand was yoghurt or sour cream, or washing up liquid for all I could gather. Cereal and washing up liquid in hand we quickly escaped the touchy feely gypsies and were soon being chased by a pack of dogs. These were the vicious, glazed-eyed, snarling kind that really make you wish you had a big stick on the bike to scare them off. We’d heard of different techniques to deal with dogs on the bikes including throwing stones, screaming and shouting at them and stopping to befriend them. We opted for the screaming and shouting option which quickly turned in to barking in my case. I figured I was bigger than them and if I could bark louder, I would have them backing down in no time. It didn’t work, so we opted for the last resort of cycling off as fast as we could. I continued barking, more as a nervous reaction than anything else.

We stopped for a beer and a big bag of pastries late afternoon and decided to discuss our route options. We’d found ourselves at a junction whereby we had to make the decision of continuing along the Danube or cut down more directly towards Bulgaria. We ended up doing both, increasing our distance in the process that day, but at least we now had a plan. We tell ourselves that no decision is a wrong decision when choosing a route. And it’s really not. You’ll never know what the other route would have offered. We asked the lady at the bar if she knew of any places to camp locally. She did not. We hinted at camping at the bar if we bought enough beer. She declined. As we started to roll off she stopped us and told us we could camp in her garden at her house, but she was not finishing work until midnight and we would have to wait. Thoughts of staying in the bar for seven hours flashed joyously past in my mind but we quickly thanked her and politely declined.

With the sun setting we rode in to another town and were quickly pounced upon by another pack of dogs. They were starting to annoy me now so I just shouted “oh shut the f$*£ up”. Serbian dogs have a good grasp of the English language it seems as they quickly did as they were instructed. I felt like an angry Dr Doolittle. I felt powerful. We asked a guy if he knew of any campsites locally. He did not but continued to search for one on google maps on his phone to help us out. We told him he was very kind. He told us everyone in Serbia is kind. We had to agree. Armed with the directions for a campsite we thanked the kind guy and cruised on as it was getting dark. Half an hour later we were having another conversation with another kind gentleman as the directions we had been given led us to a residential area, with no campsites. He directed us to a hostel a few km’s away, and we quickly settled on a ten euro room including free raki. The host was the most helpful and kind gentleman you could wish to have host you. He gave us cherries from the orchard in his garden and more raki than we agreed on. Two Dutch cyclists were the only other guests that night. We all sat in the kitchen until late putting the world to rights and polishing of all our hosts raki (he was pouring). A long, eventful day was finished with tired smiles as our heads hit the pillows.  It was nothing like we had planned, but that’s the fun of it…

A sad day followed. After snaking through Europe hugging the mighty Danube river, today we said our goodbyes as we made our way South East. We made a conscious effort to wake up early the next day and get some serious km’s under our belts. After 26 cups of coffee and more laughs with the Dutchies and our host, we picked up the bikes to roll off before the brunch time raki came out. Our host had been so accommodating, especially with the amount of raki he kindly shared, we overpaid to show our appreciation. Our host thanked us. And then told us the room was not ten euros but in fact ten euros per person. The Dutchies pretended not to have noticed but the childish smiles on their faces as they looked in different directions on the ground displayed otherwise. To make things worse I was due to take out some money and didn’t have enough to pay. An awkward drive with our host to the cash machine further delayed our early start and now the thought of lunch time raki and a twenty euro room was looking quite attractive. Thirty km’s down the road however and our plans of a big day were out the window as we were both struggling to really get going. You can do two things in this instance, pick each other up and knuckle down and do what you set out to do and feel proud with yourselves at the end of the day that you turned things around; or do what we did and say sod it, give in to the day, buy a load of junk food and find a place to camp.

I wonder what Stevie Wonder song gets more plays, Superstition or Happy Birthday? As the latter played out in our apartment room in the centre of a pretty city called Nis, Hannah was ushered out from her hiding place as she received her Birthday cake. Hannah’s request for her birthday was a day of good food and a cocktail or two somewhere fun, so a couple of days earlier we had decided we would aim for Nis and take a day off the bikes. We arrived the night before Hannah’s birthday and met our hosts at the bottom of the apartment building. Two parts of triplets, the brothers were crisply dressed, shiny headed, eye-brow plucked and smelling wealthy. I don’t think they were impressed with their dirty, crumpled, stinky guests but we’d already paid so we didn’t really care. They showed us to the room and after a good hours chat at the door about Serbian politics, British politics (apparently all our politician are ugly) and on a lighter note the quality of Serbian dance music (it’s eye-ball swelling, I can vouch), planned nose jobs (theirs, not ours) and the fact as triplets they were the three most decorated students in Serbia; they left us to make an absolute mess of the room. After a hearty prosecco and cake breakfast we took to the streets with an air of confidence, a probable result of the hot shower, clean clothes and breakfast prosecco combo. We walked, drank and ate, and the indulgence felt a comfortable distance from the love/hate discomforts of the trip.  We peaked too soon however and were back at the apartment far too early. Too early for us to disclose a time even. I blame Stevie Wonder, he started it…

Watch our 1-minute video of ‘A Typical Day Cycle Touring through Europe’ here…

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