I have made quick progress since reaching the Danube, knocking out one hundred – mile days, “centuries” in the trade. So it only took two days to reach Serbia from Budapest, the city in which I could linger no longer. That first night after leaving the city I payed for a campsite for the first time on this trip. The wild camping has been lousy since reaching the Danube, hardly any substantial woods to properly hide in and any near the river are damp and dank. In the evening mosquitos swarm and any part of me touching my cramped bug net is ruthlessly set upon. Sleeping is like a game of Operation.
The night before leaving Slovakia I had actually found a nice, secluded spot between fields of swaying sunflowers lit in the deep colours of the setting sun. Just when I felt sure I was alone a cacaphony of squeling and stamping broke out thirty feet away, where the flowers starting jerking and shaking like a scene from Jurassic Park. I hope boar are not territorial creatures!
Back to the present – after leaving the Hungarian campsite in Baja (where I was surprised to find large, excited groups of Americans setting up a Christian music festival) I soon arrived at the Serbian border. Serbia is not part of the Schengen Area so this was the first time since leaving the UK that I had to produce my passport. Between most European countries there is no indication at all that you are leaving one nation and entering another. What an integrated place the continent is.
But not here. The eyes of the slim, severe blonde lady glowered alternately between me and the my passport, which she searched thoroughly for undesirable stamps (just as well I’ve never been to Kosovo!). Even my batted eyes and shy smile failed to soften her expression. Finding no reason to throw me out, however, I was allowed through and raced onwards into Eastern Europe.
Serbia was certainly a leapforward in foreign-ness. Signs are written in the cyrillic alphabet. Horse – drawn carts carry produce along the roads. Abandoned buildings are everywhere, though curiously many look recently built and rather than having smashed windows just have no windows or doors at all. Watermelons are EVERYWHERE! They are sold from carts and trailers that line the roads so closely in places that a stronger man could cover the distance between towns by throwing a watermelon from one vendor to the next. The only wild space I have seen in Serbia is in the mountains – everywhere else is given up to growing food, gardens included. The watermelons are in such a surplus and sold at such a low price (11p per kilo) that I suppose this must be a sign of high unemployment.
It is, however, the first way in which the cyclist in Serbia is able to refresh him or herself from the blistering heat (which is back around 37°C). The second is the profusion of drinking water taps. They are in every town and village and with a bit of shameless enthusiasm you can douse a good part of your body under them. The third is the inspiring attitude of Serbians towards refrigeration – ‘crank it up’. Beer and sparkling water, coke and Schweppes Bitter Lemon (popular here) are consistently chilled to just short of freezing solid and tantalisingly displayed in fridges placed outside on the street. An icy can rolled over brow and back of neck feels sublime. There are usually seats (or upturned beer crates) outside shops so they serve like little cafes too.
First stop in Serbia was Novi Sad. There wasn’t honestly much to see here but the heaving din of the canopied market was fun. The peaches are the best I have ever tasted and one place sold 3 kilos for 80 dinar (50p!). Homemade Rajika, a sweet, overproof fruit brandy was sold in unmarked plastic bottles. I would drink a lot of Rajika in Belgrade. It is really quite good – my all time favourite national spirit.
Next was Belgrade, the capital that sits in the nook where the river Sava, which starts in the Balkan mountains, meets the Danube. My sightseeing here was a feeble effort. I mostly slept through the day inside the blissfully airconditioned hostel room (I deliberately picked the bed directly under the unit) and went out at night, when it was still over 20°.
There was a funny mixup at the hostel. My keys were found by someone and handed in to reception, where they then thought I had checked out. So they cleared out my locker and found inside the can of pepperspray I had been given by a German cyclist in Bruges for defending myself against wild animals (the aforementioned boar, hell-deer and wild dogs I expected to be a problem going further East). They didn’t understand the German label and were curious to know what it was – so they shot themselves with it. As they told me this I was torn between sympathy and racks of surpressed laughter. I have been attacked with pepperspray before and can tell you it is singularly agonising but the comic stupidity of these two was just shocking. Here is a photo of the pepperspray – does it look like aftershave to you?
They didn’t get themselves in the eyes at least but apparently there was good deal of choking and throwing up. Don’t play with pepperspray, people. Anyway, they chugged all my milk in the fridge in a desperation to soothe themselves so I think we’re even. I was really looking forward to drinking that later.
The Serbs don’t have a great reputation at home. It seems to me they are a mixed bunch (like any nationality really, no group of people is uniform). I didn’t have much casual conversation with locals so my experience is mostly limited to people I met in a professional capacity. Many shopkeepers and waiters were dismissive and perfunctory in their work but others were exceptionally helpful and friendly. A couple of policemen a girl went up to on a night out and asked about a cash machine broke into chin scratching, arm waving and an impassioned argument between them about which was really closest. It definitely helps to learn a few words in any local language. A warm, clear “dobar dan!” noticeably improved first impressions.
I have heard of and seen myself a difference in men’s attitudes towards women though. In clubs the young Serbs are forward and physical in a way that would be totally unacceptable at home. On my last night out with some Danish girls one decided to go home early. She caught us up minutes later, panting and in great distress, saying she’d been cornered and grabbed by a group of men who had got out of a taxi. She’d only just managed to tear away and run back to us. This was just off the main shopping street, Belgrade’s Oxford Circus, if you will.
The cycling has honestly become hard work. In order to minimise the distance I’d have to pedal and also because cycling along the Danube has been disappointing I decided to take the most direct route to Istanbul rather than follow the river to the Black Sea then travel down the coast, as was my original plan. Belgrade – Sofia – Plovdiv – Edirne – Istanbul. If I could keep up my recent pace I could get there in seven days of cycling. This has proved to be gruelling. After three nights I left the air conditioned paradise of that hostel in Belgrade (£4 per night!). The temperature had risen to 40°. At 10 am it was already so unbearable I nearly turned back. Instead I wimpered in the shade until a little cloud blissfully crept over the sky and I carried on.
The quantity of roadkill was awful. I have never seen anything so bad. Over the day I would see dozens upon dozens of cats, dogs and unidentifiable creatures lying dead or ripped to pieces on the road. Some would look (and smell) how you’d expect after a few days in this sauna-like weather but others looked like they had been taken just minutes before. I saw a hedgehog blown to pieces under a car’s tire. A cat lay bleeding from the head in the middle of the road. I think it was still alive but I couldn’t face it, I just cycled on. There were squirrels too and I even saw a three foot snake as thick as a walking stick. It might have longer if it’s head wasn’t missing. On top of all this were all the birds, bees and butterflies that had just dropped dead of heat from the sky. Small mice and shrews had shrivelled up and stopped moving.
In Serbia you need documents to prove where you have slept each night so wild camping seemed unwise. At the campsite I had planned to reach in Jagodina I was welcomed with an outsize bottle of chilled rosé! Wonderful. I drank nearly the whole thing out of thirst for anything other than my bathwater-warm H20. That was unwise because the next morning I would rise at 5am to get good miles in before it became too hot. I had been ravaged by mosquitos again and did not feel spritely. I blasted through sixty miles in the morning but just as the sun reached its most beastly, mountains rose on the horizon ahead of me. “Ah…”. For all its convenience, Google maps had failed to mention the two bloody great mountains I’d be climbing that afternoon and that morning had been hilly already. For eight miles I went up and up, the road seemingly aiming to find the most breathtaking views rather than take any kind of efficient route to the other side. On the upside the views were great. This was by far the highest I had climbed on this trip and higher than I’d cycled in the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia. The tallest mountain was 1800m – as tall as the Alpine ski resort I worked in over the winter – but thankfully I was not forced to climb quite to the top of that one.
I pelted down the other side then after a rest and inward sobbing climbed the next mountain pass between Bela Planka and Pirot. This had to be the most gruelling day of physical exertion in my life. 112 miles,
5250m 5250 feet (!) accumulated climb. The thought of sleeping in a campsite again was laughable. I checked myself into an air conditioned hotel for £20. Every fibre of my being would usually scream out at this extravagance but not tonight. I took an ice cold shower then drank four ice cold beers and ordered a takeaway. Then I slept like a (moderately drunk) baby, air con on full blast.
It’s funny how when you are deprived of certain comforts they become absolutely exhilerating when you have them back again. And to have something for too long is to grow used to it then take it for granted. Is there always balance over time on the scales of happiness and satisfaction? If we were, homeless, hot, hungry and thirsty one week but our comfort and security returned the next week would our relief and satisfaction exactly counterbalance the dismal discomfort of the week before? The economist in me wishes you could quantify happiness – though you can’t – and put all this into formulae to get a definitive answer. Anyway, that evening the gleeful relish I took in those home comforts could only be felt after such an extraordinarily uncomfortable day. It really was bliss.
I write this from that blessed hotel room this morning but now I’d better go and get to Bulgaria.