We had a smooth and efficient border exit from Croatia, followed by such a long stretch of no man’s land which, if you’re an over thinker (hello!) makes you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn and are now in Serbia illegally.
We rolled into the border town (Bačka Palanka) intending to stop for a coffee, when we were noticed by Trivo Ilic, who happily wanted to welcome us to Serbia, and insisted that we look round his business and have a chat and a cold drink. He has owned a driving school in the town for 30 years, and his father before him for 50 years, is also a professional football coach, and infectiously enthusiastic about those things and about how much we would like Serbia. He was adamant that his fellow Serbs would be kind and friendly to their visitors, and indeed he was right.
We’ve had some great cycling, and some awful cycling. There have been smooth tracks through rural villages, where we’ve come upon old school shepherd’s camps, complete with wooden crooks and herding on horseback. There have been long, fast narrow road sections, where the cars pass each other at insane speeds, and the roadside has countless memorial stones – we passed at least 10 in one 2 hour stretch. And we had a morning of lashing rain, which inevitably meant there had to be a long section of mud track. After about 100 metres both bikes became bogged down and we had to drag them back because the mudguards and brakes were too clogged for the wheels to turn, and then do a long detour to find a good road. The one thing that’s stayed consistent has been how warm and friendly the country’s people have been, and that’s kept our spirits up when things have been difficult.
And then nothing could have prepared us for the final part of our ride into Belgrade. There is no city I’ve cycled into that can touch Istanbul for near death experiences, but Belgrade is now second. There was no approach to the city that didn’t involve roads that looked like motorways. The final part was a bridge crossing. The good news is there’s a bike/footpath. The bad news is that sections of the paving were slanted and unstable and we could see all the way down. Not the greatest experience for someone scared of heights. The city itself wasn’t worth it at all. Travel sites probably bore on about the same copy & paste things they do for every Eastern European city – cafe culture, lots of clubs, lots of bars etc and there might well be a nice clean square at the centre, we didn’t go there, but in general it was shockingly dilapidated and run down. It’s very at odds with what we’ve seen of Serbia in general.
We took a rest day in a quiet town called Kovin, not far from the border with Romania. It was the first day off where we really didn’t do a lot. Richard got a haircut (for £2.52, as I’ve heard numerous times) and we both ate a lot, but other than that we just mooched around because it was such a peaceful place. I am not a woo person. Places don’t have auras or energy fields, and such stuff is bollocks. But I do think we subconsciously receive and interpret many clues about our surroundings, and those add up to our instincts. Serbia feels open and welcoming, and an all round good place to be. It is the first country we’ve been through that we have a strong desire to come back to.
Here’s a playlist for the ride in Serbia: