Part 8: The Time Traveler’s Bike

It was like we had travelled back to time somehow. As if cycling through one of my granddad’s memories of Staffordshire when he were a lad, we start our Serbian journey in little farming villages. Buzzing with activity, real work, real places, real people. As we pass them by everyone says hello or waves us on. Old folk watch the world go by their doorstep, farm workers ride on tractor trailers, children play in the streets and half a dozen escapee piglets scuttle off squealing down the road. People still grow their own food and collect their own fuel. Village shops, fascinating dimly lit little grottos, sell just about everything under the sun. Welcome to the Balkans!

Seeing a country on a bike means you’re usually introduced to the countryside before you hit the cities. There’s something beautiful about travelling this way, like tracing a spring to the sea. It is a way of putting things into perspective and appreciating the contrast within a nation.

So now we’re in our time machine again, back to the present, or is this the future? I hope it is! It took us two days to reach Novi Sad and when we did it blew our minds. What a city! We arrived on Saturday evening just as things were warming up. Novi Sad must have known we were coming, there was a big stage in the square by our hostel to greet us! Balkan music is a good reflection of the people, full of energy and enthusiasm. As the sound of trumpets, fiddles and clarinets ripped through the square all the stunning girls for which this City is rightly famous for jumped up and down like nut cases. Before long we had made friends with some of the locals so when the gig was over we headed off to a beach to carry on the party long into the night.

Ninety percent of cycle tourists who visit Novi Sad continue east along the Danube to Belgrade but we like to be different. We mustered up some energy and peddled south for a slog up Frusca Gora mountain and what should we find when we get to the top but a giant tipi bar. The owner kindly let us put our tent up round the back and rustled us up some venison stew. Boom! I don’t know how we do it sometimes. It’s a pretty big climb up Frusca Gora but it’s worth it, looking down from this solitary range to the flats of Vojvodina is like being on an island looking out to sea. In the morning we traversed the ridge making the most of the cooler air and checking out all the vantage points along the way.

Back down in the plains the temperature was up to mid thirties by lunch time. We invested in some ice cream and considered our next move. Our friends in Novi Sad had instead we should see the south “the real Serbia” so we were determined to head this way but the Sava River stood in our path. We were faced with two options, either we take a main road through Sabac, crossing at a bridge and taking our chances with potentially heavy traffic or we head off towards a supposed ferry link via back county lanes. We went for the second option.

Before long we had ran out tarmac in a village with road signs in a script which didn’t match that of our map. We consulted some locals. Very few people speak English out here and we speak no Serbish what so ever, anyway we managed to suss out that we were in a village which wasn’t on our map but we were directed onto a gravel track in the direction of a village which was. The track was terrible. We had no idea how long it would be until we would find civilisation again, the only sign of life was a stray dog who staggered along with the saddest eyes in the world rummaging through piles of rubbish that lay at the side of the road.

We appeared to be cycling through a disused military base, the sight of watch towers was giving me the creeps. This country has been to hell and back and still bears the scars. We’ve heard many first hand accounts of the war, we’ve spoken with people our own age who watched NATO strikes on bridges and oil refineries! It’s been a real eye opener for us.

By the time we got to the ferry it was parked up for the night but there was a very inviting floating bar next to the jetty. At the waters edge some frogs were cooling off in the shallows of the Sava, we followed their lead and jumped in for a swim. Feeling refreshed we checked out the bar in search of food. Our luck was in, fish supper, we were chuffed to bits! I felt relaxed once more, watching the sun’s reflection dance on the ceiling like a disco ball. As we chatted about our day an old fellow came in and sat at the table next to us. With his wise, weathered face and big white beard he had the look of a merchant about him. Sitting quietly with a beer he seemed to be listening to us. After our meal he introduced himself, he was a local man but had travelled the world, he was buzzing off our adventure! The waiter also spoke a little English as luck would have it so we enquired about the ferry. As suspected it ran a fairly slack timetable but one of the other guys in the bar offered to take us across in his boat. He was good to his word, we met in the morning and away we went.

Across the river the land began to rise again, we amble up hill and down dale, through all kinds of weird little places. People don’t know what to make of us, we pass men who sit drinking at the side of the road at nine in the morning, they must wonder if we’re part of their imagination. They’re not familiar with Lycra out here yet. We head east for the Homolje mountains, where a 100k stretch of road from Petrovac to Borska lake is jumping out of the map at us. When we get there we’re far from disappointed. Just when we were thinking people couldn’t get much friendlier the Serbians take it to the next level.

We find a decent spot to camp but as there are houses nearby he head off into town to get some food and return after dark. We pass a man from one of the houses on our way back to our chosen camping spot, he asks us what we’re up to and we explain. Vladimir advises us on the best place to put up our tent and disappears. Moments later he’s back, armed with a flask of rakija and a huge jar of home made honey. When the morning comes we decamp and do some laundry by the river. We’re all prepared for the ride through the mountains and we’re about to set off when another guy pulls up next to us on a bicycle with a big paper bag. His name is Milan, he lives in another one of the houses so he decided to bring a picnic, a gas stove and some coffee making kit and join us for breakfast! He then goes and fetches his canoe and precedes to paddle up and down the river clearing out the litter. What a brilliant guy! We have a paddle too then we set off, a little later than expected. There are two things any cycle tourist will need to take for a visit to Serbia; an open heart and some spare time!

We make it about half way to the lake and we stop for lunch in a small town called Zagubica. Like most Serbian towns there’s one shop, one fast food kiosk and about ten bars. We order a couple of coffees from one of the bars in the main square. It’s half three and we’ve got a formidable mountain pass ahead of us before we get to the lake. There doesn’t seem to be much happening in Zagubica so we decide to carry on as far as we can. I nip to the shop to stock up on water and chocolate and when I walk out the door James introduces me to a man in a suit. “Ade, this is Alexander. He’s the president of the local cycling club, he wants us to join him for a beer” I smile at him and ponder for a moment. “one beer!” Alexander smiles and nods his head excitedly. Here we go again…

Alexander is a lawyer by trade and a hippy at heart. He loves mountain biking and walking and knows the Homolje region like the back of his hand. Of course we join him and his friends for a beer as they sit out enjoying the sunshine after a hard week at work. We review our options and decide to camp locally so we can join Alexander for some local food in the evening. Our new friend has to go and sort out some family stuff so we swap numbers and agree to meet again later.

We find a couple of decent places to set up camp but we soon notice that a couple of gypsy kids have latched onto us. We move on but they keep following us begging for money. This goes on for a few hours! We go to the river to wash and there they are, we return to the square and read for a while then they turn up and sit on the bench next to us grinning. It was undoubtedly very entertaining for them but it was seriously getting on our tits. We go to a bar, guess what, there they are! We don’t know how long Alexander will be or even if he’s coming back at all so we decide to chance it and ride on in the dark to find somewhere out of town. Thankfully it didn’t come to that, he found us in the nick of time and we went on to have a hilarious night with a great bunch of crazy Serbs, the rakija was in full flow!

Only one thing could save us the next day and that was Alexander’s mum’s breakfast. It was like we woke up in the best B&B in the world! I don’t know how we would have made it over that mountain any other way! But onwards we went, through a trance of birdsong in search of the vast golden meadows of Bulgaria…

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For the route see MAP 7

2 thoughts on “Part 8: The Time Traveler’s Bike

  1. Tim K

    Hey guys, finally catching up on your ride – the memories are flooding back and a solitary tear marks a poignant path down my cheek. Glad you’re enjoying Serbia, it was definately a highlight of Europe for me, PB and Gav. Bit jealous of all that venison though, as all we could find in cafes and restaurants was booze or pizza… which, obviously, isn’t the worst thing in the world! Keep it up – loving the stories. Tim

    1. James

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog mate! The Balkans rock for sure. We’re in Macedonia now, absolutely love it!

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