Feeling significantly older after negotiating the frenzied Belgrade rush hour traffic, we found ourselves welcomed out of the cold and into Andrej’s colourful apartment. No two walls were the same and it seemed the vibrant colours slowly started to lower our pulse down from a hamster on Red Bull, back to safe human levels. Andrej was an incredible host, letting us have his apartment for as long as we liked, whilst he himself stayed in his cousins place just around the corner. A bit of space was exactly what we needed; first we celebrated one week’s riding together with pizza and beers. For the first time in weeks we were both completely full, a 40 cm pizza each had done the trick and sticking to the touring cyclists natural circadian, we were asleep by 10.
A lie in and some much needed rest was on the cards before we eventually decided to venture outside into the rain. Keen to meet some locals, we’d sent some messages around on couchsurfing, soon finding a small group who were down to show us some of the quirkier watering holes. It wasn’t long before we had quite a rabble of new Serbian friends and we ended up missing the last bus back. I’ve found I get far more out of meeting people, engaging with them and hearing what they have to say about a place, city, country or politics than ticking off trip advisors top 5 attractions. Just wandering the streets you can tangibly pick up the atmosphere, here the city felt alive with the constant sounds of horns tooting, wild dogs running around and a large young crowd congregating in the bars. I was starting to like Serbia, despite its rough exterior, the suspicious looks constantly sent our way, the people were genuinely friendly to us when you engaged with them. Combining our limited vocabulary of ‘Ciou’ and ‘Hvala’ (thank you) with smiles and waves, we could get by.
Staying an extra day in Belgrade, we decide to invited Andrej over for a cooked dinner and beers to say thanks for putting us up. Listening to his account of Serbian life was eye opening for someone fortunate enough to grow up in the UK, living through the break up Yugoslavia, the Croatian war of independence and a Genocide is a world away from what I am accustomed to. Walking the city streets with a minimum of a knife for protection from an all too real threat of violence sounded terrifying. Brushing it off, he explained his training as a sniper in the Serbian army, making us laugh later when the only knives for preparing the meal were a hunting knife and a special ‘concealed knife’. Andrej also enlightened me that the pronunciation of my name means ‘homosexual’ in Serbian. No joke. We checked it and sure enough. We were in fits of laughter at this point. I quickly became ‘Ped’ for the rest of my journey through Serbia and finally understood the odd looks I’ve been getting when introducing myself…
Before leaving the next morning, Andrej introduced us to the wondrous Serbian cuisine know as ‘borek’. A wholesome cheese filled pastry, coated in a heart stopping layer of grease. It was heaven. Wherever we then found ourselves in Serbia, we made it our quest to find the local borek. Sampling a minimum of one large slice a day, we started to become expert tasters comparing the local nuances in flavour. Not enough grease, dry pastry, more cheese needed, Mary Berry eat your heart out.
Filled with a few hearty slices of borek, we cycled into a driving Serbian rain. Usually this would’ve been snow, but the temperature had risen to a scorching 7 degrees and for the first time on this whole trip, I rode without gloves. Amazed at the novelty of seeing four pale sticks clamped around the right and left sides of my handlebars, I was more than happy putting up with the rain. After four hours riding it was clear this weather was set in for the day. Despite this, we were making phenomenal time along the poorly surfaced roads, revelling the euphoria of our first long downhills yet working up a sweat to reach the next peak; this riding was interesting. Stopping only in one of Serbias numerous abandoned buildings to get out of the rain, we cooked ourselves some rice before getting straight back on the bike. Our intentions of camping that night made for a grim prospect and in a last minute attempt to find a host, I called a man going by the name ‘Dragan’. Delighted that he offered us a place to stay with his family, but mildly disappointed at the lack of fire coming from receiving end of the phone, we adjusted our course for his small village where we told to ‘ask anyone for Dragan and they will know…’ The ominous message was ignored as we pushed on hard, rewarded by a solid tailwind we made the final 15 miles in under an hour.
Dragan and his family were very strong christians, proud Serbians but overall nice people who offered us shelter in a time of need. Jack quickly admitted to not being religious just before they said grace, and with my name meaning ‘homosexual’, they must’ve been wondering what sins they’d committed to deserve such guests.
Prior to leaving we were given a tour of the beehives and a pot of their honey for our travels. Clothes dried, stomachs full, we basked in the sunshine that graced the country hills. Slowly making our way back to the banks of the trusty Danube. Despite being our rough guide for the past three weeks, we hadn’t actually ridden along its side since Hungary. It came into sight just as we pulled into a petrol station where a short man soon came running out of a wooden door shouting ‘Schnapps’! It was only 11 am but we duly followed him inside the interesting petrol station/bar combination and were introduced to his group of friends. Together they amassed one word of english, ‘chin chin’. It was all that was needed. We combined that with our two understood Serbian terms, well practised mime routines and it made for one of the funniest conversations of the trip. Another round of drinks later we left group feeling like lifelong friends. Back on the bikes we were feeling slightly tipsy, still trying to process what had happened. At least the navigating was now easy, just roll downstream.
It was clear that we weren’t going to make our supposed mileage today but that didn’t matter, it felt like we were truly travelling. Locals waved at our passing bikes and we relished the opportunity to chat, taste their Borek and take in the stunning scenery. Everything looks better in the sun, but it to soon sunk behind the adjacent peaks. Running out of daylight we hastily found ourselves a gem of a camping spot, tucked under a wooden shelter right on the riverside. The final light of the day passed just as our tents were set up, food cooked and fire started. It was pure bliss. The stars shone bright and I felt like I was finally out in the wild.
The feeling was brought to an end come the morning to the sound of a rasping tractor engine. Three burly men made their way down to the riverside by our tents on the beast and began hauling huge trees out the river for firewood. Not feeling like asking too many questions we left them, their chainsaws and asthmatic tractor behind for the road. After riding for only ten minutes we soon came across two more tourers, the first I’ve seen besides Jack since leaving the UK. We pedalled excitedly up to them shouting ‘ciou!’. It turned out they were heading for Indonesia and had been staying with some of the same hosts as us on their journey. Small world. We rode together deep in conversation for the rest of the morning, taking on the hills as a proper chain gang in the sunshine. Soon we’d picked up a further two more members in the form of wild dogs. As opposed to being the usual angry beasts we’d come to expect in eastern Europe, they just wanted to run with us. 10 kilometres later and they were still by our side. After saying goodbye for now to the couple, vowing to grab a beer in Istanbul we rode across the border and into Romania, followed by our dogs.
Romania came across as a blend of eastern European and Mediterranean cultures. Weathered men having beers outside local bars shot toothless grins our way, giving us high fives as we stopped to say hello. On the move things were more hostile, the infamous packs of Romanian dogs began cropping up in every other village. Often seven or more large dogs would charge for our bikes all savagely barking. Thankfully they were all bark and no bite and we gradually became accustomed to this repeated charade of protection of their property; yet still respectful that if we were to fall off they would not hesitate to see how we tasted. Keeping things rubber-side up, we barked back, sprayed water and swiftly rode through the worst of the packs.
As the sun set this time on Romanian contours, we found a place to camp in a small wooded area a few kilometres away from the nearest village. People were no longer our concern, we could hear dogs fighting around us in the dark, not just one or two, tens of dogs. Praying they wouldn’t sniff out our food and come investigate, we had an early night. Sleep didn’t come easily and at no point did the incessant barking become white noise. They continued fighting all morning but luckily none ventured out our way.
We rode back across the Serbian border for the third time having enjoyed our taste of Romania. Taking to the hills, the fields were still covered in snow yet the temperature was now just below 20 degrees. Perfect conditions, the photos looked epic and hardcore but we were toasty and warm wearing our shorts and jerseys. Shorts! From the minus 21 degrees recorded on the Hungarian farm less than 10 days before, we were now almost 40 degrees warmer. The road was breathtaking, weaving around and over long hills, we religiously followed this smooth black ribbon as it dissected the snowcapped peaks. Rocky outcrops flying past our peripheries as we ‘wooped’ with joy at flying down these huge hills, arms outstretched. We were flying. In a good mood by the time we reached the town of Zajecar, we climbed the nearest hill and thought we’d try our chances asking to camp on someones lawn. Taking our pick of a few with the best view, we were swiftly told no by the means of angry shouting and pointing by more than one croaky Serb. Slightly deflated we struggled to find anywhere suitable as night fell, eventually taking the advice of two lads who suggested an outcrop of shrubs on a nearby crest.
Serbia has really surprised me with its natural beauty. It had given us snow, rivers and rugged mountains in the space of a few days. Today we entered deep into the countryside, the land and shrubs taking a duller shade that reminded me of the Lake District. Akin to the lakes, it began to rain on us after refuelling with some tasty borek. Showers of rain followed us throughout the day but for the most part we could enjoy the epic road without the blinkers of a hood. I managed to snap my chain riding hard over a small hill. In my eyes this a testament to my new found raw strength but in reality it’s likely to be my gears slipping. It was a quick repair, but I was very thankful for packing that quick-link.
The rain returned as we searched for the nights sport to camp. Looking out for flat ground we passed a local man cycling with a large white bucket. He veered off the road, hauled out a large hare that had been run over before turning to us and smiling. The hare was stiff as a board and didn’t fit into his small bucket so he quickly tied it to bike his and got on his way. Smiling to himself in the rain, his dinner was sorted.
Soon after we found a perfect open barn to settle down. A thin layer of dry hay covered the floor and we could look out at the rain lashing down on the surrounding mountains. As darkness fell I felt completely content. Relaxed in a way I hadn’t felt before on this trip. Just taking a step back and thinking about what I’m doing it was nice to reflect. I’m sleeping in a lovely barn nestled in the Serbian mountainside with a friend I met only a week ago. Each day we cook a familiar meal in an unfamiliar setting yet it seems to taste better with each brew. The next morning we shall hit the road; knowing two days will never be the same, it’s a happy time. That night we actually ‘hit the hay’ a little later than usual, excited for tomorrow and a new country. Bulgaria.
Cycling out from the mountains we entered back into the EU. The cash converter woman at the border ripped Jack off by convincing him to exchange his Serbian Dina to Euros, despite Bulgaria using the ‘Lev’. We had no data and no way to check, but we had a laugh when we approached our first shop and found out. Bulgaria seemed similar to at Serbia first glance, donning large Soviet concrete buildings in every town. Clearly grey on grey was a big colour scheme at the time. The colour dominated the built up areas we passed and we were passing them fast. Feeling a strong tailwind, we tucked into our ‘aero’ positions, heads down, arms relaxed over the front of the handlebars and pedalled hard. Taking turns on the front we were seriously caning it. Holding 30 mph for a good 30 minutes we hurtled towards Sofia. A new city where we a new member would join us to Istanbul. I was excited.