We left proud Croatia for Serbia and find ourselves yet again surrounded with flying flags. In Serbia we finally met the Danube, pedalled through rolling hills of sunflowers, shared Rakija with locals as we listened to their stories of the past. The East European people continue to be so generous, smiling and waving at every corner and insisting we take bags of fruit for the road.
The final days of Croatia were filled with more friendly encounters and further looks of disbelief as we drew pictures in the air trying to explain our adventure. A more memorable comment was from a pizza baker just on the Croatian side to the border of Serbia. After a much needed midway pizza we explained our adventure. He gasped in disbelief and politely waited until Jasi had left the building and then added: “Hey Mister, you are crazy. Big balls” completing the picture with his own hand gestures.
We were invited into the home of an elderly Croatian couple who had overheard Jasi teaching me German on the road. They insisted we come in for a tea and in the 33 degree heat we obliged. We sat down to Nescafe and two plates of homemade salami. I couldn’t help noticing the similarities to my grandmothers homes to here in Croatia. Except for at home we have biscuits or crackers they had salami and salami. Apart from this, there were family photographs, a nicely ordered and decorated kitchen and big smiles. The generosity through these lands continues and seems to be its strongest with people that look to have so little.
As we were chatting to fellow bike tourers we met, a lady approached and told us in broken English to please wait a moment. Her family then set to work picking the trees of her garden behind us and she returned with a large plastic bag of fruit, wanting absolutely nothing in return. The kindness often takes us back and leaves us thinking if we have offered the same kindness in the past.
We continued to struggle through the tail end of the heat wave and crossed the border to a very upbeat town of Serbia. There seemed to be no real distinct difference between the Croatian and Serbians and they looked to be at ease with each other. Evident when I stopped and asked a Serbian man for directions, he kindly pointed the way and went on to explain that his friend was Croatian and “we drink beer together, we are friends”. Our first impressions of Serbia were vibrant, alive and noticeably cheaper and once again, a very proud country with flags flying strong.
Belgrade, the first capital city of our trip. What a bustling energetic and historically rich city it is. We decided to take our weekly rest day here and loved it so much that we took another one. We also had a little time apart from each other. Jasi spent the day enjoying the city life with all its shops and cafés and I ate a mountain of Burek (a crumbly, dry but oily meat pie) and took a city walking tour. Belgrade was also the starting point for our journey along the Danube. This meant flat roads. Beautiful flat roads. The rolling hills of Croatia finally led us to send home a package weighing 4.7kg. Now with the flat roads ahead I was already wondering if we had made the right decision.
As we follow the Danube, camping places are becoming few and far between. However when we do manage to find a camping ground we are often the only guests. This has led to some of the most brilliant personal encounters with the owners of the camping grounds. One such encounter was with an incredibly happy couple, Bjliana and Miloć. We chatted through the night but retired early due to our tired weary bodies.
The next morning we packed and were set to leave, but wanted to say our goodbyes to the kind owners. Fast forward two hours and we are sipping Rakija (traditional schnapps of the Balkans region), enjoying a freshly cooked breakfast whilst we look over the family album of years gone by. Bjliana has the warmest smile we have seen on this trip so far, from the first moment we felt welcome. Whenever she talked about Miloć she called him “my daaaaarling” in the most Serbian accent. We swapped addresses and sat a little in awe of their generosity. They wouldn’t let us pay for anything. Finally getting ready to leave, I managed to get sunscreen in my eye. Without hesitation, Miloć insisted I wash my eye and the rest of my face with Rakija, the beloved schnapps. He quickly led by example and cleaned his whole body with Rakija. I had to follow and to my surprise it worked. Jasi and I were both in tears from laughing. I never thought I would ever rub schnapps into my face. They then walked us to the end of the driveway, insisted we take two bottles of Rakija for future emergencies and waved us goodbye as if we were family.
We are beginning to feel the pinch of time as we press on to Varna at the edge of the Black Sea. In Varna we will meet Jasi’s best friend and boyfriend for a much needed rest and a little party time. It is for this reason that we have our eyes open for a few shortcuts that may arise.
As we rode along the Danube, we spotted such a shortcut that would eliminate 100km of riding by climbing a 500m hill. The plan sounded simple and we set of on the climb surprising ourselves with our increased fitness. We had made it to the the top and sighed a sweaty sigh of relief as a distant thunderstorm threatened. In the village on top of the hill we met three boys of whom one spoke German. He gave us directions and told us we will pass a town on our way. After thinking about it for two seconds he specified: “It is a town with some houses and also some humans.” Cutest directions ever!
With our GPS and the boy’s directions we were sure of the way and set off down the other side of the hill believing all the work was done. What followed was certainly more adventure than we had anticipated. The track narrowed and began to look more suitable for tractors than bikes. We pressed on as the downhill made the eroding track manageable. We rounded a bend with only 5km of descent to ride to find flames leaping across the track and smoke pluming from afar. Until this point we had never really questioned our safety. The smoke and flames seemed to be too thick to pass and the distant crackling of flames in all directions quickly threw us into survival mode. We returned back uphill along the path we came and discussed a plan over dry biscuits as to how we would tackle this. Going back up would have meant 3 hours of uphill riding. We waited up breeze of the fire to see if the flames and smoke would settle. We reinvestigated to find the fire had burnt through and we were clear to pass, a little tense and looking forward to seeing the Danube once more.
Our adventure for the next week continues along the Danube, before heading south east to Varna, Bulgaria. Varna is the port where we will take a 54 hour long ferry over the Black Sea to Georgia. The test over the next week or two involves Visa processing for Azerbaijan and Iran, wild dogs and the challenge of finding a place to pitch our tent, as campsites are basically non existent. The route will continue to take us through towns that seem almost completely self sufficient, past horse and cart loaded with this seasons harvest and more smiles and acts of generosity than we probably deserve.
Talk to you soon
Jasi and Matt