The day we have left Belgrade started on the market – as most of our days did. Two fat slices of burek, some yoghurt and we were ready to roll; our daily destination being Smedrevska Palanka.
Leaving Belgrade was a deadly quest, just like riding in has been. The drivers are aggressive and impatient, especially with the cyclists, and there are no clear signs and lane markings on the road.
After a roundabout I have been stuck between two buses and decided it’s better to wait it out while the good people of Belgrade disembark and embark, than manoeuvring out from between them to the other lanes.
Two minutes later the road is clear and I’m ready to continue, only to see Zsolt a few hundred metres ahead.
He’s sitting on a patch of grass by the road, his bike thrown behind him.
My first thought was,
How can he be so impatient, sitting down just because he needs to wait for a minute. It’s not like I had a choice.
Oh, God. What if he’s hurt? Is he bleeding?
Huh, no. It’s must not be too bad, he’s not bleeding. But he looks pretty shaken.
I cycled down to him, and indeed, there was an accident, but thankfully no harm has been done to him or the bike. Somehow one of his first panniers got caught by the side of the pavement, and it twisted the bike so hard it fell on the other side.
This made both of his front panniers being ripped off, it’s plastic hangers broken in two.
Needless to say, he was pretty upset, with loads of icantbelievethishappensonthesecondweek, whythebloodyhellnow , and some other sophisticated phrases.
It was also scary to see how a bad movement, a moment of inattention can put us in a difficult situation.
But this just another bump on the road, so the front bags got bungee-corded to our rear racks, butts lifted back onto the saddle, and we slowly pedalled to the nearest bicycle shop. Needless to say, we didn’t expect to find Altura spares in a Belgrade neighbourhood bike shop, and the helpful shop-assistant confirmed this when he explained that you can’t even buy quality panniers in Serbia, especially not parts for them. As he put it (please pull your best Balkan/Russian accent for this):
We don’t have parts like this, in Serbia everything is custom.
And with this, he recommended a few strong cable ties.
Great idea! Cable ties it is, so, after heading back to the market (where else), where Zsolt disappeared, then reappeared with a bunch of cable ties and a free cigarette in hand. The latter he got from the tie seller, to calm his nerves and release the stress. 9 quick cable-tying and 1 cigarette later we were, again, ready to roll, with custom panniers on the front rack.
We really are assimilating to the balkans, one cable-tie at a time.
We headed out of the city again, now using the pavement instead of the main road, and the cables seem to endure. A few short climbs and a grim suburb later we were out of the city and enjoying the Serbian countryside again. On the side of the road the rubbish gave place for the chicken behind tidy fenced homes and the honking buses got replaced by the usual snarling stray dogs.
We love the countryside, and we were happy to witness this change once again: in the course of an hour the whole scenery changing around us, and a new vibe emerging. The people start communicating with us: waving and smiling, the children staring, their mouths hanging open, and as we get the bikes to a halt the people stop next to us to ask us about our journey, in whatever language we can manage between us, then let us go wishing Sretan put! and a mouthful of bravobravos.
We passed a few picturesque little villages with great views on the valley below, but by lunchtime we only seemed to cycle among grim, grey places. As the hunger won over us, we decided to stop in one of these and ate our packed lunch in front of a closed village pub. We made quite a spectacle, with our two enormous bikes and half a grocery shop spread out between us, but none of the villagers stopped to talk or spared a smile for us. We concluded it must be due to the closed pub; what else would put a whole village in such lethargy?
We must admit, our legs weren’t spinning as fast as before our lazy four days in Belgrade, and we lost a couple of hours with the morning incident as well.
We were still far from our planned daily destination when the sun started lowering on the west. This meant, it’s time for our first real adventure night: wild camping! It’s time to look for a spot. We started noting all the suitable areas and filling all our water bottles at a petrol station for the night. The next town was Mladenovac, we thought we could probably pass that before it gets dark and pitch the tent somewhere afterwards.
This is the point when I must note, that I wasn’t overly excited about this whole camping thing. It was a hard day, we were tired and already cold on the bike, and during the night the temperature will drop down to 0-1 °C. I know, we’ll survive, but my light sleeping bag only keeps me comfortably warm when it’s around 8 °C outside, and this 7-8 °C difference would mean for me a lot of sleepless hours. I really hoped to reach Smederavska Palanka, where we might get some indoor accommodation. But that was another 1.5 hours away.
Closing up to the town there were two rodies speeding by us and shouting ciao, and it took me a moment to realise that these cycling fellows might be able to help us. Zsolt sped after them, and he miraculously caught them, on his 40+ kg monster of a bicycle. A moment of heavy breathing, and we were able to ask our question:
Do you have any suggestion for us where to pitch the tent?
After looking at each other questioningly, then a splur of Serbian discussion, they decided they need a minute to think of something and we should follow them into town.
Our legs were screaming as we tried to keep up with their recovery speed, but we made it safely into Mladenovac.
They have led us to the local church, where they asked the priest about us camping in the churchyard. To our greatest surprise, the priest agreed without hesitation.
As we started relieving the bikes from their load, a small priest squad gathered around us. They checked our tiny map with our route and we finally had the chance to use our Magic Letter (translated to Bosnian). They have read it with great uuuuuus and aaaaaas, and a few minutes, and another splur of Serbian discussion later, they have offered us to use their new community centre. It’s almost finished, and though there’s no furniture (Apart from a piano, yey! – Zsolt), there is water and four good walls to keep us safe and warm.
Bojan, one of our saviours, simply noted
It’s like a hotel, but only three stars!
Our two new cyclist friends, Bojan and Nenad, headed home to change, but promised to be back in an hour. We barely had time to puder our suntanned noses and set the sleeping mats and bags in the soon-to-be-library, when they indeed arrived back, with Bojan’s home-made protein bar (smoked ham) and a huge tub of nutella-like goodness (eurocrem) in hands. Protein and sugar, the cyclist best friends.
And you know when you meet a real cyclist when he doesn’t ask you whether you are on Facebook, but on Strava.
We have spent the evening together, driving around town to see Mladenovac’s night views. The town was neat and lively, and welcoming. We sat in a stylish kafana that reminded us a bit home, London, with it’s western interior and international music (but they served proper turkish coffee), and on this day, it was a welcomed felling. We shared stories and discussed our planned route, and of course, our culinary adventures so far in Serbia. At this point, Bojan was shocked to hear that we don’t carry sir (type of cheese) on the bike, and this was something that needed to be fixed before we set to cycle, and to eat the ham tomorrow: on the way back he popped into a local shop only to return with a whole block of delicious fresh cheese that we happily promised to eat with the ham.
The appearance Bojan and Nenad fixed our day with the speed and efficiency of the morning’s cable-ties.
We really enjoyed spending time with these two childhood friends, who grew up together in this lovely town, but now couldn’t be more different characters. We could have stayed days to enjoy their company, their stories and lessons on the Balkan region.
Back in the church we fall asleep within minutes, exhausted, but with a huge grin on our face. What a lucky day!
Next day as we woke up we saw Nenad cycle by our window, waving at us; what a nice thing, seeing familiar faces in the morning. Just like if it was our hometown.
By 7 we were packed and ready to go. We filled up in the nearest bakery with some burek, and as we were planning a short day to Smederevska Palanka, we decided to treat ourselves for a coffee and an hour of news-reading in a kafana.
As it turned out, we happened to pick the kafana that was meeting point for the local motorcyclist fellows. And what do you know, not ten minutes passed and Bojan walked in, because just like Zsolt, he thinks bikes are golden, whether they run on gasoline or muscle power. He invited us to join him and his friends to have coffee. A good hour of conversation followed in Serbian, English and German to explain our trip, which they again rewarded with a series of bravobravos.
As Bojan learned we have no place to stay that night, and consulted our route map for the next few days, he recommended we visit a local attraction, the Zdrelo Spa. It’s 85 flat kilometres away, just 20 kilometres detour from our planned route, a cheap and great way to recover our muscles. We were convinced; shook hands as he, again, covered our bills then drove off.
We enjoyed a wonderful day of cycling. The grin of last night on our faces has returned, and 85 kilometres (and 600 metres climbed, ehm!) later we rolled in the castle-shaped, neon-lighted building of the spa and booked a room for the night. The evening was spent in the warm thermal water with free rakija from the reception, and discussions over luck and friendly people.
It’s amazing how some unexpected kindness and a stick of ham can lighten up an otherwise bad couple days.
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