Right now I’m in a coffee shop in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and former capital of Yugoslavia. Apparently this is the best coffee shop in the country and it took me half an hour to walk here, so it better be. When I’m in the bigger foreign cities I like to find places where I believe I might be able to get a flat white, because that’s why you travel, right, to experience the luxuries you can find any day in your home town? Really, though, a good coffee shop is on of the best ways to immerse yourself in the local culture and judging by the looks I keep getting I can say with confidence that I’m the only foreigner here.
To say there’s been a volatile history around these parts would be an understatement and I’ve been constantly reminded of it for the past few days, particularly as I cycled across the border between Croatia and Serbia. In villages on either side there still stands the bullet-ridden remains of abandoned houses and churches, and to think that only 25 years ago these two countries were at war, and that many of the people I’ve spoken to in little shops or waved to in the street would have been personally involved is hard to comprehend. Belgrade itself was bombed by NATO even more recently (1999), I can even remember seeing footage of it as a child (when I probably thought it was in Africa somewhere), so to walk around and see that it’s a modern city with regular, albeit freakishly tall, people makes that even harder to accept.
I say that Belgrade is a modern city and, despite the horrific communist architecture that typifies this part of the world, it is. There are nice restaurants and cafe’s everywhere, quality sporting and cultural facilities, and very well-dressed people walking the streets. But country Serbia is vastly different to anywhere I’ve been so far. The roads are rough, littered with potholes and patch-up jobs, and most of the buildings lining the road are (or should be) abandoned. It seems the young people have fled for the cities and to spot anyone under the age of 50 is rare. Old men sit on street corners smoking, drinking and watching the world go by, and women ride their bikes to the store. I’ve seen more tractors than cars for the past few days, and the cars I do see are usually on the wrong side of the road heading in to a corner, desperate to get past the tractors. Since crossing the Serbian border it’s like a switched has been flicked and now all of a sudden everybody is in a hurry and lacking any common sense or consideration for others when behind the wheel. This makes it an unlucky coincidence that for the past few days the whole Eurovelo 6 trail has been along the highway. Every driver feels the need to use a horn to warn you of their presence moments before speeding up and passing you as closely as possible, whether thats out of courtesy, annoyance or just a reminder that you’re a loser on a bike I’m not sure, but if I’m already on the gravel edge of the road theres not a lot else I can do – this is the reason I got a screw in my tyre and my first puncture of the trip yesterday.
For the past two days I’ve been cycling with Maurizio, a 67 year old Italian former physics teacher. We met at a restaurant in Vukovar, Croatia and after chatting for a few minutes realised we were both riding our bikes in the same direction, so we agreed to meet up in the morning and go together. Maurizio has a lot of knowledge on this region so each day has been like a history lesson, which has been amazing. But unlike my podcasts there’s no pause button on these lessons so, while informative, they are never ending and I barely have the time to think or look around to take any of the scenery in. He’s the kind of person who gives you a running commentary on every thought that enters his head, and feels the need to check that you’re ok if you haven’t responded for a few seconds. Then, when you arrive at your destination for the day, you have to do everything together. After six weeks of doing everything alone it’s taken a fair bit of getting used to, but watching him talk to all the younger women we come across is hilarious, and he uses the word ‘coolio’s’ for things that he likes and that makes it all worthwhile.
Yesterday’s ride started with a 5 kilometre non-stop uphill ride out of Novi Sad, which I was able to tackle with surprising ease. After that the cycling was relatively flat, in and out of small villages and a lot of maize fields and apple orchards. We stopped at times to taste the apples straight off the trees, and at one point I grabbed on the the back of a tractor that passed us and hitched a ride for a few hundred meters up another hill. Everywhere we went people were collecting or cutting firewood in preparation for the winter (which, to me, feels like it’s already arrived), and in one town a guy was cycling along the main road with a massive pile of firewood as his seat. Life in country Serbia certainly seems very simple and, as Maurizio pointed out, maybe that’s the way they like it.
Before arriving in Serbia I spent two days in Croatia and it started off a little more adventurously than I’d planned. It was a day in which I wasn’t exactly sure of the distance I needed to cover, but I had booked accomodation in advance, so I was locked into arriving at a specific location (all of my most stressful days have had this in common). By the time the sun had set I was only 5km away so I wasn’t too worried, however it turns out the signpost I’d followed (don’t ever put your faith in the Eurovelo signposts) took me in the exact wrong direction. By the time it got fully dark I found myself in the middle of the bush with a broken light and being chased by wolves. That’s a lie, but I was surrounded by wild deer which is basically the same thing. The deer were obviously just spooked by my presence, but when I heard them running around me I had all kinds of images of the wild beasts that must be chasing them. Not to mention the fact that at any moment the deer themselves could have wiped me out and trampled me into the ground. I had sudden pulse of fear and adrenaline, so I turned around and peddled as fast as I possibly could all the way back to the road. I then followed that the long way around to my accomodation, all the while ashamed of myself for being scared of deer.
The morning I left Tata I was hesitant to even start my ride. The forecast was bad and I knew it was going to be a big day, but I was more bothered by the fact that I wasn’t sure how big. Every blog or map I’d read suggested a different distance, and my little detour the day before had thrown a bit of extra uncertainty in the mix. On some good advice I opted to avoid the mountain range and take the long way around to Budapest, and I was rewarded with some smooth and easily navigable roads for most of the day. Unfortunately half way through the day it started raining and I had no option but to keep going. It ended up being my biggest day so far (131km), and to top it off I spent the last hour having to carry my bike up and down stairs in the castle district of Budapest in order to reach Gabor’s house (apparently centuries ago they didn’t build these places with cyclists in mind).
Gabor is an older man I met in Broome about 6 months ago. He hurt his leg on a camel ride on the beach one afternoon and I offered to drive him back to his resort. We had a bit of small talk and he used the line that everyone does when they know nobody is ever going to take them up on it: “If you’re ever in my country you can come stay with me”. He didn’t realise I was planning a trip to Hungary, and he may have regretted those words immediately, but when I turned up dripping at wet at 9pm on a sunday he welcomed me in like an old friend, poured me some wine and served me a traditional soup he’d prepared. Gabor, who it turns out is actually Sir Gabor, a prominent university professor and kind of a big deal in Hungary, hosted me for two nights and was an absolute legend. I used the opportunity to do some sightseeing and visit one of the local health spa baths I’d heard so much about. It was good to have a bit of relaxing down-time!
After leaving Budapest on Tuesday I ended up in Rackeve. That night I had been trying to sleep for a while but in the room across the hall there had been a constant, muffled, but very loud conversation going on for a while. Now I’m not a patient person by any means, but it does take a lot for me to actively show my anger to strangers. So by this stage I’d really had enough. I put my pants on, took a deep breath and stormed out my door into the open doorway across the hall. I ended up face to face with two big men in army uniform in the process of trying to restrain a third, heavily intoxicated, man. The three of them paused and stared directly at me. All I could do was nod an ‘as you were’ before I stepped backwards at an increasing pace into my own room, locking the door behind me.
That was an exciting end to a dull day, possibly the most miserable day of the ride so far; From start to finish it was cold and raining and the scenery, which consisted of industrial wasteland and more Soviet-era housing complexes, was hardly worth looking up for. I spent the first hour of the day trying to navigate my way out of an abandoned railway yard on the fringes of Budapest, without knowing how I even got in there in the first place. so by the time that was done I was already well behind for the day. By the time I arrived in Rackeve, after having only cycled 65 kilometres for the day, I was ready to call it quits. I stopped in a Pizzeria that specialised in Mexican food(?), and asked about a place to stay after ordering some nachos. The young girl pointed me in the direction of a panzio (basically a small motel) before delivering my ‘nachos’ (corn chips on plate with a cheese sauce placed in the centre) a few minutes later. After an awkward confrontation with a homeless-looking lady who’d been filling up a water bottle in the toilet, and who’s only words in English were “I love you baby”, I made my way to the place I’d been recommended and was welcomed by a very enthusiastic Hungarian man.
If you don’t speak the local languages east of Austria the go-to seems to be German over English, so I’m generally greeted with “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” when it becomes obvious that I’m foreign, which is mostly upon first glance. I always reply “ein bisschen”, which is technically true; I do speak a little German. It’s just that my German vocabulary consists of those two words which I already used, and a few lines that I’m not going to use on an old Hungarian man. So we battled our way through the check in process, but when it came time to pay he shook his head at the credit card. I was ready to give up and go somewhere else when he insisted he drive me to the ATM 5km down the road. Initially i was a little worried at how keen he was to have someone staying at his place, like it was some kind of novelty rather than his legitimate business, but I decided I was too cold and wet to worry about it so I shrugged my shoulders and off we went.
Anywhere else I’ve been in Europe I would have expected the cash only system but Hungary seems to have adopted Paypass as the preferred method of payment – the first time I’ve even come across is since leaving Australia – and I’d become complacent again about having cash on me. Another surprising observation I made in Hungary was the abundance of Solarium studios, even in tiny villages where people were still using horse and cart on the road and a hot meal was impossible to find. Who cares about food and modern convenience when you’ve got a sweet tan, right?
At this stage I’ve covered over 3,300km, and have roughly 1,000 to go. I’m spending a day or two in Belgrade because the forecast is awful, plus it’s the last major city I’ll pass through before the Black Sea so I’m trying to soak up as much civilisation as I can. The Danube itself almost seems like an ocean now compared to the small river it was near its source in Germany, and I’m hoping that for the remainder of the trip I’ll see a lot more of it than I have for the past few days. I’m caught in two minds between wanting to get the trip over with before winter fully sets in, and wanting to take my time and experience as much of this part of the world as possible. Ultimately money, or lack of it, is going to be the deciding factor and I’m planning a return to Broome for some time in early November. Hopefully the wet season can hold off for a bit longer!
As of right now I’ve raised over $18,500 for Cystic Fibrosis research on this ride, and I’m less than $1,500 away from my $20,000 target (thanks for the maths help there Paul). If you would like to read more about my personal story, or donate to the cause, you should check out my donation page here.
Massive thanks to anyone who’s donated or even offered support in the way of encouragement so far!
Cover Image: It may have been my longest day of cycling, but arriving in Budapest at night was one of the most spectacular sights of the trip so far.