I am awoken at 6am by the rising temperature. It’s going to be a hot one. This is good news for most of the people in Novi Sad, but not for us. Aleksa’s dad greets us merrily in the morning; “Do you know what day it is today?” “Um…Mayday?” “It’s barbeque day!” “Oh.” Former soviet bloc countries take 1st of May very seriously. It’s a public holiday and most shops are shut, but rather than having demos and parades, everyone just drives out to the countryside for a barbeque.
We load up our bikes, say goodbye to Aleksa, his father and mother (who has just reappeared) and set off for Belgrade. We were planning on cycling the last 90km in one day, but already the sun is scorching at 9am and we are readjusting the plan in our heads to take out the hottest part of the day to rest and include lots of peach juice and ice lolly stops along the way. We ride our bikes onto the main road and into the heavy “Barbeque Day” traffic, all honking and waving at us rather unhelpfully as they churn their exhaust fumes out into the air around us. We climb up and up and up and up and up and up a seemingly never-ending slope. The book calls this “The Holy Mountain”, but we shout other, ruder names at it as we huff and puff our way endlessly upwards in the sweltering heat.
By the time the midday heat is on us and we’re looking for shade, we’ve only done about 20km. We keep going until we see a purple Eurovelo detour sign saying “Dunav”, the Serbian name for the Danube. Excellent, yes, let’s have lunch by the river and wait for the sun to ease off a little.
What the sign doesn’t tell us is that the river may only be 5km away, but it’s 5km over a mountain. By the time we get there we are exhausted, sun-stroked and the river-side is rammed full of people barbecuing meat and playing Eurotrash and happy hardcore from big speakers in the backs of their cars. There’s also an obnoxious smell coming from somewhere around the nearby cargo-boats and there’s a motorway bridge above us. Still, we’re here now. We’re both in bad moods from the heat and the climb, but the ever-friendly Serbians insist on coming over one or two at a time and drunkenly practising their English.
With the city-folk all over the countryside, we’re worried there’ll be nowhere to stealth camp and are toying with the idea of getting a train to Belgrade. Sam is worried about letting herself down, but nervous about wild camping tonight. I don’t mind either way. My brain isn’t functioning properly and when I try to think about anything it just goes “yeah, sure, whatever”. I try explaining this to Sam, but she just thinks I’m being unhelpful. We decide to ride back to Beška, where we took the diversion. We’ll be back on our route and there’s a train station too.
By the time we get back to that purple sign it’s gone 6pm and time we’d normally start looking for a camping spot. We’re only a third of the way to Belgrade, which reminds us that Maja from CS had invited us to join her in her country house one third of the way to Belgrade. She replies to a text message saying we are welcome, but her house is back in Branstol, up the Holy Mountain. There’s no way we’re cycling back up there again, but we are next to that train station.. how about we get the train to Maja’s, then get the train back to the same spot in the morning and continue where we left off? This seems like a good middle way, so we head to the train station.
The woman in the ticket office is smiling at me, but all she can say in English is “one o’clock… One o’clock”, while holding up her index finger. It’s 7 o’clock now. I ask about the train to Belgrade and get the same response. I go outside and join Sam on a bench. A man with white hair and a moustache comes over and speaks to us in German. “No, no, we’re English.” People often assume we’re German. “My colleague will be here in five minutes”, he says, “ten minutes maximum. Very good English he speak”. Well, we have no better ideas, we might as well wait ten minutes and see what happens.
Suddenly we are surrounded by bicycles. The man with the moustache reappears with another man wearing cycling chorts and a helmet and they both shake our hands. There will be a train to Belgrade in forty minutes. I ask how much it is. “No charge, no charge,” says moustache. He hands us his business card. It says Cycling Association of Belgrade. President.
By some super-synchronisity, we have arrived at this station just in time to meet the Cycling Association returning from their weekly excursion. They have two whole coaches booked on the train with plenty of space for bikes and they have spare tickets for us. The train will be a Romantika – an old-fashioned train.
“You come, drink beer with us. Leave bikes here, no problem, no problem…” “But”, I say, looking at my watch, “won’t the train be here in ten minutes?” “Yes, we get train together, no problem, leave luggage here, is no problem.” And they whisk us away to a bar.
The train is late of course, but when it arrives it really is an old-fashioned train – how I imagine the Orient Express might look. The bikes are hung from hooks in one of the carriages and they clank and jangle together as we bump and chug our way towards Belgrade. Everyone is very interested in us. Where have we come from? Where are we going to? How long has it taken us? Where will we stay in Belgrade?
On that note, I send a message to our CS host telling him we’re on our way. It turns out he lives not in Belgrade, but Pancevo, a small town 16km away from the capital. We will need to get a train there, but the last one is 23:00. Our train isn’t due in until 22:30 and is already running very late. It will also be at a different station, across town. The men around us, eager to be of help, begin phoning train companies and even our host, to find out if there might be another train or an easier way for us. To appease them, Sam and I say we will get a youth hostel for the night, then travel to Pancevo in the morning. “Well then, you must be our guest tonight in the cycling hotel!” declares the moustachioed president, or “chief” as the others call him. What can we say but “Thank you!”
Our train arrives and we are given a cycling escort to the Hotel Dom, where we are met by Branko from the Cycling Association. Her speaks to the woman at the desk and declares we will have a four bed room so there is space for the bikes. We are only to use two of the beds though, he warns us. Our room has an en-suite with a shower and though it’s only a two star hotel, it’s a lot more than Sam and I are used to.
Now they want to take us out for another beer, so we leave bikes and luggage in the room and head down the road to a bar. We’re joined by a south African man, living in London, but staying for now in Serbia. He’s working with the cycling association and another organisation that helps countries rebuild their cycling infrastructure after a conflict. He’s very charismatic and we’re all chatting away until Sam and I are almost asleep. We head back to our hotel, laughing despite our exhaustion at the crazy day we’ve had.
In the morning there’s a knock on our door and a voice informs us that a man is here. I find Branko waiting in the foyer. Breakfast is included in our hotel price and he’s keen to see us eat some, despite our protests and attempted explanation of veganism. In the end I have some bread and jam and a coffee. Sam has an apple and some mint tea, much to the amusement of the waitress. Finally we are told we can get our own muesli from upstairs and eat it at the table. The waitress and Branko both seem to think we’re nuts.
After breakfast Branko wants to show us the city before we get our train to Pancevo. Buses are free today because it’s still a public holiday, so we leave our bikes and stuff at the hotel and get a bus into the centre. Branko walks us up to the fortress at Kalemegdan Park, pointing out all of the big buildings and establishments on the way. He seems keen to show us how modern and developed his city is. Little does he know that what we really want to see are the older damaged buildings, graffiti and punks. Branko says yes to everything we ask him. “Do you like this city?” “Yes” “Have you heard of couchsurfing?” “Yes.” “Where do we get our train?” “Yes.”
It’s time to go. Branko insists on walking us to the train station, buying our tickets, waiting with us and carrying our fully loaded bikes down to the platform and up the steps onto the train when it arrives. He really won’t let us do anything for ourselves and despite the nice sentiment, it’s becoming rather tiring. Still, the Cycling Association have all been really kind and we say profuse thank you’s as we wave goodbye.
Left Budapest. Took ages. Wrong direction. Tired.
I slept sooooo well last night in our little grove. I was asleep by 9pm and couldn’t drag myself out of my sleeping bag until twenty to nine this morning, despite having set my alarm for 7am. We managed about 30km yesterday, which isn’t so bad if you consider how long it took for us to get out of Budapest and that we went at least another 10km in the wrong direction and had to double back. We also had three punctures between us on the first day. I have actually never cycled more than 20km in one day before, so for me this is very good.
Notes about Hungary:
- People never smile. In fact, the more I am smiley and polite at them, the more they seem to frown at me in return. Sam, who is one quarter Hungarian herself, says it dates back to the communist years when you were all in it together and there was nothing to smile about.
- Old ladies in rural villages all wear the same outfits. They look a bit like this.
- There is still a peasantry. We pass many people in fields, working the land by hand in small groups. It’s hard not to feel guilty as you cycle by, carefree. What have I done to deserve this? Oh yes, I was born in England…
We have abandoned the route in the book we were following (Bikeline: Danube Bike Trail 4) and decided to follow theEurovelo 6 route instead. It’s much better signposted and doesn’t go through so many towns. We suspect Bikeline is completely funded by the little tourist attractions, restaurants and hotels the route takes you past.
Time’s ticking on and we need to get some water before we find a place to camp, but there’s no towns for miles. We see a couple of houses and decide to ask there. A man comes out of his house as we are approaching, probably because of the dogs barking at us next door. We show him our empty bottles and he takes them from us and walks round to the side of his house where he has a pump. It takes a long time for the pump to start working and then he has to drain off some water first, presumably because it gets better after that for drinking. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but we communicate through mimes and gestures and Sam gets to practice the Hungarian she has learned, which delights him. When the bottles are full he invites us in for coffee. We look at one another. Neither of us drinks coffee anymore, but I decide this will be an exception for me. I like the man and don’t want to refuse his hospitality. We go inside. He has a small and humble house – little kitchen with gas cooker and table and a small lounge with the television on. We sit at the table and he makes a coffee for me and a hot water for Sam so she can put one of our teabags in. We sit and chat for a while, with lots of drawings and miming, the way you do when you have limited shared language.
It’s time to go as night is falling. I go and use his outdoor loo, collect some water from the pump to flush it with like he showed me. Sam comes outside. “He says we can stay the night”, she tells me. “How do you feel about it?” I ask. She says she feels ok about it and wouldn’ t mind staying if I want to. He seems very nice and unthreatening so we decide to stay. He offers us use of his cooker so Sam gets straight on it. He hangs around and watches what we are doing, clearly curious about all of our strange food items. Lots of laughing and misunderstandings when Sam’s Hungarian means she translates for me that he is offering me a beer and then salt appears, etc. He gives us some of his wine, homemade and very strong, but nice. It turns out he doesn’t have a separate bedroom, but insists we take the bed while he sleeps on the sofa next to it. We get a fairly good night’s sleep, despite his terrible snoring. Fortunately we both have ear plugs.
Very sad to leave our new friend this morning. He offered us the room in his attic which he has kitted out. He seemed to want us to stay longer. He seems very lonely. We gave him our email addresses. He has a computer in his bedroom-lounge, which he doesn’t know how to use, but says he will get his daughter to email us. She lives in London and works for the BBC. His son lives somewhere else too and his wife died years ago. It’s all very sad, particularly for Sam who had a Hungarian grandfather. I think he reminds her of him a little.
Waiting for Sam to come out of shop in Baja – cycled like hell to get here before shops shut. 4pm now, all ok. We found a MaxiCoop. Now I wait with baited breath in the hope Sam will find Manner, food of the Gods. It’s like pink wafers mixed with Nutella, it’s vegan and we were practically living on it for the first few days but haven’t been able to find it at all for the past 50km. I dare not fear the worst.
I’d like to take it easy for rest of day, but not so sure about Sam who gets impatient when we’re not hurtling along concrete at speed – like this morning when most of our bike path was covered by a gravelly kind of quick-sand.
More cyclists starting to appear on route now. We met two yesterday – boys from France, all kitted out in the best high-tech gear. Quite a contrast to us bike-punks with our numerous bags strapped to the back with bungees and bits of old inner tube. Sam got a bit impatient when I started talking to them and I suspect she was embarrassed as with all of our numerous punctures and Manner breaks, we’re struggling to average 50km a day when these guys say they do 100. I don’t mind though. I’m quite proud of our DIY, non-competitive relaxed riding style.
Have most of day off after both getting extremely knackered yesterday – we even paid for a hostel in Baja, unheard of! We were expecting to be in Croatia by now but have been moving very slowly. I don’t mind so much and it’s nobody’s fault, but Sam has been getting quite stressed. We talked it through this morning. I’m really happy to do a big long cycle tomorrow and Sam has found what seems to be the source of her repetetive front wheel punctures – one of the main things that has been delaying us. She has kept the thorn in her necklace as a reminder.
Some kind of festive thing happening in Baja, which is the “cultural and economic capital of the region”. Involves horse racing, folk music and women in fancy dresses, men in jodhpurs. Go to have a look. People staring at us a lot. Notice men wearing the whale on t-shirts (see last post).
Checked email before leaving Baja. We might not go to Croatia at all now, in which case we hope to be in Serbia tomorrow afternoon. The route in our book goes through Croatia, but we are not sure about the Eurovelo 6 and the webpage isn’t much help. Leaving the EU seems like quite a significant event for me, although I’ll likely be back in it again soon enough. Pete emailed with news of a Dzogchen retreat in Hungary at the end of next month.
Sitting on a beach on bank of Danube while Sam cooks dinner on a small fire. One of the best things about traveling with Sam is that she’s *always* in the mood to cook. She sees it as her chill-out time. So, she does the evening meal and I take care of breakfast as that’s when she has her faffing time. Yes, I have my own caterer! I just put our tents up as the sun went down – whole river went pink. Beautiful here, very idyllic.
I have been very tired while cycling, especially the evenings, but now I seem to be getting used to it more. My wrists hurt and my arse is sore, despite my nice new saddle (the one I had to buy twice after it was stolen in Budapest). Mostly though, I feel very healthy both mentally and physically. I don’t really mind where we go or what we do and everything is new and exciting.
Our path has split: One way points to Serbia, one to Croatia, another to Austria and Slovakia – back the way we have come. Hell of a crossroads. I take pictures (now lost, sadly). Now it’s time to decide, will we go to Croatia? We flip a coin. Flower: Serbia it is.
Serbian border. Woohoo! We made it! More on Serbia next post…
I was terrified of getting a puncture and missing my train. The previous day I got one on the spiky, glass-covered streets of Berlin. It was my second in Berlin, third in my lifetime, ever. But then, I have only been cycling for a couple of years. I was a late starter – put off by an accident I had when I was twelve: hill – park bench – slide – concrete. I snapped my two front teeth in half, exposing raw nerve. After that the bike just sat in the garage until Dad saw I wasn’t using it and asked for it back.
I became a born again cyclist in Brighton two years ago. A friend went traveling and lent me her BMX – a bike small enough for me, but with no gears hilly Brighton was tricky to navigate. So I made myself a “new” bike out of recycled parts and lots and lots of help from Cranks DIY Bike Maintenance Workshop in Brighton. Florence the bike cost me a total of £11 to build, and although she was heavy (like a tank in a petticoat), she’s the non-human thing I always miss most when traveling.
The bike I pedaled, loaded down with stuff, across Berlin this morning is the same one I picked up in Copenhagen just before the Cop 15 demonstrations. I donated 50DKK for her, which some people said was a lot, but €6 isn’t much for a bike and despite needing the odd touch up, she was pretty much ready to ride. I knew we would be together for a while.
When my friend Samantha emailed from Brighton to tell me about her cycling adventure from Vienna – Budapest – Belgrade – Montenegro – who knows where… demanding to know when I would meet up with her, I thought maybe my two-wheeled companion and I could go on a trip.
Now here I am munching Salzstangen (like long, straight pretzels) and drinking Yerba Mate on the train to Budapest. Today is Friday. My train gets in at 22:32 and I will follow my printed map to the host of my Couchsurfing host in her flat in Buda and stay with her until I meet up with Sam on Monday.