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.