I write this sitting on a terrace overlooking the Danube, just 20km from the Romanian border. The sun is shining; our life on the road is good. Unfortunately in the last couple of weeks this has not always been the case.
The morning we were leaving Budapest, we woke up to a shock reminder that life can be taken suddenly from us without warning with the passing of Steven’s much loved grandfather, Ted. We know that he was following our adventures closely, and although ours is not a journey that he would likely wanted to have embarked on, he was very proud of Steven as well as his many other grandchildren and great grandchildren. We are particularly thinking of Bessie, Blossom, JR and Auntie Donna at this time, but take comfort from the fact there are so many happy memories for you all to look back on fondly.
At this time, when we were feeling like we needed a little bit of NZ “home” in Hungary we found it in the form of our first Warm Showers host, Milán. But first we had to get there. We had more than 100km to cycle that day and at about 3pm we had hit the wall, in desperate need of both food and sugar. We found the only place open in a small village about 30km from our destination. A pizzeria, perfect! Little did we realise that we had managed to order a half metre diameter pizza – it was huge! Even two ravenous cyclists with usually bottomless pits for stomachs were dominated.
As we dragged ourselves wearily back onto our bikes we noticed off to the left, the sky was darkening and the clouds were towering on top of each other threateningly. The heat and humidity were building, a sure sign that some interesting weather was headed our way. As we reached the main road the first fat raindrops were falling and it took less than a minute before it was a full on downpour. We attempted to shelter under a rather pathetic looking tree and don our waterproofs in record time (rather difficult with heavy bikes that you can’t lean anywhere – yes, my bike stand has also succumbed to the weight of my bike). The lightening was crashing to the ground perilously close to our hiding place and the road had turned into a river, the cars skating past us in the dim light. We waited anxiously, more concerned about the lightening but pretty sure that in terms of probability, the cars were the more dangerous foe. It was certainly the worst storm that I have had the pleasure of being outside in. It eventually passed, the clouds lifted, the rumbles of thunder faded into the distance and the sun appeared immediately. To Steven’s amusement (so much so that he almost fell off his bike laughing), a bus passed me right next to an enormous puddle and the cascade of water that was thrown up fully drenched me with the same effect as if I’d ridden beneath a waterfall. Luckily I was still fully waterproofed up, but having a bucket of water thrown in my face was such a shock to me that I too almost fell off my bike.
Finally making it to Milán’s was thus a bit of a relief. We could not have been welcomed more warmly. Milán and his family are wine-makers but they make only for friends, family and local people, as is pretty common in this part of the world. There were two German cyclists staying the night as well; Hans and Eliana. We had a great evening sharing adventures and advice, eating until we were full to burst and trying the wine, which really was delicious. For those that are unaware, Warm Showers is a similar network to Couchsurfing whereby members offer a bed, a couch or a place to camp and often much more besides to other members who are on a cycling trip. It’s a great way of meeting local people as well as cutting down on accommodation costs. After our initial success, we will definitely be using this service as much as possible from now on.
The next couple of days in southern Hungary and into Serbia were fantastic cycling through very rural countryside on cycle paths and quiet roads. Local people have seemed to get more and more friendly the further south and east we travel. This was epitomised when we were cycling to our campsite on our first night in Serbia. In the opposite direction was headed a stream of tractors towing trailers laden with wooden crates, each filled to the brim with apples. Every driver smiled and waved at us as they passed, but one stopped and beckoned us to reach up and take a couple of apples with us. This was clearly not a random act of kindness as it has happened again and again throughout Serbia. Not something I can ever imagine happening at home.
They say it’s a small world and this was confirmed (as it often is) when we randomly met the wife and daughter of one of my lecturers from Southampton. This was at a campsite in Baja, and we continued to bump into them on their cycle journey from Passau to Belgrade.
Our second day in Serbia was a long ride as we had arranged to meet up with Zoran (another Warm Showers host) in Bačka Palanka, a distance of about 135km. We were excited to see first deer and then wild pigs on a long bumpy, muddy section through a nature reserve. Later, Steven was most unhappy to almost cycle straight over his most feared creature, a rather large black snake, which was slithering across the road. Steven’s fear of snakes makes him completely irrational and since then he has been unable to venture off any path without stamping his feet and yelling – rather comical for anyone watching.
Zoran treated us to a traditional Serbian BBQ (anyone who knows Steven will understand that Zoran immediately became his new best friend, having been deprived of BBQs since we left the UK), we partook in a number of beers and spent a few hours out on the town experiencing some live Serbian music at the local Irish pub. This was down a dark flight of stairs into a cigarette smoke filled basement where the bar men smoked, drank and danced behind the bar; a large, pot-bellied man sporting a Danube Bikers leather jacket sang loudly whilst glugging on a glass of white wine and a beautiful Bosnian girl with dreadlocks, odd socks and Converse high tops sat at the bar draining pints of beer and chain-smoking with tough looking men.
We left Bačka Palanka in good spirits, following the huge and tasty breakfast of cheese burek and yoghurt Zoran’s mother had prepared for us. Our panniers were slightly heavier, weighed down by Zoran’s homemade jam and a pair of hand knitted woollen socks each from Zoran’s grandmother. Luckily, our next stop Novi Sad was a mere 40km away and so we could afford a leisurely pace.
The pace in Novi Sad was far from leisurely however. This is a lively university city and we arrived in the sunshine on a Thursday afternoon to find the music pumping and the bars overflowing into the winding alleys. Everyone was having a good time. There was only one thing for it; to join in. We chose a bar based on the fact that it was playing Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits and thought we could have a quiet beer there before making a plan of attack for the rest of the evening. We could not have been more wrong. This bar was celebrating its 5th birthday and once lured inside there was no escape. In this part of the world, just drinking beer is apparently not acceptable and on multiple occasions the barman (who was also the owner) would thump down a shot of rakija, look into our eyes with the command “DRINK!” and we would have no choice but to join him and everyone else in drinking. We knew it was time to leave when the shot glasses were dispensed with and the free flowing rakija was poured directly down our throats. It was 8.30pm. We definitely can’t handle the pace in Serbia. A night never to forget… if only we could remember it all!
Novi Sad has a beautiful location on the Danube. It is probably most well known for being the home of EXIT festival, which takes place in the Petrovaradin fortress. We spent a couple of hours exploring the fortress area overlooking the river and then made our way down to the Friday market in the main square. It was full of local produce and helped explain the abundance of beehives throughout this part of the world, with every other stall selling honey and honey related products.
The ride into Belgrade from Novi Sad started by passing through the Petrovaradin fortress and straight into the first hills we have encountered since the day we left Salzburg. On the way we had a chance meeting with a “champion” barber who had won competitions across Europe and wanted nothing more than to shear Steven’s unruly locks and beard; the request was denied. We also became entangled with a wedding procession, complete with blaring horns, and men hanging out of car windows waving the Serbian flag.
Not long past this point we hit our 3,000km mark, and almost immediately two things happened to dampen our spirits. First, an old rusty spring leapt from the undergrowth and tightly entwined itself multiple times around Steven’s derailleur, bringing us to an abrupt halt. Second, the heavens opened (unsurprising really as we were entering a city) and the decision not to put on our waterproof trousers and overshoes as we thought it was just a passing shower was soon rued, as six months rain fell in the space of three hours; two of which we spent negotiating the main road into Belgrade. We were very glad to find our way to our amazing apartment and be welcomed in by Jelena, soggy and muddy as we were, to find huge slices of left over birthday cake and coffee ready to go.