The reason we decided to stick to the Danube from Belgrade, as opposed to cutting across Serbia to Niš is because we had kindly been invited to stay with Sanja and Bobi in the village of Jabukovac. Thanks must go to Matt, my boss from when I was living in the real world for helping to organise this. The experience is without question the highlight, of a highlight filled journey and we genuinely feel we have made life long friends with not only Sanja and Bobi, but all of their incredible family!
Getting to Jabukovac from Donji Milanovac, where we had enjoyed breath-taking views from the lofty position of Kapetan Mišin Breg, involved the first big hill of the journey. It took a full hour to cycle the paltry distance of 6km, which, as you can imagine, is quite soul destroying. Had it not been for the beautiful effect that the onset of autumn is having on the trees, providing countless hues of colour, I am sure our souls would have been completely destroyed. They were not; and we eventually summited, and coasted mostly downhill to the small village of Štubik, notable as I found the Serbian equivalent of Mallowpuffs (IMO the world’s finest biscuit).
We turned off at Štubik towards Jabukovac and within 10 minutes we knew we were going to love it there. A car slowly passed by, and afforded us the whole use of our side of the road (something that cycle tourists treasure). About 50 metres up the road, it stopped, reversed, and came to rest right next to us. Conversation then flowed in perfect English… “Are you lost? Where are you going? You know the bridge is out because of the floods? Do you need directions or help?” It is fair to say we were taken aback! It took a while to explain what we were doing, (mainly because my pronunciation of Jabukovac was disgraceful) but eventually it was understood. The reply that was forthcoming made us feel at ease and at home immediately. “Oh, you are staying with Sanja and Bobi, you are going to have a great time!”
On arrival into Jabukovac we were greeted by Sanja, and her youngest daughter Angela at the local church and then led to their shop where some business needed to be attended to. Katie and I soaked in as much of our latest new home as we could. We were then taken back to the family house to meet Emily (Sanja and Bobi’s eldest daughter), as well as neighbours, grandparents, and great grandparents, most of who live in the same large house. When Bobi arrived home from work it was time to consume an incredibly large and tasty lunch before we were taken on the first of our many excursions around the region.
Vratna river gorge was the first location. This is a particularly impressive area with large “gates” having been created over millennia and a small, authentic, working monastery. It was very interesting from our point of view, because as cycle tourists we rarely stray from the path, and although we see a lot more than normal tourists we only really scratch the surface. Being taken around by locals gets you under the skin of an area, and makes your experience richer for it. This was highlighted with the monastery; had Katie and I been by ourselves we would probably have been reluctant to enter such a small place, with no tourists (in case we were offending anyone). With Sanja and Bobi (whose father is a priest and sometimes presides over weddings in the monastery) we felt infinitely more comfortable. On entering the small chapel I was completely blown away. Blown away in the same way I was when I first saw the Pyramids, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Valley of the workers!
Inside were two ladies, one reciting from the bible in a beautifully tuneful voice, and the other watching over her. The singing was in a very old language, halfway between modern day Serbian and Russian and had such a profound effect on me that I was almost brought to tears. I’m afraid I do not have the English skills of a wordsmith to fully paint this picture, as it is beyond me and it would be an injustice. The only thing I can liken it to is the first time I can remember hearing Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of Pokarekare Ana as a child (and even then I am not sure it paints what I am looking for).
Completely buzzing, and entirely blown away by the experiences of the previous day, it was with much excitement that we were driven slightly out of Jabukovac, up a flood-ravaged track to one of the farms. When told the night before that we would visit the farm where the deer were being raised, I had pictures of vast open spaces and deer grazing in the blistering sun. This picture could not have been more incorrect, and I am glad that it was. What we found was something more akin to an African wildlife park where the deer are free to roam in their natural habitat and are difficult (read nigh-on impossible) to see. To be honest, we were lucky to see the one deer that we did see, but it did not detract in anyway from the experience. Bobi showed us around with much enthusiasm and we lapped it up. We felt like intrepid explorers fighting our way through the undergrowth to great vantage points, all the while being educated in this and that; “That mushroom is not safe to eat! This is where the deer have been foraging! That would be a good place to view the wildlife at sunset!” Etc, etc…
Initially walking through the gates of the farm, Katie and I had both noticed the beehives off to the right; at the end of our walk around the farm we were allowed to don the beekeepers outfits and take a look inside the hives. Ever since I was a child I have been intrigued about the inner workings of the beehive and the magic of honey production. We saw a hive full to the brim of honey, we saw empty hives, and we saw hives with “lazy bees”. To a lot of readers, this probably does not sound that exciting, but we loved it and on leaving Jabukovac we gladly accepted the extra weight of “home made” honey from Sanja. It will no doubt give us energy when we hit the wall, and will go wonderfully well on the cold mornings we now have, when mixed with warm milk (thanks for that tip Sanja ☺).
On our final full day we enjoyed many exciting treats and adventures; but it was the trip to Rajac and its famous wine cellars (for wine tasting) that I want to elaborate on. The cellars are slightly out of the village and reminded us of the cellars in Milan’s village of Bölcske, back in Hungary. Most of the cellars have fallen into disrepair, but the functioning ones are excellent.
One had been turned into a hotel like establishment, with four rooms on the top floor (slightly above ground level) and a large expansive area on the lower floor (slightly below ground level). The lower floor housed a huge, solid, wooden table, much like what you could imagine adorning old coach houses in the middle ages. Thankfully, for the sake of the table, it was solid, as it was surrounded by burly men and covered in a feast of local produce to make the mouth water. Accompanying the food was more wine than is possible to drink; although, by the rowdy, good-hearted nature of the congregation, they were giving it a good nudge.
Of the other cellars that were not in disrepair, we entered three, and they all had the same feel. They were genuine cellars with wine makers going about their business. The wine makers were glad to see us and could not wait to get glasses of wine in our hands (as quickly as possible). At one stage I had four glasses on the go, these were not small glasses either, but full to the brim glasses, suffice to say we particularly enjoyed this experience. The more wine we had, the more comical the delivery mechanism of the wine became; the wine maker would un-cork a barrel, insert a hose, suck to get the wine flowing and then syphon directly to our glass. There was certainly no pretence; it was just good old fashioned enjoyment. You either liked the wine, or you didn’t and they would move on. When it came time to pay, they all downright refused to take anything. A truly enjoyable day!
It would be a mistake to think that what I have written covers everything, as I have only really scratched the surface. If I was to write of all our experiences in the Jabukovac area it would be a ten thousand-word essay, take two months, and be counterproductive to actually cycling across the world. I have not even touched on the yearly farmers market, the weekly market, sharing fantastic coffee (and doughnuts) with Sanja’s family, Negotin’s museums and restaurants, our visit to the church in Jabukovac, harvesting grapes (for wine of course), foraging for mushrooms, the countless calories we consumed, the list goes on and on and on…
Sanja, Bobi, Emily, Angela, and family, thank you so much for everything. It was without question the most spoilt we have ever been. Getting an insight into Serbian life has been a fantastic experience and one that Katie and I will hold close to our hearts for the rest of our lives. We are in debt to you all, and you are more than welcome in New Zealand anytime, where we would attempt (but surely fall short) to repay the hospitality you have shown us. When we inevitably return to Europe on holiday at some point in the future we would love to head back to Jabukovac and taste that wine we helped harvest (albeit only one bunch of grapes) ☺
All the best, and lots of love, The Pedalling Prescotts x