Country Archives: Serbia

The End

This is the end of the Spring 2013 Balkans trip.

I spent the previous days with friends in Belgrade and Pančevo. Amongst other things, we went to see the finals of the Serbian Water Polo (aka water ball) League A between BVK Crvena Zvezda (Red Stars) and Radnički Kragujevac. Of course Crvena Zvezda won! ;) Quite emotional and great fun to watch!

This morning was a little stressful. I had to leave at 5:15am to cycle the 21km to Belgrade and catch the train to Budapest. Of course I slept too long and left too late, so that I arrived just a few minutes before the train’s departure.
I had no ticket for the bike but the conductors said it’s ok to buy one on the train. Later, somehow, I forgot and fell asleep. The Hungarian conductors were not so relaxed. They kept the bike compartment locked shut. “No bike ticket? Problem!” I had the choice between ticket with receipt or “special offer”. I made it clear that I had just a few Serbian Dinars left, no Hungarian Forints, no Euros. Had I bought the ticket in Serbia it would have cost me around 500 Dinars. Eventually they were happy with the 1200 Dinars I had (approx. 10 Euros) which was still much cheaper for me than the 40 Euros they had quoted before (ticket + fine with receipt). And I had just paid the first bribe in my life…

Tomorrow I’ll head back home.

This trip was a tad different compared to all the previous ones. Not only did I not travel ‘on my todd’, we also cycled less kilometers per day than expected. Baby steps, we called it. Something I had to get used to, but it was definitely worth it.

The Balkans are amazingly beautiful. Sometimes I wished we’d had more time to stay in some places. Melnik, Lake Prespa and Srebrenica are just a few examples.

There were few places were war-inflicted damage was still obviously visible. Many houses in the villages were abandoned and rotting away, but in most cases, and to the untrained eye, it was not obvious whether they were left because of the conflict, or what had caused the damages in the first place. After all, rural depopulation is a common phenomenon not just here. I’m pretty sure, though, that the war is responsible for much of the depopulation.
We saw mined areas in Kosovo near the border to Albania, near Srebrenica, along the Croatian/Serbian border, as well as near the Greek/Bulgarian border (unrelated to the war).

The societal issues between the ex-Yugoslavian ethnicities are very well present. Political statements printed on shirts or sprayed on walls are not uncommon, e.g. pro or contra an independent Kosovo, depending on the region. I haven’t come across open hatred, like e.g. between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

My worries regarding entering Serbia with the Kosovar stamps in our passports were unfounded. We had no problems at all.

We cycled a little more than 1800km in total.

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Novi Sad - Pančevo

I started late, with just some burek for breakfast, and had a look at Novi Sad’s port again, the right one this time. :P Still no luck with any vessels going to Belgrade.

So, cycling. It was mostly sunny and the tail wind was awesome. The ride went by quickly. Total average speed was more than 25kph.

I’m staying with friends in Pančevo. We went so see some of their friends to watch the first round of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest. Some things seem to follow me. :) Serbia didn’t make it to the finals, unfortunately.

Cycled: 118km

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Ilok – Novi Sad

I slept in this morning and left around noon. Crossed the Danube to Serbia and started looking for something, anything, that could have transported me on the river, just for the fun of it. The port of Bačka Palanka, the first town on the Serbian side, was fenced off and closed. Later there were lots of small boats ashore, but none on the water. I followed the EuroVelo 6, a cycling route that crosses Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, to Novi Sad. The weather was chilly and it kept drizzeling. Two years ago I followed the EV6 from Pančevo for awhile.

In Novi Sad’s port I started looking for a ship again. The only one there was a Ukrainian vessel that didn’t want to take me. :( Traffic is almost nil on the Danube. I’m a bit confused.

Novi Sad is Serbia’s second largest city. It has lots of bars and restaurants, a large and crowded pedestrian zone, and lovely narrow alleys. I quite like it.

Cycled: 57km

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Mokra Gora – Srebrenica

When I paid our landlady this morning I felt a bit cheated. Apparently she had quoted the night’s fee for one person yesterday. The cheap room became somewhat pricier…

The morning weather looked fine, but when we left Mokra Gora it was drizzeling.

Our plan was to reach Srebrenica today. For that we had 3 major climbs to manage. We started with the first one right outside Mokra Gora, then descended a little to Kremna, climbed again to almost 1000m altitude, and descended to Bajina Bašta at around 300m in the Drina valley. We crossed the Drina and entered Bosnia and Herzegovina again. From there the last climb was back up to 900m, which took us 2 hours. The weather had improved again but at the top it was chilly, around 13°C.

The descend to Srebrenica, especially the last kilometers, was fascinatingly beautiful. The road goes along a mountain ridge with steep green slopes on either side. Despite the difficult conditions, people cultivate parts of the slopes and have built houses next to the road.

We had climbed more than 1600m in total today and were quite tired, so we checked into the first pension we came across after our arrival in Srebrenica

Cycled: 79km

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Somewhere along R114 – Mokra Gora

There was more rain last night but the morning promised a sunny day.

We continued on the road to Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly down-hill. At some random junction we stopped to check the GPS and were quite surprised to see that we were already in Bosnia and Herzegovina! No border signs, no check-points, no nothing. We were in a village and I asked an older guy what this was, Bosnia, or Serbia, or what??

He said ‘Bosnia’. ‘Until the bridge down there, then there is Serbia again.’ We were completely confused. It turned out Goran, that was his name, had worked in Austria for 37 years and speaks German (with quite a bit of an Austrian accent that was hard to understand sometimes), voastehst mi? We asked if we could refill our water bottles and were invited to sit there with him and his son. We then were ‘forced’ to: 3 glasses of rakija (a strong home-made spirit, I gave up after 2 glasses), a beer, a couple of boiled eggs. We received one litre of rakija, a bar of chocolate, and a couple more boiled eggs for the road. In between his nephew came over (with more eggs) for a rakija, we asked all kinds of questions about the war and the borders, and he told us things about his time in Austria.

So we were in Bosnia, but a Serbian enclave was just down the road that is not on any of our maps. His son was a Serbian border guard and he received his pension in Serbian Dinars. Total verrückt, voastehst mi? His son (and also his nephew) had fought in the war for 3 years.

Eventually we said Good Bye and cycled on – slightly tipsy – but soon had to stop at a Serbian border check-point. Ah, we were entering the enclave! Nope, we were leaving it, we learned. A few kilometers further – a Bosnian check-point. Now we were in Bosnia proper, finally. Oh, and the Serbian flag was hanging from quite a few flag poles in Bosnia. Total verrückt do, voastehst mi?

Another climb, another down-hill section, another grand canyon. The Balkans are really, really beautiful…

We left Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late afternoon for Serbia – again. This time it was expected, though. We are in Mokra Gora, a couple of kilometers from the border.

Cycled: 64km

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Djurdjevića Tara – Somewhere along R114

We continued our ride in a northish direction to the town of Pljevlja, where we had lunch and discussed our options. Either northwest to Bosnia and Herzegovina, or north to Serbia. We modified all our previous plans and got tricked into riding to the north by the routing engine.

So at 4pm we left Pljevlja and climbed out of the valley towards the Serbian border. To our surprise there were no road signs pointing at Serbia and traffic was very low. The Montenegrin check-point consisted only of a small hut manned by 2 or 3 border guards, who happily gave us our exit stamps, and a gate. To our confusion there was no Serbian check-point.

From the border the road went down-hill quite nicely, and we could see an impressive-looking canyon ahead. It became obvious that we would cycle through there. But it was quite late already and we pitched our tents above the entrance to the canyon, not far from the road at a quiet spot.

The road we’re on goes more or less straight from the Montenegrin border to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The distance between the borders is just some 30km and there are no main roads (maybe there are some tracks) that connect this part of Serbia with the ‘mainland’. The area is beautiful and seriously invites for some hiking.

Cycled: 67km

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Donji Milanovac – Vidin

From here the Danube is forced to turn north due to some hills. It continues to form the Iron Gate Gorges. I turned south instead to cut off that bend. First the road followed a number of small streams to a high plateau, then descended to Negotin, the last city in Serbia before the Bulgarian border.

In the center of Negotin I met 5 other cyclists traveling on Eurovelo 6. Frank & Franka (going to Indonesia), Sabine & Vincent (going to the Black Sea), and Piet (going to Iran). Joined them for lunch and for the rest of the ride to Vidin in Bulgaria. They’re a fun bunch to cycle with.

Piet went across the border first because he didn’t have a Serbian entry stamp in his passport. The grim-looking and unfriendly lady who checked our passports noticed this fact immediately but let him through eventually. On the Bulgarian side the officers where much friendlier and they even stamped our passports just for the fun of it (Bulgaria is a EU member).

Bregovo, on the Bulgarian side of the border crossing, is a pretty run-down village. We missed the turn-off to the Eurovelo6 along the Danube and cycled straight on to Vidin.

Shopped for food in Vidin and then started looking for a suitable camp site at the Danube. Got stopped by the police and our passports checked. They probably tried to tell us that camping wasn’t possible/allowed here but we continued anyway and found a place after nightfall. Cooked some fine dinner, had a quick swim in the Danube and went to bed after midnight.

Fun Fact about Bulgaria: The meaning of nodding and shaking one’s head is reversed, that is, Bulgarians shake their head in agreement and nod in disagreement.

Top speed: 63kph
Cycled: 115km

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Veliko Gradište - Donji Milanovac

Not a successful day.

The ride along the Danube was nice. Traffic was low, almost negligible, the road was often in the shade and in relatively good condition. Did a little detour on an old part of the road through a beautiful valley.

The countryside is now almost mountainous and much more interesting. It is called the ‘Iron Gates’ Gorge and here the Danube marks the border between the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkans. I was riding on the southern bank of the river while Romania begins on the northern one.

Unfortunately, the head wind prevented me from setting new speed and distance records. Most of this road is also identical with the Eurovelo 6, a cycling trail that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Black Sea.

So I ended up in Donji Milanovac, a pretty touristy and comparatively expensive town.

From here the Danube makes a short detour to the north, where the Iron Gates Gorge continues, while I had hoped to continue uphill to Negotin and Bulgaria. But it was too late to attempt the crossing today.

Cycled: 79km

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Pančevo - Veliko Gradište

This night my right shoulder was aching and I didn’t sleep well. I’m getting old. Fortunately the pain was gone in the morning.

The plan for today was to leave between 8 and 9am and go as far as possible.

Well. I spent the morning with Kača and her brother, sister and grandma, having breakfast and lunch. Then went to town to get some postcards and met Tijana for a few minutes.

I finally left at half past 1pm!

This was day four and the last day of crossing the Pannonian Plain which extends from Budapest to Belgrade. Being entirely flat, it was convenient to cycle at first (with a nice tail wind) but soon got a bit boring due the lack of any interesting visual features.

It is mostly being used for agriculture, I’d guess 98%, and there’s loads of pestizides being sprayed onto the fields everywhere. Both commercial sized and backyard style ones. You also see people with hand-operated pumps spray chemicals against grass and stuff onto pavement and along their houses’ front walls.

The villages and towns on the plain have some very beautiful old houses – which are mostly in various states of decay. On the other hand, there are many newly built houses, huge ones, in a somewhat mediterranean style, with columns and sculptures and stuff. And they are unfinished or uninhabited. It’s a total mystery to me.

Cycled east from Pančevo, then crossed the Danube. Met a guy from Germany, riding his bike from Greece to Würzburg.

The first hills appeared near Smederevo, just south of the Danube. Had some of the sandwiches for lunch which Kača’s mum had prepared for me near that city.

Cycled east towards the Danube. Even though it is now hillier, the countryside is still used heavily for agriculture. Didn’t want to camp and asked for a hotel. The guy took a screwdriver and scratched a map into the rusty surface of the water tank his tractor was pulling (or was it pestizides?). He directed me to Veliko Gradište, which is somewhat off my route but I found a cheap and simple place to sleep here. The hotel is for sale, by the way. Contact me if you’re interested, I’ll give you the details. :)

Cycled: 115km (about 10 of which were ‘wasted’ by backtracking to Veliko Gradište)

A bit less than 700km to Varna.

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Pančevo, day 2

Got myself a little cold on Friday in the bloody wind and subsequently didn’t sleep so well. On top of that, my left shoulder was aching all day.

Tijana, a friend of Kača’s, is friends with Nina, Serbia’s contestant at the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. Her song, Čardoban (Magical), is the one that came in the orange-yellow(?) retro look.

Kača’s sister was to meet Nina, and I asked if I could join them, too. How cool is it to meet an ESC star?! :)

Nina (her real name is Danica Radojičić) had been singing with her bands for a while when the ESC song’s writer, Kristina Kovač, discovered her on youtube and approached her regarding the ESC.

She was rehearsing with her band Legal Sex Department tonight (in Belgrade) and we could watch/listen for a while, take some pictures, chat a little and got autographs.

Heard that a pro-Mladic demonstration in Belgrade’s down town had gone wrong and folks were demolishing shop windows.

Later we (Kača, Tijana, Miloš and me) went to let the queues dance at some billard place. They also got me a fare-well present (some local specialties that I’ll try to send home)! So sweet! :)

Tomorrow I’ll continue on my quest to eventually reach the Caucasus. I’ll be in a bit of a hurry now to reach the next ferry from Varna, but I had a great time here in Pančevo and the extended stay was worth every minute. I’ll be parting with a sad eye.

Fun fact about Serbia: A new law in effect since about 2 weeks or so forces bars to close at 2am, even on weekends. How retarded is that?

Nina!

Nina!

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Pančevo

Lazy day. Heat. Heavy rain.

Watching the Champion’s League finals. Maybe going to Belgrade later tonight.

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Zrenjanin - Pančevo

Had breakfast next to elder folks who were switching back and forth between German and Hungarian with every other sentence they spoke. Interesting.

Read on the Internet that there have been violent clashes between anti-government demonstrators and the police in Georgia. Hrmpf. It’s less than two weeks before I’ll arrive in Poti, Georgia.

Had a stroll around Zrenjanin’s center and left the town at noon. Had lunch in Ečka. Have been asked for directions again today, the third time since Budapest.

The headwind today was strong and horrible. Horrible! Met a Dutch couple cycling from Novi Sad to Bulgaria.

When I finally arrived in Pančevo I was welcomed by my friend Mia’s aunt and her family. Later Mia’s cousin and her friends took me to Belgrade and showed me around.

Belgrade is a fascinating and beautiful city. Its looks remind me of East Berlin back in the 1980’s. Of course, it also has all the western modern stuff, cars, shops, clothing etc. and is extremely lively and vibrant. I love it.

Kača’s friends invited me to watch the Champion’s League finals tomorrow, so I’ll probably stay another day.

Cycled: 76km

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Szeged - Zrenjanin

About 1000km to go to the Black Sea. And I’d hoped to cut off almost a quarter of that today.

A friend’s cousin had offered a ride from Pančevo to Belgrade tomorrow. Since Belgrade isn’t on my route that was a welcome break from the tour. Unfortunately, Pančevo is about 230km from Szeged. Only once have I cycled 230 kilometers in one day before and that was without luggage.

Lost some time finding a way across the border to Serbia. The old road No. 5’s border crossing is long closed and there’s only the new motorway crossing. Ended up using the motorway for a few kilometers, which is not officially allowed but tolerated by the police of both countries. Border formalities were hassle-free. A quick passport check on both sides and a quick question: “Where are you going?” – “Bulgaria”.

The countryside has been flat since Budapest. No mountains, no hills, no nothing, just flat. Especially here on the Serbian side there is a serious lack of trees, too. It’s been a challenge at times to find a shady spot for a break.

Met an Australian cycling couple coming from Jordan, and a few road bike riders.

I didn’t make it to Pančevo. I’m in Zrenjanin, approx. 75km from Pančevo and apparently very close to the village of Lazarevo where Yugoslavian ex-general and war criminal Ratko Mladic was caught this morning.

Cycled: 173km (which includes about 20km riding inside Zrenjanin evaluating other options of getting to Pančevo (bus, train) and eventually looking for a place to stay!)

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