Part two of my foray out of Western Europe and into the East, this post covers Budapest to Belgrade.
Leaving Budapest to the north behind me, I had 4 days to get to Belgrade where another couch awaited me. Hungary doesn’t have many natural resources, but it makes up for it with many many hectares of flat, fertile farmland near the many rivers that flow through the country, therefore the days were big and easy with wild camping each night. The pick of them was probably my first night, nestled as it was between a big bank (shielding me from the road) and a large field of wheat (I was too tired to run through though).
Early on the second day, I jumped as someone shouted “JJJooooooosssshhhh” (in a French accent) as they rode past me. It was of course Luc, who I had overtaken when he spent an extra day in Budapest. We happily rode together for the next three days to Belgrade and wild camped together. I grew to like his style of touring – big mornings to get the miles in, then a cafe and a couple of beers for lunch, a steady afternoon, then a beer at dusk to wait for the sun to set before finding a place to sleep. We also talked more and Luc had some great stories to tell – Camping next to Lions in Africa, getting arrested by the KGB in 1991 for flying his little plane into Russia – to name a couple. We covered big miles, our biggest day being 162km (101 miles) from the north of Serbia, down through Croatia and then back into Serbia to the outskirts of Novi Sad. It was great to see him again and we exchanged emails and parted just outside the Serbian capital, pleased to have met another great person on this trip.
The great thing about meeting and speaking to locals, plus riding with someone old enough to remember, is that I have learned a great deal about the South Slavik (Yugo means Southern) countries and of course the war in the 1990s. Being too young to remember and having not really thought about it since, arriving in Serbia I was very ignorant about that time period (possibly similarly to most Britons). It’s unavoidable here but I feel I’ve heard views from across the spectrum as I stayed with a Bosnian (in Vienna), a Hungarian, a Serb in Belgrade and had the views of Luc, a Westerner looking in from the outisde (probably I need to speak with a Croat to finish the jigsaw). One thing that everyone agrees is that the Balkan region is a bit of a mess, with the influences of Austro-Hungary, the Turks and the Slavs all coming together and all the different peoples getting mixed up. Tito’s post-war rule held Yugoslavia together but after his death things splintered and fractured as states tried to be independant. From what I gather, the simplified western view is that the Serbs are at fault, with Mladic, Milosovic and co. being the villains. The reality is probably more nuanced, with Serbs pointing to the Fascist backed Croat forces killing many Serbs during WWII and other Bosnian and Croat aggressions in the 90s. A comparison was made to Northern Ireland, but with the possibility of them joining an independant Scotland as well (for example). Of course this comparison is far too simple and again before my time, but I am starting to get a picture of how difficult the region is to resolve.
Fortunately for me, the region is now stable which meant I could pass through the borders with ease. I had a wobbly first crossing into Serbia from Hungary, courtesy of a friendly old Hungarian couple who invited Luc and I to their house to sample the wine they make. From there, into Hrvatska to follow the Croatian side of the Danube and through Vukovar – rebuilt after being reduced to rubble in the war. Then back into Serbia again through the unexpectedly beautiful Novi Sad and down to Belgrade.
Belgrade is the capital of Serbia – or as I should say Београд is the capital of Србија. It’s been fun riding through my first country with the Cyrllic alphabet, learning the different letters and practising with roadsigns (the latin equivalent is usually below). The city itself is hilly and not bike friendly, with a mix of functional cold war era architecture and older palaces and buildings. I stayed with Marko, a Serb who was happy to talk all things political and historical. Once again he was a very trusting host, leaving me the house keys when he went to work so I could come and go as I pleased. I spent a pleasant day seeing some of the sites, although in a more relaxed manner than Budapest. The Temple of Saint Sava stands out, but is disappointing inside, whilst the other buildings I looked at only from the outside.
We shared some beer and a Serbian mixed meat platter in the evening before rolling out east the next day. I will now follow the Danube through to Romania and the “Iron Gorge” then cut down to Sofia in Bulgaria, my last European country before Turkey.
Stats from Vienna to Belgrade
Days on the bike: 8
Ice Creams: 6
Total Stats so far:
Border Crossings: 16
Sunglasses Lost: 1 (Grrrr)
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My host in Belgrade – Marko – plus my terrible 1 month facial hair