Catha's Seat

Monday, 14 January 2013

Days 47 to 53: Welcomed with open arms and plenty of Rakja: Serbia

Another picture round for Serbia, which turned out to be the warmest, most welcoming Country on the trip. We were invited in, shown the sights, sounds and tastes with such generosity. Everyone was happy to take time out of their normal routine for us - many thanks to everyone in Serbia!

We met Inge in Mokra Gora, just over the border into Serbia. She wins the prize for the most equipped bike, and when we met her she was actually pushing it along with a walker friend Ken! They had a dog that had followed them all the way through Bosnia and reading her blog it sounds like she has become a travelling animal rescue service We had a similar companion Alex called "Ralph" that followed us up into the mountains, through a 1km long tunnel but couldn't keep up on the downhill. Well done Ralph!

Still in our floaty state from the Hamam, the trip to Uzice took longer than expected. These beautiful scenes were the prelude to our first, awful night ride; tired and hungry in the pouring rain we held tightly to our brakes all the way down the steep and perilous main road, which felt like you were jumping off the balcony into the town! 

Luckily our Couchsurfing host in Uzice, Zoran, gave us a warm welcome and rebuilt us with what could be probably be considered the world's most sinful snack! The "Komplet Lepinja" consists of a large, robust bread roll baked with scrambled egg and a kind of clotted cream cheese called "Kaymak". When it comes out of the pizza oven style cooker it is drenched in a meat dripping and covered with the lid of the roll. You dip the lid into the molten mixture at first and then tear the rest of the bread limb from limb. It is intensely salty, meaty and creamy all at once, giving you the immediate feeling that your arteries are more clogged than Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. They serve it with a yoghurt drink, which I can only presume is meant to aid the considerable digestion problems!!

Zoran is a well travelled guy. He took us to the club where he DJs  (see Video) on the first night and to an old Orient Express carriage for dinner the next night. Many thanks to Zoran for his hospitality and a great time in Uzice.

Day trip out to the Zlatibor mountains. By complete chance when we were trying to hitch a lift into Uzice a bus came right past Zoran's house that took us straight there. Out of season the chap in the tourist office was the least enthusiastic person to grace such a position. He said; "If you have to walk up a mountain, try that one over there, it's the easiest!"

While Alex was in the shop buying lunch in Kraljevo a chap came up to me on his bike, almost drunk with excitement at seeing some cycle travellers. After our initial hesitation, we took up his offer and followed this friendly fellow, called Vlado (the man with the beard in the pictures), to the town mountain biking club where we met the club captain/professional bike mechanic Veljko. We ended up spending the night with Vlado and his Mum, who makes the best Ajvar (roasted pepper paste) we had tasted. They fussed over us all the time we were there, making sure we were comfortable, well fed, and had clean clothes for our onward journey. We also made an evening visit back to meet Veljko's family, who were lovely. His daughter is a talented violinist and needed very little prompting to play us a tune. They have invited us back to join them sometime on the Ciker Mountain Bike Marathon, which goes cross country from Kraljevo to the coast of Montenegro.

My parents had once told me about an adventure they had to the south of Italy where they had been taken in by the locals even though they had no common language. I don't know why, but this had stuck with me as the pinnacle of a travelling experience - the ability to let go, trust people and have a truly spontaneous time. I wrote to Eliza that night that I was finally going "Off Piste"!

We understood from later conversations with my friend Bojan's cousin Marko that it is part of the Orthodox religion to welcome in travellers. Even so, the welcome and generosity shown to strangers in Serbia is second to none in my experience. Many thanks to Vlado, Veljko and their families for taking us in. 

Veljko is a serious bike mechanic. This tool wall is pornographic, and we spent a good hour in the evening checking out his bikes and his workshop.

Another day, and another random encounter with a friendly Serb! We went to the main spa at Vranacka Banja. This is located in the Hotel Merkur, which looks like a James Bond villain's hide out; 7 storeys of concrete and glass sweep an angular crescent around a steamy glass dome in the middle (where the missiles must come out!). There was much promise of the magical spa waters that are supposedly right at body temperature, making them pretty unique. Unfortunately, we must have got there on a bad day and the pool was freezing, so we spent most of our time in the sauna, where we got talking to Miki. One of the few people we had met in the area that spoke English, poor Miki had just been made redundant from his job in the bank. He's a keen cyclist too, so we had plenty to chat about and after the spa he offered to take us to his favourite traditional Serbian eatery. We later found out that he had skipped the beginning of his Mother's birthday party, and was in trouble with his wife as a result!! Undeterred by this, he offered to meet us the next morning to take us on a ride up in to the mountains. 
Fuelled by a classic Serbian breakfast of Burek (meat, cheese or spinach encased in filo pastry) we set out on our way up to Goč mountain, which is a stone's throw from Serbia's biggest ski resort at Kopoanik. Still getting unbelievably lucky with the weather for the time of year (it should have been snowing!), we had a quiet but steep climb with a long descent - the best combo for cycling! Miki was going to join us the whole way to our next destination, but peeled off early thinking he should appease his wife to some extent! We rolled through the valleys, and then past fields of haystacks (as pictured) into Kruševac. 

Bojan, a good friend from our studies at Imperial College, comes originally from Kruševac and he kindly hooked us up with his cousin Marko there. Marko is a hard working chap and although we arrived on a Saturday evening he was still running errands and in another ridiculous stroke of luck we bumped into him randomly as we entered the town! Marko is on the far left of the picture. We spent some great times hanging out with his family in the living room like this - their house is open and a hive for various family members to pop by; cousins popping in to watch the football to Bojan's Aunty and Uncle coming over from Uzice for afternoon tea. I felt like we were in a Serbian version of the Royle Family! One of the most interesting sofa conversations was with Marko's grandmother who gave us an insight into the "good times" under Tito in the former Yugoslavia.

Marko took us out for a night out on the town in Kruševac, which strangely started off in the betting shop! Unlike those at home in the UK, Serbia's houses of financial ruin are actually relatively comfortable bars where you have screens showing all the football, rather than just the game you don't want to see! The night went on and after finding no space in the packed clubs we hit one of their friend's bars playing music the locals like! We were expecting this to be drum, bousouki and trumpet driven balkan folk like the sounds of US aficianado "Beirut" but instead we found out that they are into their "Romans". These sound like a fusion of Italian crooning mixed with Eastern vocal embellishments, and in this case supported by the subtle sounds of a programmed electronic keyboard! Cracking night out - many thanks to Marko and his family for their very generous hospitality.

On our last night with Marko, his cousin Dejan invited us over to try the family's own spirits and wine selection. It being a Sunday, we thought it would be a quiet, just tasting affair - how wrong! We started with a generous helping of the pear Rakja, which was so velvety it was like licking the furry outside of the fruit! The "small pears" that go into this come specifically from the Zlatibor area, and you have to be in with locals there to get your hands on 'em. Next up was the Quince Rakja and then a barrel aged Grape Rakja, both very fine. Dejan is  an keen Artisan of this trade, proud of the fact that they can make their own without tedious EU regulations. Each year they make enough for the family, with some backup if they have a bad year; this amounts to a couple of thousand litres of wine and spirits!!!!!!!! Anyway, round two, and we had to pick our favourite for another shot, with a glass of their wine to chase it.....and, then...., another shot of Rakja for the road! Luckily, the Serbs are prepared for such states of inebriation and do a good range of stodgy late night food to soak up the booze - we smashed back two such snacks! The next day on the bikes was quite special, and we had use a coin toss to help us decide our route! Thanks to Dejan for introducing us to the true delights of Rakja.

Not much to report from hangover day, we stumbled into Niš and had a night off! The picture above shows the day after Niš where we were committed to using the damned tents (!) we had been carrying around by taking the backroads up to the Zavoj Lake in the Stara Planina National Park. After passing a Priest on a scooter, google maps started worrying us - in these pictures we were looking for a Bridle-way type track to the right!  

Luckily the cliff ended...eventually and we turned right onto the track to find the bridge had been washed away!!

The reservoir turned out to be another James Bond style adventure. A row of uninviting, stark fluorescent lights lined the way to a security guard hut, complete with barking dogs. The water was low and, with night falling, we pitched up out of sight down in an area where the water level had been before, surrounded by washed up lake rubbish. We cooked up the old Sainsbury's cous cous by red light, surreptitiously, and hit the hay early! 

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