It gets harder and harder to write these things, as we spend almost all our time pedalling, and I can’t just write “Pedalled. Pedalled. Pedalled.”
We left Belgrade early, in the rain. The water was gushing down the road as we climbed out of town past the Red Star stadium and a thousand car repair workshops. If your car is broken, you can definitely get it mended in Serbia. In Barajevo, at our coffee stop, all the cars had carpets rolled up on their bonnets. The barmaid talked to us about David Beckham, cage fighting and Kate Middleton’s chest. Then someone fired a gun, and the wedding that was happening in town that day swung into action. Cars beeped their horns, not only in celebration of our remarkable cycling feat, but also because a couple of Barajevans were getting hitched. We knew it was really for us, so we pedalled on reinvigorated, hoping the sun would come out for the wedding but also mainly because we don’t like cycling in the cold and miserable wet.
In Arandelovac, there’s only one hotel, because no-one ever visits. It has a water park, which Mike really wanted to visit because he “loves a lazy river and a flume”. However, it’s a hundred euro a night, so we pedalled round exhaustedly asking young Serbians (more likely to speak English) where we could stay. Then, like a great Serbian warlord messiah, Ivan crossed our path. He’s a huge man, and he runs an average-at-best restaurant in Arandelovac. However, we told him his food was spectacularly good, because he’s a scary beast of a human being, and in Serbia when they make them scary they’re really scary. Ivan found us a room with his mate, who looked like one of Vladimir Putin’s bodyguards, but was in fact the curator of a modern art gallery. We settled in there before dropping back into town for a meal at Ivan’s, during which he insisted to us, again and again, that he definitely wasn’t criminal or a gangster or a bootlegger or a dealer or a murderer.
On the whole, we have camped on this trip, because Tom Campbell makes us even though none of us like it. If we say we might stay in a hostel, Tom gets lairy and threatens to tie us all up and feed us to the wolves and bears that are ten a penny in the Balkan countryside (unless they’ve been blown up by the landmines). However, three or four nights ago we got a real accommodation treat, which was to stay in the Hotel Rubin in Krusevac, after another stunning day’s cycling in the hills. The Rubin is a hangover from communist Yugoslavia, and seems barely to have changed since that time. In the shower there was an SOS button, just in case the Cold War went hot, and the lifts took a maximum of 3 people. Calvin got very excited because the hotel’s aesthetic very much fitted in with his own political and aesthetic ideals, (Stalinism), whilst Tom C was extra delighted as he got to play at being a spy, his favourite game since childhood.
From Krusevac, we had our first flat day in a while, along a valley to Niš, Serbia’s third largest city. After a huge meal, we all listened to Dido together whilst drinking cocktails in the old fortress. Alpha males, one and all.
The climb out of Niš towards the border town of Dmitrovgrad was probably the second-longest climb of the tour, and was extra steep. Fuelled by the classic Serbian dish of McDonalds double cheeseburgers, however, we ascended it smartly, whilst huge birds of prey circled us threateningly from above, and wolves peeked through trees deciding when to attack. The view back down the valley to Niš was stunningly beautiful.
Dogs (Latin name: wolfus domesticus) did actually attack us at various points over the last few days. Various team members use various different tactics to fight back: Calvin barks himself, Mike cycles extremely fast, Tom C tells everyone to stay calm and not show any fear – before proceeding to panic and cycle extremely fast away from the vicious hordes of poodles, terriers and dachshunds.
Perhaps the most picturesque cycling of the whole trip came on our first morning in Bulgaria, when, after crossing the border and being stopped by two different police cars asking why we weren’t cycling to Sofia on the motorway, we turned off the main road into the near-empty valley of Stanisci. Colossal rock formations loom over silent wine-growing villages. After lunch in the quiet town of Godeč, we dropped speedily off the plateau into the Sofia, through swarms of flies that were particularly attracted to Mike because he is the most unclean member of the team, and wears the dirtiest clothes.
The lovely Manuela Dimitrova took us for a gargantuan Bulgarian dinner, and we toasted Bulgaria and the cycle with excellent local red wine, before heading out to the bright spots of Sofia’s hedonist nightlife (i.e. we went for a drink in our hostel bar).
The final leg of the trip is coming up – we have 7 more cycling days to reach Istanbul, and the team has swelled to 5 with the arrival of Henry, who will cycle to the end with us. He’s just gone to sleep in our dorm, and is snoring like a tuba, so will fit right in.