Kalotina, Bulgaria/Serbia border to Starod, Croatia/Slovenia border.
Number of kilometers: 13,230
Number of countries crossed: 11 (China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia)
We had rather discounted this part of the trip to be boring, no doubt with bad weather and only goulash on the menu (we know it’s Hungarian don’t worry). We really only had a vague recollection of the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90s, mainly because there had been many more important life changing moments going on at the time and in this Matthieu and Oli share a common history – learning (and failing a lot) how to chase girls, trying to avoid getting expelled from school (but eventually doing quite well), irritating older boys we really should know better than to goad etc etc. So it is not a huge shock that we had not paid that much attention to what had happened to this part of the world at that time or since.
Expecting more dreary communist era towns like in Bulgaria we were completely blown away by our five days in Serbia. There was really excellent food, including the speciality of the area, roasted piglet, seen in almost every town turning on a spit outside a little pub. It was a bit like being in China again because none of the menus made any sense but everything we ordered was memorable. The people were very friendly despite most of the men looking like they spent four hours a day down the gym – we saw quite a few chaps who one wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley but when talked to were very helpful and polite. As always though what will make the memory of Serbia special was the riding. Oh, what beautiful riding and enough to earn it a number two spot behind Tajikistan as the most beautiful during the expedition. The benefits of not planning anything is that the surprise of cycling along stunning country roads at this time of year makes for an even greater euphoria. Some may say that if we planned better this is what we would have everyday but not only do we not think this is true, it also takes some of the childlike excitement out of what could happen.
We cycled almost directly through the centre of the country via Pirot, Kraljevo, Mionica and finally to Loznica. We were beginning to feel the strain of 10 days in the saddle doing 100+km each day without a day off but the blue skies, beautiful scenery dotted with ancient monasteries kept our thoughts away from the discomfort.
By the time we entered Bosnia and Herzegovina Matthieu had read most of the “L’Histoire des Balkans” and with his 15 minute recaps each morning back to Oli we felt a little less ignorant. The problems in the region are complex, with centuries of history behind them. One of the main issues has been and is the pockets of different ethnic groups in another’s majority. We cycled through the state of Serbia within Bosnia, in itself kind of weird; Kosovo is a newly formed country that was the birthplace of the Serbian ethnic group but now dominated by Albanians; there are Croatians in Bosnia too as well as Serbians in Croatia. This, with the native Bosnians being Muslim, the Serbs being Orthodox Christian and the Croats being Catholic and you quickly get the picture of what went on and what is still the source of much tension today.
The Road of Smiles independent analysis team found the Bosnians less friendly and more aggressive (in their driving) than their Serbian neighbours. The area is still one of exceptional beauty though and stumbling one night upon Modrac Lake just as the sun was setting and the mist descending down onto the water was a memorable part of the adventure. We peddled through the northern reaches of the country and after only four days were in Croatia. Here we encountered the mountains that we thought we would be crossing in Bosnia (you may be starting to get the picture with our lack of suitable planning) and the weather turned absolutely miserable. We had a lovely evening in Karlovac before heading for the Slovenian border. More and more during this trip we have realised that there are two simple rules to make the most out of everyday experiences: expect the most out of yourself and the worst from everything else. By doing this you will always make the most of what you have and not be disappointed by what you cannot change. We expected little from our Balkan peddling and were rewarded grandly with some superb memories which have certainly added some gold sprinkles to the final quarter of the expedition.