Hello, hello, from a truck stop about two miles from the Bulgarian border. I tried to put up my tent but was shouted at by a very uptight fellow with an explosive beard – and manner. Looked a bit like The Hound from Game of Thrones. Fair enough, most truckers are super friendly, but it must have been his patch. His tirade set off a chorus of nearby street dogs.
I apologised, packed up and retreated to 24/7 roadside Hepi Cafe, where the lovely staff have let me roost until first thing tomorrow, when I’ll complete the remaining tiny stretch of Serbia. A perfect spot. Got Wifi, my journal, coffee, chips and I’m Still Standing by Elton John is on the radio…Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Ok, here goes again, a last splash from Serbia, starting with a sleep in a haystack, which I mentioned briefly last time, but sparked so much haystack nostalgia (mostly big, plastic wrapped bales now) that I’ve included the full post…
Day 377 to 381
It’s been years since I slept in a haystack. The last time was in my early teens after a barn dance.
Why as adults do we completely give up simple joys like this? I had the best night’s sleep in ages.
Part of the reason for my sound slumber was because I felt utterly safe.
Walking through the Belgrade suburbs, along cracked, hilly pavements, took ages.
That familiar, fledgling fear, when it’s dark and you still haven’t secured a place to rest, crept over me. I scoured potential camping spots but it was still very built up.
A sign caught my eye: ‘Urban Cowboy Ranch’. This might work.
I yomped up the short drive and was met by hirsute, larger than life owner, Nenard. I gave a brief description of my predicament.
Within minutes Nenard introduced me to the team, Anna, a riding teacher and Moni, a volunteer groom.
He brought out coffee, biscuits and grapes, said I was welcome to use the kitchen, and could camp where I liked, including the haystack.
It amazes me on this journey how one minute I am alone on the road in the dark, a little scared and cold, and soon after I’m amongst people who treat me like a long lost friend, chatting, laughing, drinking, then snuggled up in the hay lulled to sleep by the whinnying of horses and the cooing of doves.
Serbia has been so good to me.
Koko, my wounded hiking buggy, and I are now back on track after Nikola, the welder, fused her cracked axle back together and the Pro Bike team reassembled her. A brilliant bunch.
Days remain hot while nights are closing in, the mercury nosediving, but Serbia continues to delight. Tonight in Raca I’ve been put up in a historic church.
To end on a sober note. As I strolled through Belgrade I saw a young, moustachioed face, graffitied on several walls. This is Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb, who in 1914, aged 19, shot dead Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo.
Princep wanted to free his country from the grip of the Austro-Hungary empire – and is still a hero in Serbia – but little knew he would set the world on fire.
He was imprisoned and died of TB in 1918, weeks before peace.
Day 381 to 384
Sleeping on holy ground!
‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.’
So wrote the wise, playful author, Julian Barnes.
I’m with Barnes. And yet, though all logic tells me religion is man-made bunkum, I still find it hard to put human life down to pure science.
This especially applies when I’m on the road, my senses raw and heightened. The last two nights before reaching Jogadina (now camped on a hill here, lights winking like stars below) I was allowed to sleep beside two churches, one old and rustic, one urban and modern.
At Raca, the local Orthodox priest, a lovely chap called Vlada and his family put me up in a church hall, the first since rural America.
I bivvied next to a fridge bulging with soft drinks, wine and beer. Vlada told me to help myself (my kind of priest!). I’d turned up out of the blue and he had, without fuss, the decency to provide shelter.
Next, an 18 miler over hills and orchards, I reached Kragujevac after dark. Local priests, Alex and Ivan, kindly let me camp beside huge St Sova’s Church, while local students hoofed a footy nearby.
I always feel safe around holy places and yet, at best, I believe in a benign, universal God, who I hope looks out for us – but might well not. All the beauty I’ve witnessed on this walk, though! Yes, maybe there’s still a spark of faith.
I’m in the midst of an area once ripped apart by religion, now more united. Of the countries that made up ex-Yugoslavia: Serbia is Orthodox, Slovenia and Croatia largely Roman Catholic – and Bosnia/Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro a mishmash, with Islam dominating.
The fresh plight of the brave, benighted Kurds in Syria also stems from religion. Let’s pray for them, believers or not, for if nothing else, the same stars shine over all of us.
Day 384 to 388
The Inuit count the distance of an Arctic journey by ‘sinik’, the number of sleeps it takes.
I get this. It’s easy to lose track of time walking sometimes, days bleed into one another, miles too.
But the sun is a loyal timekeeper whether rising or setting, as is the moon, near full, when I camped on a hill overlooking twinkling Jogadina a few nights ago.
Serbia has been such a blast to the senses. The lush orchards and sun-baked corn fields; the smells of damp grass and wood smoke; the sight of apple pickers and circling hawks, of ladybirds, butterflies, sheep and countless stray dogs; the chug of aged tractors, the squawk of jays snd the clink of Rakija glasses.
Much of my Serbian hike has been on tiny or dirt roads, though the last 3 days on a much busier stretch. Yet even here, just a quick detour from the bitumen, and nature is still all around.
Yesterday I reached Nis, the last big town before the Bulgarian border, and Koko’s axle is once again struggling but fingers crossed is salvagable…
Serbia often got bad press due to the Balkan conflict of the late 90s/early noughties, when, accused of wartime horrors, international sanctions were imposed against it for a spell. Life has moved on now, though is still tough for many, with low wages and scarce work.
The roads are potholed, the cars as erratic as dodgems, drivers often on phones and smoking abounds (forget No Smoking areas) but there’s much to love.
So many Serbs I’ve met have the biggest hearts even if I don’t always understand them – the language seems tricky, words like the letters left at the end of a Scrabble game!
The last days I’ve been put up in two churches, a campground, a restaurant, a truck stop, a hostel – and a haystack.
As for the kindness of the bike shop staff, words are not enough. In both Belgrade and here in Nis, they’ve done everything in their power to keep my cart, Koko, running.
I was so touched today by the bike mechanics going the extra mile (sinik!) to help out that, at one stage I welled up (though well out of public view, phew).
Little acts of kindness on the road mean the world.
Day 388 to 392
It’s true I’m walking around the world, but I’d be going nowhere without the likes of Bratislav at Planet Bike in Nis: he’s the sort of fellow who makes the world go round.
When I limped into Nis, over a week, and 200 kms, after leaving Belgrade, my hiking cart, Koko, was still suffering axle problems.
Bratislav, despite being wildly busy, managed to sort out a welder and wrestle the axle back in place, saving my bacon, and keeping Koko on the road. He charged me a fiver and point blank refused more, so I gave him a bottle of wine and a World Walk T-shirt.
He looked a lot happier with the wine.
‘Why would I want a shirt from a crazy walking man,’ he laughed. ‘You are like Fred bloody Flintstone!’ Top bloke.
Leaving Nis posed some hazards. About 3 miles out, Koko’s front tyre deflated. As I tinkered, some local mechanics, Stefan and Ivan, in a nearby garage, came to help.
When all was fixed, Stefan, insisted I go for an interview at the local news channel, where he had a friend. I protested that I’d have to walk back into town, but Stefan was so likeable and enthusiastic I agreed.
The interviewer, Milena, spoke very little English and the translator, Branca, possibly even less, but were both lovely unlike the cameraman, who looked like he’d rather be having root canal surgery than filming a sweaty fool with a baby buggy. All good fun, though. Awaiting the result!
While in Nis I stayed at the friendly Day and Night Hostel and then, after some hilly miles, was put up by delightful mum and daughter, Jelena and Sara, in Bela Pelanka – for a princely fiver! Everything much cheaper as I head south.
In Nis, I visited an eerie tower with the skulls of Serbian soldiers embedded in the masonry. This dates to the Battle of Cegar in 1809, when an army of 3000 Serbs, heroically fought to the last man against 10,000 invading Turks, hellbent on expanding the Ottoman Empire.
Only around 50 skulls remain now: a powerful legacy to Serbian pride.
Tomorrow I’ll make it to within a few kms of the border – Bulgaria beckons! Exciting, and the rakije detox will do me good but I’ll really miss the splendid Serbs.
These last weeks, thanks so much to the following for their kind charity donations: Paul Stanyer to the Puzzle Centre; Toddy Westropp to Medical Detection Dogs and Chantelle Ni Chroinin and Judy and Archie to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Thanks too, for so many of you sharing my little film (courtesy of Ryan and Nawaz) and all the feedback. I was blushing and overwhelmed with the generous comments which are all quite undeserved. Eliza took me back down to earth with ‘give my crazy old man a look’ – to be fair, she said some nice stuff too – and old friend, Will, had one word: ‘Barking!’ At the end of the day, I’m just on a long walk, and yes, there are odd tough days, and brief moments of fear and loneliness, but, overall I feel so, so lucky to be doing this and am loving it.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, sayonara Serbia, good luck and Keep On Keeping On…