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4) May 14th, Serbia - Blasphemous in Belgrade

I'm just into my second month and have started talking to my bike. I'm worried that it will start talking back to me from month three.

It has got tougher, and my language a little coarser. The road into Belgrade was a complete and utter nightmare. A very scary experience on a bicycle. They are mad, bloody mad. Today I saw one car ram sideways into the car he was overtaking, and just carry on! None of that time-wasting exchange of insurance details.

So, a rundown (forgive the pun) of the last week or so --

4 May, Day off in Vienna:   What can I say ? A beautiful city no doubt about it, but rain - and the gloomy sky put the dampers on things. Stayed in a private room in a suburb, which was a bit far. Got my Turkmenistan and Tajikstan visas, etc, etc. But a welcome break.

5 May, Thu:  
Oh the Gods of Steve's msifortune were back today alright. Brake problems led to a late start, but things seemed to be going well as I followed the Danube through a very long urban park. Very nice actually, which went on and on and... oh, not many people around any more... and on and on and ... oh, a couple of tankers moored next to the path... and on and on and... oh, a completely naked bloke, hands on hips, staring out at the water... and on and on and ... oh, the path stopped dead.
Had to retrace my route for 10km before I found the turn-off for the proper path. Then, of course, it started pi**ing down with rain. It stopped in due course, and I found myself on a very long, very straight embankment - checking carefully that this was the route into Solvakia. The closer I got to the border, the more drab things seemed to become, a little more rundown and rusty than the rest of Austria.
Approaching the border crossing, suddenly gale force winds started up and it was hailing! Finding shelter behind a toilet, I thought this a sign of my brief sojurn into Eastern Europe.

Entering the city, if Vienna was the eccentric old lady, it looked to me that Bratislava was her alcoholic husband, kicked out and sleeping rough. At first, like Krefeld, I thought there may be something special hidden beneath the grey. I was wrong - it was just plain grim. The "old town" of course, had been restored nicely, and looked the part. And given the difficulty in finding a room, it must have had something going for it. But my hotel was out of the centre, a dreary old appartment block, the head receptionist a chunky middle-aged peroxide blonde woman, trussed up in a horrifyingly revealing black lacy dress, who would ignore your presence, only eventually, and with reluctance, snatch away your passport and slam down your room key.
Distance: 98km. Overnight in Bratislava (Slovakia).

6 May, Fri:   The city didn't look so mean in the morning, but still... glad to get away. Followed the Danube Canal, which once out of the city went on for miles and niles and miles, the bike-path next to the canal, which was massively wide. It was straight as a die, and nobody around. The exact same scenery for over two hours - very hynotic. Then the path crossed the dam and veered off from the river, just fields and small villages to the side. Making good progress but dark dark clouds were following me. After stopping to eat my sandwich next to a deserted roadside restaurant on the windy crest of a hill, the corregated iron roofing flapping violently in the wind, I made a decision to call it a day and head over the border into Hungary, and Gyor, only 15km away.
The border guard was very friendly, laughing and joking with everyone. And it hadn't yet rained. This could be okay.
Arriving in Gyor via backroads (after overtaking a couple of horse and carts), I was pleasantly surprised by it's old town. Colourful, spacious and easy to get around.
Distance: 88km. Overnight in Gyor (Hungary).

7 May, Sat:   Rained all night, cloudy and very windy when leaving, but turning into a nice afternoon and gorgeous evening. Refreshing to be back in a country where cyclists are put in their rightful place at the bottom of the food-chain - no cycle lanes, fast drivers, huge pot-holes...had to be conservative with viewing the scenery because I had to keep my eye on so many other things. Still, less roads than Germany, making it easier to follow the map, and not getting lost is the number one thing in my book.

From Gyor, headed cross-country to Tata. Very similar to the English countryside, except for the scarcity of villages and towns. The wind was behind me, I knew where I was going and with the road gently rising and falling, the distance sailed by - I did the first 60km without stopping. Tata was nice - a lake with a castle and a nice park - and then I decided to head north back towards the Danube. The road - deserted - took me up into the hills and through multitudes of vineyards - "Hilltop" wines, incidently. Then a descent to the Danube. The Danube road was fast, but some nice sleepy villages on the wasy, and arriving into Esterzgom. The basilica could be seen from miles away so I headed for that. After an age looking for Tesco (sad I know, but I saw the sign..) I went down to the river and wow - beautiful. The basilica on the cliff, surrounded by castle walls, cobblestoned steep windy streets, past well-preserved old houses... and with the late afternoon light it was wonderful. Stayed in a campground near the river.
Distance: 120km. Overnight in Esterzgom (Hungary).

8 May, Sun:   Heavy rain through the night, and cold. The weather didn't worry me though, it was the little creepy-crawlie things that covered my tent and even managed to get in. I had fears that these nasty looking beasties were the dreaded tick, and couldn't sleep until I'd scoured the entire inside of the tent looking for them.
The cycling was okay, with occasional views of the Danube and far-away hills (when pot-holes allowed), and Visegrad looked quite impressive with the citadel high up on a hill overlooking the Danube. A bit too high to merit a closer look, though. On to Szentendre - an ugly city with a cutesy "arty" area by the river. Cobblestones, etc... my guidebook raved about it, and there were loads of tourists (Chzech ? Russian ?), but I found it a little fake. Into Budapest seemed to take an age, and after riding through some pleasant leafy suburbs, found myself heading towards the centre.
And could I find the Tourist Information ? No way, spending an hour on the job, only to discover it later that night - complete with flashing, rotating neon sign, and only 20 metres from where I started my search...

Found a private room through an agency instead - the top floor (puff, pant..) of a majestic, crumbling old building, with a huge open courtyard in the middle... though you wouldn't know it from outside - only a anonyomous small wooden door.
Distance: 82km. Overnight in Budapest (Hungary).

9 May, Day off in Budapest:   After map-buying (worryingly few for Serbia and Bulgaria), walked & walked & walked. I love Budapest. Compared with Vienna, which to me feels like a posh restaurant, everything in it's place, and the head waiter looking down his nose at your inability to use cutlery in the right order, Budapest is more like a pub, a bit dusty, a few soggy beermats, but welcoming, with little in the way of table manners needed.
A lot more expensive than when I was last here - 15 years ago - when a five course meal, unlimited wine, musicians and gypsy dancing could be had for a little over 10 pence - but still cheaper than Germany.
All the walking, taking in the sights, had turned my legs into lead (no day off for them), and I took myself off to the Turkish Baths in Gellert Hotel. Oh! That did the job brilliantly, and cheered me up. Not quite an "onsen" (a Japanese hot-spring), but the ornate ceilings and walls, the babble of voices mixed into a single continuous echo, and the soothing thermal waters set me up for the next day.

And Budapest at night was intoxicating. Beautiful. A lovely view of Buda across the river, with the palace lit up, contrasted with the small bars and restaurants, lowly lit down narrow streets. So much to discover.
I just love the way these grand old buildings are in a state of dignified decay. Even the graffiti and dirt can't really marr the beauty of these buildings.

Quite sad to leave, but sad to stay. I almost moved here 12 years ago.

10 May, Tue:   Said goodbye to the lovely old lady who had taken me in and spent 2 hours getting out of Budapest. I wasn't lost - I knew where I was going - but with foot-high curbs, murderously fast traffic and incredible pot-holes, that's what it took to travel only 15km.
On the city limits I saw a lot of hitch-hikers, strung out along the highway, at regular intervals. Oddly, all were exclusively young good-looking women, dressed uniformly in bright flourescent mini-shirts, tight-tops and with nothing in the way of luggage other than a small handbag. Funny, that ...

The highway was hell, and it took a few attempts to get completely off it and onto a back-road. Long straight lanes, arid, dry grass and trees - almost mediteranean in appearance, very little traffic and nobody about. Saw a dog chomping on a dead deer, which had just been killed by a car. At least I hope it was a car I thought, as I cycled carefully past the dog.
Arriving in Kecskemet, the centre was really nice, a tree-lined pedestrianised boulevard, a fountain and a small square infront of the old town hall.
Got a haircut. No words were spoken (none would be understood), but it came out surprisingly okay. I think.
Distance: 97km. Overnight in Kecskemet (Hungary).

11 May, Wed:   Rained heavy last night, causing an enthusiasm problem in getting up this morning. Shouting "you're not big and you're not clever" frustratingly at traffic signs bearing the town's name when I was still trying to find the road out of this place an hour later.
Took a minor road into the Kiskunsagi national park - the heart of the "pusztah", as is called the scrubland of trees and pastures in this part of Hungary. Because of the recent rain, everything was so green, and the road was hemmed in by trees and foilage. Vey few cars - nice cycling. Pleasant - passed a few farms, getting quite a few stares, and passed some lovely delapidated old cottages.
Stopped by a bus-shelter to eat my sandwiches. As I went by the farm before it, a little terrier started getting all excited, jumping up & down and yapping madly away. I disappeared round the corner into the bus shelter and he was still barking away for a full ten minutes. Just as he stopped, and was about to head back up to the house, I popped my head out and waggled my arms. This set him off even madder than before, before he again gave up. And I did the same again. We continued on in this pattern for a good 45 minutes, and I was actually enjoying myself! Aaah, on a trip like this you really have to find entertainment wherever you can. Sad.

Somewhere around Kiskunhalas, I decided to aim for Serbia, instead of stopping for the day. The clincher was the weather - it brightened up a little as I was ummming and ahhing over what to do, and I was still pissed off at this morning farce trying to find the right road. Time for another country.
A long, decent road, and I make the border before I know it. The border guard took my passport away for closer examination. After - worryingly - some time, he came back pointing furiously at the Tajikstan visa in my passport. He gestured towards my bicycle and yelled something, and I nodded, then he yelled some more and sent me on my way. Does he know something I don't ?

It's always interesting crossing into a new country. Serbia, again, very agricultural, and certainly a few more horse and carts here than Hungary, but also a bit more run-down, and I felt a lot more conspicuous here than I've felt anywhere else on this trip.
Arriving in Subotica, it seemed a bit of a crumbling kind of town, but after a little exploring, the main square and streets branching off it are actually quite nice. And some very helpful people. In the evening, everyone was milling around the square, sipping coffee or beer on the many terrace bars and cafes (despite temperature which had me wearing my thermal jacket..) - a "continental" atmosphere almost. Apart from the propensity for blokes to dress in shell-suits.
Distance: 134km. Overnight in Subotica (Serbia).

12 May, Thu:   Pleased with my slick start this morning, bread on board, right road and beautiful blue sky - amazing what a difference a bit of good weather makes. Passing the outskirts of town, it reminded me very much of the small dusty villages of South East Asia. Took the main road mostly - not particularly heavy traffic but they certainly do whizz by in their beaten up old Yugos, Opels and other rusting hulks of metal. Had already done 70km before I stopped in a village - Vrbas - for lunch. Found a step in the shade of a tree - unlikely to get noticed I thought - and got out my sandwiches. Instead, I got given a beer from a roaring old lady over her windowsill, after her son-in-law had stopped to talk to me. Invited round into the yard (dogs, chickens, rabbits, ducks) for coffee. Offered drinks, food ... very very welcoming! In all we spent the best part of 4 hours together - beer, coffee, meeting relatives, photographs - such a nice family.
The conversation touched on a lot of things, and Zlatko was a funny, laughing guy. But he was also serious when the topic of Kosovo came up - he told me how Milosevic (and he had a few choice words for him) had created his elite army by releasing all the worst criminals from the prisons. He couldn't believe some of these Milosevic "people"... anyway, I promised myself to look into the very complicated politics of this region. It's quite unnerving to think that the majority of young people in this country have been in a war.

Well, more photos and I was off, 4pm and still 50km to go. Continued through fields and small villages (oh, the stares!..), eventually arriving at Novi Sad. Aimed for the church spires and eventually found the centre - after witnessing a girl being knocked off her bike by a car. A horrible thud and she went sprawling - thankfully no danage to her (or her bike). With this time of day (the low sun) and these drivers, have to be extra careful ..

Oh, and the hassle of trying to find somewhere to stay. Cycling Serbia does make me feel slightly unneasy, and I think I know what it is - no tourism infrastructure (or tourists for that matter!). I haven't seen one sign for a hotel or private room. Very worrying for when I eventually head east from Belgrade to Bulgaria...
Distance: 119km. Overnight in Novi Sad (Serbia).

13 May, Fri:   What a frigging awful cycling day. The road from hell. I tried to avoid the main road into Belgrade, but everytime I went off on a side-road I'd somehow miss a turn (no signposts) and end up back on the main road, trebling my distance. A shame, because the hills south of Novi Sad (oh yes, some hard climbing this morning) were beautiful.
But - the main road. Scary, very scary. Whenever I stood by the roadside and say what was going past I couldn't believe that I was actually in that melee. Cars, trucks and buses roaring past, reckless overtaking, cars running lights, double-overtaking and potholes the size of swimming pools. The worst road of my life - surely it can't get any worse than this ??

In Belgrade (I made it! I made it!), surprisingly a few people came up to talk to me about cycling - an underground cycling scene! One guy had cycled through Serbia with a big sign protesting the war. Another guy had done a bit of touring himself. One guy bought me a beer - he had been a tourist guide before the war and had superb english - and morosed about the sorry state of the Serb economy. Apart from a "lucky" few who had got rich smuggling during sanctions, most people had trouble making ends meet, he said.

Belgrade is a jam-packed, traffic clogged, polluted nightmare - but it has something about it. The banks of the river are lined with barges - restaurants, bars, nightclubs - with rickety, perilous wooden walkways (planks of wood) to the shore. Some are abandoned and rusting or rotting away. There's a charm about it, though. I'm staying in one myself - 10 euros for a cabin. Basic, but cosy..
Distance: 93km. Overnight in Belgrade (Serbia).

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