Once in Belgrade, it seemed that we avoided the worst of the rainy weather during the previous night. We set out in the morning to wander around the Belgrade Fortress, which was originally built over 2000 years ago by the Celtics and underwent many reconstructions, as well as battles, throughout the years from about as many different occupying countries. Now, some structures of the fortress remain, mostly as museums or a miniature dinosaur park, while the outer walls show wear from two millennia of wars and sieges. The fortress now also houses a large number of more recent military equipment (and probably showing off what Serbia used in its most recent wars during the chaotic last few decades of post-Yugoslavia). Afterwards, we strolled through the pedestrian streets before deciding that we needed find a café and get out of the rain. We waited for an hour or so inside and then decided to see some more sights in Belgrade and more importantly, a bike shop. Because our toes were freezing in the icy temperatures, we found a bike store that had overshoes (this is a sure sign that we’re getting to areas where people take more consideration to sports).
In the afternoon, we made our way back to the hotel and were surprised to find two other cyclists in our room: Corinne and Chris, who were also traveling on a Pino this year. As luck would have it, we have mutual friends in Augsburg and had been in contact with each other for the past few weeks, so we could finally meet. We were relatively close to each other in Kyrgyzstan, then we split – them going through Iran, we through the Caspian and the Caucasus, and even since Istanbul we had been playing cat and mouse throughout the Balkans – Cassie found her favorite French expression: chasse-patate! We finally found a way to join at the same place and same time in Belgrade, the (almost) final destination of their trip. The rest of the day, we exchanged stories of our travels over food and drink.
The next morning, Cédric and I said our goodbyes and headed north. Corinne and Chris, on the other hand, left to take a bus to Munich and were thus closer to ending their trip. Our day cycling on the road was a blur – with little opportunity for small roads, we joined the constant flow of traffic on a secondary road. The rolling showers and fog didn’t make the ride exciting either, so we cycled into Novi Sad with few breaks and arrived there early in the afternoon. After getting scammed finding an accommodation (a very poorly rated hotel presented themselves as being the owner of the highly rated place next door – and found out about it after paying the night – certain that given the reviews we would not need to check the room first like we used to do in Asia), we went around to discover this historical city and so for the remaining part of the day, we walked around the picturesque downtown. Unlike Belgrade with its plethora of communist-style architecture and busy industrial suburbs, the center of Novi Sad still has an abundance of regal 19th century and older buildings. Novi Sad being on the extreme north east of Serbia, it had been part of multiple other countries (Hungary until recently), and the influence of Austria and other central European powers is a lot more visible.
When we woke up the next day, it seemed like the bad weather was behind us (for now). We packed our things and decided to head for the Serbia-Croatia border. Cédric and I were getting tired of the traffic and the current hotel owners made us long for friendlier hosts – so we decided to give a different country a try. However, that first meant cycling with the traffic to Backa Palanka. For a kilometer or two outside of Novi Sad, we thought we found a newly paved bike path along the Danube (and the sight of a road cyclist made us hopeful), but the trail ended abruptly, so we pushed our bike back to the road. We got rid of our excess dinar (the Serbian currency) at the last supermarket and then crossed the Danube into Croatia. And just like that, the traffic disappeared. As we were riding through some small towns along river, we noticed that some houses were still riddled with bullet holes from the Croatian war of Independence. Many houses had a fresh coating of stucco, but some buildings bore scars as a testament to the war. Before finishing our day in Vukovar, we visited the military cemetery, which was another memorial to the war. Serbia is just across the river, and Serbians are not the souvenir of a good neighbor in here. The Balkans is now composed of many small countries that may look silly on a map, but the cultural difference is still significant – it is never sufficient for wars, but within a few kilometers we went from an industry-based Christian orthodox country to a Catholic wine growing touristic region.
The next morning, we left Vukovar with brilliant blue skies and continued our journey north. Again, without many other options, we had to join a larger, more trafficked road on our way into Osijek. When we cycled into the city, we were greeted by bike lanes (they’re becoming more prevalent to more north we go) and stopped in the Tvrda, an old 18th century fortress built by the Hapsburg Empire. Heading west down the main street, we were surprised to see multiple Art Nouveau buildings lining the streets – coming from places with cheap, new construction projects, cinderblock houses, or soviet-style apartment buildings, this immediately gave us the feeling of being in Western Europe. We wandered around the downtown to look for a lunch spot, and finally found a boat restaurant on the shores of the Drava river. In the afternoon, we cycled through small villages and farmland to get to Valpovo, where we called it a day.
By the time we packed our bike the next morning, we noticed that the gray clouds were promising rain for our ride. Our plan for the day was to cross the Croatia-Hungary border and ride towards Pécs. Leaving Valpovo around 9am, we crossed the Drava River and continued north to the border town. The Hungarian border, with its new fencing and barbed wire, flanked us to the left and was a reminder of Hungary’s harsh stance against refugees and migrants. Shortly before the border, we met a few guys who where slaughtering and smoking a pig and offered us a few shots of their homemade schnapps, but we didn’t feel quite up for drinking at 10:30 in the morning. Just as we crossed the border into Hungary, it started to sprinkle and didn’t let up. We rode through small picturesque villages with their rows of wine houses and the wine bars in Villany. This would have been a perfect area to explore on a summer day, but we were determined to find a dry room in Pécs, so we continued cycling. When we arrived in the afternoon, Cédric and I dropped off our soaking wet bags and went out to explore the city while there was still some daylight. We had a bit of luck and the rain stopped just as we arrived in the city. Many downtown buildings were built at the turn of the 20th century and exhibit a neo-baroque style, but there are other vestiges of former periods and rule of other Empires, like a mosque-turned-church built during the Ottoman occupation and church foundations built during the Roman Empire. Our first reaction was that cities in Europe are definitely the most beautiful, sorry the rest of the world (okay, other countries or continents have other good things)!
The next morning, the bits of the sun were poking through the clouds, and we were thinking that we’d have an enjoyable ride into Szekszárd. Due to the rain from the previous day, Cédric diligently oiled our gears and chain, but we discovered that the lubrication exacerbated a growing problem with our drivetrain: one of the chainrings was so worn down that the greasy chain would just slip over the teeth. This is a big problem because only one person is transmitting the force to move our iron horse. After 45 minutes of unsuccessful meddling, we managed to set things right with a well-placed zip-tie putting more tension on the chain and thus sticking it onto the chainring.
Upon leaving Pécs, we followed some hilly secondary roads north. Hungary is also the first country in Europe where we saw ‘No bicycle’ signs on the more-trafficked roads (which is probably a good thing, as those roads mean in Hungary that there is a quiet alternative nearby), but this meant that we spent the day swerving through the hills to stay on the correct roads. Hungary was also the first country where we met many people cycling as a hobby or sports – after all countries we visited, doing (and no watching!) sports is apparently mostly a western countries thing. Around lunch time, the heavens once again opened up and we were rained on the rest of the day. Towards the end of the day, we arrived in Szekszárd in a downpour and were happy to find our warm apartment for the night.
For the next two days as we rode towards Budapest, the weather didn’t improve – it remained cold, gray, and rainy. Out of Szekszárd, we rejoined the Danube and crossed onto the east side and followed the mix of bike lanes and roads into the capital Budapest. We attempted to stay out in the rain when biking wasn’t necessary, so we cycled non-stop to an indoor place for lunch, and then again to the apartment for the night. Nothing very exciting on those flatlands, more and more traffic getting closer to Budapest, and as usual the chaotic and totally uninteresting suburbs before finally reaching the much more bike friendly capital of Hungary. When we arrived at our place to stay, we somewhat felt bad for bringing soaking bags and clothes into the room, but… oh well, we needed a place to stay – and we tend to have less remorse in large hotels than guesthouses or B&Bs (and we are super cautious when invited or Warmshowers!). As we arrived into Budapest, we followed a bike lane along the Danube and into the heart of the city. It was nice to see grand buildings pop up out of the more modern suburban dwellings as we approached our hotel for the evening.