Serbia has been largely ignored by those looking for a cycling holiday, But as PHIL LUTTON discovers, the Eastern European state throws up a few surprises.
Nobody ever wants to be a stick in the mud. Nobody should ever desire to be stuck in mud, either. Especially not in the foothills of south-eastern Serbia, with rain pissing down so hard it stings and with clogged bicycle wheels rendered completely useless due to clots of sodden clay. Tits on a bull,” as my grandfather would have described them.
Even the passing donkey carts, clearly armed with more horsepower that my formerly shiny mountain bike and I could generate, were of little help towing me out. Instead, the farmers had a quick giggle and pointed to the village of Josanica which I had just left, a few miles back down the hill.
It was a quick turnaround of fortunes. One minute I was on top of the world after defeating the toughest dirt-road terrain, struggling up the hill from Josanica, resting briefly with my riding companions under a tree, surveying the green, rolling countryside.
The next minute I was digging out clumps of mud from under my brakes, carrying my bike through muddy mini-lakes caused by the sudden deluge. Then I finally careened back down the hill with as much traction as a dog on polished timber, in desperate search of a sealed road.
Find it I did. While washing off the remnants of my heroic descent (somewhat akin to the man from Snowy River, except on a Malvern Star), I apologised to the nice man for wrecking the bike he loaned me for the day’s ride – a 40km (truncated by the storm) sojourn through the Sokobanja Valley and the slopes of the Ozren, Devica and Rtanj Mountains.
‘Serbia’ and ‘cycling’ aren’t two terms those wanting to pedal around peaceful central European scenery usually couple together. The idea of visiting Serbia, full-stop, is still met with apprehension for many.
For those who do, it’s a somewhat daring foray into a country still recovering from the devastating civil war that tore much of it to shreds. The brutal conflict ended with the 1996 Dayton Peace Accord, which formalised the peace agreement in the former Yugoslavia.
Past Yugoslav republics, like Slovenia, have succeeded in reinventing themselves as boutique tourist destinations, opening up a previously enclosed part of the continent to a new generation of travellers. Serbia has faced a more difficult task, but is slowly putting itself on the map. Its reputation as a country of beauty, history and one that embraces visitors is spreading.
There seems to be a new ‘discover it before the tourists do’ every five minutes as Europe’s east unlocks its doors. Serbia is the latest addition – and a worthy one at that. Book a flight. Go now before the price of cigarettes skyrockets beyond 50p a packet. At the moment, prices from food and lodgings are as good as anywhere you will get on the mainland.
The country is still so cheap you can buy 10 acres and a house in the countryside for little over £1500, although the infra- structure isn’t what you would get in commuter-belt Surrey. But there is more trout. Lots of trout.
Cycling is a perfect way to explore the rural areas outside the main cities (boho Belgrade is worth the trip alone) and Serbia springs a surprise with every turn of the pedal. For instance, just outside the city of Nis (the birthplace and childhood home of the Emperor Constantine) just a few hours from Belgrade, the ancient Roman ruins attract a mere handful of visitors every year. It’s proof of how sheltered the country has been to tourists. The man who put a patent on Christianity, fairly popular itself, may have expected his legacy to interest a few more punters. More popular is the spa town of Sokobanja, where Misa, our Lance Armstrong for today’s ride, kits us out for our tour of the nearby areas.
It’s not long before we get our first taste of the hospitality that colours any visit to Serbia. Food servings are generally massive – The fish, sir? Would you like three or four?” – and a tipple with a meal isn’t generally frowned upon.
In the village of Resnik, a few miles from our starting point, we refresh ourselves with a spicy drop. Golub, an enthusiastic old geezer who may be as old as the ancient, creaking water-mill he shows us, brings us a glass of his homemade Slivovica, a plum brandy. It is potent enough to fuel the support vehicle and gives us more than enough pick-up to get back on our bikes and power on.
Rural Serbia is poor, devoid of English accents and a true pleasure to get up close and personal. After endless numbers of ‘trips’, this one makes you feel like you really are travelling.
Lunch is at the village of Josanica, famous for its spring water – but not in the Volvic over-the-counter-at-Somerfield kind. Locals sit by the various taps throughout the day selling jars of the six different waters to passers-by and occasionally indulging, depending how gassy they’re feeling. The iron water, sulphur water and curiously named ‘stomach water’ are all useful for varying ailments, Misa tells us. But after seeing us huff and puff for the first 20km of the ride, she clearly doesn’t think we’re robust enough to attempt to drink any of them. Fair enough, too.
From there we push on, gallantly attacking the hillside until the rains sweep in across the ranges, halting our ascent. The rest, as they say, is at the top of the story.
Back at Sokobanja, a hypnotising session in the town’s natural spa is the perfect way to soothe the aching muscles after the day’s rigours. The first few days were spent in Belgrade, one of Europe’s hippest evolving capitals which has an imposing fort, chic eateries, underground bars, floating nightclubs bobbing on the River Sava and free-to-air hardcore porn late at night (yes, that’s free-to-air, folks). But having the chance to pedal through a more palpable, tangible and untainted reality of Serbia feels more like a privilege than a press trip.
It is going to change – and quickly. Even more reason to stage your own Tour de Serbia, before everybody else realises just what they’re missing.
• Phil Lutton cycled with ACE Cycling and Mountaineering Centre (+381 642476311; www.ace-adventurecentre.com) who offer rides, hiking and outdoor activities through the country. For more information about Serbia, call +381 11 323 8540 or see www.serbia-tourism.org.