Day 28 Mokra Gora, meaning Wet Mountain in English, sits in the Tara National Park and is famous for its narrow gauge steam railway. The Trustpilot reviews had told us that it would be “like heaven on earth”, so our expectations were high. The reality was a few rundown houses parked next to a busy road. The town was anything but ‘wet’. In fact, it was nearing 30C. We stayed in a ridiculously cheap three bed log cabin. We arrived in the early afternoon, so we had a lot of downtime. I sat on the front porch in the sun and caught up with the diary, and Joe cooked dinner.
We spent the evening on the sofa and watched American Pie; it felt like being back in London. I had missed doing nothing. Day 29
We tackled the first hill of the day with ease. The climb ended with a tunnel, which opened onto a vast, empty landscape. The tall pine trees and remoteness felt familiar, reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. The roads were quiet, which didn’t help escape the repetitiveness of the ride. The most interesting thing we saw all morning was two lizards fighting on the roadside. We left Western Serbia - “the tourist region”, confused as to why it was given such a name. Thereafter, the scenery got better, but the traffic busier. The single lane road followed a meandering river through a deep valley. The area is famous for its twelve monasteries, but we didn’t stop. We should have stopped, but we didn’t. We were making too good progress.
The traffic and its drivers got worse and worse. Trucks sped past, leaving only a couple inches of room. At times it was sketchy. Drivers would overtake two cars at a time, even when there was on-coming traffic. A couple of times, a car would come straight for us before swerving back onto their side of the road just in time. In Cacak the streets were covered in dust; its low-rise buildings painted in light earthy tones, with terracotta tiles sheltering its inhabitants from the spring sun. I didn’t know what to expect from Serbian cities, but it wasn’t a Mediterranean cum SouthEast Asia feel. Within two minutes of getting off the bikes, a local man approached us. He was extremely enthusiastic about the trip and his home country. He was eager for us not just to transit, but to visit. Unfortunately, we'd already cycled past most of the highlights. We went for our second traditional Serbian meal of the day – roasted lamb with a Sproska salad i.e. Greek Salad doused in grated feta. We watered this down with a couple beers and toasted to the first full day of Serbia. We were grateful to still be alive.
Day 30 Lack of carbs from the day before, meant we were low on energy. We found an expensive looking bakery and chowed down on the best dough in all the Balkans. With new found energy, we cycled out of Cacak. A man on a Harley Davidson drove up beside us, beeped his horn and gave us a thumbs up. Waving and beeping horns, as a sign of support, had been a common occurrence throughout the Balkans. We returned the gesture and the motorcyclist drove on.
A few minutes later, he had parked up on his drive, which was on the other side of the road. He was gesturing for us to have coffee with him. I’d just had one. The thought of another coffee literally threw me over the edge. I turned back to reply, but as soon as I took my eyes off the road, I went straight into the curb. I flew over the handlebars head-first and crashed onto the pavement. The man came rushing over to apologise. The motorcyclist took us into his home, introduced us to his wife, and poured alcohol over the cuts and placed bandages over the open wounds. Miles and his wife couldn’t speak English, and we couldn’t speak Serbian, so we spent the next 1.5 hours communicating through imagery. They showed us pictures of their son’s wedding and we showed them photos of Bosnia. After eating a slice of wedding cake, drinking a shot, a cup of coffee and a pint of cola, we left appreciative of the kindness.
It was late, so we decided to cut the day short and stayed on a campsite in Vrnjacka Banja. The campsite came with three wild puppies. At first they were cute, but they wouldn’t leave us alone. To make up for the lack of carbs, we went to a restaurant and ate two mains and a dessert each. When we returned to the campsite, Joe found the puppies curled up asleep on the porch of his tent. Every time he moved them, they would return to their original spot.
“Ed, they smell. What should I do?” From the comforts of my tent, I laughed and fell asleep. Day 31 In the morning, Joe was greeted by three puppies staring at him through the netting. They had been patiently waiting for him to get up. Later, Joe got promoted to lead-cyclist. Before this, I’d been leading “because [you] have the Garmin”, he’d reason. It’s much less work sitting on the back of someone’s wheel, so I lapped it up. The cycle took us through old countryside villages and away from the main roads. We managed to pick up the pace, and made it to Nis in good time. It was a great ride.
Day 32 We hadn’t had a day off since Saravego, so jumped at the chance of exploring Nis. I was happy to hear that there were no walking tours. However, you’d be mistaken for thinking, as I was, that this would result in a relaxed day. There were no such luxuries, we're incapable of rest. After the morning spent writing in the diary and eating breakfast, we walked to a WW2 concentration camp, which had limited information on the Jews who were taken there and the Nazi occupation of Nis. We then walked back to the centre of town to visit an Archeological museum. Ten minutes after entering, we left and made our way to the Skull Tower, which had promise. On the way, we got sidetracked by the city’s football stadium. Turns out Joe loves a stadium so we tried, unsuccessfully, to get into the grounds. We heard music in the distance, so followed our ears to see what was going on. As we walked, we put bets on what it might be: I said a Tennis tournament, Joe thought it was an athletics event. It was in fact an ‘International Dog Show’. It was encouraging to see dogs on leads, not roaming the streets barking at cyclists.
After this brief encounter with Crufts, we used the rest of our energy to trek to the Skull Tower. The Skull Tower was built after a battle around Nis during the Ottoman period – skulls from the dead were piled on top of each other as a warning to others. The Skull Tower was as much a tower as a McDonald’s Cheeseburger is a Big Mac. The step count had ticked over the 21,000 mark, so we treated ourselves to a taxi. We finished the rest day carb loading, drinking beer and watching the F1 in the bar next to our hostel. Day 33 Joe had decided to push back his leave date by a few weeks. This meant there was no need for us to go to Sofia. We had heard mix messages about getting into Kosovo – Kosovo is not recognised as an independent state by Serbia, so the border is disputed. We were intrigued to see what Kosovo was like – famous only for the war during 1999. With Joe’s new found freedom, we decided to risk it. We packed our bags, clipped into the pedals and rode south.
The cycle out of Nis was nice – the tarmac was mostly fine, but there was a lot of construction along the route. We passed through rolling hills, farmland, and othordox churches. It was some of the nicest scenery we’d seen in Serbia.
After 39 miles, we stopped at a border town to eat lunch. It was obvious we were off the tourist trail; the town was small and felt local. I had been anxious on the ride up to that point. If we couldn’t get across the border, we’d have to retrace our steps back to Nis and head towards North Macedonia, adding another one to two days to the trip. To calm the nerves, I ate a bolognese and Joe had a pizza. Nerves calmed, we got back on the bike and headed towards the crossing. We were then passed by multiple army vehicles and a UN car… The border was big, and of course, funded entirely by the EU. Security had our passports for about 10 minutes, but let us go through, no questions asked. What were we worried about!? As we rolled into Kosovo, we gave each other a fist pump. I then received a notification from Monzo saying: “Welcome to the USA!"