The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Going home, going home, going home, going home...

If we told you about our 1,400km from Istanbul to Novi Sad in Serbia 48 hours ago it would be a different tale. The last two weeks have been one of ups and downs; Glorious spring sunshine alternating with freezing, rainy headwinds; smooth and quiet then pot holed, truck filled roads; quaint villages full of humble rural life and depressingly deserted, boarded up industrial towns.

For the first week I couldn't shake the stuck record of, 'We're going home, we're going home, we're going home, we're going home, we're going home' from my mind. We cycled through lands that felt impenetrable through language and cultural barriers. In Turkey people looked at us curiously, shrugged, smiled then gave us a welcome cup of chai before getting back to their tasks. In Bulgaria people gawped in utter confusion for so long that there was no time to see their reaction once they had processed what they were seeing. In Romania we whizzed through ancient villages getting heckled by gangs of boozing men in guttural tones that weren't clearly positive or negative. One man seemed simply to bark at us. In Serbia on the other hand, reactions to the tandem have been more finely tuned.

Yesterday we had been cycling for 1,300 km and 12 days without a day off. We had pegged Novi Sad as our day off destination and had a nice steady route planned to get us here, avoiding the apparently doomful traffic of Belgrade. We were therefore a bit tetchy and tired when we pedaled into Pancevo yesterday only for there to be no room at the inn. Our choices were another 115km to Novi Sad or traffic misery into Belgrade. We decided to slump down in the main square to eat some sugar and make a plan. Little did we know a plan was already descending upon us.

'Hey hey, cyclist, cyclist', a man in a full length black leather coat, flip down mp3 fitted shades and grey curly barnet taps Nick on the shoulder.

'Me, me cyclist, come come see', We get ushered to one side of the square, reluctantly heaving the tandem when really we just want to collapse and not have to deal with any suspicious looking men in long coats. 'See, look, me... Stockholm, Regensburg, Athens, Tulcea.' Our weary faces lift as the man shows us a board of photos of his cycling trips. This isn't just any oddball, this is a cycling oddball, which means we can relax.

Ten minutes and zero English later we are pushing Carlos into a small garage on the outskirts of town and being ushered into Dusan's one room pad next door. A map of all his cycling trips plasters one wall, Mount Olympus posters adorn the other and in pride of place sits an oil painting of his 20 year old Specialized 'Epic' racing bike. In between speakers that take up about half of the room and a table tennis score board lie stacks of books he's written about his cycling adventures. It's from this moment that we realise we have stumbled across another gem of a human being and roll with the brilliance of it. Before we know it we're collapsed on the bed-cum-sofa being taken at top speed and volume through his live music DVD collection: Pink Floyd Live in Pompei, ACDC in Munich, Roger Waters Super concert of The Wall in Berlin, Walter Trout (?), Jimmy Winter ('White Jimi Hendrix, albino man'). and last but not least, Jeff Wayne's War of the World's Live tour. Of course.

Before it gets too weird that we have no means to communicate other than the medium of Rock, his 21 year old son Niki arrives. His excellent English and long flowing locks suggested that he might have grown up watching a few too many of his Dad's DVDs.

'My father says you can stay here tonight, he must go and talk on the TV now and later he has to train the local table tennis team and then tonight he is out of town so you can have his bed.' Wow. Its more bizarre than we can ever have hoped for. But free, warm bed – brilliant. After missing a train into Belgrade we spend the afternoon with Niki exploring Pancevo and eating hamburgers twice the size of my head (the Serbs are incredible hamburger makers). After days of cycling through places and being desperate to ask questions its good to get an insider's view of this part of the world. Frustration with politics but an appreciation of things getting better and a definite intrigue at the future role of the EU comes over strongly. But most telling, for this soft mannered Serb, Canada, a paved cycling path and house in the mountains is the dream.

As we head off for a post burger beer a vision in white flashes across the road. Its Dusan on the aforementioned Epic in full white cycling gear (were the gloves with silver floral detailing made for women?) tearing through the streets of Pancevo as if it's a time trial track. Amazing! For the first time the tandem wasn't the most conspicuous thing on two wheels in Eastern Europe. After some exchanges in Serbian Nicki asks 'Er my Father is wondering if you would mind talking on local television with the tandem. Only if you are not too tired, no problem if you would rather not.' Our response was fairly positive. Its not every day you get the opportunity to feature on Serbian TV with your beloved tandem. An hour later we were parked in the middle of the town square being interviewed by an enthusiastic TV reporter asking such questions as 'Are you tired?', 'Why are you in Pancevo? Do you have enough money?' and 'Do you like White Snake?'

After all that excitement we get some much needed kip on the sofa before its back into action again at 7am with the return of Dusan. The TV is on at full volume with Jean Michel Jarre live in Houston blasting out and some cheese pies for breakfast. Nicki and the vision in white lycra ride with us half the way to Novi Sad, kindly, if a little dangerously, protecting us from trucks and giving us a slip stream (tricky with a fully loaded tandem and two tiny racers). Half way through the ride Nicki turns to me and says, 'Today you have made my father very happy, all his life he has been with women who do not like cycling. He always wants a women who likes cycling, who understands, and today he has seen you on the bike and so he knows they exist and this makes him very happy.' After a photo shoot in the middle of a puzzled looking Serbian village, we say our goodbyes and all wish each other the best of luck in the future. I have a feeling we might see those two rocking up in London one day in some phenomenal cycling gear with big grins.

Novi Sad was bombed extensively by NATO in 1999 to put pressure on Milosevic to end the Yugoslav regime, but has since reinvented itself into a youthful city full of cafes, restaurants and and drinking holes. Perfect for our day off and to top off the Serbian hospitality our hostel owner welcomed us with a massive grin and glass of beer, full of joy because tomorrow he gets to look after his lambs in the fields. There is a local speciality here called 'lescovacki voz' (Leskovac train). This is essentially a 'train' of meats brought to you throughout the evening. It would seem churlish not to try it... From here we head pretty much due North to Budapest, West to Vienna and then hit the straight line to London through Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. ETA into Hyde Park is 4 weeks time today on the 8th May, but as with all great adventures, you can never be too sure what might get in our way or speed us up en route.

1 comment:

Hans said...

What an amazing story again! Eating my yoghurt-cruesli on a sunny Dutch Tuesdaymorning. Great way to start the day. Good to find out you're both doing well.. Don't see Holland in the route back, but Belgium is not that far away, so who knows! O.k. I leave it with love from Charlot and myself. Safe trip, we'll be in touch. Hans.