Sunday, September 21, 2008

Serbian Danube

Cosmic Sausages, England, at Novi Sad International Street Performers Festival

View of Sava/Danube confluence from Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade

Various incarnations of Belgrade

Stop for a moment: poem memorializing the 1941 bombing of the National Library of Serbia

Belgrade house

Drama at the parliament

Ernst van Damme

Bratislav and Ljiljana

Dressed for rain, approaching the Danube Gorge

Golubac Castle

The Danube Gorge. narrowest point

Decebalus Rex, Dacian king carved into the Romanian side of the Danube Gorge

"GOOD BYE. You are leaving Serbia. Don't cry because it's over-smile because it happened :)"
(on Eurovelo 6 bicycle route sign at the Iron Gates Dam border crossing to Romania, September 20, 2008)

As far as cycling goes, my last three days in Serbia were the best-scenic riding along the edge of the Danube Gorge, looking across at MDR (Most Dreaded Romania) on the other side. It looked pretty much the same as the Serbian side, a road blasted into the vertical rock, occasional houses gathered at the river's edge. The other three days I spent cycling the Danube route between cities in Serbia isn't a part of the trip I can recommend. Perhaps it was the mostly wet and cold weather that tainted my view, but sunshine wouldn't have made the air less foul (from burning garbage and belching trucks, cars, buses and tractors) or removed the plastic bottles piled along the road edges around the cities of Novi Sad, Beograd, Smederovo and Pozarevac. Amongst the filth, the river continued to host fascinating sites of antiquity. Scattered all along my route were Stone Age and Roman excavations, but wet and cold, I lacked the will to take sidetrips to find them. Easier to find and enjoy even in the rain were the massive remains of the fortress of Kalemegdan in Beograd, perched on its rock across from my floating hostel, and the medieval walls of Smederovo's fortress, situated directly on the Danube's bank and atmospheric in the gloom of a grey dusk. In the Danube Gorge, I enjoyed cycling through the gates of Golubac Castle, shrouded in morning mist. And I even managed to enjoy several hours at an umbrella'd cafe table on the broad walls of Petrovaradin Fortress across the river from Novi Sad, while the hot days were still on us. All these monuments have been important through history as fortifications since Roman times, ruined and rebuilt in turn by Hungarians, Turks, Serbs. Today the Petrovaradin Fortress is the site of the annual EXIT Festival, said to be the best music festival in Europe. Fantastic site, overlooking the shining Danube.

Some days I felt that for the scenic view of some places I passed, it would be better to study the tourist brochures or watch a PBS documentary at home. But Serbia will be a highlight of my journey and will hold a place in my heart nonetheless, and this has everything to do, as usual, with people I met. I want to introduce three people in particular.

Miki was standing on the edge of Liberty Square looking out for tourists who might like to stay at his new hostel, when I hove into view, walking down the "fussganger" (pedestrian) zone and turning my head from left to right looking for the tourist information office. He asked if he could help me, and was I looking for accommodation? His hostel's name was Sova. I said maybe, after I found the tourist information. I continued down the street looking for the tourist info in the direction he had indicated. Three minutes later a beautiful blonde lady, his wife Sanja, asked if she could help me, and did I need accommodation? The teamwork proved irresistible and I followed her up the stairs to the second story apartments they had renovated: high ceilings, freshly painted walls and old woodwork, gleaming parquet floors, tall windows with leafy trees outside softening the sun and dappling the rooms. Pavarotti singing Verdi on the stereo. Comfortable chairs in the living room which also contained the computer for the free internet access. I moved in. Two days stretched to three, three to four. Miki was almost always around, and he and the other guests made an instant, temporary family. Coming "home" to the hostel after a night out at the International Street Performers' Festival (five wonderful evenings of seven stages of free folk, jazz, percussion, fado and more on Liberty Square and the fussganger zones around it) I sank into a chair and Miki brought a large cold beer; we laughed a lot, talked about history, travel, Serbian language. By the end of the day he would be exhausted from the effort of speaking English (one of several languages he speaks) and when the English words failed to come, he'd make another coffee, light up another cigarette and battle on. I asked him about the NATO attacks in 1999 when all the bridges between Novi Sad and Petrovaradin were destroyed in nightly bombing raids. "Terrible, terrible. The sirens, whaaah, then the bombs. Every night at 6:00." Did he take his family (daughter then 6, twin sons 8) to a bomb shelter, I asked. No, they stayed at home--a bomb could land there, could land here. And history-he waved his hand dismissively. Whose history. When I eventually did leave for Beograd, into a pissing rain, his farewell was warm and heartfelt. I struggled to express in words what a special place he's made of the hostel. "Well, nobody's perfect," he said. Then with a glint in his eye, "I'm nobody."

Every night Miki's mobile would ring. He'd glance at the number on the display, then raise the phone, a smile lighting his face. "It's Ernst," he'd say to me and Oek, a young Dutch man who'd been staying at the hostel when Ernst was there. "He came for a couple of days and stayed for eight", Miki had said to me a few times, as my own stay stretched from day to day. Into the phone, "Hallo, my friend."

Ernst left his home in Amsterdam on April 7 to walk to Tibet. He's walking for Justice, Dignity, and Humanity, and will meet the Dalai Lama when he reaches Dharamsala, planned for July 2009. I caught up with him in Belgrade, on a ship on the Danube, where for 1100 dinara (about $20 CAD) you could get a little cabin like the one I had in mind for my basic cruise to the Black Sea. The ship was hellishly noisy with wedding parties dancing on the deck above until 11 pm, followed by other parties on the river until around 4, followed by the frenzied barking of the stray dogs in the kennel adjacent to finish off the night. But it was worth staying there to hook up with Ernst. We didn't meet right away because he was out partying with people he'd just met, but on the day we were both planning to leave we got together for an early coffee, which turned into breakfast, which turned into another coffee . . . by noon we had barely grazed all there was to discuss, and besides, it was pouring again. I moved back into my room, and we headed off to the city centre together on foot and spent the afternoon exploring the Bohemian Quarter and the area around the government buildings. In front of the Parliament we saw dramatic security men in action. Two of them straddled each rear passenger door of a black limousine; a VIP got in, and the two of them ran to the car behind, jumped in and slammed the doors. The two cars sped off. No one else was paying attention to this drama. Our sightseeing done, we retreated to the warm top floor of Mamut bookstore, where we got facing computer terminals so we could work and chat at the same time. Ernst showed me his blog (, where you can see a photo of Miki and Sanja (dag 148). Our day ended at 11:30 after dinner back on our boat. It was hard to believe we'd met for the first time that morning, but some meetings on a long trip are like that.

Two days later, I had covered the mostly unpleasant ground between Beograd and Veliko Gradiste. It had been wet and cold, 10 degrees according to the weather website Ernst pulled up on his PDA. I was having trouble adjusting to the 25 degree drop in temperature, and was still wearing capri tights, to be finally exchanged for long fleece-lined ones the next day. The cycling had finally become peaceful, clean and idyllic at the end of this second day as I got closer to the Gorge. I had come 100 kilometres, more than usual, and I was hoping to find a place to stay soon as I had a slow leak in my rear tube which was now giving an audible hiss when I pumped. The rain started up again, a slow but dense rain that soaks. There was a shallow, narrow ditch that I should have crossed on the perpendicular but couldn't because at that moment a car came by-I tried a parallel maneuvre that would have worked had the little ditch not been full of water. Landed on my hands and knees on the road with the weight of my bike on top. Surely I must have suddenly disappeared from the car's side or rear view mirror in a mysterious fashion, but the car didn't stop. I was shaken and nauseous as I got myself upright again. I heard a whimper float in the air around my head and told my inner child to scram. This was a time for a grown-up to be in charge. And what had Ernst said, when things are not going well, sit down, have a coffee, and some solution will appear. Two minutes down the road, I saw a hand-painted sign, "sobe/apartmani" (rooms/apartments) and turned down the driveway. Five minutes later, I was sitting in the kitchen of Ljiljana and Bratislav with their two friends, a thick Turkish coffee in front of me. Two large bottles of sljivovica (Serbian alcohol) were produced and my bleeding fingers doused. Bratislav called for a cigarette and the guest produced one. Then he carefully cut off 5 mm sections of tobacco and laid them on each wound, then with great care not to let the little mounds of tobacco tumble off, bound my fingers with gauze. The whole procedure was repeated for my left knee, which I discovered was also bleeding under my tights. The next morning my wounds were clean, so I can recommend this treatment.

I wasn't sure, during my Serbian alternative medical treatment, if I could in fact have a room. We didn't have a common language, and Ljiljana had looked perturbed that I didn't speak German. However, she warmed up to me and led me around the corner of the house with a big gesture to follow. As we approached an annex to the house where the room was, she looked back at me with a wicked grin, then said with a perfect North American accent, "C'mon boys!" and we both laughed. "Serbische cartoon," she explained, and this was how we communicated the rest of the evening and the next morning--in a telegraphic mix of gestures, and German, English and Serbian words. Initially I understood I was to eat dinner at a restaurant, but soon I had a a date first for hot homemade caramel milk and cookies, and then for dinner in the kitchen, and for a large "fruhstuck" (breakfast) the next day. Our conversation never flagged. We didn't cover as much ground as Ernst and I did with our common language of English, but with the album of family photos taken in August at Bratislav's 80th birthday, we had lots to talk about. There were also tears. She wanted to tell me about the terror of the bombs. She lives in Beograd except during the summer season when she is here in Veliko Gradiste (or more correctly the tourist recreation area of Silver Lake). But in 1999 she was in Beograd and produced the same terrifying wailing sound that Miki had described of the siren announcing the beginning of the nightly bombing. She pointed up, "bomb, bomb," and gripped her crotch to show how she peed her pants. She showed me the array of medications she takes for her nerves. Born in 1931, the same year as my father, she also lived through the bombings and explosions in Beograd of the Second World War. Today with her four children grown and with families of their own, and one great grandson, not to mention her "lav," Bratislav, she has a lot to lose to the terrors of today. Al Qaeda beheadings in Kosovo, planes flying into buildings in New York--these brought tears as well. (Miki uses black humour to cope. Ernst told me how Miki took him out to "work" one day, to recruit guests at the square. "Do you know how to tell the difference between European or American tourists and Serb tourists?" Ernst admitted he didn't. "European and American tourists look like this"--he moved his head from left to right, then back again, probably in a perfect imitation of me on my first day in Novi Sad. "Serbian tourists look like this"--he moved his head from left to right, then did a skyward sweep with his eyes. Looking out for bombs.)

Tears gave way to laughter and affection again for my third warm leave-taking in a week. Ljiljana stood two steps above me, grasped my head and kissed the top of it three times. "Serbski custom?" I asked. "For my kinder (children)," she said. And she waved until I cycled out of sight.

Drobeta-Turnu Severin, Romania, 5435 km


Kris said...

Good stories, Catherine. I like Bratislav, Ljiliana and Ernst a lot.

Jas said...

Hi Catherine,

Finally got a chance to catch up on your blog - what an adventure! We were in France and Spain in August, and thought of you every time we say a cyclist. We even thought we might run into you. Is Europe really that big! Look forward to reading more.