‘You’ll pretty much just need your flip flops and board shorts Guy’… This was the advice given to me from my brother, Sebastian, prior to joining the three intrepid doctors for the first several months of the trip through Europe and Turkey. For some reason these words have echoed in my mind, in between the shivers and teeth jitters, during some of the coldest journeys of our trip. Aside from some sub-temperature camping in German and Czech woodland, the two most notable occasions have been, firstly, the southward ascent from Graz, Austria, into snowy Slovenia and secondly the long trip from Ljubljana, Slovenia, via Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia.
The Land Rover, which at 20 years of age stands at only two years my junior, is undoubtedly a fine vehicle, one which leaves strong impressions – turning heads and leaving mouths agape in our wake nearly everywhere we drive. However, with the smooth comes the rough. One of the quirks includes the capriciously precarious doors, adorned with rust and a matrix of holes that provide ample breathing (influx of freezing air) and excellent water provision (streams of icy water flowing onto ill-prepared footwear). These features came into their most pronounced state during the coldest and wettest of the journeys.
In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, we spent two nights. The trip into the city had allowed us to experience the shock of snow, we had taken turns in one of our seats, the back passenger seat rearward of the driver, which has been branded the ‘sarcophagus’. This punishing abomination is the clear short straw of the car. It is unable to be opened, at mercy to the elements and with about as much space as a hamster cage, the icy air and cramped conditions leave you with borderline hypothermia. This is not to mention the remaining shards of glass from the previous break ins that crop up from time to time to remind you of your misery. However, now that we have entered Turkey and reached the warmth of Mesopotamia, having basked in Greek sun for quite a while previously, these issues have been of little further concern.
In Ljubljana I had managed to send off some couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing .org) requests for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and our next destination. Luckily enough for us, one of my couch requests was successful. Two very kind Serbian girls, Andrijana and Marija, had agreed to accept us for the night. This was a fairly mammoth request, especially for their parents, given that we were four British men whom they had never met, and that they had already hosted 17 people that month.
With a rendez-vous arranged in Belgrade for 8pm, we set off at 11am giving us what we saw as a wide-berth time allowance for unforeseen delays (which are largely considered as inevitable, the Google Maps estimate times by 2 usually does the trick). The long drive went into the evening with temperatures dropping to considerable lows. Subsequently, starting with the poor ‘sarcougphigated’ one (this trip has coined considerable new terminology and grammar), we all one by one started to adorn ourselves with hats, blankets and anything with any vague heat retaining ability. As we bumbled along the headlights ominously started to flicker… out they went. This led to a long delay as we endeavoured to fix the electronics at a run-down mountain petrol station, after much effort and the clock worryingly ticking over, Rich had secured some lights, but with the full beam only. We got back on the road met with angry flashes from every vehicle we passed.
Crossing the Croatian border into Serbia was an on-edge affair to say the least, with no indicators and only full beam, wrapped up in strange hats (I, sporting a bright fluorescent beanie we had acquired, and Dan a fury Russian hat), covered in blankets, we somehow managed some nervous smiles and murmured some poorly formed serbo-croatian hellos to the surly border guards. We successfully entered Serbia with great relief.
Considerably behind schedule, we met the lovely Marija and Andrijana, who had been waiting for us at the central station in Belgrade. We proceeded to their house, which was in neighbourhood called Kumotaz, a 20 min bus ride out of the centre. On arrival their mother, who supplied us with some well-needed nourishment, welcomed us. It was at this point that we were informed that the father of the house was in the automotive repair profession – our hearts jumped and eyes widened, we were all thinking the same. What a stroke of luck.
We stayed there for the longest we had stayed anywhere up until that point. This had been due to us usually getting itchy feet after staying somewhere for a couple of days, because of time constraints and accounting for car problems. The longer stay here allowed us to gain a deeper feeling for the place –at the home, the neighbourhood and into the city.
The hospitality in the household was superb. Serbian culture dictates that the chores of the household, such as helping in the kitchen, are no place for a man, and neither are such activities suitable for a guest. Unfortunately, the double whammy of our being both male and guest was not conducive to the manner in which we lived up to our stereotypes as bumbling English gents. Our persistent attempts to help out were met with fierce reprisals and subsequent cowering retreats back to a sedentary state, this cyclical affair occurred frequently, to the detriment of both parties, until we finally got the point. A similar issue occurred with portions and meals, with a typically British attitude we found it hard to say firmly that we had had enough; this led to back-to-back hefty and delicious meals, most often rendering us both satisfied and incapacitated.
Overall, Belgrade left us with lasting impressions. The city itself was both energetic and stunning – walking up to the Belgrade Fortress and the Kalemegdan Park which overlook both the city and the conflation of the Danube and the Sava rivers, at sunset, and experiencing one of our bests nights out of the trip, at the nightclub ‘Plastic’ – which looks dilapidated and slightly war-torn on the outside but has an impressive interior and world-leading sound system inside – were just some of the highlights. Having the delightful Bogunovic family home as our base enhanced these experiences ten-fold and gave us an insight to Serbian life.
We set off from the family home to hugs, kisses and fond farewells, into the night and onward to another Serbian city, Novi Sad, in high spirits and with working indicators and headlights, a mind-blowing novelty that meant we no longer had to lean out the window and wave vigorously whenever we needed to turn anywhere.
Novi Sad took us somewhat by surprise. Arriving quite late, tired and hungry, at around 11:30pm, we were greeted with Saturday’s thumping bars and a slightly wild-west overflowing nightlife on all visible areas of the streets. We parked up after some complex navigation and a surly looking stocky man with a shaved head and a black trench coat immediately accosted us. He assured us protection for our vehicle if he were paid sufficiently, we were unsure as to whether this was a threat or a guarantee. With only two hostels in our guidebook (which had clearly been written only for summer visitors), we parked up with the surly man ominously lingering around our vehicle getting worryingly frustrated with us. Dan and I set off to find the evasive/non-existent hostels, leaving Bass and Rich to deal with the Serbian mafia. After having little success with one of the elusive addresses, which led us down endless back alley drinking holes, up 6 flights of stairs, and into the home of a bewildered family, we eventually found the second one, ‘Downtown’.
Downtown was without a doubt the strangest hostel I have ever been, run by the comic duo of ‘The Manger’ and his brother. Although at first it is hard to gage, this interactive pair are indeed very friendly, if you’ve come to hostel for some peace and quiet, however, you will be greatly disappointed. With our now well-practiced division of labour, Rich and Dan set off to park the car securely, with the break-ins of Prague and Bratislava etched into our minds, whilst Bass and I started cooking. The long-haired Manager, a forty-something ex-serviceman-turned-hippy, is present 24/7 except when he naps leaving his brother, a bald chap who refers to The Manager in nearly every sentence he utters, takes over. This meant he was present in the kitchen/foyer/reception/Manager’s bedroom area during the cooking of our Thai curry. ‘Eeeh! Jamie Oliver’ he smirked at us as he put his arm on my shoulder and started to take charge of the cooking, I glanced at Bass uneasily as he proceeded to pour a cup of water in what we were trying to lightly fry. Bass had a look of despair. ‘I’m not your mother eh, in the army I cooked for 4000 people’ The Manager reiterated as he continued to take charge, assuming that he was saving our meal – neither of us dare intervene.
I realised Bass, who is extremely averse to having people intervene with his cooking, had reached breaking point when, after the Manager had briefly subsided, I commented that at least the flavour would be OK, it was just the texture we had wanted that would be compromised. ‘NO Guy, the flavour is exactly what is ruined, forget the bloody texture. We might just get some nutrients, maybe, out of this’ he snapped.
Fortunately the meal turned out to be delicious, much beer was drank and we abruptly realised it was now 1am, despite the necessity to wake up early we decided we had to utilise the thriving party vibe of the city and went out to ‘The London Underground’ bar/club, somewhere it felt quite strange asking for directions to, and a few other venues.
The next day we went to see the Novi Sad Castle, location of the famous Exit festival, and then set off for Sarajevo, Bosnia.
You guys are such excellent writers. I really hope you can find a publisher for this!