Hello everyone, I'm back with yet another blog post. Finding access to the internet on the E3 in Romania has proven to be difficult, but I've finally managed to do it. I'm currently 160 kilometers into the trail, and spending my evening at a tiny Cabana that resides on what is normally a ski resort. The hosts of the place were kind enough to let me camp right next to the building (thereby allowing me to avoid paying a fee for staying on the premises), but their one condition is that I must be eating or drinking while I use their Wifi. That sounds fair to me, so here I am, enjoying a cold brew or two while the sun slowly sets on the rolling hills of Romania.
Now for the details of hiking in Serbia.
Oh Serbia...where do I begin? Walking through the Eastern side of Serbia has left me with quite an impression of what the "good life" would look like. Now, I'm sure that most every Serb would point out that their country has its difficulties, but as a simple wanderer walking through the Serbian landscape, I've fallen in love. If I ever make enough money to afford the luxury of a second, but simple home, I'm going to build it in Serbia.
As I mentioned before, I entered Serbia with the best of experiences. The Romanian hiking organization, SKV, got me in contact with several other hiking clubs in Serbia, and at nearly every town I stopped in, I was well taken care of. The members of each local chapter were curious to chat with an American, happy to show off some of the most beautiful natural landmarks I've ever seen, as well as provide me with food and a place to sleep.
After my first night in Demitrovgrad, I had a long and tiring hike along the highway to arrive at the city Pirot. The sunshine was brutal, and I was worried that the rest of my walk was going to be full of sweat and heat with an unattractive absence of shade. The first few days of walking were just as I described, but lucky for me the scenery made walking in the heat well worth the experience.
I was lucky to see Golden hills that reminded me of the summers in Northern California, small villages with luscious and pristine gardens, mountains that looked stellar at dusk, as well as had the pleasure of meeting locals who were happy to help a traveler find his way. I met a kind spirit nearly every day of walking, and many people gifted me with food and drink.
I know that I've said that people in Bulgaria and Turkey were friendly, but Serbians take it to a new level. From what I can tell, Serbians are a curious folk who love meeting strangers. Before I arrived in Serbia, I was warned that I should avoid mentioning that I'm an American (those NATO bombings are not a too distant memory for many Serbs), but, instead of telling a fib or avoiding the subject, I spoke bluntly and honestly. Against what some would consider "common sense", the locals became incredibly interested about life in America. The usual questions were about politics, television and stereotypes, but each conversation had its own flair.
A personal favorite was the old inn-keeper who, being so determined to speak to an American, grabbed a Serbian-to-English phrase guide designed specifically for Bed and Breakfasts and then proceeded to interrogate me with every question in the book. With a thick Serbian accent, he would state: "Are you hungry? Would you like to see my pig? Do you want a wake-up call? I can help you park your car. There are many activities here." While not every question or phrase applied to my situation, he still had a grand time asking questions and "speaking" in English.
The next day I made my way to Knjazevaz (Lord I hope I spelt that correctly). I passed by dramatic walls of rocks, a roaring river with a small pool for swimming, and plenty of plum trees (who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?). My contacts were Marko, Goran and Ivan. I met Marko and Goran first, Ivan was driving back from Niš. The two gents took me around the city, showing me some places to relax.
After dropping off my pack at Marko's parents' house, we went out for a swim in both a normal swimming pool as well as an ancient natural pool. The natural pool is truly ancient; apparently they found remnants of the tribes that had once inhabited the area nearby. Swimming in the waters that have stood by as empires have crumbled was a humbling experience. History is still alive and well, we humans just need to find the proper evidence to feel its presence.
While all of what I saw in Serbia was beautiful, my heart flew out of my chest and planted itself in Sokobanja. Imagine walking into the set of a Spaghetti Western. Large hills and mountains are everywhere, farms with rows of corn align the one main road, and the parts of the city that avoided being converted into Communist apartments retain an ancient history that is both picturesque and prevalent.
Upon entering the outskirt villages of Sokobanja, I made contact with the local hiking group. Rather than wait for me to walk the remaining eight kilometers to the city center, they instead leapt into an off-road Suzuki from the eighties, and met me at a gas station. It was then that I was introduced to the "Chief", Gaga, his right hand man Yuhu (Yoo-hoo), and the very sweet college student Milica. They apparently had big plans for the day, so after a quick refreshment, we packed into the Suzuki and headed out to see the beautiful nature in Sokobanja.
These three were some of the best company a lonely hiker could ask for. Yuhu and Gaga wouldn't stop with the jokes, Milica gave me a quick education on the terrain whenever she could, and I was eventually treated to a humongous meal at the end of the day. Because we ended up spending such a long time out and about, Gaga invited me to stay the night at his house and with his family. His wife and daughter were incredibly sweet, and their offer to stay another day was way too tempting. Alas, I headed out to the mountains, ready to begin the Via Carpatica route that Romania had asked me to hike.
The first day of the trail was swell. After the miles and miles of pavement, my legs were hungry for some proper trails. My first day involved me walking up and down the mountain Rtanj. There were several sections that required some bushwhacking, but the majority of the time there was a trail that was easy to go up. Getting to the top was a blast, but going down was hell. While the first side had a medium grade, the backside was, simply put, intense. Slipping and falling became normal, and my knees were in serious pain from the extreme effort of just trying to stand up. Five kilometers took close to three hours, and I was beat.
The next day I continued onwards. The dirt roads felt fine under my legs, and I seemed to have a sense of where I was going. About an hour into the walk, I noticed that my cellphone wasn't charging. Now, I've had some troubles with the charging cable, but now, it was finally dead. Unfortunately for me, the route is on my phone, so it's my only way of navigating the terrain.
"No problem", I thought. "I'll just walk for another day or so until I get closer to the city Bor. The trail is fairly obvious, and there's no way I can get lost." As I'm sure you already can tell, I ended up getting very lost. The road turned into trail, then the trail disappeared. There were several work roads that were overgrown with stinging nettle, there were wild boar trails that zigzagged through brush, and I was stuck.
My phone was dying, and I needed to contact someone in order to figure out just what the hell I was going to do. Unfortunately there wasn't service in this neck of the woods, so I had to turn back. Several hours later, I escaped the brush and was able to call Milica. I asked her what was the fastest route to Bor and planned to spend the next day walking on the highways. Milica wouldn't have it. She immediately contacted a rescue group and had them pick me up. I felt that this was overkill, I wasn't in any danger, but that's Serbian hospitality. Even if you're in an inconvenient situation, the Serbs will do their best to make you as comfortable as possible.
Three hours later, a rescue car picked me up. The three gents inside were pleasant enough, and soon they were driving me off to Bor. The car ride was pleasant enough, but then the conversation turned to politics, which turned to propaganda, which then took us around to NATO. The guys in the car weren't angry at me, but they definitely were upset with how Yugoslavia decomposed into its current situation. After being dropped off at a hotel, I was happy to be done with discussing the plight of modern day Eastern Europe.
The next day was Sunday, so everything was closed. I decided to find cheaper accommodations, so I soon set out after a quick bowl of corn flakes. While I was walking through Bor (a very boring city to be honest), my stomach began to turn in what could be described as hellacious. I soon found a cheap motel (the place looks like where the depressed go to purposefully overdose), and spent many hours next to the white throne.
Was it some water that I drank? Maybe the warm milk that I had used to soak my corn flakes? Either way, I couldn't keep food down for the next two days, so, in the most depressing motel in Serbia, I sat milking Sprite and a broken spirit. After gathering enough strength to walk to a cellular store, I packed my things and continued my walk.
At this point I had given up on the Via Carpatica route. The weather was too brutal to do mountain climbing, and I couldn't trust that I would find enough water to keep me hydrated. So I stuck to the highways and dirt roads, soon making my way to Romania.
After Bor I walked some 45 kilometers (27 miles), and stumbled across a series of houses. I wasn't in a village proper, it would best be described as a collection of farms. After stopping by the one market on the road, I met a pleasant chap named Daniel. Daniel is a university student studying electronic engineering in Switzerland. When I told him my story, he invited me to his parents' farm to stay for the night.
When we arrived I was treated to a true farm-to-table meal. The vegetables in the salad and soup were grown in the garden, the chicken was butchered the week before, and the bread was made with the wheat from his family's fields. It was delightful, to say the least. Daniel and I spent the night discussing philosophy and the like over a beer (my favorite activity), then soon went to bed. I was exhausted from the walk, and I needed the rest.
I woke up to find fried eggs and Turkish coffee waiting for me. Filling myself up on only the finest of breakfasts, I found out that Daniel's family had packed up some fresh vegetables for me to take on my trip. We soon said our goodbyes, and I was off.
51 kilometers (32 miles) and twelve hours later, I eventually arrived at my destination. I spent the day walking along the Danube river (the waltz was whirling in my head all day), taking in the breathtaking views. The rock formations were stunning, and the water was beautiful. Save for the fact that I had taken on the largest walk of my hike so far, I was feeling great. My feet, however, were incredibly unhappy with the punishment that I chose to put them through.
I rolled in to a small town around 21:00. During my walk, I saw a sign that said "Free Camping on the Beach", so, after arriving in town, I went about inquiring anyone who was still awake as to where this promise land was located. I eventually found a restaurant that was fully illuminated, so I hobbled up the steps to ask the patrons.
There were two tables that were still inhabited. Upon seeing me, I could tell that everyone was confused and uncomfortable to see a very haggard and terribly smelly bearded man approaching them. I soon explained my situation and asked about the camp. A polite man answered me in English, pointed to where I needed to go, and I turned around to leave the premises. The polite man stopped me while I was in mid-step. "You look hungry. Please, eat something." Apparently this polite man owned a series of hotels throughout Serbia, so he was, essentially, the Big Boss of the town. The waiter gave me a menu, gave a thumbs up to the Big Boss, and brought me several beers.
The Big Boss smiled at me, wished me well, then walked away to his car. I didn't even have a chance to say a proper thank you. That night I ate a simple meal of meat and potatoes, not wishing to take too much advantage of the generosity that was given to me.
I finished my meal and then left for the camp. Upon arriving, I explored the beach to find a place that had not already been taken. I soon met a group of young Serbians celebrating their youth. We chatted a bit, they gave me beer, I gave them rakia, all in all we had a pleasant exchange. I felt the exhaustion creeping up on me, so I wished them well, and they did the same. That night I slept in the hammock, hearing the waves of the Danube creep besides me.
Morning arrived quickly, and I needed to leave. It was to be my last walk in Serbia, and I was looking forward to entering a new country. The sun was the hottest it had been in all of my walks in Serbia, making what could have been a short walk into a long dredge. Several sweaty hours later, I arrived at the border of Romania and Serbia.
Before the border crossing, you'll find a simple market. The little old woman who works the joint is a kind woman indeed. After explaining that I had been walking for several months, she took me to the back of the shop and began filling a bucket full of water. She handed me some soap, and told me to wash my feet. She even helped me when she saw that I had trouble bending my knees. My last experience in Serbia essentially sums up my two weeks walking across Serbia. Serbs want to help a stranger in any way that they can.
Saying goodbye to Serbia was difficult, much more difficult than saying goodbye to Bulgaria or to Turkey. I had been shown so much friendliness, so much kindness, and all because I'm just a guy who ended up walking through Serbia because of a Romanian hiking group's recommendation. After being in Romania for over a week, I still miss Serbia. Some day I will return back to her and her wonderful inhabitants.
If you've never had the pleasure of traveling in Serbia I highly encourage you to do so. It's an amazing country with so much to offer. She's beautiful and welcoming. What more can you ask for when you're looking for adventure?