European Tour 2009 VIII - Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia
Vienna, AT to Belgrade, Srb
August 31 to September 16, 2009
Section 1Vienna to Budapest
After 5 nights enjoying the nice amenities of the Austrian auto club camp park in Klosterneuberg, it was time to move on. From this point onward we expect facilities, services, and roads to continually get more and more rustic. The ultimate is likely to be in Romania. So we were very glad to have had such a long stay in Vienna.
Directly outside the campground we took a left right onto the bike path and proceeded along a route that passed by all those stores and buildings we'd been seeing from the train for the past 4 days. It's a very pleasant bike ride pretty much all along a separate bike path. So no dealing with cars is required.
Soon we passed over a bridge to ride along the long man made island in the middle of the river. This island was created when Vienna built the Donaukanal. Like so many rivers of its size, the Donau has the tendency to flood once in a while. Since the citizens of the city would rather not have their houses destroyed every century or so, they built this canal and moved the main river away from downtown. The island, called the Donauinsel, was created using all the dirt from the canal.
Today this island provides great recreation opportunities not the least of which is biking. The Donau Radweg goes along only about 1/2 of the island, getting on at the first bridge possible and getting off at the last. We also made a short detour to the Prater district so we could pick up supplies for a picnic lunch.
After leaving the island, the route now abuts the famous nude beach. This small section of the Donau is where anyone who likes to swim and sunbathe in the buff comes to spend the day. It also happens to be right next to the crew race course as well as where you can rent boats by the hour. But, people are very relaxed about nude sunning here. The funny thing is the vast majority of the sunbathers are folks with a generous supply of gray hair and bodies that have gone beyond their better years. If you think about it, though, if a person had a drop dead figure they might not want the attention nude bathing could bring.
Most of the rest of our last day in Austria was spent cruising along the top of the dike intended to keep the Donau in its enforced river bed. It was a long, straight, almost boring path. We did make a side trip to Orth to take a quick look at the Orth palace, now used as a center for the Nationalpark Donau-Auen.
Our last campground in Austria was at a tennis park. It seems they decided they could make a little extra cash by allowing campers to overnight during summer months. It's a sensible way to fund the very large indoor tennis facilities they've got. Also, they happen to provide camp facilities in the town that contains Austria's largest set of Roman ruins. So they are providing a good service.
As we left Petronell the next morning we swung by the large Heidentor for a quick look. For the longest time archeologists believed that this gate looking ruin was actually one of the original Roman town gates. In reality it turns out to be one arch of four that formed the pillars of a large monument to Caesar Constantine II built around 354 - 361 AD. A statue of the Caesar used to stand on a large pillar in the middle of the platform The stones of that pillar have been re-erected. What's interesting are all the graffiti marks on the stones some dated in the 1910s.
There are other parts of the Carnuntum ruins scattered around Petronell including two amphitheaters. But the fee to enter all three major sites was 9€. Having spent the month of January exploring the Roman ruins of Italy and since we really wanted to spend the afternoon in the Slovakia capital city of Bratislava, we chose to forego this site for now.
Continuing downriver we quickly came to the medieval town of Hainburg. It's got a fairly nice old town area and a couple of very impressive town gates. What really put this town on the map is that the composer, Joseph Hayden's grandfather was one of only 100 people to survive the fall of the town to the Turks on July 12, 1683. A stroke of luck produced a great musician.
Entering Slovakia was as easy as can be. Since our maps were printed, in 2006, all border controls have ceased to exist. So it was just a simple matter of riding on past the former border station. Add to that that the country went on the Euro as of January 1. Thus entering the country and spending an afternoon is real easy. As we approached the city, off to our left we caught sight of the horrendous new city built by the Soviets. It's another one of their monstrous conglomerations of ugly concrete buildings designed solely for the purpose of storing humans. Fortunately this mess is located away from the more pleasant old city.
The cycle path started to become absolutely crowded. Bikers and especially in-line skaters filled the path. We thought that was extremely unusual considering the fact it was just a Tuesday and not a weekend. Later we learned that September 1 is a national holiday called Constitution Day. Most stores, with the exception of the few souvenir shops and supermarkets, were closed and the downtown walking mall was remarkably peaceful. We concluded that was because the entire city must have been out on the bike path.
Old town Bratislava has been reasonably renovated, although there appears that more work could be done. But there really isn't a whole lot there to see. Despite having been the city in which the Hungarian kings were crowned from 1563 to 1830 the city really never seems to have gotten that large. As a result even with leisurely strolling we took only a couple hours to see the major sites.
The one site that isn't old but is perhaps the most recognized is a new bronze piece of art. It's the head of a sewer worker sticking up out of a manhole. This is the most photographed site in all Bratislava. One fellow has set himself up as a live version of this statue as a way to make money. He gives the small kids a real start.
After Bratislava we continued on down the very crowded bike path to the border, again no border formalities. Hungary has as yet to take on the Euro. That's supposed to happen in 2010. So the first thing we had to do was find a bank. Then on a bit further we found a campground that was still open but basically vacant. Then we found a tiny store. Hungary's towns look completely rebuilt so far, but shopping in these littlest of towns still requires some creativity.
What amazing changes we see in the Hungarian countryside as we ride toward Györ. House after house after house looks either brand new or completely renovated. The gardens are neat and well filled with flowers. New bus stops now line the roads. New or renewed parks fill the towns. The new Donau bike path is well signed everywhere and comes complete with good rest areas all along the route. One little rest spot even had an old train engine as a display. It was interesting to contrast the old photo of this very same engine with the actual item.
Ten years ago we were quite the oddity, bike touring and even bike riding through Hungary. Nobody was on a bike. Hungary is now doing a reasonably good job of implementing a bike culture. In towns we see little old ladies pedaling off to the store, wicker basket in hand. Men in their blue coveralls pedal off to work. In Györ students ride everywhere. There are even brand new bike paths found along the roads and sometimes even within the cities. What a difference. There's still work to be done. The Danube cycle route still follows a lot of road, but huge advancements have been made.
We cruised along the flat island sandwiched between the Duna and the Mosoni Duna (little Duna). Most of the towns along the way are just tiny bedroom communities with little of tourist interest. They do now at least usually have a new COOP food store of some size making it easier to get cold drinks.
The town on Hedervár has a very nice castle that has been renovated to be a first class hotel. It's not the original castle at this location. The first 1100s castle now lies in ruins. This one dates from the 1500s. It was originally gothic, then changed to renaissance style in the constant modernization that happens to these old structures. It would be a wonderful, but expensive place to spend the night.
Györ was amazing. So much of it has been rebuilt and renovated that it even won an award for keeping its old Baroque downtown in tact. But surrounding this old downtown it now sports a huge shopping mall, a big Tesco supermarket, a Decathlon sporting goods store, and Ibis and Famulus hotels. Absolutely none of this was here 10 years ago.
Much of the downtown has been turned into a very pleasant walking mall with very upscale shops and outdoor cafes. Some of this was in place when we were here before. It's been expanded enormously. At this time we found the main square recently rebuilt with a new fountain, benches, and trees installed. Now they were in the process of gutting and completely renovating the buildings fronting the square. In general Györ has resurrected as a completely new town.
A reasonably short day ride took us over the low rolling hills past innumerable farms and small farm towns These particular towns don't look like they've seen quite as much prosperity as others. They've usually got a brand new grocery store or two. But most often it is built into one of those old concrete buildings made to look just a bit better. Many of the houses also have as yet to feel the impact of hammer and paint brush. But still a lot of the houses are renewed. It reminds us a bit of the condition of a lot of Mexican towns where nice looking buildings abut next to run down buildings. In this case we expect there'll continue to be fewer and fewer of these cases as the decades pass.
We stopped for the night to spend our anniversary in the spa town of Komárom. This town now sports several hotels and campgrounds. Camping costs in this spa town seem to have caught up with western Europe. The hotel with the actual thermal baths wanted to charge close to $30 for camping plus a one day use of the pool. That seemed a bit steep for us as we usually don't spend all that much time in the pool. Even the other campground/hotel with just a normal swimming pool charges over $18 for 2 people and a tent. Definitely Hungary ain't as cheap as it was 10 years ago.
After the thermal town of Komárom we switched back to the Slovak side of the river for the flatter ride to Esztergom. After all having the choice of a hilly ride that's 20 km longer with nearly equivalent scenery, why not take the easier side. Besides it gave us the opportunity to ride around the walls of the 1800s fort in Komárno.
This location at the junction of the Danube and Váh had extreme strategical importance when the Turks were invading Europe. The Austro-Hungarians built not just one, but 4 forts at this particular juncture with the hope of staving off the invasion. Even though a peace treaty had been signed in 1606, the truce must have been uneasy at best. Otherwise why need all the forts.
This was also a strategic location for the Romans as well. For ages they defined their northern boundary as the Danube river. But they did manage to make an incursion across the river at this location. First they built several temporary camps for troops on the move. Eventually they built a full fort out of stone complete with barracks, officers quarters, stone walls and bastions, the works. The remains of this fort, called Kelemantia have been partly excavated and can be viewed from the bike path.
As we continued down the road we were surprised as to how many other bike tourists we saw. Mostly they were credit card tourists, the ones who stay in hotels and eat out every meal. But there were a few of the self contained variety as well. Ten years ago we were it as far as people traveling on bike were concerned. Now that this route is one of the official International EuroVelo routes, it has been discovered. Even the locals are recognizing the potential income from bike tourists. There are numerous restaurants and hotels all sporting signs with bicycles indicating that they're bike friendly. What a change.
The route through Slovakia, however, could stand some improvement. The last bit is on a rather busy road. They could easily put pavement on the river dike so you can get around this road. But with so many other higher priority construction jobs on their plates that may just have to come later.
As we approached Esztergom the huge basilica came into view. Instantly we recognized it as a place we stopped at 10 years ago. Esztergom was the center of the Catholic religion for a long time and this huge church was the result. It's been damaged and destroyed several times. The current structure is mostly a 19th century construction.
It was built in the neoclassical style. Its front faces away from the river. It has a very Greek temple appearance on this side. What we found odd both this visit and the last is that the sides and back look almost as if they were never finished. The stones in the walls look like they were pillaged from a variety of other buildings and perhaps the original intention was to stucco everything. It's just odd.
Inside is another story. It's a beautiful work of neoclassical style. It's got more decoration and gild work than Gothic, but isn't as overdone as Baroque. The walls and false columns all look like they're painted in a pink or purple fake marble. The most impressive aspect is that soaring dome. This dome doesn't have the usual godly figures painted on it. Rather it has just a touch of gilded floral patterns. The entire appearance of this church seems tastefully done.
On this night, September 4, the first major storm of the fall season blew in. We'd seen reports on it as it passed over England. Southern England in particular was blasted with a series of very strong storms. We'd been expecting this rain, although the strength of the storm took us by surprise. It rained and rained all night long literally flooding the streets in the campground. Thankfully we had selected a spot that remained high and dry.
So that's it. Summer's over. The kids are in school, the first fall cold front has come, and the fire weed has gone to seed. Where does the time go.
We had just an easy 70 km ride the rest of the way to Budapest thus finishing our repeat of the Danube from above Linz. From here on it's virgin territory for us.
We stopped in the Romai campground in the Budapest suburb of Romaifurdo. Ten years ago we spent several days in a rather decrepit cabin in this campground. The cabin at that time was serviceable. The staff at the campground were fairly good but the facilities were in rather run down condition. We had hoped that 10 years of making a good deal of money from tourists visiting Budapest would have resulted in some significant improvements. Unfortunately this is not so. The campground has another 10 years of use on already overused facilities. It's getting more and more run down. We'd be willing to bet that in another 10 years it will no longer exist. The property in this neighborhood seems to be getting rather valuable for new development and we'd bet the owners are just waiting for a good offer. It'll probably be turned into offices, houses, or shopping malls someday.
In fact just a few days after we checked in a man came around asking for signatures on a petition for keeping the campground open. It turns out the bank that owns the land is planning to redevelop. This would be the last season the Romai Campground would be open. Exactly as we thought.
Fortunately if you just stay in your tent and ignore the majority of the rundown facilities, it's not too bad a place from which to visit the city. The train station couldn't be any more convenient. Oddly the train is another item that hasn't seen any improvements. The cars are the same old and rickety and it seems none of the ticket machines work. We plunked our 300 Ft in one to never see it again. No ticket. We were told we needed to buy the ticket on board, but there was no one there to get it from. So we got a half price ride into the city. On the way back out, now having tickets in hand, we tried to get the machine on the train to punch the ticket. Neither of these machines in our car worked either. So while within Budapest the trolley system is being upgraded with new tracks and cars, the rail line to the outlying towns is going to pot.
Budapest seems to be a bit behind Prague in its redevelopment. They have renovated some of the buildings, but the majority seem to still need work. As usual you'll find buildings here and there under scaffolding as the work progresses. But it'll be a long time before this city really feels up to western standards.
We began our tour of town with a walk around the area of the Parliament building. Last time we seem to recall that part of the river front façade was under scaffolding. This time there wasn't any. Although it still looks like parts need a serious cleaning.
The parliament really is a remarkable looking building. Supposedly modeled after Britain's Westminster Abby, it has a lot of odd spires and towers added that make it truly unique. It has a prominent position right on the Danube.
We spent the afternoon visiting the extensive ethnographic museum. It holds a sizable collection of costumes and everyday artifacts from the different regions of the country. It also gives a fairly good explanation of how the market towns came into being following feudal years. Although there are so many different regions that were combined to make the current country of Hungary and the histories of these different regions are so unique it was a bit difficult to follow all the historical trends. One thing that was clear, the reformation of 1842 saw the end of serfdom and the beginning of property ownership. This is when the entire system of markets changed for good. It was a very interesting and well done museum.
We spent the most of our remaining time in Budapest wandering the streets,
taking care of a few chores, and doing just a few touristy things such as eating
in a very nice outdoor café and taking a boat tour on the river. It was just a
very relaxing way to spend our last day in this magnificent capital city.
Section 2Budapest to Mohács, Hu
September 8 - 11
We had approached our ride through Budapest with some trepidation. The Bikeline maps showed the route crossing the river to the east side and then going right though the middle of the city. With all the bikers we'd seen around town as well as the various bike paths we figured there had to be a better way.
After a few queries we finally found the real tourist information center. This was after a visit to a place that sells concert and other tickets as well as a police station that gives out transportation information. All of these were labeled "information" it's just that it seems only one is the real information office.
They have available a free bike map for the bike paths in the city. Now that's what we were hoping for. Much to our delight we found that the bike path on the west side of the river actually continues well beyond the city limits. There was a short stretch when we were riding along a relatively quiet city street. But most of the route was on a fairly newly built bike path. Within just 15 km or so of relatively easy riding we were well out of town and then riding on top of the river's dike through farm filled countryside. Getting through Budapest proved to be one of the easiest cities of all.
After leaving Budapest our route took us either along quiet country roads or atop that dike. There wasn't a lot of interesting things for the tourist to see. Just a lot of farms. We made our first attempt to stop for the night in the nice town of Ráckeve. But after going up and down several different roads we simply couldn't locate what was supposed to be a campsite. There was one spot that appeared to be a very much closed campground, closed for good that is. But just no existing campground. So we pushed on ending up going much further than we had planned. It we'd thought ahead we would have picked up food and water in order to wild camp on the dike. We just weren't thinking.
At one point we came to a place where the path on the dike was a very narrow dirt strip. An alternate would take us on pavement through a nearby town. We were all prepared to take the pavement. A local in a passing car started honking his horn and making hand signals telling us to take the dike. When we indicated we wanted to take the road, he stopped the car, got out, and through broken German/English told us that the highway pavement was narrow and in bad condition and there were a lot of big cars. We'd be best to take the dike.
So we took his advice. Riding the dike was a bit rough. The dirt path started out reasonably easy, but it soon deteriorated to nothing more than grass. It was a bumpy slow ride, but still better than riding with all that traffic. There was a short stretch that's paved, about 5 to 6 km, and then back to bumpy grass.
We finished out the day in the very pleasant town of Dunaföldvár. After 124 km with a lot of grass riding we were pooped. The Kek Duna campground was a welcome sight. With its big old trees and well maintained showers it was a nice place to stay. Its riverfront location was icing on the cake.
The next morning we set out to see what there is to see in town. That proved to not be a whole lot. While Dunafoldvar is a pleasant town with good restaurants and pubs, it doesn't have a lot of sights. There's a couple of churches, the town hall, and the gates going up to the castle most of which is just foundations and a restaurant. That's it. So we were back on the road fairly soon.
We stopped very soon in the town of Solt to buy lunch and enjoy the very pleasant and brand new picnic spot. As we munched a couple more bikers showed up. They turned out to be a couple of Germans who had exactly 19 days to get to Constanta and maybe even down to Istanbul. They'd be riding a lot more miles than us. Later that day we were passed by another single fellow going a lot faster than us and a couple more fellows going the other way. Each day we keep seeing more and more bikers. It's clear this is becoming a very popular route for the more "adventurous" biker tourists. It's no wonder we keep seeing hotels and restaurants that proudly proclaim "welcome bikers."
Around mid afternoon we stopped at the town of Kolcosa for a quick look around. This town has been a major bishropic for the catholic church for centuries, excluding the 150 years of Turkish occupation. We took a quick look in the cathedral and in the door of the bishop's palace.
The bishop's palace holds a treasure that, unfortunately we were too late to visit. It has an amazing library of historic books that holds some 120,000 volumes. Included among these is a 1512 bible with notes written by Martin Luther himself. Apart from the books, the photos we saw of the library show an amazingly beautiful reading space. Other than 2 and 4 PM, only groups can visit the interior with a reservation. We were too late.
This time we ate dinner in town, bought breakfast, and then headed on to find a campsite. This night we decided to spend camped next to the dike with heavy forest on one side. It was nice and quiet, at least until 6 AM when a logging truck lumbered by.
On our final full day ride in Hungary we passed by towns with a few nice churches and plazas, lots and lots of corn fields, and few of the paprika fields for which Hungary is so famous. Paprika, or peppers, came from the new world and really didn't find their way into the Hungarian menu until the 1800s. Yet today it's hard to think of any Hungarian dish that doesn't call for some paprika.
Around the small city of Kolocsa there are 32 villages that make their living on this "red gold". In fall, the pepper plants come alive with their red treasure and farmers crowd the fields picking those peppers. This are is so famous for their spicy treat that they have a paprika museum, the only such museum in the world.
We continued riding along the rough dirt dike reaching the last major Hungarian large town on the Danube. Mohács today is a quiet little town that has rebuilt itself into a very nice, upscale place to visit.
The town's past is rather interesting as well. When the Turks invaded Hungary in 1526 under the leader, Sulieman the Great, 24,000 Hungarian defenders were pitted against over 100,000 well trained Turkish soldiers. The Hungarians might have come out of the battle all right if they had taken a purely defensive position. They just might have been able to out wait a siege. But the 4,000 headstrong noblemen on horseback pushed for an offensive tact. The Hungarians were slaughtered. King Louis II drowned in the river as he tried to escape.
This one battle would prove to be one of those pivotal moments in time when world history is changed. King Louis II left no heirs which left a power vacuum in central Europe. Hungary and Bohemia as well as the Hungarian crown went to the Habsburgs creating one of the most powerful dynasties ever.
On August 12, 1687 the Habsburg army under the command of Charles the Duke of Lorraine and Maximilian Emanual of Bavaria attacked and expelled the Turks.
Just outside Mohács is a monument to this battle. It includes a carved stone that shows the arrangement of troops for each side. It's very clear from this that the Hungarians didn't have a prayer.
Mohács has a most unusual legend regarding the final Turkish expulsion. They say that a Slavic tribe dressed in sheep skins and donned masks with big devilish horns. They paddled across the Danube and scared the Turks away. Or so they say. Today this legend is celebrated every year with the Busójaros Carnival. The carnival culminates when these sheepskin clad mask wearing locals paddle across the river, probably to hit the food tables rather than scare the Turks.
On September 12 we entered the country of Croatia in one of it's most eastern states, Slavonia by passing through the Hungarian town of Udvar. For the first time during our travels on the continent we had to pass through passport control. With the EU expanding as it has, it's become incredibly easy to travel across almost all of Europe. However, Croatia and Serbia are not EU members. So they still require border processing.
The funny thing is we've discovered that a lot of people in the EU really don't know much about who is in the EU and who isn't. We met 2 German bikers who told us that both Serbia and Croatia are in. A woman at the tourist office in Mohács told us that we would go through passport control entering Serbia but not entering Croatia. They were wrong. And Europeans always claim that we Americans are ignorant on world events. Seems they're not much better.
Since Croatia isn't an EU member and since it's had a shorter time to rejuvenate itself since the civil war and since this Slavonia region is a remote location in the country, this region looks much poorer than any country we've seen so far. That's not to say they're not working on reconstruction. In fact there are rebuilt houses, new bridges, new roads, new parks, new businesses all over. There's just not as many.
The first larger town we entered is called Batina. It's located on the Danube and has a bridge link to Serbia. It seems to us to be a reasonably sized town. Perhaps a few thousand inhabitants. However, the commercial enterprises in town are a couple of restaurants and two very small stores. There is no bank, no bank machine. In fact when we asked about a bank the woman at the small store laughed at the fact that we would even expect a town this size to have an ATM. If this were western Europe it would have at least one and probably several.
As we approached the capital city of Osijek the towns seemed to get better. They had bigger and newer stores, a few more businesses, had or were putting in new street pavement, and had more rebuilt houses. So perhaps the reconstruction is expanding from the capital city outward.
Osijek is a real mixed bag. There are brand new buildings right next to broken down hulks. There is some construction, but not nearly as much as we saw in Hungary or the Czech Republic.
A lot of the buildings look like they just need sprucing up. Since Croatia was part of Yugoslavia rather than the USSR, they appear to have escaped the curse of those ugly concrete buildings at least a little. They still have ugly buildings. But for the most part they actually have some character. They're not just plain boxes with windows and doors. They have brick accents, patios, uneven surfaces, or just interesting features that relieves that big blank façade of the concrete box. If they just add some color, repaint or stucco, put in new windows, and generally fix them up they could look quite nice. Perhaps it'd be interesting to return in 10 years to see what they've done.
Osijek was one of the cities that was most effected by the civil war of the 90s. They lay under siege for 9 months, withstanding regular pummeling by Serbian mortar shells. This gave Croatia a late start at rebuilding. Yet they still have accomplished quite a bit.
In 1992 we rode our bikes along what is now the Croatian Dalmatian coast just days before to the start of that war. Back then finding even a decent grocery store was difficult. All the stores we found were extremely small. None of the European chains were to be found. Food available in these stores seemed to consist mostly of candy and booze. Finding such things as fresh fruit and veggies was really difficult.
Today even in the remote Osijek all the major European grocery chains are well represented; Lidl, Spar, CBA, etc. They've come a long way in these past 19 years.
We got a really good rate in a 4 star hotel near the main square in town. Osijek at this point had only about 8 hotels in the entire city. This is far too few for a city of this size. But it really hasn't had any kind of tourism before and the business traffic is limited. Since they have no major highway and no major international airport there really hasn't been a need for a lot of hotels. That will likely change in the future.
In the meantime, that meant we had to stay in a more expensive hotel than we would have liked. Although we did get a great price for the room. We would have preferred to camp, but there are no campgrounds in this region of Croatia. Wild camping is not advised as there are unexploded land mines still lost in the woods. Our bike maps specifically advise that we not leave the road to enter untended fields for any reason. Take the land mine warning signs seriously. So wild camping is out in Croatia. It was nice to splurge in a great hotel anyway.
The Danube bike route through Croatia rarely actually sees the river. There aren't any roads near the river and no dikes on which you can ride. So you have to deal with traffic while riding on the main roads between Osijek and Vukovar and then on to Ilok. The ride is generally flat until just within 17 km of Ilok. Then there are 5 pretty hefty climbs as the road dips down from the top of the thick loess hills to small creek tributaries of the river. Since we had a tail wind we decided to ride the entire way to Serbia.
Passing through Vukovar we could see a lot of evidence of that 90s war. It seemed that virtually every house or building that is not new or has not had a new layer of stucco put on is covered with pock marks that obviously were either shrapnel or bullets. Some buildings, such as a large factory just west of town, show clear signs of very large mortar blasts.
Most of these buildings will eventually be torn down or rebuilt. But the one item in town that they plan to leave alone is the big water tower. This huge structure will for the indefinite future be Vukovar's memorial to the war.
It seems that the Croats aren't quite as used to bike tourists as the Hungarians. We got a lot of stares and some comments that made that apparent. The oddest comment we heard as we passed sounded a lot like "Hail Hitler". Most people doing this ride are German and we tend to look a bit like the Germans with our Ortleib rear bags. But that comment probably means that there are some Croats who don't particularly like Germans. It wasn't very welcoming.
When we came to the border town of Ilok we had hoped to stay in the nice hotel down at the river's edge. At a cost of over $100 we concluded it was way too expensive. It's surprising us just how pricey hotels are in this country. This isn't exactly western Europe yet they're charging western Europe rates. We will definitely be looking for as many wild camping opportunities as we can find along the way.
We skipped this hotel and went across the river to Backa Palanka, our first Serbian town. Since it was Sunday the tourist office was closed. We had a difficult time finding hotels of any kind. The Hotel Central told us that their café was open but not the hotel. Hotel Fortuna was again around $89 for the night. Too much.
So we pushed on down the highway until we found the motel Poloj. It's a full 5 km out of town, a long way from anything. But it was less than half the price and was reasonably comfortable. After another over 100 km day, we decided to stop.
The next day was a short jaunt into Novi Sad. The city on the north side of the river isn't all that exciting. It has a few nice churches and a pleasant walking mall. However much of the city is filled with ugly run down buildings. Even the nicer older structures need a lot of work.
Far more interesting is the Petrovaradin fortress across the river. After Austria tossed the Turks out of the city in 1687, they began tearing down the old medieval and Turkish fortresses that occupied the hill and started this new fortress.
It is huge. It covers more than 110 hectares. Its walls are riddled with 16 km of tunnels, have 5 gates, 12,000 crenels, and 400 artillery positions. It was a massive fortification intended to keep Turks at bay.
Much of the old fortress is in great condition. About half of the upper part is a park. The old fort building on the other half is now a 5 star hotel and the city museum.
The lower part of this military complex was the barracks, offices, powder magazine, hospital, and everything else needed for a fort. Today these are just a bunch of run down residences. It almost looks like the low rent district. If they were to just fix this area up and put in chic shops, hotels, and restaurants they'd have a tourist gold mine. But maybe they just don't think that way.
Here is where we noticed the habit southern European folks have of spending evenings in the central square. They bring the kids with their bikes, stroll around while the kids play, and basically people watch. The square comes alive with music, people, and balloon salesmen. It's a lively atmosphere we've seen in Mexico, Italy, southern Croatia, Greece, and pretty much all southern countries. It makes sitting on a bench in the square for the evening quite an entertainment in itself.
The ride from Novi sad to Belgrade was a mixed bag. The first 10 km or so was along an extremely busy road with a good 4 km of it in a steep climb. Unlike western roads, this road was as narrow as can be with no shoulder. This was not a pleasant section.
At the top of this climb we finally turned left and spent the next couple hours riding along a fairly quiet stretch of road, some of it paved some of it not. Any other time of year this probably would have been a dead quiet road. But this was harvest season and old tractors ruled the road. All afternoon we were passed by one rather ancient tractor after another usually with trailer in tow full of apples, hay, corn or some other food stuff. In one case the tractor towed 3 trailers, the last of which was filled with the food pickers.
The last 10 km of the ride was right through the city of Belgrade. We entered along the main road and had to endure horrendous traffic until we could finally escape to the short bike trail along the shores of the Danube.
We quickly discovered another Serbian trait that is like the Latinos, they are some of the most aggressive drivers we've ever seen. To these people pedestrians and bikers might as well not even exist. They pay absolutely no attention to anyone in any crosswalk regardless of whether there's a walk signal or not. In one instance, Caryl was going one way in a cross walk while another woman was coming the other way. One car was impatiently waiting for us to cross. A second car decided not to wait and swung around all of us combined. In this city you cannot even consider stepping off the curb without making absolutely sure there's no car coming. Either that or you wait until there's a whole group crossing. Safety in numbers.
On our first sight of Belgrade we were not impressed. This is not a particularly attractive city. It's full of run down buildings and basically looks rather dumpy. Either that or our experience with just getting into the city gave us a bit of a jaded expectation.
But Belgrade does have a few gems scattered among the junk. You just have to look a bit harder. The main walking street is extremely pleasant and is actually lined with some very nice 1800s and 1900s buildings. The walking street itself has been well done with good paving stones, nice fountains, and chic shops.
A lot of the city still needs renovation and even a few of the bombed buildings are still standing. It was interesting to see one of these that obviously had been hit by a cruise missile. The missile entered on the side, not from the top. What's remarkable is how little periferal damage was done. One of those ugly concrete government structures sustained damage while the older and more magnificent justice building right next door is fine. In W.W.II everything would have been leveled. Modern warfare is most certainly precise.
The churches in town are pretty nice as well. The St. Sava cathedral, in particular, is an incredible marble structure that from the outside is quite a site. The inside, however, isn't finished. In fact when we visited it was filled with scaffolding. At this time most of the ceiling is just a plain concrete, In the future it will likely be either completely painted with religious scenes or maybe they'll even do a Byzantine style mosaic. It ought to be quite something to see then.
The much smaller chapel next door has been finished and its ceilings are now covered in fresh new paintings. This gives an idea of what the cathedral will eventually look like.
These churches are of the Eastern Orthodox variety and, consequently, are quite different from their western counterparts. There's no main bell tower or steeple. That's the first thing you notice. From the outside these buildings tend to look like a bunch of domed cylinders sitting next to each other. They seem to be called "hives".
Inside there is no main apse filled with benches facing an alter at the front. Instead the entire area is open with perhaps a small podium placed up front. At the very front of the church there is a screen, usually covered with mosaics, behind which is something we have no idea what it may be.
Around the interior of the church there are various icons probably placed at specific locations. They look scattered about to us. People seem to come into the church and pass from one icon to the other, usually kissing it or making very elaborate signs of the cross, and then deposit money either on the icon or in the nearby box. This goes on all day long. So the church is usually attended by a priest or other attendant who makes sure the money does get into the box. He also has to keep the floor clean of all the wax dripped from the many candles that seem to be continually burning.
The general layout of the church is almost circular. From the ceiling at the center there is usually a huge central chandelier. This chandelier often is a big brass hoop, looking a bit like a gigantic crown. Although sometimes it's just a more normal looking chandelier. In one church in the old fortress there were 3 chandeliers all of which were made from bullets and swords. Very unusual.
The one thing we couldn't quite figure out was why there were no rows of benches for the masses or sermons. So we asked a couple about it when we left one of the churches. They told us that in the Eastern Orthodox religion they have 2 liturgies per day and during this liturgy they stand. We imagine these liturgies must be shorter than the typical catholic mass as it'd be real hard to get a group of people to stand quietly for that long.
After touring the churches we headed over to the old fortress. There've been various forts on this hill going back to the Roman times. They even have a few Roman sarcophagi sitting on the fortress grounds. It was built to guard against Turkish invasion, then manned by the Turks when they were in possession of these lands, and then expanded once the Turks were expelled. It was a very large fort.
Today with this kind of fortress no longer useful, the entire ground has been remade into a park. The one main building left is used as a military museum and there are all kinds of old W.W.I and W.W.II military equipment on the grounds. Most folks, however, go up to the fort to stroll and take in the views.
While we were taking our stroll we happened across an Eastern Orthodox priest who wanted to know if we were from Colorado Springs. We asked him why Colorado Springs. He told us it's just his way of starting a conversation. So we had this nice chat with a very amiable priest who wanted to be a good lawyer like Abraham Lincoln, who he called a holy man, and who is afraid of driving American cars. His name, Peter Christmas. That was one very entertaining encounter on the fortress walls in Belgrade.
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.