Serbia; first introduction

Maybe it’s that spring is now really dawning in the Balkans, but to us it seems like Serbia is just a little greener again than northern Macedonia. The country also seems a bit better cared for again. Much less rubbish on the roadside than in the three previous countries. Nevertheless, we are unpleasantly surprised to find about as much of a mess at the first place we want to camp in Serbia as at the last place in northern Macedonia. In particular, we couldn’t place the amount of baby-bottom wipes in both places for a long time, until Tessel suggested they could be sex worker sites…. That did take away the charm a little.

spot 1 – a super idyllic spot by a small river in northern Macedonia
spot 2 – halfway up a very steep climb out of Vranje under the remains of a monastery with spectacular views of the city

At both spots, we did some major cleaning and collected a big bag of rubbish before pitching the tent. This way we could still enjoy the magnificent view. Although…. even before we had removed all our bags from the bike, a neat gentleman with a plastic bag suddenly stood next to us. ‘huh? A gentleman in a suit at 500m altitude in the middle of nowhere?’ He only spoke Serbian and couldn’t communicate via google translate because there is no Cyrillic script in there for Serbian (more on language in a future blog) so we just stammered something about Holland/Amsterdam and tomorrow (sutra) and then a gesture to make it clear that we would then cycle over the mountain. When we started pitching the tent, he supervised for a while at first, but then waved and left. ‘Weird bugger. What did he want from us?” but a little later, it was already dusk, we were eating, 2 neat people suddenly appeared. A gentleman with silver-white hair and a lady with a gold-coloured bag clutched under her arm. They wriggled past our tent to climb the hill with the ruins of an old monastery a little further on. Crazy time to do that, so in the half dark. Until💡it dawned on us: these were people from the church who wanted to preserve/preach morals. But then again, how do you speak to a typical middle-aged tourist couple (as Oscar’s mother would say) about something they don’t do when you don’t share any language? When we came up with that, it became almost hilarious 😂🤣😅.

Vranje is the first major town we visit in Serbia. We do some shopping there in various shops and have a drink in a café. We also want to buy a local SIM card, so that we at least have data when the card from Albania runs out (no idea how much credit we have left on it or until when). What is striking is that hardly anyone speaks a word across the border. No English, German, French or Italian as we are used to by now. On rare occasions, someone knows two words of English, but it is really difficult to make ourselves understood here. For instance, invariably our question about where we can buy a SIM card was answered with: “No. Cash only”, as if we wanted to pay by phone.

We will have to significantly increase our Slavic, and more specifically Serbian, vocabulary to get by here. Fortunately, we like that too.

It also does make us think whether their national (ethnic?) pride doesn’t get in the way of Serbs in international (tourist) travel. If they are so self-centred that they don’t learn a common foreign language (well Russian? we can’t verify that) is that in their long-term interest?

Somewhat greener again, then. Actually, it started from Skopje where we drove through a remarkably green valley with lots of agriculture. The valley where we spent our last night in northern Macedonia was really a place for holiday cottages, and there were plenty of them: green, a river with a path along it, mainly deciduous trees. Now still mostly bare, but some species now have some young leaves, often still budding, half in bud. This is also the case in the mountains (when do you stop talking about hills?) behind Vranje. The river we plod along is wild and therefore beautiful. We often catch a glimpse of how it gurgles over the rocks. In many places we see small waterfalls. Mostly, we cycle a few metres above the river and because there are many bushes and trees, we alternately see more or less of it. For Oscar, it is extra difficult to view the river and surrounding nature, as the road demands much of his attention due to the many places where there are potholes in the tarmac or the pavement is completely missing. Nevertheless, we enjoy this landscape and the burgeoning spring immensely. The main bulk of large trees seems to be beech and oak. These are all still bare and the dry, arid leaves underneath strongly remind us of a forest in autumn. It is the smaller trees and especially shrubs that are cautiously unfolding their first leaves. All in all, it evokes a mixture of autumn and spring associations. But it is the river and the rock formations that bring us to enthusiastic exclamations of beauty again and again. It also helps that the sun is shining and the temperature in the valley is around 20 degrees. Too bad it doesn’t convey well in photos.

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