“Would you like a bottle of water? Or juice?”
I’d only entered the Tourist Office in the Serbian border town of Bačka Palanka to find out whether I needed to report our stay in town to the authorities. It was clearly not a common question – the assistant didn’t know. She phoned the police.
“Yes, you need to report each place you’re staying in. It doesn’t cost anything, but you will need to buy a book to report each destination.”
I thanked her.
“Is there anything else I can do to help you?” she asked.
“No, that’s it. Thanks.”
“Well, have this leaflet about the Danube chardas – our famous fish restaurants. And please have these postcards. Oh, and here’s a couple of bookmarks. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a juice?”
I’d not experienced a welcome quite like this in a tourist information office before. If this was our introduction to Serbia, it looked promising.
Our next stop was at Sashka’s home, our Couchsurfing host who lived in a tucked away courtyard off one of the main streets. Sashka’s mother Gordana had prepared a feast: an array of breads, meats, cheeses, chutneys and much more besides, the food planted with little European flags – dotted with the red, white and blue of the British flag. A welcome to Jamie and me – and in celebration of Danube Day. Sashka had given up her room for us and we had the whole upper floor to ourselves. Once again, we were overwhelmed by the generosity of our Couchsurfing hosts.
Stuffed to the gills, Aleksandra drove us through the rain to her local hangout, Kafanica, and introduced us to her friends.
“We just come down here,” Doc said, “knowing at least one of our friends will be here.” We sat in the cave-like bar that had a warm, rickety, old-fashioned feel to it. Outside other friends of Sashka’s friend sat under a parasol, singing songs as they waited for the deluge of rain to ease.
“It’s a bit like the Bačha Palanka version of the American sitcom Cheers,” I laughed.
“Exactly,” said Doc, who wasn’t really a doctor, but a sports and tourism student.
We headed down to the Danube with Bager Lake behind it, a place where the locals go to swim, boat, fish, barbecue, camp or just hang out.
“There are no hotels here. It’s not developed, but maybe that’s a good thing,” Doc mused. Across the Danube, the red roofs of Ilok in Croatia shone in the evening sun, the light playing on the Danube below it. It was a beautiful spot. Doc had a point.
Sashka pointed out the Bačka Palanka charda – Kalos Carda. She told me how the charda had prepared the biggest fish stew ever in an outsized vat with 1,700kg of fish in an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of Records in 2001, but failed because of possible EU sanctions, she thought, although no one knew for sure.
“Regardless, their stew is always delicious,” Sashka said.
The charda fish restaurants line the Danube from Baĉha Palanka to Novi Sad and beyond. This part of the Danube sees few foreign tourists apart from the odd Velo Route 6 touring cyclist, but it has a gentle, rural charm. In contrast, Belgrade was a heaving, cosmopolitan mass of life as we cycled into town. It’s not a beautiful city with its hotchpotch of styles, neo-classical grandeur, communist concrete blocks and modern buildings, but it has a real buzz to it and a cool vibe, not unlike Berlin, and a lively café culture.
Our last night in Serbia was spent in Bela Crkva, another border town – neighbouring Romania. We stayed in a stuffy room up in the eaves of a restaurant, smelling of stale cigarettes and mildew, but the landlord welcomed us with a friendly “I speak Tarzan English: you welcome in Serbia.”
Later, he banged on our door. “You give me your passports. I go to police for papers.”
Sashka had told us we didn’t need a police report if we were staying in a place for less than 24 hours. Our landlady in Novi Sad told us the same as she offered us raspberries from her garden. I wondered about the book of stamps. The conflicting advice was confusing.
On our last night in Serbia, I lay in bed listening to the wild and energetic sound of live Klezmer Eastern European music from the terrace below, trying not to worry about crossing the border in the morning. I’d heard stories of cyclists who’d been turned back for not having the right paperwork. But 'Tarzan' had reassured us that we only needed one stamp to leave the country.
At the border crossing the next day, I nervously handed over our passports and single stamps from Bela Crkva. The border official took the papers with a curt nod and waved us on into Romania. I let out a sigh of relief, and at the same time felt a tinge of sadness to be leaving Serbia behind.
It had been a country of unexpected warmth and generosity.
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