Helen Moat experiences the best of times – and the worst – as she leaves Hungary for Croatia
The super-sized sign splashed the word Croatia in primary red, blue, green and yellow, suggesting a sunny, carefree Croatia. A terrible irony, I was soon to discover.
I got out our passports and dusted them down: It was the first time they had seen the light of day since the Netherlands.
“English? Deutsch?” I asked the border official.
“Beides geht.” The Croats are good at languages, even in Slavonia away from the main Croatian tourist haunts and for the first time since Slovakia, English was the first choice of foreign language over German.
“Where have you come from?”
“And where are you going?”
The border official looked bemused and waved us through. We mounted our bikes and cycled into our eighth European country.
I felt a tinge of sadness at leaving Hungary behind. I’d grown to love the crumbling baroque buildings, remnants of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the simple contrasting one-story hovels that lined the cracked and pot-holed streets. As we’d cycled through rural settlements, women were busy planting up flowers to prettify their village while children aimlessly cycled up and down the streets on rusty bikes, eking out the long summer holidays that stretched out in front of them.
We’d stayed with Eszter and her husband by the Danube, some 40km outside of Budapest. They’d given up their bedroom for us and plied us with food and snacks and the best rosé wine in Hungary. In Kalocsa, Zita and her chef son had cooked us a feast and presented us with a sachet of paprika as a parting gift. Once again, I was humbled by the kindness of strangers who had taken us into their homes and treated us like kings.
But Hungary was behind us now and our future in Croatia stretched out in front of us in the form of a long, undulating road rising up to the hills. As we cycled along the border road, the welcome signs appeared along it at regular intervals: Dobrodošli! Welcome! Willkommen! Űdvőzoljűk!
We took a left into a sleepy village. A trio of capped and shirted men sitting around a garden table gave us a cheery wave as we sailed by. We pushed on the pedals up a lane and turned a corner to find a row of abandoned single-storied houses; roofs collapsing and gables disintegrating, windows pane-less, some with broken furniture.
As we rode through village after village, it was the same old story – abandoned house after house. Then I realised some of these dilapidated houses were actually occupied with their cracked and broken windows or with plastic sheeting on the top floor.
There was a terrible beauty in these half-ruined villages, a combination of hopelessness and hope – the spoils of a civil war that had taken place here 24 years ago. Many of the houses were riddled with bullet holes. Some were partially filled in – it was as if the owners had tried to patch up the wounds of the past but had given up: there were simply too many.
Despite the pock-marked shutters, bullet-holed brickwork and still damaged roofs, some of these homes were splashed with the colour of flowers and surrounded by neatly tended gardens of fruit and vegetables. And despite the fact that Slavonia is still on its knees from one of the most devastating European wars since WWII, people smiled and waved and shouted greetings as we cycled by.
Families and friends crowded round garden tables and the smell of grilled meat filled our nostrils. People gossiped in the streets and laughter filled the air. Life goes on among the bullet holes and abandoned houses.
Just outside Osijek, we passed by signs warning of landmines, still not cleared. In Vukovar (which was virtually razed to the ground in the war), the half-destroyed water tower still stands, a bleak reminder of a war that has left a lasting scar – physically and in the psyche of the Croats and Serbs still living here.
Outside Vukovar, I stopped at the cemetery and Memorial Centre. I stood before the rows of white crosses that stretched out row upon row, trying to comprehend the impact on personal lives beyond the closely packed crosses. Behind, there were more rows of marked graves, the lives taken over the summer and autumn months of 1991. Some achingly young.
We also had to make another stop on the way out of Vukovar: A spoke had snapped on Jamie’s bike. The boys in the bike shop just below the water tower sprang into action and had fixed the spoke and given our bikes a complete overhaul in no time. They chattered and joked and talked about their passion for mountain biking and their business.
Their enthusiasm and energy made me smile: I’d cycled with a heavy heart through this war-scarred part of Croatia, but life goes on and moves forward. Slowly, East Slavonia is picking itself of the ground. The future is in its youth.
We had a last drink in the café in Ilok where the waitress chatted and joked with us, offering to fill up our water bottles. We waved goodbye to her and Croatia and freewheeled down to the bridge and into Serbia – to be smothered in yet more kindness by Sashka, her family and friends in the Serbian border town of Bačka Palanka.
In the space of a couple of days, I’d seen the best and worst of mankind.