CYCLING SERBIA's SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS
Scot Whitlock is bewitched by some rugged peaks and some rugged riding and some fine eating ….
After a rather lengthy drive from the chaos of the capital, the Terzica Avlija Ethno Park (www.zavicaj.info) brought solitude in the fertile surroundings. Situated in the beautiful village of Zlakusa and home to an abundance of local artisans producing handmade traditional pottery, the setting is a comforting mix of basic tools and creativity. It's memorable for its vibrantly decorated buildings which allow the visitor to step back in time and completely immerse in the simple joys of Serbian life.
Nearby, the hypnotic Potpece Pecin caves are regarded as the most beautiful in the area, the caverns are immense, the acoustics astonishing. Step by heart-pounding step is rewarded with views of the pretty nearby villages and the chance to explore deep into the hillside. Shrouded in mystery and adventure, the caves dominate your senses, the stalagmites and stalactites glistening magically in the torchlight, the water droplets alluringly tactile and the sudden drop in temperatures accompanied by the guide's words made the whole experience a wonderful introduction to human adversity. The caves were used as hiding places from the Nazis.
As we descended, we were serenaded by a brass band at the entrance to the cave. The tune reverberated through the chasm. It was a special moment in a special setting; our brief attempts at dancing were comparatively pathetic and awkward.
Lazarevi Konaci (www.lazarevikonaci.com) in the village of Kacer was the location of our homely rustic lunch. Breathtaking views and a warm welcome awaited us from Milica and Mico Tadic. We ate like kings with the most perfect vista as a backdrop.
Our overnight base was the Hotel & Spa Idlia (www.hotelidlia.com) in Zlatibor. The area is renowned for its health benefits and is rightly considered an ‘air spa’. It wasn't until the late 19th century that it became recognised as a truly exceptional tourist resort, and it is now the most developed and most visited mountain resort in Serbia.
With luggage suitably discarded, our first ride was through the Mokra Gora Nature Park and Tara National Park, the landscape offering a mix of simple climbs, off road heaven and a mass of colourful pine forests. The bikes were adequate and, as we departed in good spirits, the rain arrived. I was assured that air currents from the Mediterranean and the continent collide in the mountains, creating a fascinating microclimate offering plenty of sunny days throughout the year.
We climbed briefly through a collection of pretty buildings before the landscape opened up before us. The horizon dominated by wilderness, tarmac was replaced by gravel. Unfortunately Kev was languishing behind, his underlying leg problems causing frustration, annoyance and obvious pain. Reluctantly he accepted that his two-wheeled adventure was over as he slowly trudged back to the cosy confines of the hotel and his bottle of antibiotics.
We continued on a rutted grass track on the crest of craggy ridge amidst a scene of complete isolation. Tyres groaned against the dirt and debris, though the surface was pretty good. We negotiated several streams with ease and contoured the hillside on a well-defined track with breathtaking views; a backdrop embroidered in green and brown hues with a smattering of stone dwellings.
Smooth, brisk going was followed by a thrilling descent on a rather bumpy, muddy track - with some heavy braking - on loose, bouldery scree. Sadly the light was fading quickly so we returned reluctantly to civilisation.
An early start
We had an energetic schedule. Zlatar Lake was supposed to be our first outing of the day, however it was frozen, it would have to wait.
The atmosphere in the van was high-spirited and in no time at all we found ourselves in Zlatarski Zlatnik, a stylish hotel in the Zlatar Mountains drinking coffee and contemplating the idea of some harness reliant agility amongst the trees just outside the Hotel Panorama (www.hotelpanoramazlatar.com). Admittedly we are all children at heart so the group jumped -literally - at the chance to explore the treetops above the magical landscape of the Zlatar Lake.
The lake sits in the shadow of Mount Zlatar the largest natural habitat of griffin vultures (one of Europe’s biggest birds). There are three artificial lakes, Uvac, Radoinja and Zlatar. Known as ‘the factory of red blood cells’ for its healing qualities, it was a favourite retreat of the Greeks and Romans as well as Serbia’s Nemanjic dynasty. As we sedately explored the vertiginous landscape, I was consumed with a passion for Serbia, it seemed ludicrous that after only a few days I was completely hooked by the slow bewitching way of life.
A glorious lunch awaited us in the mountain retreat of Vilovi (www.Vilovi.info), some 5km from Nova Varos, once again the aromas of home cooking and the hypnotic draw of an open fire welcomed us in. The highlight was the elevated panorama of the patchwork of fields which were unbelievably beautiful and provided a stunning accompaniment to the delicious array of traditional food on display. “Do we have to leave?”, was my fractious response as Aleksandar impatiently checked his watch; cycling on his energetic agenda.
The Ivanjica range covers approximately 1,090 sq kilometres. Over half the area accounts for Mt Golija, the pearl among mountains. It was declared the first national park and biosphere reserve, firstly by Serbia and then UNESCO in 2001.
After a brief stop at our hotel we set off for a mountainous diversion, our objective the Jankov Kamen (literally Jankov’s Stone). Arriving on a deserted barren plateau, we were introduced to our guides. Unexpectedly clad in a leather jackets, jeans, balaclavas and no helmets, more appropriate for robbing banks than pedalling down trails. The temperature was unbelievably low – memorably David (who in his defence had only just returned from the heat of Hawaii) shook uncontrollably, bringing to mind bizarre images of a penguin on a caffeine high. Instead of assisting or displaying some empathy, we erupted in a collective raucous mess. It's good to see that camaraderie amongst cyclists is still strong.
What followed was three hours of unadulterated pleasure and adventure. We pedalled along the plateau of Golija peak for five kilometres, climbing steeply up to 1833 metres and our goal Jankov Kamen, the highest peak and named after Janko Sibinjanin, who, according to legend, placed a stone obelisk at the top during his return from the battle of Kosovo in 1389.
‘What goes up must come down’ was dominating my mind, my aching legs and shortness of breath struggled on the ascent. The views would have been magnificent but for the mist and fog, the trees overwhelmed with ice and the temperature not so welcoming; it was bloody freezing.
We descended at speed,in total tranquillity; rustic serenity and a sense of real remoteness. The landscape perfect with rolling hills, rocks cloaked in thick moss, grass and an abundance of leaves. The trail was in fairly good condition, though the odd boulder required full concentration.
As the descent continued the surface became increasingly unpredictable, rough with many ruts and small pools but, loads of fun. It's definitely a wild, untamed and unkempt place. At times I found myself gripping so tightly, creeping along slowly focused on the tracks of the rider in front. After what seemed like only minutes the trail spat us out onto a tarmac road and close by was our van. The plan was to continue onwards and downwards to the main road, so we reluctantly said farewell to our guides; in a split second our new friends, lights barely visible, pedalled off into the tree cover.
Day three of climbing
After a healthy breakfast, the van transported us to the busy town of Cacak and a meeting with Gordana. The town is sat near the beautiful eco-environment of the Ovcar-Kablar gorge. A short ride was planned along a well-established and well-signed route hugging the contours of the Zapadna Morava River. The area has eleven monasteries and charming elevated views of the winding river.
Once again, Chris, Aleksandar and I were the only riders. David had erected a mass of cameras to catch every pedal turn and our fairly sedate speed was dictated by his artistic direction. We were yearning to let loose but our film dictator had other plans, every movement felt somehow choreographed. The surroundings characterised by steep, high limestone walls with a collection of magical caves.
After a short pause to explore a simple rustic hostel, we returned at pace, leaving Dave and his abundance of gadgets woefully in our wake, finally no more restricted cycling just unsullied speedy gratification.
The weather was closing in as we arrived in Divcibare and the atmospheric setting of Vila Plamenac (www.vilaplamenac.rs). As we traipsed from the van, our senses were overpowered by the aromas and sounds of an open air fire, slowly and delicately cooking our lunch. The mist and drizzly rain were inconsequential as we huddled around the pan as it bubbled so effortlessly with chicken and colourful peppers, lunch was another delicious sharing feast.
The Valjevo Mountains are renowned for their clean air which attracts plenty of skiers over the winter period, with the warmer months preoccupied by walkers and cyclists.
Only Chris and I were up for the ride, David was still feeling the effects of the cold and Kev had resigned himself to rest and recuperation. Strangely the locals had even recommended bathing his ailing leg in the national tipple rakia, the fruit brandy is believed to have some hidden antiseptic values.
The ride was a serene experience in complete contrast to the adrenalin fuelled descending of yesterday. In many respects, more enjoyable because of the less frenetic pace, allowing us to chat and discover the area (when the mist and sleet allowed). We expected to see the Kraljev Stone peak, Kamencia River, Tometino Field and Paljba Observation Point, however a blanket of low lying fog choked the surroundings and the views. The trail is signed for 136 kilometres and the unspoilt feel is undoubtedly its greatest asset, allowing you to appreciate the area, the people and their proud culture. As the weather worsened, we reluctantly headed back to the warmth of our temporary base and the open arms of our relaxed, sauna and rakia-steeped fellow travellers.
So, just hopw good was the cycling?
The trip had opened my eyes to the delights of rural Serbia, we had pushed ourselves on occasions but the sense of achievement was immense, it has somehow ignited a passion within me and the adventure is a constant topic of conversation which is probably becoming annoying and boring, but hey I don't care, Serbia has touched my heart. The road cycling offers an expansive network of well-maintained winding roads dissecting stunning scenery and the trails unlocked a breathtaking portal to unimaginable messy joys. You would be foolish to not jump on the next flight to Belgrade and immerse in this hypnotic country, with its passionate people and some unsurpassed cycling.
It just reinforced my love for a simpler existence, city life and the bright lights a mere stepping stone to adventure and unbelievably wholesome experiences. Every household greeted us with a roaring open fire, beaming smiles and a mountain of lovingly prepared local fare. The country, along with much of the Balkans, has suffered unbelievable hardships and devastation, but this has only reawakened a deeply ingrained passion for their country, to be Serbian is now a proud statement and the inhabitants are not afraid to display to the world that Serbia is on the up and has so much to offer. David’s hilarious (the guy can't sing) rendition of ‘Chasing Cars’ epitomises the great fun and great friendships that can be made when you are exposed to a raw, welcoming environment which Serbia offers with abundant ease.
A pre-ride rest in Belgrade
Arrival at Nikola Tesla Airport had been greeted by a torrential downpour; you can take the cyclist out of the UK but as always the unpredictable weather seems to follow. Our base was the Metropole Palace Hotel (www.metropolepalace.com) set amongst the bustling heartbeat of the city, a constant procession of trams, cars and pedestrians. Immersing in Belgrade is a surreal journey; it harps of nostalgia and hardship with remnants of a once affluent society. It’s steadily raising itself from decades of devastation and despair, a city reborn, definitely stronger and full of vigour and vitality! A refreshing wave of optimism fills the air; it's once again great to be Serbian and the locals are not reluctant to display their passion.
The capital since 1840, today it is home to approximately 1.8 million inhabitants and has been a site of strategic importance for a succession of rulers. We were introduced to the city at night by our knowledgeable guide, the highlight being a visit to the humbling St Sava’s Church.
In his second volume of his guide to riding the Danube Cycleway, published by Cicerone, Mike Wells praises Serbia for its enthusiasm for cycle-touring, especially its extensive and imaginative signage.
The exterior, lit to perfection, every contour of the home to the Serbian Orthodox religion is an extravaganza on the eyes. Its history is astonishing, it was raised on the spot where it is thought that in 1595 Sinan-Pasha of the Ottoman Empire burned the relics of St Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The interior is under reconstruction, the immense space currently clad in simple stone and brick but eventually ornate mosaics will welcome the potential 10,000 congregation.
Whilst we strolled along the banks of the River Sava en route to dinner we stumbled on a detailed map of the Danube bike trail. The 1,000+ km trail follows the contours of Danube as it meanders from the Hungarian border to its exit at the borders with Bulgaria. Definitely one for the future.
If you are after traditional Serbian fare, then Ambar (www.ambarrestaurant.com) is ideal. Located on the banks of the Sava River close to its confluence with the Danube, it affords hypnotic views of the ‘Spavlovi’s’ (floating river barges and party boats). The modern décor provides a memorable setting for a sublime gastronomical Balkan indulgence. A collection of locally sourced produce is presented to appeal not only to the eyes but to tantalise your tastebuds.