June 08, 2009 GMT
Into Serbia

I ended up staying in Romania longer than intended because of - you've guessed it! - rain. After leaving Deva I headed to Sibiu, which is a very pleasant town, more Austrian than Romanian in style. Their art museum also houses some real masterpieces, so I felt very cultured as I wandered round. Just outside the town is an open-air museum with examples of all the traditional styles of Romanian house. Most are wooden, and some of the mills are very elaborate, but as all the explanations are in Romanian I couldn't help feel that I'd gained more from actually riding round the countryside and seeing the real thing!

It was only 5.30 when I left the museum, so I ignored the nearby campsite and headed for one further south, which turned out not to exist. So an hour later I was back at the first one. There I met my companions for the next few days, as we all sat through the bad weather. Felix and Nina are a young German couple on a similar trip to mine, though, like everyone it would seem, in the opposite direction. They were however able to provide some very useful information about Albania. One road was so bad it took them a day and a half to cover 60km! Needless to say I will be avoiding that one!Also at the campsite were Esther and Markus, a Swiss couple riding to Australia on a pair of XTs. They had already ridden the length of the Americas, and we spent many hours swapping travel stories about various parts of the world.

After the weather improved I visited some fortified Saxon churches, then headed south towards Serbia.

Leaving Romania was as slow as entering it, as all the customs officials seemed to have disappeared. When one finally showed up she just waved me through, and over the Danube I went. The Serbian side were more interested in my trip than my papers or the contents of my panniers, and soon I was riding along the shores of the Danube again - this time blue blue indeed! The road rises along the hillside and through gorges, tunnels (all unlit - not nice in bright sunshine) and at one point, a ruined castle.

Serbian roads are on the whole infinitely superior to Romanian ones, , and the drivers actually give you space when they overtake! I made much faster progress than expected, and by mid-afternoon was riding through the Deliblato Sands. The sands are an area of dunes covered win woodland, very picturesque and completely unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. Unfortunately there is nowhere to stay withing walking distance and no paths through the area. There is one small road though, so I took that - only to find that as it doesn't really go anywhere it's in a state of advanced disrepair! There were some really rather deep puddles, and the bike is now once again covered in mud. I did see (and nearly run over) a very large bright green lizard, but no other wildlife. Coming out of the dunes area I was overwhelmed to see absolutely nothing - the land is flat and unbroken in every direction, making you feel very small indeed.

The next day I headed for the wonderfully named Despotovac, where I had my first encounter with the arbitrary nature of Serbian signposting. Expecting to drive straight through and out the other side, I was somewhat perturbed to arrive at a T-junction with all town names in Cyrillic only! Freytag & Bernt have so far proved invaluable, but their Serbian map is not quite up to scratch - the Ukrainian one was dual-language but this is not and really should be. After several failed attempts to find the right road I asked for directions, and was told to keep going straight, but this did not lead to the monastery I was looking for and I still have no idea where I actually went! Eventually I ended up at a large town from where I was able to get my bearing and head out on the right road.

For a few days I had been on the lookout for a garage that might know something about bikes, as my chain had got very slack, and without a centre stand it's a pain in the backside to sort. I struck gold just outside Paracin. There are a lot of bikes in Serbia, and here was a guy who builds his own trikes! He and his assistant/relative/friend stopped all work to help me, his daughters plied me with bitter lemon and fruit salad, and everyone asked their share of questions, all via the poor friend who spoke some English.Before leaving I posed for multiple photos, and was presented with a T-shirt from their local bike club. There was no question of payment, and I noticed an instant difference in the bike!

The guys at the garage had also warned me of major roadworks on the road I wanted, so I was not too dismayed to be sent on a 40+km detour right before my destination. I found a campsite not too far north of where I wanted to be, which was unfortunately only a minor improvement on the previous night's one. The owners both times were friendly, but the sites are full of dingy, permanently anchored caravans, and the facilities leave a LOT to be desired. The first one had no hot water or showers, and only one tap, in the middle of the site. I won't mention the state of the toilets, or the wildlife I found in the showers at the second one...

I seem to have finally found summer in Serbia, and by the timeI reached the Roman ruins at Gamzigrad it was already getting hot.The ruins cover and extensive area, and make an interesting change from castles and monasteries.I was welcomed as a guest of honour by Sasa and his boss Bora, the guides, both of whom spoke excellent English. Sasa gave me and a pair of Latvian handball referees a very detailed explanation of the site's history, after which I wandered round and found an enormous grass snake. The site's mosaics are housed in a museum in nearby Zajecar. It's normally closed on Sundays, but Bora drove into town and opened it up for me. The mosaics are truly spectacular, rivalling any I've seen elsewhere.

After that, later than planned but after a much more interesting visit than expected, I set off. The sun was well and truly baking, and for most of the journey, along main roads and through towns on flat open plains, I slowly melted. The last stretch of road made up for it though. It runs along a river valley, with forested hills and rocky outcrops either side. Sasa and Bora ahd warned me it's an accident blackspot, and although I could see why (it's hard to overtake, so people get impatient) at 4.30 on a Sunday it was nearly empty. The tarmac is new and smooth, and a couple of sportsbikes passed me at speeds far greater than my leisurely pootling!

Halfway down the road, on a hairpin-filled side-road, is Studenica Monastery, where I stayed the night. I arrived too late to visit the monastery that night, so instead enjoyed the luxury of a real bathroom (en-suite is double the price of non, but at 11 euros I thought I'd splash out!) and an excellent meal on the terrace. A group of four paragliders swooped over us as I was eating, then again later - no wonder, as even just riding I could feel the air currents over the mountains.

This morning I visited the monastery. There was obviously some sort of religious occasion yesterday, as I passed quite a few people walking along holding handfuls of grass, and the church floor was strewn with it when I went in today. The guesthouse where I stayed is officially for people wanting to "enhance their spiritual life" in the sanctity of the monastery. The setting is beautiful, as is the monastery itself, but I observed people crawling under a table in the church as some sort of ritual, so decided that I will stick to spirituality and enjoying the beauty of these places rather than go for any particular religious observance!

The big decision was whether or not to go to Kosovo from here, but as far as I can tell I have no insurance there, so reluctantly will pass - annoying from a practical point of view too, as the best border crossing for me is in Kosovo, and I really wanted to see Pec. So tomorrow I will head east for some more scenery, then south into Macedonia, where the plan is to base myself at Lake Ohrid for a few days and enjoy the area.

I've left the relevant cables in my topbox, so no photos this time I'm afraid!

Posted by Laura Bennitt at June 08, 2009 12:44 PM GMT

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