Road Trip in Serbia: Yes or No

Photo From Kei Scampa

Thelma and Louise sprang to mind while we were driving on the E763 towards Zlatibor. In our home movie, the roles were reversed. Instead of us being against the whole world, it seemed the whole world, in this case, Serbia, was against us.

My travel buddy, my Thelma, a friend who I wanted to show the secret places of the country, was Rachel, and she was sitting quietly next to me. She didn’t even DJ our pre-recorded stash of music which we had carefully chosen before setting off. That should have been an early warning sign but I was too engrossed in finding the right route to our chosen destination.  The idea of being stuck between two long lorries on a narrow dual carriageway without any traffic signs, full of potholes, unexpected bends and people, yes people, walking by the side of the busy road like they were on the Champs-Elysees, was a trifle tiresome. Well, terrifying actually.

The first sign that something was wrong was when after two very long hours of avoiding other vehicles we came back to the very same spot we had set off from. Considering there is no road ring around Belgrade, we could have viewed this as an achievement. I asked Rachel if she would like to drive so I could navigate. Her utter horror was reason enough to put me behind the wheel again. I put it down to her being English, with all that driving on the wrong side of the road thing.

For the record, we had been offered GPS but the proud Serbian streak in me refused, as I spoke the language, had a local driving license and could read the Cyrillic Road signs. The reality was that I had left the country a long time ago, drove only around the city and there were no traffic signs on the roads. If there were any, they were shown just after you needed to decide to turn left or right which is too late without crashing the car. A useful map which was collecting dust showed the whole non-existent country, Yugoslavia, and was written in Cyrillic. It was the size of a tablecloth, too big for the car and too full of painful memories to hold.

Google maps on a mobile wasn’t an option. Rachel’s phone would roam and mine was old, pre-touch phone, borrowed from my mother in an attempt to give myself a break from social media. The only “GPS” available, apart from sporadic traffic signs, was my sister, from her office in Belgrade.

“Where are you?” She would every so often ask.

“In Kraljevo.”

“What are you doing in Kraljevo?”

Too scared to say that we got ridiculously lost not once but twice, I lied.

“We are having coffee. A break. And we filled the tank with petrol.”

“How much did you pay for petrol?”

She, my sister, is very meticulous when it comes to paying bills and goes so far as to check barcodes on items against the receipt. After reading the amount from the slip in my hand she half-smiling, half-worried, added:

“Did you go via Negotin?”

Negotin is a charming little town in the east of the country, on the border with Romania, whereas we had wanted to be on the border with Bosnia, in the west, which we were, after zigzagging the country. The petrol bill clearly didn’t lie.

Refreshed, we set off again, hoping for a less stressful drive, with fewer cars, quieter roads through the scenic national park.

Driving on the empty roads through the national park was rejuvenating, and we started to feel like teenagers again.  This is how we imagined our road trip through Serbia, stress-free, enjoyable, inspirational. Even Rachel managed to put some music on.

Then the road turned into endless bends marked with rough patches, and again with no signs. We stopped occasionally to ask for directions from some lonely man walking in the middle of the road. Their answer was the same, “Just drive, you can’t get lost.” Was this the philosophy of the transport department – people can’t get lost, hence no traffic signs?

Running out of cigarettes we decided to stop at a village, its homes scattered across the valley. There were four houses, a decaying school, a bright new church and a shop covering all essentials. A nun in front of us, sensing foreigners, and probably feeling holy and desperate to show the country in a different light from the one covering front pages during the 1990s, nodded at us to go ahead and pay for our goodies.  We met her again at the parking place, struck by the outlandish thought that here was a nun who drives. Aren’t they supposed to spend their time praying?

She again gave us priority at the road exit and we again said thank you. While crossing the valley, she was following us, quite close, almost touching the back of the car. If we had had to stop suddenly, she would have been sitting in our back seat.

The idea of Lewis Hamilton dressed like a nun, driving a country rally across Serbia seemed plausible. She had the attitude, skills, reflexes. The only thing was that the road was a far cry from an F1 circuit. Worried that she may be in a hurry, we stopped at the side of the road, letting her pass, but she stopped too. So, we sped up so that we didn’t slow her path to holiness but then she sped up too, enough to be just behind us. We followed the sporadic speed limit, which wasn’t making sense at 20 km/h in the middle of nowhere, probably set for the sake of the local bears, not humans.

Did we acquire a stalker in the shape of a nun? Is this our road horror story? “Killed by a nun.”  A movie title flashed in front of my eyes.

Somewhere above the valley a monastery appeared, then suddenly ahead a small unpaved road up to it. And then our stalker, our Lewis Hamilton in the shape of a nun, roared the disintegrating car to the limit, overtook, showed us a middle finger, and suddenly swerved into the side road, cutting us up so effectively that we had to brake hard. We thought about following her because she went to the monastery and we could find her and have a chat about dangerous driving. Or report her to the top nun. By the time we had made our decision, we were too far to turn back and make any complaints. We decided to put it down to experience.

Exhausted, without any plan, we stopped in a small place, Bajina Basta, for something to eat and to get a picture of the House on the River Drina which was first featured in National Geographic. When we visited, it looked lonely, surrounded by shallow water, ready to drift away. Far away from all the Insta displays which make you salivate, we felt cheated at not being impressed. As night was drawing in, we made the decision to stay overnight in Mokra Gora, Drvengrad, the private Disneyland made by the movie director Emir Kusturica. The whole movie “Life is a Miracle” is set among verdant hills and all the movie’s props are scattered between houses built in a traditional Serbian style. Walking around gives you a sense of being on the movie set rather than at a 4-star resort. If you are lucky, you may

About Tara Goldsmith

Tara is an avid traveler, but is terrified of flying. However, that doesn't stop her hunting for the holy grail of travel stories across the globe. Currently, she is mastering Chinese.

Tara is an avid traveler, but is terrified of flying. However, that doesn't stop her hunting for the holy grail of travel stories across the globe. Currently, she is mastering Chinese.

Leave a Comment