Road Trip in Serbia: Yes or No

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, unexcepted 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 licence 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 table cloth, 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 a 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 to check bar codes 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 zig zagging 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. They 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 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 road was a far cry from a 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 tittle 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 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 with 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 see the director himself, sitting at a table, like any customer, eating his meal, quietly observing his kingdom.

Next day, after a very healthy, homemade Serbian breakfast, we explored the rolling green hills of the south-western part of Serbia, and crossed the River Drina, a political border between Serbia and Bosnia Hercegovina. BiH is a country made of three entities and one of them, occupying the part just across the Drina, belongs to the Serbian people.  

If we hadn’t been stopped at the kiosk, upgraded to an official border point, and asked for our passports, we wouldn’t have known that we were in a different country, the one belonging to the ‘Serbs across the Drina’, a term used to differentiate them from Serbs proper or ‘Serbs from Serbia’. In a world where borders are falling like ripe cherries, here in this small corner of Europe they are alive and kicking.

The colour of the River Drina is a pure translucent 50 shades of green. It looks serene and inviting, but later on, when we take the boat ride, we can sense the full force of the undercurrents and wonder how wise it was to take a cruise. The Bridge over the Drina, a monument to the Ottoman Empire and eternally immortalised in the eponymous book by Ivo Andric, a Nobel Laureate for Literature, was still standing, despite every single war, since it was built in 1577. Just looking at it gives you a sense of the heavy burden of turbulent history. Further from the bridge we come across Andricgrad, another Disneyland made by Emir Kusturica, dedicated to the writer Ivo Andric. A famous writer immortalised by a famous director. The idea seems well-intentioned, but the emptiness of the place makes you wonder, why build a ghost town? The offer to take a walking tour in the town itself was politely declined.

The following day we took advantage of our stay and went on a steam train, called Saraganska 8, descending 300 m with the route in the shape of number 8. The charm of the old train, 22 tunnels en-route and 365 water springs, makes the whole road trip worthwhile.

Like everything else in this part of world, if is older than 100 years, it lived through different countries. Saraganska 8 was first built during the Austro- Hungarian Empire, finished in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovens and re- discovered in the Republic of Serbia. Today it’s a tourist attraction often listed as one of the 10 best things to experience in Serbia. Be prepared for a long, winding journey sometimes filled with smog due to all the tunnels. Having said that, the scenery is breathtaking with the most stupendous views of this part of Serbia.

No visit would be complete without a trip out to the jagged natural wonders of Uvac and meeting its famous residents – griffon vultures. Each one is tagged and local rangers can follow their movements. One of them makes a daily trip to Split in Croatia and comes back in the evening.  According to the rangers, very helpful and knowledgeable people, lovers of everything “Grifton vulture” some of them can fly as far as Poland. If they fly that far they tend not to fly back, hence the tagging and an operational nightmare to return them. Luckily when it comes to nature there are no borders and one Polish “escapee” was flown on airplane by the Serbian ambassador in Poland with a help of the Polish Government.

The views from the top of the meandering river are mind-blowing, albeit a bit of a health hazard. There is a clear need for sturdy walking boots and a stick, something not mentioned when booking the tour. You should be fit in order to get to the top, otherwise you will spend the whole day on the boat, which is rather unsatisfying.

Nature in this part of Serbia is raw but with an open invitation exuberantly decorated, enough to make you forget all about the hazards of driving. The country’s tangled history is all around and needs a deeper understanding than it is usually accorded, otherwise it just seems confusing, contradictory, alarming. Forget about potholes, narrow roads, mad drivers, lack of signs, just be open minded and a road trip in Serbia can be an incredible experience.

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.

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