The rain was pouring down as we touched down in Belgrade. Running between puddles, we rushed from the door of the terminal and jumped into our minibus as quickly as we could. The city had been enjoying an endless summer for the previous few months, but as our October trip grew nearer, the clouds gathered and the rain of our arrival was a foretaste of what was to follow for the next few days. At least we were told it was going to stop by Wednesday. (And, as per usual, those blue skies returned the moment we checked back in to Departures.)
As we drove through the capital, my anticipation for the days ahead increased with every corner we turned – as someone who’s never been to Eastern Europe before, the Cyrillic writing covering the billboards and shopfronts made it feel like I was a world away from home, surrounded by a completely foreign culture. It was easy to forget that we were just a 2-hour flight from London, and closer to the UK than Greece is.
As we left the capital city, and then escaped the lorry-filled highways to head into the hills, we started to get a glimpse of the Serbian countryside. Valleys that were a patchwork of small holdings, steep pitched houses dotting the hillsides, with stacks of firewood propped against walls and wisps of smoke rising from chimneys. Men chopped wood along the roadside. Bags of local produce were piled ceiling-high outside village shops – a sign of the fantastic food we would get to taste, and how well fed we’d feel when our trip came to an end.
Above the valleys, forested hillside followed forested hillside, a seemingly endless panorama of undulating trees. And as we drove along the winding mountain roads, we saw the seasons change in front of our eyes. First the fresh greens of trees in the valley floors, yet to feel the creep of autumn, then the yellows and golds as the temperature dropped, away from the valley floor, then oranges and deep reds as our altitude increased and autumn crept ever closer.
Our first stop was Zlatibor, a busy ski resort in the winter, but enjoyably quiet out of season. Preparing for our first ride, we picked up bikes that were decidedly ‘adequate’ – straight out of the 90s with robust steel frames, wobbly headsets and no suspension. But they had two wheels, and that was all we needed to get us out onto the trails. We headed out along a gravel track, into the rolling hills surrounding the resort, over grassy moorland that would have glowed golden had clouds not obscured the sun, and through hills covered with golden pines, as we rattled and bounced along.
On our second day we headed even higher, as we drove along a winding 20-mile road to the start of the trail. The van stopped when the tarmac turned to gravel, and we emerged from the warmth of the cabin into an almost Arctic setting – the chill hit us as soon as we stepped out, and an icy wind buffeted and rocked a sign that warned about bears in the woods. Once on our bikes, we left the vehicles behind and cycled yet higher, into a thick mist, that soon obscured the valleys and hills thousands of feet below. Past ice-covered pine trees, icicles whipped horizontal in the wind. Over frosty ground, crunching frozen puddles beneath our tyres. We’re told the view from the summit is fantastic, but that will have to wait for another day. But the decent was more than worth the cold fingers and frozen toes. We wove and wound our way down rocky tree-lined trails as we quickly headed to the valley floor. Golden leaves covered the trail – thankfully softening our tumbles. And it was clear that we were the only riders in these woods, 1000s of miles from the nearest trail centre, and the first to ride these trails for a long time. It ended all too soon, with the sun dropping below the horizon and night arriving swiftly, and blanketing the valley in a gloomy mist.
The guides who showed us the trails here were an inspiration – not so much for their skill and speed, but for their sheer enthusiasm for riding. While some of our group boasted about how many bikes they owned or how much they spent on equipment, our guides were happy just to be able to ride. And they did whatever they had to to keep on riding. As night fell and the light disappeared, they put on builder’s hardhats and inadequate head-torches (barely strong enough to illuminate their own handlebars, let alone the trail ahead), and headed back into the woods and down towards the valley floor. As they rode off, three faint lights and the sound of laughter disappeared into the dark, leaving us pampered tourists behind in the van.
By Wednesday, the rain had stopped as forecast – only to be replaced by sleet and snow instead, and off again we set off into the misty forest. Though I was soaked to the skin, I must have felt a lot warmer than the locals who joined us, riding without gloves and while wearing jeans that quickly became sodden. Not that this seemed a hindrance to them though, as they shot down the trail ahead of me, each one a reminder that all you need is a bike, and all you need to do is get on it and ride.
Although the scenery was incredible, it was riding alongside Serbians that was the highlight of the trip. People with an inexhaustible passion for riding, unmatched by even the most keen riders I know in the UK, they were filled with a joyfulness that can often get lost in the constant clamour for new gear, the fight for the fastest Strava time. Riding with them often reminded me when I first started riding back home in the Forest of Dean – on muddy trails, down whatever we could find to throw ourselves off, without a thought for what bike we were or weren’t riding.
Before the trip, the shadow of the 1999 war as well as more recent socio-political turmoil was hanging over my perception of Serbia. NATO-bombed buildings in the centre of the capital remain a stark reminder of this shadow. But it’s time to move on from the past, to discover the country for ourselves, to explore a country that few others explore. One that’s so close to the UK, but still feels so far away and so exotic. With a population that have a passion matched by few others. And with so many empty roads, framed by fantastic scenery, just waiting to be explored. Just make sure to pack a waterproof, and watch out for the bears…
For information about planning your own trip to Serbia, you can head to: