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European Voices -the Freedom of Movement Tour part 11 – a Balkan roundabout

As we look at part eleven of our coverage of the Freedom of Movement tour with Chiara Ginestra and Alexander Colling who are now heading south east and reaching the delights of the Balkans. Chiara and Alex are travelling across Europe on bicycle to discover the wonderful right of freedom of movement within the European Union. Don’t forget to follow them on their Facebook page , Tumblr and their Twitter handle

Accompanied by Anne from Edinburgh we cycled out of Ljubljana to Novo Mesto. We got rained on and went the wrong way but we were eventually treated to a beautifully resurfaced road with no cars whatsoever.  Realisation hit us, as we felt heat from below and bits of asphalt began sticking to our tyres, that it was very freshly resurfaced indeed. We came upon the team doing the work that had to stop all proceedings as we squeezed between the resurfacing machine and the several hundred metres drop to get past.

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When we arrived in Novo Mesto, the weather was forecast to be so bad we stayed for two nights in attempt to sit it out, playing our ukulele and planning our next steps. This also gave us the opportunity to meet Callum, who is motorbiking around Europe to film footage for a documentary. He’d be delighted to hear from you if you’d like to be involved .

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Our ride to Zagreb happened under the rain. Before we set off we were interviewed by Callum:

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Next stop, the Slovenia – Croatia border at a ‘locals-only’ crossing which was apparently a crossing that should only be used by locals on foot or by bicycle – something we hadn’t heard of before, which aroused the suspicions of the local police who boxed us in with two cars and questioned us and checked our passports. We were told that next time we had to use the main border crossing (on, presumably, a motorway) and that if we were caught here again we’d be punished with, hopefully, just a fine. The rain cleared up and we had some lunch in a bus stop. The rain began again, this time heavier and more driving. Deciding to push on to Zagreb and, foolishly following the route on our map, we found ourselves cycling through 20km of gravel and sand along the river. There comes a point in cycling in the rain when you can get no wetter. When every bit of you and your bike and your luggage is utterly drenched. And this is a positive nirvana for no more are you plagued by the anxieties of being splashed by a passing articulated lorry, nor do you attempt to dodge pools of water or try to keep your feet dry. At this point we found ourselves accelerating through puddles and no longer worrying. We arrived at our host totally soaked through, dripping and worn out. We dried, washed, cleaned and collapsed. The wettest day of the trip so far.

In Zagreb we visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, which made us reflect on a number of broken relationships in our lives and, the big looming broken relationship between the UK and the EU, and the thousands of difficult and broken relationships that this will lead to over the next few years. The museum invites people to send in an item that represents a broken relationship, which may then be displayed as part of their ever-changing exhibition. We plan to send something that represents our relationship with the UK. While in the past few years we have seen our relationship with the EU grow stronger which is an unexpected benefit of Brexit, our relationship with the UK has become damaged beyond repair.

After Zagreb our nest stage was by by train to Vinkovci, where our Zagreb host Ena’s family offered to host us. Their generosity was complemented by their Dalmatian giving birth and their beautiful cats.

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It is difficult to accept getting the train and other transport as we had originally hoped to cycle all but the hilliest or most dangerous routes. We had over estimated the kilometres we would cover on average each day and have had to satisfy ourselves with taking trains on occasion in order to keep up with our schedule. In addition to this we have experienced a great variety of health problems and, EHIC card in hand, have accessed healthcare in a number of EU member states, with no or very little cost.

The next day we cycle into Serbia, our first and only (for now!) non-EU country. The route takes us through Vukovar and we pass many numerous memorials along the side of the road. As we cycle north towards our border crossing at Erdut, we roll past bullet-riddled houses and the forests of Serbia on the opposite side of the river. At the first EU – non EU border on our trip we notice backed up lorries waiting for customs checks, and not one but two border checks – the Croatian and the Serbian – and a no-mans land in-between.

Both of us refelcted on the costs of implementing this on the Irish border and on the fact that the UK has had enormous ‘control’ over its borders while being a member of the EU due to being an island, to the point where many people in the UK struggle with the concept of a land border and the cultural and political implications surrounding one. We reach our destination, Bac, where we are greeted by friendly locals shouting “hello” and numerous stray dogs.

The next day we cycle to Novi Sad, where our couchsurfing host, Martina, takes us on a walking tour up to the Petrovaradin Fortress from where the remains of a bridge destroyed during the Second World War can be seen.

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Walking around the extensive walls of the fortress Martina tells us about her experience of the Kosovo War, how her father was away in the army for extended periods of time, how her family kept packed suitcases in preparation to flee, how there were shortages of food and power. The bombing of Novi Sad left an indelible mark on the city, its population and environment. A European Capital of Culture on 2021, Novi Sad appears vibrant and alive in full contradiction to its past.

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The next day we take the old road from Novi Sad to Belgrade and the big hill that was looming on our map turns out to have a diversion, going further up the big hill and on dirt roads. We struggle on, eventually finding ourselves on another freshly resurfaced stretch of road, which we have mostly to ourselves. After several kilometres I notice a dog trailing on behind us. Actually, less trailing and more maniacally sprinting. I inform Chiara and we quicken our pace. It’s amazing how a pursuing animal can quicken one’s pace, in spite of knee pain, arse pain, tiredness, drivetrain issues, multiple kilograms of luggage etc. We eventual lose the dog. As we enter the urban sprawl of Belgrade we meet, for the third time, our ukulele chaperoning friend, Madja. He escorts us to his parent’s home, where we are hosted for a couple of nights. He lives on the block where convicted war ciminal Radovan Karadzic was hiding out, pretending to be some kind of healer, and his supporters have painted a mural of him during this period, on the corner he used to frequent.

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Madja showed us his city and we even had the chance to visit Tito’s tomb, not something we had imagined doing. We visited buildings previously bombed by NATO and observed pro-Serbian, anti-EU banners around parliament. It would have been nice to have stayed longer in Belgrade, but our schedules pushed us on.

The underdeveloped rail network and unreliable services in Serbia forced us to seek our first road transport of the trip. After managing to convince a bus driver to allow us to put our bikes in the storage compartment, we got to Negotin, near the border with Bulgaria and Romania.

The next day we cycled across the border to Vidin in Bulgaria. Our main relief at arriving back in the EU was that we could once again use our mobile data for mapping and googling at no extra cost. In Serbia I was charged something like £12 per MB of data and £4.80 per minute to call. The border crossing was seamless and at the border town many people waved to us, shouted “hello” and seemed quite amused at the spectacle rolling though.

The descent into Vidin was swift and we arrived to take cover on a restaurant floating on the Danube just before the rain started. Milen, who offered us his flat to use in Vidin, is a fellow contributer to Europa United and had heard about our trip online before offering to help. I developed a fever and we were pleased to have a few days to rest and recuperate.

We crossed the border from Vidin to Romania just north of the town. We took a back road and encountered many stray dogs and some far more aggressive guard dogs who were appropriately scared by our air horns. We climbed up to the New Europe bridge crossing the river and cycled over to the border where the pavement and cycle path disappeared and we had to weave through lorries to find the border police booth. Despite being an EU – EU border, neither country is Schengen so border checks are necessary. It was a good feeling to make it to Romania and we spent a few hours in the town of Calafat investigating opportunities to get to Bucharest. We sadly made the decision not to go to Bucharest due to how far it would be for us to cycle. This was, again, a very hard decision for us to make, and we looked at every option open to us. Our schedule and our health problems worked against us. We crossed back through the border to the surprise of the border police. Very few people cycle this way and even fewer cycle back again on the same day. We passed the most content looking herd of goats and the longest back up of lorries – about 4kms – we had seen on the journey yet.

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The bridge, opened in 2013, was built to replace the unreliable and expensive ferry crossing. The construction was spurred on by the Kosovo War. Closed borders between Bulgaria and Serbia dramatically effected the economy of the region, which relied on road access for trade, and there was a vested interest in building a new crossing to make it easier for Romania, Bulgaria and Greece to trade with the rest of Europe. This is a bridge built for trade and not for locals. Nobody we met in Vidin had been to Romania, despite it being spitting-distance from the town. Other than the lorries at the border we saw only one German mobile home. These parts of Bulgaria and Romania are some of the poorest in these countries. This made us think a lot about freedom of movement and crossing borders and how irrelevant it seems to be for the poorest who can’t afford the journey nor, in this case, the toll, and the richest, who, in contrast, can buy their way across any border.

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Many thanks to Ante & Ena and her family, Martina, Madja and his family and Milen for hosting us in weeks 12 and 13!

Alex

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