Smederevo – An Enticing Taste of Serbia
The date is Thursday, 12th September, and Iggy the Hymer motorhome is parked next to a broken fortress in Smederevo, Serbia. We have no internet data and Jay is playing Skyrim on the other side of the dinette table. He has his headphones on, and is oblivious to his surroundings and the fact that he occasionaly shouts things out loud, like “I’m not dead!”
Marley is sleeping peacefully on the sofa, and DM is nowhere to be seen.
It’s twenty to eight at night and the temperature in the van is 28 degrees Centigrade. The skylights are open, but the mosquito nets reduce the breeze, and I feel lazy with the heat. I think about going to the bar across the way and sitting out in the slightly cooler air for an hour or two. But I know I won’t be able to relax until I have written the blog.
So I stay where I am. Listening to the voices of young men walking past outside. The words they use are mostly alien to me – though a few I had heard before from Polish friends in Scotland – and a few are becoming familiar from our five days journey through Slovenia, Croatia & Serbia. “Da, ne, dobro, hvala.” It’s surprising how far one can get in this world with “Thank you” and a smile.
And, of course, the goodwill of strangers.
When we set off from Camp Borovik in Croatia this morning, we had a long drive in front of us. Especially as we weren’t using the toll roads. The distance was similar, but the toll roads were twice as fast, and Co-Pilot estimated that off toll it would take us around six hours to reach Smederevo.
We wouldn’t normally drive anywhere near that long in a day, but we wanted to be in Greece by Sunday at the latest. And after using motorways and toll roads all through Germany, Austria and half of Slovenia we’d agreed to give them a miss. There’s so much more to see on the normal roads, and we didn’t feel we were getting a proper feel for the countries at all when we were on the toll roads.
Today that decision lasted about one hour of Croatian driving – if that – and then I couldn’t take it anymore. The relief of hills and lake and rolling forest around Camp Borovik only lasted a short while and then we were back to yesterday’s endless flatlands. The exact same style of villages, the exact same grain fields between them. On and on they marched, in a relentless, unyielding conformity, that was making my brain hurt. This was only our third day of this and I was feeling a growing, gnawing, claustrophobia from these surroundings.
I felt a twinge of guilt at my negative attitude. And also, bizzarely, a fascination for the very landscape that was sending me slightly barmy round the edges. What would it be like to come from a place like this? To be born in one of these villages? Stay here for an entire childhood? Never climb hills? Never see another town or village that wasn’t laid out exactly like your own? How would my perspective on the world be if I had come from such a place?
I drew parallels in my head with the prairie lands of the U.S. But there people were far apart on their farms – not clustered in these identical villages. I remembered the desert interior of Morocco. Tiny houses and hamlets alone in huge emptinesses. I had similar feelings there of wanting to get to the end. Of wondering if people were content in these landscapes. Or did they wish, always, to climb a mountain for the view? Or walk to the sea and stare at it’s vastness?
These thoughts intrigued me, and I wished we could spend more time in this linear, production line “model village” country. Talk to people more. Learn about their lives, their thoughts, their feelings. But at the same time my mind was itching with the flatness and the uniformity and I really, really wanted to not spend hours driving through it again.
“We’re taking the toll.” I said to Jay. Re-routing us as fast as I could press buttons on Co-Pilot.
“Yeah? What for?”
“I can’t stand another day driving through these villages!” I replied. Almost cheering as we saw the toll road sign after just one more village. Free at last! The feeling of relief as our speed almost doubled was almost tangible. And the increase in cool air passing through the van was going to be worth the toll fee in itself.
The internet signal had come back again, and with co-ordinates set for Smederevo, and a straight road before us I alternated between reading Jay some autocorrect bloopers off Facebook, casting a quick glance at the Brexit news, and starting to read up a little bit about the effects of the Yugoslavia Wars on Serbia.
I should have read a little faster, as suddenly the toll road pay station was upon us. A few Euros later, and as we were spat out the other side I wondered if that meant we were nearly at the Border with Serbia?
I switched over from Co-pilot to Google Maps, and sure enough there was the line for the border. Just up ahead. In fact I could see it through the windscreen right now, as I went through my usual panic of being unprepared, and not having the passports up front with me. And wondering if they would want to see Marley’s one. Because then I would have to go dig it out of the “IMPORTANT THINGS. DO NOT LOSE!!” place
And then we were rolling to a stop in front of a jolly faced, booming voiced Croatian Border Policeman. He waved our passports away with a huge grin.
“Go. Go. Have a good holiday!” he shouted merrily.
And Jay, naturally, did just what he was told, and drove straight past the waiting, Serbian, Police Checkpoint.
Thank goodness he was only just moving and heard the indignant shouts of the Serbian Border Policeman! Who was definitely not grinning. Or jolly faced. Or in anyway whatsoever, not in a month of Sundays, happy with us, or our disgraceful behaviour.
Knuckles well and truly rapped by the cross official, we were never-the-less two middle aged motorhome owners with EU passports. The young man could have made life difficult for us, and have the Customs boys give us a leisurely search. Thankfully he was not so minded, and waved us on to a third stop where another jolly Serbian heard Jay ask if we would get a stamp.
“You want stamp?” he roared with laughter. “Yes. You have stamp!”
And so saying he raised the barrier and passed us through and beyond. Into a little patch of non EU land in Europe. With lorries queuing for customs on both sides of the road. No phone. No internet. No quick look up on Google Translate. Not unless we wanted to pay through the nose to UK providers for the privilege. Either that or find somewhere that sold local SIM cards, which for a two day transit seemed hardly worth the effort.
It was both exhilirating, and annoying, to pass through into the different world beyond the imaginary line. Having travelled exclusively within the EU for the last three years we had grown accustomed to the easiness of it all. Open borders and accessible mobile phone and data deals are wonderful things that make our lives so much easier.
At the same time, being without them is kind of fun. Plunged into data silence. Cut off from the wider world and all the web’s instantly available information. There is more challenge this way. We are more alone. More reliant on just ourselves. And at the same time, conversely, more in need of asking others for help.
Luckily, or perhaps unluckily – from an adventurer’s point of view – we had only to follow our Co-pilot satnav to our pre-selected destination of Smederevo for tonight. It was a small city south of Belgrade, and we would find free WiFi there for sure if we needed it.
On we drove, and onto the easy, quiet Serbian toll roads. The landscape here continued flat, much as in Croatia. Fields of grain were interspersed with groves of trees, also much as in Croatia. And the morning heat continued to rise steadily towards somewhere in the low thirties. But there the resemblance largely ended.
The impression, almost immediately, was of a country both a little poorer, and a little more in disarray than Croatia. A bit faster, a bit more chaotic, and a whole lot dirtier. The orderly rows of village farmhouses were replaced with shabby, dilapidated blocks of towering utilitarian flats. The same flat landscape. The same flat European plains. But here we drove through an increasingly industrial, urban world as we approached the outskirts of Belgrade.
The toll road gave way to jostling ring-road motorway. More toll road – full of road works and paying for the pleasure of limping through them at 60 km/ph – and the flatness rollercoastered into rolling hills. Green, wooded and pleasant. In places with not a house to be seen in any direction. Just the odd patch of grainfield in among the wild woods.
The long, hot drive was drawing to an end, and the shabby flats crowded around once more as we approached Smederevo. The traffic grew busier, and for a moment we felt almost as if we were back in Morocco, as everyone played chicken for right of way at a busy crossroads with no lights.
But for all the shouting men, and insane near misses, this was not quite Morocco. There were no donkeys, no men with baskets of chickens balanced on the back of rusted scooters. Only cars, and noise, and heat, and Jay whisking us on a hair’s breadth between a gleaming BMW on one side and a steampunk of an old Truck on the other.
Iggy breathed in and we were safely through and on, past welcome traffic lights, over a barely existant level crossing, and into the large piste parking beside the Fortress of Smederevo.
And now it is half past ten o’clock. The fans and time have brought the temperature down to a more bearable level – if only just – and everyone is asleep but me. I want to join the others in sleep. And escape the two flies who have been crawling all over me these last two hours. So I will rush the end of our day, and Smederevo itself. Which is a shame. But there are only so many hours to a day. And never enough room to write it all.
Smederevo fortress is a giant shell of 13th Century walls round an open, litter strewn, park. Built to defend these lands from the Turks, it was eventually bombed in WW II. It’s dilapidated and dangerous state today is, I guess, a testiment to Serbia’s turbulent history from world war, to Socialist State of Yugoslavia, to war once again throughout the 1990’s.
It is strange to drive through these countries, only twenty some years from war, and wonder what we are really seeing. Recovery? Aftermath? Both? Neither? It is hard enough to answer such questions about countries I know well, and with Serbia I can only guess.
The litter reminds us of Africa and Sicily. Here and there broken hulks of men and women sit stupefied on park benches, or poke through rubbish for plastic bottles. Perhaps they can make money from them? A recycling fee? We don’t know. They remind me of the traumatised addicts sleeping rough on the streets of the UK.
I think of how short a time ago people of our age raised weapons here, and committed mind breaking acts in war. I wondered if some of these ragged figures were carrying those scars with nobody to help them.
A nice young man helped me find a bank-o-mat (ATM), so we could get some cash for a beer and free Wi-Fi. People stopped to say hello to Marley. Two boys kicked a football down the pedestrianised shopping centre. The entire town ( so it seemed) walked endlessly to and fro, across the fenceless railway tracks, beside Iggy’s parking spot. People shouted. People laughed.
We paid 240 Serbian dinara – about €2 to visit the little area of the fortress where we could climb up on the walls. Marley was allowed too, and it was an otherwordly mix of fabulous and awful. The moat was full of rubbish and slimy plastic bags. The high wooden platforms and steps literally crumbling to dust in some places. The smell of human excrement from the toilet area quite overpowering when we ventured into that corner.
And yet it was something that could have been a great attraction, with just a little bit of money, and a big helping of health and safety. We took pictures of the Danube from the high walls. Not so blue today as when we first met her in far away Ulm. And finally, we wandered home, via the circus boys in their trucks, parked up beside Iggy, and a helping of pancakes and ice cream, in the cafe across the rail tracks.
Our brains were, as we like to say in Scotland, mince. The litter. The human excrement in the turret by the river. The friendly circus folk. The disabled woman pushing a wheelbarrow of rubbish bags through the main street, as people drank evening cocktails on the pavement cafes around her. The laughing women in the pancake shop, as we made up an order with no words between us. The father dragging his tiny child from the car by the elbow. Making it cry. The other father, gently making his tiny child come along, without it ever realising it was being led. Making it stop crying, and smile.
And trains. Clacking, and grinding, and squealing along the tracks.
It is hot. It is late. I shall listen to them better in my dreams.