Fruska Gora, Serbia • September 2016 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes
The following story is an extract from my book We Ordered A Panda: Tales of City-Hopping Around Europe. If you enjoy it then please visit my online bookshop to uncover the full epic road trip.
As Lara showered, I set about making the coffee. The apartment smelt like a brewery and my insides definitely had enough beer sloshing about inside them to match that sub-par simile with a poorly-worded analogy. I would have loved to just lay about in bed all day, convinced that I was still too drunk to properly operate a toothbrush, never mind a motor vehicle. We were aiming to make it to Belgrade for dinner, however, and it was a 280 km drive just to reach the Serbian border. We packed up our stuff, using the preferred method of simply stuffing everything into our bags, left the keys hanging in the lock, and tumbled down the stairs into the Croatian sun.
In the daylight, we realised that the car park we’d abandoned Ben in the prior evening was directly under the bus terminal. Grabbing some food from one of the bakeries inside, I sat on our bags at the entranceway whilst Lara paced up and down. Neither of us spoke. All the energy we had left was being focused on trying to function like normal human beings. The prosciutto and cheese toasted sandwich I was trying to digest hung from the corner of my mouth like the prey of a wild carnivore. I had no idea what the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit was in Croatia but assumed that if it were anything less than ‘all aboard the steamboat’ the local authorities may have a thing or two to say about my being behind the wheel. I then reminded myself that I was sat on the concrete floor of a bus station, wallowing in my own despair like a lost child. I decided to drive anyway.
“Cause if this is what we’ve got, then what we’ve got is gold. We’re shining bright and I want you, I want you to know. The morning’s on its way. Our friends all say goodbye. There’s nowhere else to go, I hope that you’ll stay the night.”
Exiting the car park, I turned onto the E70 highway towards Slavonski Brod - the last major town signposted before hitting Serbia - and put my foot down. The paved blacktop we were hurtling along at 130 km/h is a mere fraction of an epic A-class European route that runs all the way from A Coruña in the north-west of Spain to the Georgian port city of Poti on the eastern banks of the Black Sea. That’s a distance of 4,599 km; or, two time zones. When put in that perspective, our little jaunt didn’t seem too much of a hassle after all.
Making good time, we stopped for a coffee at the last service station before the border. When the girl behind the counter gave us two cups of Nescafe instant, it dawned on me that we were indeed a long way from Italy, and about to leave the European Union entirely.
“So, what’s this surprise you’ve got in store for me?” I quizzed Lara.
“Ah shit, I can’t find my passport,” she responded, rustling through her bag and patting down her coat.
“You really need to stop telling me that I’m the one who needs to chill out. I’m sure it’s lying in the car or in one of your other bags.” For some reason, unbeknownst to even God himself, Lara had decided to bring three different purses with her.
“Ah, here it is,” she gasped, breathing a deep sigh of relief. “Did I tell you about when my dad took us on a family holiday to Bosnia when we were younger and forgot to bring our passports? He had to talk his way around the authorities by pretending I was about to shit myself.”
“So that’s where you get your manipulative streak from?” I chuckled.
“Most likely. He once got out of a speeding ticket by pretending he was a Government official who had been summoned by the Prime Minister to a life or death meeting. And then there was the time he got out of a fine by pretending he was going through a messy divorce…”
“Eh, what?” I stared in disbelief, jaw on the floor.
“He’s really quite the character when you get to know him. The type of person who walks into a room and everyone becomes magnetised by for reasons they can’t quite put a finger on.”
“Yeah, I know the type. After our initial meeting, however, I don’t see us becoming drinking buddies anytime soon, though,” I pointed out.
“Well, perhaps not. He’s very protective of me. My sister not so much.”
“Are you trying to dodge my initial question by any chance?”
“Perhaps. But I suppose I need to borrow your phone now anyway to put plans in place, so may as well tell you. Better than stealing it. We really shouldn’t have the same password to unlock each other’s phones.”
“I can’t believe you even remember that,” I laughed.
“My family owns a country manor in the Serbian wilderness. It’s a summer home that my dad and uncle renovate together. I’ve managed to convince them to let us have the keys for tonight.”
“That is awesome,” I bellowed, so loud that the people next to us looked across to see what all the commotion was about.
“It’s only a few kilometres across the border and then down some country lanes. I’ve never actually taken anyone there before, so this is pretty special.”
I stared at the girl opposite me. Absolutely mesmerised.
We joined the bizarre queue of vehicles at the Croatian-Serbian border. Homeless-looking truckers loitered about and smoked cigarette butts, families tried to calm their impatient children belted-up in the backseat, and bus parties took the opportunity to stretch their legs. Only three of the eight possible checkpoints were open, and Lara sighed at the laziness of the customs officers. As we inched forward at a snail’s pace, she regaled about the time she once got to this border only to find that the officers had gone for lunch and completely shut shop. The place was a standstill for a whole hour whilst they tucked into their sandwiches and shot the breeze. I was quickly learning that things operated drastically differently here than back home in the UK. A pristine white BMW with tinted rear windows and a German number plate pulled up beside us as we split into two lanes, one for each of the checkpoints. The driver, a tanned guy with dark stubble and aviator shades on, kept looking over and grinning.
“I think he fancies you,” I teased Lara. “Give him a smile back.”
“I think he’s just trying to avoid looking at that billboard to the left. It’s perhaps the creepiest welcome sign I’ve ever seen.”
A large poster depicting the smirking grin of a little girl leered over the queue. Dressed in what I assumed to be traditional Serbian garments, she looked like she’d done a better job advertising a horror film than as the poster child for the Serbian tourist board. Everything about her face read ‘I am going to kill you and then haunt the rest of your family’, as opposed to the ‘welcome to my homeland’ message they were trying to convey. If it had been remotely possible, I would have turned back there and then. The only reason I didn’t was because that would have looked more suspicious than a pubescent teenager with a cleared internet browsing history.
We crept up to the front of the line, and half an hour after the BMW dude had decided to stop staring at us we had a customs official giving us the twice over. What it was about a Scottish guy, driving foreign hire car, with an Italian girl, who has a Serbian surname, which made him suspicious I have no clue. Cue ‘The Manipulator’. Lara began to babble away in fluent Serbian as I leant back in my seat. Within a matter of seconds, our passports had been stamped and we were on our way; the man giving us a polite gesture as he raised the barrier.
“What was that he just said,” I asked, curious.
“Welcome back to your homeland, Miss,” translated Lara.
After a further couple of hours driving, during which Lara made me almost crash the car when a wasp decided to fly through the window and hitch a lift, we made it to Belgrade. As the highway swept down into the metropolis that is the Serbian Capital, I couldn’t help but be less than impressed by the dilapidated buildings and grotty atmosphere. By the time we parked down on the banks of the Danube, however, this thought was completely reversed. Belgrade has changed hands over the years more times than the present in a game of pass the parcel and was most recently the capital of Yugoslavia before its dissolution in 2006. I am not nearly as educated enough as I should be on the complex history of this region but I could clearly see, first-hand, that an incredible amount of regeneration has been undertaken by the Government and people alike. Every day is a school day and I can only keep advancing my knowledge of the World and its fascinating cultures. Lara took me for a stroll along the waterfront, where we paused for some takeaway burgers at the river’s edge. It was lined with bars the whole way along and we sat in peace watching the eloquently dressed youth pass us by; laughing away and ready to set the night on fire.
“You know I had these ballroom dreams, that, as a child came to me.I was a boy in Grandma's arms. A mother's pride and a wounded heart.”
I polished off the food in no time and we retraced our footsteps back towards the car. With a full stomach, I felt near enough fully recovered from the prior evening’s antics. Taking a seat in a Balkan restaurant called Ambar, Lara ordered us two virgin cocktails before convincing the waiter to change her Euros into Dinar. Despite being against the law for establishments to do so, one wink from The Manipulator and he was more than happy to oblige… as long as we kept it hush hush.
Lara was keen to get out of Belgrade before it became illuminated only by the moon, so with the music blasting, we headed back across the bridge and in the direction of the border. Turning off onto a country road, we then continued for a further 15km into the heart of the Serbian wilderness. Advancing along a single-tracked lane bordered by hedgerows, there were no street lights or house lights to guide the way. Ben’s full-beams shone like beacons in the otherwise total darkness. If there was ever a place to kill someone and dispose of the body, then this was it. Turning left onto an even narrower gravel path, I slipped down to first gear and trundled up the steep incline ahead; convinced I was marching to my own death. Then, rounding a sharp corner, a crooked cottage suddenly came into view.
“That is the house of my closest neighbours,” began Lara. “They have the spare keys and are expecting us. I hope they are, anyway. Stop here for a second.”
My companion jumped out of the car and rang the bell. I kept the engine running in case we needed a quick getaway. Instead of an axe murderer, though, an old lady with a friendly looking smile answered the door. The pair proceeded to have a little natter before Lara was then handed a set of keys and returned to the car.
“Go down that hill there,” said Lara, when we were a short while along the track. The headlights of the Corsa shined towards a grassy drop-off into some trees below.
“What are you fucking talking about, ‘go down that hill’. It’s just a ditch. I don’t see any tow trucks coming by anytime soon if we happen to get stuck.”
“OK, just dump it here,” she laughed. “This is all our land anyway. Are you ready to see something really, really special?”
“Am I ever,” I grinned, taking our bags from the boot and clicking the central locking.
With just a torchlight to guide us, Lara led me by foot down the hill and into an absolute sanctuary…