We had been invited by the Serbian Tourist Board to look at the cycling infrastructure and advise them on how best to sell the brand to the obsessed UK cycling market. Our small group consisted of David, a renowned photographer, Chris, a well-known creative genius, Kev, an adventurer of epic proportions and me! After an overnight stop in the capital we headed south towards the Montenegro border. Our first ride began in the damp car park of the Hotel & Spa Idlia in Zlatibor. The area is renowned for its health benefits and is rightly considered an ‘air spa’. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that it became recognised as a truly exceptional tourist resort, and it has definitely flourished. It is now the most developed and most visited mountain resort in Serbia.
The ride would take us through the picturesque Mokra Gora Nature Park and Tara National Park, the landscape an isolated mix of simple climbs, off road heaven and a mass of colourful pine forests. The bikes were adequate and as we departed in good spirits, the rain worsened. I was assured that air currents from the Mediterranean and the continent collide in the mountains, creating a fascinating micro-climate offering plenty of sunny days throughout the year, not today though. We climbed briefly through a collection of pretty buildings before the landscape opened up before us. The horizon dominated by nothing but wilderness, tarmac was replaced by gravel but unfortunately Kev was languishing behind, his recurring leg problem causing frustration, annoyance and obvious pain. He had to reluctantly accept his short two wheeled adventure was over as he slowly trudged back to the cosy confines of the hotel and his bottle of antibiotics. We continued on, reverting to a rutted grass track at the crest of craggy ridge, the complete scene of isolation was striking, the surface was good, our tyres groaned against the dirt and debris.
I love this time of year, the landscape turning from greens and the vibrancy of summer to the beginning of browns/oranges and desolation of autumn and winter. We then negotiated several streams with ease and followed a well-defined track which contoured into the hillside, the views were breathtaking, a backdrop embroidered in green and brown hues with a smattering of stone dwellings. The going was smooth and brisk, what followed was a thrilling descent on a rather bumpy, muddy track and with some heavy braking on loose, bouldery scree we arrived in a clearing amongst the trees, the light was fading quickly so unfortunately we had to retrace our route back to civilisation.
Next up we found ourselves in the municipality of Ivanjica which covers approximately 1,090 sq kilometres and is recognised as one of the largest in Serbia. Over half the area accounts for Mt Golija, the pearl among mountains. The range is equally mesmerising in the summer and winter months, with the abundance of fresh clean air and provocative panoramic views. It was declared the first national park and biosphere reserve, firstly by Serbia and then UNESCO in 2001.
Our focus was the Jankov Kamen (literally Jankov’s Stone). As we arrived at a deserted barren plateau, we were introduced to our local guides. Their appearance was unexpected, a collection of leather jackets, jeans, balaclavas and no helmets, more appropriate for robbing banks than pedalling down trails. The temperature was unbelievably cold – the most memorable bit was David (who in his defence had only just returned from a lengthy trip in the heat of Hawaii) shaking uncontrollably, bringing to mind bizarre images of a penguin on a caffeine high. Our reactions were one of mass hysteria as the group instead of assisting or displaying some empathy, erupted in a collective raucous mess. It’s good to see that camaraderie amongst cyclists is still strong! Sorry that should read ‘p@@s take!’.
What followed was three hours of unadulterated pleasure and adventure. We pedalled along the plateau of Golija peak for five kilometres, climbing steeply up to 1833 metres and our goal Jankov Kamen, the highest peak and named after Janko Sibinjanin, who, according to legend, placed a stone obelisk at the top during his return from the battle of Kosovo in 1389. ‘What goes up must come down’ was dominating my mind as my aching legs and shortness of breath meant I struggled slowly up the ascent. On reaching the summit, the views would have presumably been magnificent but for the mist and fog, the trees overwhelmed with ice and the temperature not so welcoming, it was bloody freezing.
We descended at speed, the track exposed us to total tranquillity, a complete picture of rustic serenity and a sense of real remoteness. The landscape perfect with rolling hills, rocks cloaked in thick lively moss, grass and earth tracks intersecting dense forest and the surface carpeted haphazardly with an abundance of leaves. The trail was in fairly good condition, there was the odd boulder to keep us concentrated (I managed to tumble rather spectacularly on two occasions) but definitely rideable and great hoopla. As the descent continued the surface became increasingly unpredictable, rough with many ruts and small pools but again loads of fun. It’s definitely a wild, untamed and unkempt place. At times I found myself gripping so tightly, creeping along slowly focused on the tracks of the rider in front. After what seemed like only minutes the trail spat us out onto a tarmac road and close by was our van. The plan was to continue onwards and downwards to finally reach the main road but the daylight was fading rapidly so we reluctantly said farewell. In a split second our new friends with their lights barely visible pedalled off into the tree cover, they were gone.
We headed north back towards the capital for our next adventure, so after a healthy breakfast, the van transported us to the busy town of Cacak and a meeting with Gordana. The town is sat near the beautiful eco-environment of the Ovcar-Kablar gorge. A short ride had been organised along a well-established and well signed route hugging the contours of the Zapadna Morava River, the area has 11 monasteries in close proximity and we were charmed by elevated views of the water meandering nonchalantly downstream. Once again, Chris, Aleksandar and I were the only riders, David had erected a mass of cameras to catch every pedal turn and our fairly sedate speed was dictated by his artistic direction. We were yearning to let loose but our film dictator had other more pressing plans, every movement felt somehow choreographed. The surroundings characterised by steep, high limestone walls with a collection of magical caves. After a short pause to explore a simple rustic hostel, we returned at pace, leaving Dave and his abundance of gadgets woefully in our wake, finally no more restricted cycling just unsullied speedy gratification.
The weather was closing in as we arrived in Divcibare and the atmospheric setting of Vila Plamenac which was unfortunately our final two wheeled outing. As we traipsed from the van, our senses were overpowered by the aromas and sounds of an open air fire, slowly and delicately cooking our lunch. The mist and drizzly rain were inconsequential as we huddled around the pan as it bubbled so effortlessly with chicken and colourful peppers, lunch was another delicious sharing feast.
The Valjevo Mountains are renowned for their clean air which attracts plenty of skiers over the winter period, with the warmer months preoccupied by walkers and cyclists.
Only Chris and I were up for the ride, David was still feeling the effects of the cold and Kev had resigned himself to rest and recuperation. Strangely the locals had even recommended bathing his ailed leg in national tipple rakia, the fruit brandy is believed to have some hidden antiseptic values.
The ride was a serene experience in complete contrast to the adrenalin fuelled descending of yesterday. In many respects, more enjoyable because of the less frenetic pace, allowing us to chat and visually discover the area (when the mist and sleet allowed). We were expected to see the Kraljev Stone peak, Kamencia River, Tometino Field and Paljba Observation Point, however a blanket of low lying fog choked the surroundings and the views, but hey another reason to return, the list is ever expanding. The trail is signed for 136 kilometres and the unspoilt feel is undoubtedly its greatest asset, allowing you to appreciate the area, the people and their proud culture. As the weather worsened, we reluctantly headed back to the warmth of our temporary base and the open arms of our relaxed, sauna and rakia steeped fellow travellers.
So just how good is the cycling? The trip had opened my eyes to the delights of rural Serbia, we had pushed ourselves on occasions but the sense of achievement was immense, it has somehow ignited a passion within me and the adventure is a constant topic of conversation which is probably becoming annoying and boring but hey I don’t care, Serbia has touched my heart. The road cycling offers an expansive network of well-maintained winding roads dissecting stunning scenery and the trails unlocked a breathtaking portal to unimaginable messy joys.
The country has suffered unbelievable hardships and devastation, but this has only reawakened a deeply ingrained passion for their country, to be Serbian is now a proud statement and the inhabitants are not afraid to display to the world that Serbia is on the up and has so much to offer to all travellers, not only the cyclists.