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Saturday: through Serbia from Sofia to Szeged

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Sofia to Szeged, more or less, and all of Serbia in between
In the vans from 7:42am to 12:30, then 1:20 to 5:46pm
(border crossings: 40 and 20 minutes; did not have to leave the vehicles at all)

A foggy mist laying low across the plain in patches looks like white candyfloss. Hills climb up in the distance. Glancing in my wing mirror, I see the sun rising, an orange-red ball. Then suddenly the fog engulfs us. It is so thick, the word *visibility* becomes irrelevant. Later in the morning when a suicide-seeker fails in his bid to make me an accomplice, he  overtakes The Bear Cave in a second attempt to end his life. In similar fashion, another car approaches Rob and by no more than a whisker makes it back to his own side of the road. Rob is rattled.
But right now we are about to leave the country where you shake your head for no and nod for yes, the country where purchases are measured in stotinki and leva.

A border crossing. We open our eyes to capture the differences that must be about to appear. But there is nothing exceptional. Bulgaria is like Serbia; Serbia is like Bulgaria. Piles of firewood are stacked for winter. Backyard gardens hold the remains of the summer harvest. Buildings are derelict. The road is somewhat bumpy.

Then there’s a difference. We didn’t see any rounded mounds of hay in Bulgaria. We didn’t see carved gable ends on houses in Bulgaria. We didn’t see such steep roofs. Or sheaves of cornstalks. The differences were not immediate, but yet again, each country proves to have its own identity, observable even in just one day. Sometimes the difference is a lack. Here, in Serbia, there is no tobacco growing. No grapes.

But there are tunnels. Dark tunnels. The first one for the day has a few dim lights – not enough to make a discernible difference – much like our own headlights! Further from the border, there are no lights at all, even in tunnels that curve! Guess how many tunnels there are in one set of hills alone. What do you think? Did you guess sixteen? Yes, sixteen tunnels! And you know what? Despite the signs warning you not to, they make an interesting place for overtaking!
Speaking of signs, there was a priceless one just before the border. Presumably to complement the sign restricting speed to 50km/hr, another strategically placed immediately afterwards, showed a car upside-down plummeting off the road. Should encourage observance of the speed recommendation on what would otherwise have looked like an open road!

We drive and drive.
For the first time we cover 330km before lunch.

Eventually we come to Belgrade. Unremarkable. We are in a hurry. We still have a long way to go. We don’t stop. We do, however, notice that the shoulder of the motorway becomes a dedicated overtaking lane in the city.

We drive on.
As we travel due northwards, manmade hillocks supporting bridges for the east-west running roads that cross over us are the only bumps in an otherwise dead flat landscape. For flatness, it rivals the Netherlands. In expanse it far exceeds the famous flat land.
The fog, which had lifted, seems to return. Or is it smog? But there are no cities, few factories. How could a handful of factories spread smoke across such a huge area? Into the smoke we drive. We’ve found another burnoff land and we will drive for hours through it, eventually with eyes stinging.

We drive on. We do not encounter any policemen trying to fine us for being foreigners. We note we were not ripped off at the border. We are not given hefty fees at the toll booths. No-one asks for our credit card. We have heard horror stories about foreigners travelling through Serbia, but we do not come out with our own to add. It would seem they are cleaning up their act. There are posters telling you exactly what the tolls are. There are posters informing you NOT to pay anything at border control. There are phone numbers to ring and people to contact if you witness any “irregular behaviour”.

We drive on some more. For hours we have driven on these dead straight roads with not a sign of silly driver behaviour (other than the crazy overtaking in the fog and through tunnels, that is – on the open road everyone was sensible!!) Suddenly and inexplicably a line of traffic overtakes us in a dash of urgent madness. Truck after truck after truck and cars in between pull out to leave us behind. We start wondering if the border closes at 5pm, and we pick up our own pace too, just in case.
When we arrive – moments before 5pm – all is deserted, but there are no signs of anyone shutting up shop for the night. We’ll never know what the half hour of speedsters was all about!

We won’t go *far* in this country today, but we manage enough kilometres to make some observations. The first and most obvious is the smooth road. Really smooth. Our eyes scan outwards – instead of nothing running alongside the road, there are now side barriers made of woven timber lining the motorway. Above us road signs are in both Cyrillic and Latin script as well, with a great profusion of squiggles and dots above the letters…and the place names are L—O—N—G. We pass a few houses with thatched roofs.
We find a truck stop. And stop. Rumbling tummies and the setting sun tell us it is time for dinner, but we still need to cook. Because we have to set our watches back an hour, we eat at a “reasonable” time!
And sleep. Or try to. It’s a busy truck stop with cars from at least seven different nations pulling in beside us over the course of the night, tour busses stopping behind us to allow passengers a smoko-break beside our cracked-open windows, and trucks roaring in to a stop all night long.