Sunday 13 July 2014

Vukovar - Symbol of Destruction

The inscriptions on many of the headstones are the same, just two simple words  - Hrvatski Branitelj - Croat Defender. The words have a ring of defiance about them that sums up these dead fighters perfectly. 

Croat Defender - Died at the age of 21.

They were the men who for 87 days in 1991 held off the Serb forces who laid siege to the town of Vukovar, in eastern Croatia. 

More than two decades on, it's not hard to find the scars of war.

Hopelessly outnumbered and without the equipment or reinforcements they needed, the Croats were eventually overrun and Vukovar was left in ruins. It became a symbol of destruction and the pointlessness of war.
Vukovar - scene from the window of our apartment, a bombed out building next door.

Today much of Vukovar has been rebuilt. The city centre has open air restaurants, pedestrian walkways and a new shopping mall.

The finishing touches to a new mall in Vukovar.

But look just a little further and it's still possible to find bomb damaged buildings and bullet and shrapnel scarred walls.

For us cyclists, the Croatian Memorial Cemetery of Homeland War Victims lies on the Eurovelo 6 route a few kilometres out of town.
Eternal flame to remember those who died in the siege.

Morning Drinkies

As we rode out of Vukovar, we stopped to take photos of the town's old water tower, preserved in its battle scarred state since the siege in 1991.

The old water tower at the edge of the Danube is being preserved as a reminder of the war.

It had begun to rain. An old man wandered out of his garden to ask if we needed anything. Minutes later he returned with a bottle under one arm and a shot glass. He insisted we share a drink. It was rakija, a brandy home made from fermented fruit. 

Judy got away with a few sips from the glass, and the old man was delighted when she pointed to the walnut tree we were sheltering under and identified its nuts as the source of the drink.

He gestured to me to scull mine. He swigged from the bottle and spat out something that looked like coffee beans. He poured me a second drink, then a third. 

It was 10.30 in the morning. We had ridden two kilometres. At this rate we were going nowhere. 

Early morning shots on the road out of Vukovar.

It was time to go. With no common language it was difficult to say no, but we managed to extricate ourselves without offending him. The rain had stopped.

Cheers -  Živjeli!

Late that afternoon we found a place to stay with a couple in the village of Ilok, just inside the Croatian border with Serbia. We had been there 10 minutes when they invited us to join them for a drink in the shade of a vine. First came a couple of beers, then out came the rakija. This time we were allowed to sip. The hospitality of these people is wonderful.

His name is Mihal and with his wife Anka they run a guesthouse in Ilok.

The Perfect Coffee

To be honest, coffee is more our kind of drink. Like many cyclists, we find that a coffee break after the first part of the morning's ride is one of the best parts of the day.

So we are on a mission - to find the best coffee east of Budapest. 

The search begins.

The judging criteria includes but is not limited to: taste, strength, temperature, aftertaste, extras (like tiny biscuits), size of the cup, ambience of the surroundings and warmth of the welcome by the cafe staff. And we are keeping in mind that New Zealand's cafe culture is as good as anywhere.

Sugar or sweetener?

Comprehensive, huh? We have had lots of good coffee since living the Hungarian capital but there are no real standout contenders - with one exception. 

We have been joined by kiwi friends here in Belgrade and they have just made coffee on the stove of our rented apartment. It ticks most of the boxes, so now this post is finished an investigation will begin into how it was made.

The Beast Bites Back

Occasionally, just occasionally, I question whether the tandem is too much for me to handle. It happened the other day as we found accommodation in an apartment in Vukovar. We hadn't ridden far but for some reason it had been a tiring day. The apartment owner was leading us in through a heavy door to a spot where we could leave the bike secured.

I was straddling the laden tandem and walking it forward when I decided to get off quickly by lifting my left leg up and forward over the crossbar, instead of behind me. Somehow I stumbled and overbalanced. The bike fell and threw me against the wall with such force I could feel my brain rattling around inside my skull. Fortunately, my right shoulder took the impact, not my head.

For a moment I was pinned against the wall until the apartment owner and then Judy pulled the Beast of Bridgwater off me. Seething with frustration and tired, I launched a kick at the bike - only stopping myself at the last moment. 

"Bad bike", said our host and laughed.

I wasn't laughing. The bike, loaded with all our gear, plus food and water, probably weighs between 60 and 65 kgs. I felt very lucky I hadn't injured myself apart from some minor bruising.

The bike weighs about 60 or 65 kgs and is top heavy.

But it raises the question, when is a tandem too heavy? And what can you do about it? 

We have heard of people touring on single bikes with less than 10 kgs of gear. But with two people and their personal effects, plus camping gear, sleeping stuff, a few tools, first aid and medicines, a water filter for further east and even the weight of this tablet - it all adds up.

In the short term, the best approach is to be more careful, but maybe it's getting to the point where we need to re-evaluate whether we have stuffed too much into our panniers.

Crossing a bridge over the Sava River into Belgrade.

Current Location: Belgrade, Serbia
Total distance: 17,819 km
This Trip: 1,644 km

Quotable Quotes
Judy the Stoker: "I must shave my legs. As we cycle I can feel the wind through the hairs."

We spent a memorable night in Novi Sad on the eve of the annual Exit Festival. Here a crowd gathers for a warm up event. The noise made sleep in our hostel bedroom impossible so we gave up and joined the crowd.

Judy with the receptionist/organiser at our hostel in Novi Sad. We made a terrible mistake and for a little while tried to insist we had paid our night's accommodation. We apologised, and the receptionist - whose name translates to Snow White despite her jet black hair - was very forgiving. Thank you Snow White, we had fun chatting to you and meeting your daughter.

The rear tyre gets some extra air. We seem to be losing pressure and there may be a very slow leak.

Hanging out on the streets of Belgrade, Serbia. We have been joined by kiwi friends and plan to take a few days off cycling.

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