It was a Sunday morning and I was smelling bit. The little local shop was closed and I was in need of supplies for the day. I carried on to Ilok which was the last town in Croatia and possibly home to the second oldest brewery in the country if I remembered what Mislav told me correctly. Despite it being fairly early on a Sunday morning, I was lucky to find the little supermarket in Ilok open. Quite a few people were out doing their shopping. After stocking up for the day I headed to the church and castle. Unfortunately the castle museum was closed but they'd left the door open to the courtyard that had a view out over Serbia. It was a great view and I sat admiring it whilst filling up on sugary sweets.
Eventually the church bells rang for morning service and I headed off down the hill towards the border. I approached the Croatian exit point a little unsure if I was allowed on this road on a bicycle but they said it was OK; I'm not sure where else I thought I'd be able to cross the Danube. Over the river I reached the Serbian border control. There wasn't really a queue at this time on a Sunday morning so it was fairly quick. As I left the border control there were actually road signs for cyclists detailing the Eurovelo 6 route through Serbia. They ended with a sign saying something like:
"May the road rise to meet you and may the wind always be at your back"
Just like every country I'd been in so far I was a little nervous of what to expect, not least because of currency/language changes, but this one sign did help to relax me a little.
I headed to the edge of Bačka Palanka (Бачка Паланка). Although I had no Serbian currency, I did have my food/drink supplies so decided to turn right and carry on rather than head into the town. A little way along the road I spotted a cyclist with panniers by the gates to a cemetary. Following my usual rule I stopped to say hello. I'd met Aurelie - a cyclist from Belgium who had stayed in Ilok last night. She had ridden along the EV6 from France so it turned out we'd been more or less in parallel for the past few weeks. She was heading to Novi Sad/Petrovaradin like me and, thinking I'd quite like some company on my first day in Serbia, I asked if it would be OK for me to cycle with her. If nothing else I hoped it'd make me feel a little safer with the Serbian drivers. She seemed to be OK with the suggestion and I told her I wouldn't be offended if she wanted to cycle off ahead by herself. Like Stevens, I now had a cycling companion for this part of the route.
Using a combination of Aurelie's fully detailed blue book of the EV6 and my GPS we navigated our way along the route trying to find a Lev beer museum in Čelarevo (it turned out to be closed) and then opting to find a quieter road than the 12. The quieter route took us down to a few houses by the Danube and we decided to eat lunch at a floating restaurant. I'd not sorted anywhere to stay for the night, was without internet and couldn't even send text messages. Aurelie suggested I should stay in the same hostel as her and she went online and booked it for me. What a star!
After lunch we tried finding the route again but it turned out to be more of a footpath through the woods next to the river. At one point we reached a small stream blocking our way and had no option but to lift our bikes over it. A group of men came over to help us. The nominal head of this group was Laszlo who was originally from Austria. With my non-existant German and his non-existant English we ended up conversing in basic Italian! I'd not expected to be speaking Italian to an Austrian in Serbia. Laszlo made sure we understood the route back to the main road and waved us on our way. We left him to enjoy the Sunday afternoon sunshine on the beach.
On reaching Novi Sad (Нови Сад) we found a good cycle lane and crowds of people heading towards a paid beach area. Aurelie said she'd like to swim in the river and I agreed that that was a good idea as I was starting to fry in the heat. Rather than opt for the paid beach we noticed some people were heading to a free beach in the woods further up the path. We followed them and found a lovely little wooded beach where we parked up and bathed in the muddy waters. Despite the murkiness of the water - which was in its sixth country now - it was very cooling. The current was pretty strong which meant you had to keep swimming to make sure you didn't float off to Belgrade.
After drying off we headed along the cycle path into Novi Sad and across the bridge to Petrovaradin (Петроварадин) where we found the fantastic VaradInn hostel. It was lovely and great value. Tijana, the host, was really friendly and answered all our questions and let us get settled in. Later she was joined by Lela, the owner, who was also really friendly.
After very welcome showers we both had dinner using the little kitchen area (the first proper self-catering kitchen area I've seen since Brighton) and then decided to explore Novi Sad. Over the bridge we wandered, past a film crew and mysterious police cordons, through a park and then into the main shopping area. We had ice cream and admired the street performers. We bumped into a pair of German touring cyclists and I decided to chat with them. Aurelie was quite amused by me talking to strangers and said it was "special" which may have meant "weird". The couple had no accommodation so we recommended the VaradInn to them.
Eventually we were stopped by a young, local, couple who thought we looked lost and in need of directions. Amongst other things, they told us we had eaten the wrong icecream and needed to visit Moritz - home of the best icecream in Novi Sad. We took their advice and found it. It really was great icecream. The nice lady in the shop was amazingly generous and let us sample an unreasonable number of flavours. In the end I felt very guilty so bought a big, multi-scoop, cone. It was delicious.
With icecream in hand we watched some locals dancing in the main square. Thomas Stevens had also witnessed locals dancing but in his day they weren't doing Salsa. Within a few minutes dark, menacing, clouds had started to build in the west. Lightning bolts could be seen and the wind had picked up. There was a giant storm and it was heading for us. Aurelie and I realised we had to get a move on an ran through the streets. As we reached the bridge the rain started to arrive. We sprinted the last couple of hundred metres back to the safety of the lovely VaradInn and watched the torrential rain from indoors.
I'd been nervous at the start of my first day in Serbia. I'd bumped into a great cycling companion, swum in the Danube, had excellent icecream, and had a friendly place to stay the night. Perfect. I almost didn't want to have to cycle onwards tomorrow.