August 14. I was dismayed at the fog that had settled in. It was damp and cold and I couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction,. I decided to drive through the nearby village and enjoyed waving to several older men who seemed amused at my French red license plate. It was probably the first (and perhaps only) French car that had driven through. It’s amazing how much nicer a place looks in daylight. The entire area seemed very civilized and not the seedy, delinquent vibe I’d gotten the night before. I drove to Nis and walked to the Ottoman fortress. The stonework on the front gate was very impressive and within the fortress there were several ruined Roman and Byzantine buildings including an Ottoman powder keg stone building within the fort wall, a Byzantine church, and a Roman road, thermal baths, and arches.
From the fort I crossed the river that ran through the town to the “old town” and walked up the main shopping street into the hills. There were a few old wooden houses which reminded me parts of Istanbul. It seemed like the Soviets had done quick work of destroying traditional homes here as in other former satellites. I liked Nis, but was on a deadline to get to Bratislava by the evening of August 15. If hindsight is 20/20, I wish I’d taken my time getting there. I left Nis for Belgrade around 1:30 and had to wait an hour on the highway to pay a toll. Very disfunctional. I calculated that I ended up waiting five hours at toll booths in Serbia, including getting into and exiting the country. I couldn’t imagine people who regularly have to cross its borders.
I pulled into Belgrade around 3:30 PM. Work traffic was already thick and I had inched into the historic center. I was so eager to get into a parking spot that I backed quickly and hit a short pole, badly denting the fender. Why they put small tools to delimit parking spaces I’ll never know. It seems like a really dumb idea especially because I had to park between two trees as well as two small poles which I couldn’t see. At first I was quite disappointed with Belgrade. I mostly saw ugly Soviet blocks sprinkled with a few nice Rococo buildings from an earlier time. Anton had told me that he thought Belgrade was prettier than Sofia, so I had expectations. After walking up to the huge cathedral on the hill, I headed towards the fortress on the Danube. I passed some really nice Bohemian neighborhoods dotted with fancy eateries and felt much better. The fortress was huge and the walls were something out of an Escher etching. It was cooler sitting on the wall overlooking the Danube than surrounded by the concrete of the city and I enjoyed the bit of breeze. It was still 90 but looking at the river made you think it was cooler than it was. I wound my way back through the pedestrian section of town, admiring the old renovated buildings. The section of the capital near the fort was particularly stunning. By the end of my walkabout, I could see why my friend liked Belgrade. I headed to the forest above Novi Sad where I camped alongside a little-used road. Only one car drove by in the morning.
August 15. I awoke early and decided to explore the forest, which was some kind of national park. I stopped in a café but they weren’t set up for serving. I drove on and came upon a mammoth Social Realist statue of a woman. It reminded me a lot of the female statue overlooking the old town of Tblisi Georgia. The workmen had just finished the stone work leading up the statue and were very proud. They told me to get out and walk up to the statue, and took my photo as well as posing. Anton had warned me that Serbians didn’t like Americans (I’m sure the bombing in the 1990s didn’t win any friends there), but they were very kind. Of course I was driving a French car. Who knows what they would have said if they’d known I was American.
Then I headed to Petrovaradin Fortress located on the banks of the Danube across from Novi Sad. The fortress was a significant military fort of the Austrian rulers who, at the time of Napoleon’s conquests, hid their treasures here. The mighty bastion was the second largest fortress in Europe and had numerous masters. After 180 years of Turkish governance it finally got its today’s appearance thanks to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I of Austria’s Habsburg dynasty. In 1703 he began the reconstruction of the fortress that lasted for 77 years. According to a legend the name of Petrovaradin fortress consists of three words meaning “the city on a rock strong as faith”. Due to its strategic position and the significance that the fortress had for the Hapsburg monarchy, it was called “the Gibraltar on the Danube”. The Clock Tower at the Ludwig bastion is peculiar for its clock-hands: a little hand indicates minutes, while the big hand represents hours. This unusual clock was constructed such way so that people, most of all boatmen, could read the time from the great distance. The second barrack is located in the Lower town and gives Petrovaradin fortress its characteristic shape. Later it was transformed into the hotel “Leopold” with an interior resembling Austrian palaces.
I liked the fortress. It looked like it had been built during the Austro-Hungarian empire – sturdy yet elegant. I drove across the bridge across the Danube to Novi Sad’s old town. I had expected a larger historic center, and was initially disappointed, but then discovered other nice areas. There were several lovely churches and old homes lined with cobblestone streets and alley ways. After exploring the neighborhood, I headed to Subotica, which I’d read was, like Novi Sad, another lovely vestige of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Subotica reminded me of Novi Sad. I went to the town museum and got a personal tour from a curator of hats and clothing from the 1920s. Apparently there was a traditional annual city festival that weekend. It was a shame that I would miss it. I was sorry to be in such a rush. I felt like I had barely arrived in Serbia and was already leaving for Hungary.
Exhausted, I drove to the border, thinking that I’d arrive in Szeged in 20 minutes. I ended up making good friends with the Serbian couple in front of me who own a cafe in Subotica. They told me about the city festival and a nice lake near the town and invited me to come back and visit them. I really liked them. Two hours later, I pulled into Szeged, Hungary. There had been 30 cars before mine, so apparently they were averaging four minutes per car. When I got to the front of the line the border guards asked me to open the trunk and get out and as well as show them all my papers. Once in Szeged, I parked and walked through the historic center, shocked at how beautiful and clean it was. I had been in Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia for the past three weeks. Szeged seemed like another planet.
I regretted being in such a rush to get to Bratislava. If not, I would have stayed in Szeged for a few days. Instead, I left and was happy to be on such a good road after weeks of driving on substandard ones. It’s ironic that that’s when I had the accident. It was 9:30pm and I was on M1 about 100 km east of Gyor. I had looked down for a few seconds to check the GPS and when I looked up I was about 1 foot from very dim trailer lights. There was no time to stop. Time slowed, and I watched the air bags deploy. I managed to steer the car to the shoulder, and the next hours were spent in shock while police told me it was my fault and I did my best to fill out the accident report sitting on the shoulder of the highway with cars passing at 80 mph. You can imagine. My car sustained €10,000 damage, so much damage that they had to tow it back to France. At 1:30am I had to transfer all my things to a van that took me to Bratislava. It was a long and arduous process. After much stress I finally arrived at 2:30am to a hot apartment. I set the fan to full blast and woke at 8:30am after a fitful sleep.