Ever since leaving Budapest I have been riding more or less due south following the Danube but now the river turns east, the Danube Path however (well marked in Croatia) keeps going south towards the city of Osijek. Serbia lies on the other side of the river and I am now riding through one of the main war zones of the conflict between Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. Very soon I see my first 'Beware of Land-mines' notice. According to my guide book an estimated ninety thousand of them were laid throughout the country and they are still being cleared. Do not stray from the path the signs say and I will not argue with them.
First stop is Osijek, a town on the River Drava which joins the Danube at Vukovar. It's a handsome town with a few buildings showing bullet pockmarks, leftovers from the nineties. In every town I pass through I try and visit the railway station. Always interesting, always a special atmosphere and quite possibly some trains. Osijek station itself is unremarkable, a crumbling Austro-Hungarian building or perhaps it is later, but plonked next to it is a brand new pedestrian/cycle covered crossing that is a spectacular essay in steel and glass. I can only presume that the EU or perhaps a local who made good, manufacturing corn plasters in Indianapolis, stumped up. Why didn't they spend the money rebuilding the station? As I sit and watch most of the locals just wander across the tracks clutching their shopping and their children.
I head out of Osijek aiming to be in time for a late lunch in Vukovar, which sounds like the title of a naff travel book. A Late Lunch in Vukovar, the heart warming story of a man suffering a late mid-life crisis who gives up his job in marketing to cycle along the Danube. In Vukovar he falls in love with a barmaid named Eva and decides to become an aubergine farmer. Imagine the heart warming and hilarious adventures of the happy couple as they struggle to survive in the tough world of the Croatian aubergine market. Picture the cast of picaresque local characters, Kaspar the incorrigible local handyman, Ivan, the village Romeo, who lusts after Eva, and Father Ciprijan, the drunken priest who comes to play chess on Saturday nights. Imagine the comic scenes as local goats eat all the hero's shoes and Eva's mother attacks him with a carving knife after a soup misunderstanding. It'll be in the shops before Christmas.
Vukovar was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war between the Serbs and the Croats, though it was somewhat overshadowed by the siege of Sarajevo. Google some images, they are not for the squeamish. In a siege lasting 87 days 2000 locals held off more than 30,000 Jugoslav National Army troops. The city is still rebuilding and there are still spectacular bombed out ruins dotted about, not least the battered water tower, which has been preserved by the city council as a memorial to the siege.
Before setting out on this trip I tried to do a bit of reading, a bit of research, so that I could talk politics in a Serbian bar with confidence. I tried Misha Glenny's history of the conflict and found it so badly written that it irritated me and I gave up. I had a crack at Rebecca West's Black Lamb Grey Falcon, an account of a journey through Yugoslavia in the thirties, but at over a thousand pages that was far too long and self indulgent. Luckily I have with me Mark Mazower's The Balkans - From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day in 150 pages, a miracle of condensation and clarity. He challenges many of my preconceptions, preconceptions that I think many of you may share with me. Based on the news coverage of the nineties, I came out here with the idea that Serbs are paranoid angry and violent, that the Croats are a bit less so and have nice beaches and that the Bosnians spend their time doing flower arranging and drinking tea. Another preconception that we all have is that the Balkan nations are in their very nature more bloodthirsty and barbarous than other European nations. Well that's a given isn't it? Possibly not. Mazower makes the point that if you examine European history in general we in the West have had our moments particularly in our Colonial history and that by and large the mish-mash of Balkan peoples have rubbed along OK, albeit for several centuries under Ottoman rule. A lot of this public perception stems from the reporting of the Balkan Wars that took place in the decade before the First World War. Mazower mentions one practice that particularly appalled Edwardian newspaper readers at their breakfast tables, that of the decapitation and display of one's fallen foe's head on a lance or tied to one's saddle. A British army officer of the time made the point that in a confused theatre of war with no public media it was a very sensible way of demonstrating to your own people that the dreaded leader of the opposing faction was truly dead and here was his head to prove it. No point carting the whole body around, the head is all you need to make the point. Having argued that Balkan folks are just like you and I, who does Mazower blame for the carnage of the nineties. Slobodan Milosevic. Without his Greater Serbia ambitions would all of this have happened?
On a politically lighter note, if you watch the Eurovision Song Contest, you will have noted that in the Balkans, regardless of the mass graves, the twelve points will always go to the competitor's previously genocidal neighbour. Short memories or an example of how Eurovision genuinely brings people together?
From Vukovar I am back close to, but largely out of sight, of the Danube. The landscape is no longer flat, I am riding past orchards and vineyards and am confronted with increasingly brutal hills. The road runs flat along an upper plateau then plunges down to a village then up again. The hills are truly steep and you could argue that the pain of going up is compensated for by the thrill of freewheeling down. However the downhills tend to have quite tight curves and while under normal circumstances you would like put your feet up on the handlebars, unwrap a choc-ice and shout 'Wheeee' as you hurtle down, here you have no idea if a crocodile of primary school children is being herded across the road by a pair of elderly nuns just round the bend and so you have to destroy your brake pads easing gently down.