Getting Lost and Found in Rural Serbia

The road had long given way to endless potholes filled with the muddy water of melted snow. Our tiny rental precariously scraped over the exposed rocks and gravel as we anxiously followed the map and tried to estimate if we could transverse the remaining kilometers until the next turn. We had been on the road for 5 hours already, and encountered two similar situations where Google Maps had no clue that the path it suggested did not even exist properly. We didn’t want to give up, but being out of cell service and deep in the forest, we felt the need to turn around. Then we saw a figure appear from the thicket.

An old man in a brown corduroy jacket approached our car, probably entertained by the look of utter helplessness we wore on our faces. “Uvac” we told him. We had visions of a beautifully crooked gorge filled with emerald toned water, a vision promised to us by some beautifully curated travel site, and had been spending the day trying to reach it. He looked at us, thought deeply, then pointed back the way we came. He spoke gently in Serbian, his tone comforting but stern. The only word we could understand was “asphalt”. We knew we had to get back to civilization. With the man’s assistance, we were able to turn around and follow the muddy tracks back to the main road. After all the adventuring that morning, we swore never to leave asphalt again.

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The day began beautifully. We awoke to clear skies over the guesthouse and nibbled on leftover goods of keynes, roasted peppers, and crackers. We took a leisurely morning drive to an old church nestled in the foothills of a neighboring town. We arrived and walked the ground, finding it quite a buzz with activity. This church in particular is an important pilgrimage site, and the local staff were preparing the shrubbery, extra seating, and overall beautification of the church.

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As Arjun went to the restroom, I heard a small motor accelerate. Much to my entertainment, a young nun with her headpiece waving in the wind drove giddily on a 4 wheeler, laughing as her skirt danced around her legs. She passed by me and I caught her infectious smile. Arjun returned and we set ourselves up to head to the Uvac National park.

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The challenges didn’t take long to start after that. We started up a mountain and quickly found the road deteriorated and left us on a dirt path. We navigated hairpin turns, sounding the horn nearly every two seconds since the thick brush created zero visibility on the steep turns. After 30 minutes, we noticed the pavement coming back, then leaving again, and as we rounded the mountain we started to encounter snow. We pushed on, passing a rare graveyard with Islamic graves dating back to the 1700s, and empty villages. As we climbed, the snow got thicker, until finally we reached a wall of it, blocking the main road indefinitely. Google confidently told us to continue, but it was not a possibility.

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We turned, and rattled back down the bumpy path from which we came, ending at the base of the mountain we started at an hour and a half before. We decided to drive other way until Maps updated itself to the point where we could continue on. Hours passed as we enjoyed the clear waters and little roadside houses and cafes. Eventually we started to gain elevation as we took a questionable side path, which led us to the exchange with the local and got us back on asphalt. Twice after, Google tried to convince us that tracks in the grass was a proper road, and we weren’t having it. We hugged the pavement and stayed on it for the kilometers to come.

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We eventually entered Uvac National Park, but we still found ourselves at a loss at where to go. The signposts were lacking, and the trails were unclear. Eventually, we found ourselves driving right into a local farm, quickly surrounded by geese and chicken. Another elderly local came up to the car, laughed at us, and placed a friendly hand on Arjun’s shoulder. He pointed us to the right direction and we headed back yet again. We pulled off to where we thought the lookout point would be, and at this point all my patience had left me. I slammed the door and spoke shortly, only resulting in a sharp retort from Arjun that left both of us in a bad mood. here we were, mere meters from the viewing point, and we were thoroughly pissed off.

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We walked wordlessly up the trail. Arjun’s long legs took him ahead and I could barely see from the wind blowing my hair that stuck to the tears in my eyes. I was worn out, tired, and disappointed in the the many things that kept hiccuping.

The we reached the top.

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For kilometers, the crooked river had perfect hairpin bends traveling through a massive gorge. We sat at the viewpoint until we were calm enough to apologize and talk things out. It was a perfect backdrop to patch up at. I felt so relieved to be at that point, and so disappointed that the setbacks were taking away from the day’s journeys through incredible scenery. We took pictures until we were satisfied, then headed back down. As we drove out of the park, we assisted a couple other lost tourists looking for their way in.

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Before reaching the major highway to take us back to Niš, we stopped for petrol and much needed coffee and sweets. Coming out, I noticed something odd about the car. Upon consulting Arjun, it appeared that our off roading adventures had scraped the undercarriage and the mudguard had broken off enough to drag. Unable to repair it on the spot we just had to hope the rental company wouldn’t  notice (they did) and it wouldn’t cost much to fix (Also did).

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We chased the sunset getting back to Niš. We were dreaming of our celebratory dinner our last night in Serbia before heading back to Belgrade for the flight out the following afternoon. As I looked over the rolling green hills against the purple evening sky, just below the sound of the local radio station, I could faintly hear the small scratchy sound of plastic on asphalt. I could only smile.

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