My next stop was without doubt the most unexpected and pleasant surprise of the entire trip: a small town in central Serbia called Jagodina, two hours from Belgrade by bus.
Frankly, it’s just way too much fun. I knew I could never be truly productive while living in a hostel with other travelers constantly egging me on; what I needed was somewhere more like Melaka. Somewhere quiet and friendly to hole up and just chip away at “the list.”
Jagodina provided the perfect venue – and so much more.
I learned about Jagodina through Jeca, a native of the town who I met in Belgrade last summer. Although I’d never heard of it before, it did sound nice enough…so when she said she’d found a private room in a B&B-like accommodation for 10EUR a night, I was sold.
This B&B turned out to be exactly what made my life in Jagodina just so amazing.
It was in fact no ordinary B&B. It was a real life Serbian homestay.
My host was a man named Branko, a 50-something year old living on his own in a large house at the edge of town. When I first showed up, I greeted him as a landlord. When I left nearly one month later, I said goodbye to family.
10EUR a night didn’t just buy me a room in a house. It bought me fantastic homecooked meals several times a day. It bought me a razor-sharp guide to show me around. It bought me a bicycle I was free to take out whenever I pleased. It bought me popsicles delivered to my window whenever he happened to walk by. It bought me all the homemade rakija I could drink. It bought me introductions to just about everyone in town. It bought me hours of interesting conversation and uncontrollable laughter. But more than anything, it bought me a kind and welcoming friend.
After separating from his wife, Branko bought his current plot of land and started building a house. Although he rents out the extra rooms, he only started doing so recently – his main source of income has always been repairing single-stroke engines, mostly chainsaws for farmers in the area. The rest of the time he spends meticulously maintaining his property or just relaxing at a little table on his front porch, sipping beer and rakija with any of his seemingly endless supply of friends.
If I had to pick just one word to describe Branko, I think it would be “jolly.” He has that kind of personality that you can’t help but love, which is clearly shown by the fact that everyone in town seems to know him. Day in and day out people would drop by; if they were beekeepers they’d drop off a batch of fresh honey, farmers would bring bags of fresh tomatoes, and butchers would save the best cuts of meat. In exchange, everyone would be offered a drink – or if they happened to arrive during a meal, an invitation to join.
As Branko’s house is right across the street from Jagodina Zoo – the second biggest in Serbia – one day he insisted that we go have a look. The attendant at the gate simply waived us right in. “If you’re with me, you don’t must pay!” he proudly proclaimed. How silly of me 🙂
(Side note: the only downside to living across from the zoo was the constant screaming of monkeys, often making it just a little bit challenging to concentrate…)
Anyway, my unplanned month in Jagodina consisted of three basic things:
First, the most obvious: work and blogging. Although I still didn’t finish everything, I did get quite a lot done.
Second was spending time with Jeca, with Branko, and with the family of tenants upstairs – a father and son from Pirot who were here to resurface the town soccer field.
Every day the four of us would have “family meals” out on the front porch – from Croatian meat-and-veggie stew to Serbian pancakes and huge cuts of day-fresh pork. Although I obviously didn’t come to Jagodina to be social, the chance to live like a real smalltown Serbian – even for just a short time – was one I couldn’t waste.
The third and final focus of my time in Jagodina was fitness. Luckily there was a nice local gym just down the road, so throughout the entire month I alternated days jogging and lifting. I ran my first 10k (in well under an hour), and I’d like to think that by the time I left I’d finally gotten myself back to “respectable” shape.
In either case, the jogs provided a wonderful way to explore every nook and cranny of town and beyond.
(As the weather was virtually perfect throughout my stay, I really made an effort to run as far and as often as I could; along kilometers of traintrack, through vast fields of grain, beside creeks frequented by families of wild horses, and among all kinds of interesting villages and farms.)
So in a nutshell, I guess that was my brief life in small-town Serbia – just one more totally unexpected phase in my ever-evolving life on the road.
To be honest, even as I bid Branko goodbye and stepped on the train to Bulgaria, I wasn’t quite ready to leave. My time had simply run out.
Peder, who you’ll all know as my main long-term travel companion, has been making his way through Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Uzbekestan, Kyrgyzstan, India, and Nepal. We’d been hoping to connect ever since Kazantip, but I told him that I first had to get a bit more caught up.
And as my mostly-productive days in Jagodina ticked away, so too did the remainder of his trip – until he e-mailed to tell me that he was just about to enter his very last country. If we wanted to meet up at all, it was now or never.
So for the second time this year, I booked myself a one-way ticket to Vietnam. I said a sad goodbye Jeca, to Toni and Ratko and Marija upstairs, and of course to Branko – who drove me to the train station to see me off.
If you’re interested, you can find Branko’s B&B advertised here. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a quiet but cozy place to kill some time in Serbia.
Just make sure to say hi from me – and tell him I hope his training continues to go well 🙂
Note: These posts are behind realtime; the above took place in September, 2011.