Serbs hike like they ski, in reverse – straight up the mountain through the trees! At least this delightful Serb does: Mika, Irena’s long-time dear friend and boss, who I met skiing here in 2004.

But first, another story…

Jim and Sydney (their cat) and I headed for Tara Planina National Park (about 4 hours south of Belgrade) in the brand new car – a dark eggplant Nissan small SUV (Qashqai) – and planned to meet Irena and Mika in Mika’s car up the road, coming directly from work.

Jim and I were cruising along with the traffic, and failed to notice a speed trap (common here) until it was too late – Jim was going 80kph in a 50kph zone, so he got pulled over. He told me, as we waited for the cop to approach, that the penalty for 30kph over the speed limit is a mandatory $500 fine and a 3-month loss of license! Holy shit! So he was sweating, to say the least. The cop joked with him for a few minutes (in Serbian), and instructed him to come back to the patrol car with him. When the cop walked away, I asked Jim ‘what if he tries to ‘pinch’ you?’ He said I’ll just stall and keep declining. After Jim walked back to the patrol car, I looked around for observers, and then quietly pulled all my greenbacks except for $20 out of my wallet and hid them so they were not so ‘accessible.’ He had been gone about 15 minutes when I adjusted the rear-view mirror so I could see him. I saw that he was talking to the patrolman, who was sitting in his driver’s seat with the door closed, and Jim was squatting down, hands on the open window – this seemed an odd position.

About 10 minutes later Jim finally came back to the car, and we drove off…the cop had let him go, with no penalty whatsoever, and Jim was completely shocked. As Jim told it, the patrolman kept saying that Jim had to be in court in Belgrade tomorrow (completely NEW news to him!), and Jim kept saying “but I want to go to Tara with my family on holiday! My wife is coming behind me with her boss, my sister is in the car from America…” At one point, he asked the patrolman if he could reduce it to 29kph over and let him pay the fine, and the cop said “look, it says 80 – it’s your technology!” But his primary stalling tactic was to squat down, and put his head down on the car door in despair (which he did twice), and say “I don’t know what to do.” The cop finally just gave up and let him go! He thinks speaking Serbian and having a Serbian wife, and of course being polite and at a loss, helped. But it was many miles before Jim stopped sweating and his heart rate came down.

In Tara we pulled into the log-fenced parking area of a small and pretty one-year-old condo lodge called Apartmani Jezero. Built out of pine-wood logs in a style suggesting an A-frame, it is stained apartmaniyellow-gold with a dark green roof and has 8 units, a small pool, playground, and covered picnic tables, and is situated with peeks of the reservoir through the trees ahead and below, and a grassy meadow- and tree-covered slope rising steeply behind. The units are two-level, and ours had a small balcony off the bedroom on the upper level under the eaves – a cozy spot for wine and dinner with a bird’s-eye view of the trees in every shade of green. It seems to be owned by a young couple, or maybe by a multi-generational family, and over the weekend it was being lovingly re-stained.

Sydney (the bloody cat) woke us all at 5:30am, again, whining for attention.

The ‘trailhead’ was about 10 minutes away by car, so after breakfast, we crawled slowly up the very steep hill from our accommodation, over the dam, and parked Jim on roadby the side of the road to begin our descent… Yes, we started down to go up, about 60m downhill (~200 feet … and my lazy brain says “hmmm…do we have to come UP this steep hill at the end of the day?”) The steep gravel road curved around and down through a small mountain village below the dam past small cottages, some new, some very old, with covered porches and fences, and those vivid orangey-red tile roofs with squashed-corners. We continued a long way out of the village and up the logging road, through lots of water drainage, with very pretty views of steep, forested hills all around. 3 hikers Mika led the way, as he is familiar with the area; he is an enthusiastic hiker and skier – fit, shy, and handsome, with wild and curly salt-and-pepper-hair. He, Jim, and Irena did this same hike last winter in the snow. We went along this way for about 90 minutes, and then Mika turned left into the trees and headed up the gentle, grassy hillside. I thought it was a bit odd, because there was no sign of a trail, but he hikes miles and miles every weekend, so what the heck did I know?

Mika and Jim got a bit ahead, Irena and I dropping back as it got 45% gradesteeper, and steeper, and then even steeper (now clearly 45% or more), and it became dense, long grass over fallen tree branches of many sizes, and large, loose rocks – the kind that tend to wobble and roll when you put any weight on them – and we two got slower and slower. Mika was by now way up ahead, and Irena and I were starting to swear, literally and loudly (“This is SHIT!”), at the steep, poor footing…and the title of this post took shape in my frustrated brain.

I was actually beginning to get really pissed (“I wanted to enjoy this hike – what the hell are we doing here? Why aren’t we on a bloody trail, safely packed and laid out in switchbacks on this damn mountainside?? Bloody Serbs.”) And I was also getting very, very nervous about slipping and badly twisting my ankle on one of those unstable rocks hidden under the squashy grass, or falling and tumbling uncontrollably down the steep incline and bashing my head in, or worse, slamming into a tree and cracking a rib – so nervous in fact, that I was really getting stuck, unable to move up or over with any confidence – I wanted to tell myself it wasn’t that bad, but it WAS very difficult! Shit, to be more precise.

looking upSomewhere in the middle of all this, Irena, who was about 15 feet above me, lost a bit of her cool – I heard some sounds coming from her that didn’t sound typical (not swearing, and not a joke), and I thought she had fallen or slipped and was in pain, and I called to ask if she was okay, but she said “NOOO SIS, there is a SNAKE!” And SHE was stuck, too terrified to move. Jim was with me and he hurried to help her maneuver around it, and then he continued back up the mountain, beating the tall grass with his hiking poles calling out “BEZI, BEZI!!” (Move! Move!) to any more snakes that might have the nerve to be sleeping in that sunny morning warmth, Irena following closely behind him – oh, to have a videotape of THAT! The snake was a viper, and in the springtime they are full of poison. In case it hasn’t been obvious, Irena has a phobia of snakes. logging road

On reaching the top of the ridge (thanks to Jim’s patient encouragement), we followed a smooth, grassy logging road with sweeping views, and some funky old abandoned houses. We stopped for a long break about two-thirds of the way up (I now know) – I had not even bothered to ask yet how far we were hiking. So while we snacked in a wide alpine meadow enjoying the Tara mountain-views alpine meadowaround us and a lovely old shed (or house maybe?) in view in the near distance, I asked Mika about how far we would be going today… he thought for a few moments, then said matter-of-factly “about 20k, less than 20k.” Well, what I know for sure is that I had not anticipated a 12-mile hike this day…even my two trips to Yosemite last year did not involve any 12-mile days! Ah well – what to do? We were through the difficult, and UNPLANNED, part – Mika had indeed taken a wrong turn, and we definitely gave him grief for it!

google mapAt this point I checked my iPhone (which has a cool app that traces your route using GPS called “Walkmeter”) just to see how far it said we had gone, and Murphy’s Law was at work…I had forgotten to take it off ‘airplane mode’ when we started, so all of that difficult elevation gain up “Shit Hill” was not tracked – jebiga!! Here is the track and a Google link to the map (view it in satellite mode), with the first part added (as a guess).

old housesAfter our break we wandered around the rocky, hilly meadows, Mika ahead looking for the road that was our route, and at one point Jim was calling “Mika?” and Mika would respond “over here!” This went on for about 15 minutes, sort of like the swimming pool game of Marco-Polo. But we found it…and a small community of more of those pretty summer homes, some very old and abandoned, some very new.

summit viewThe summit was a piece of cake after this – we left the road again for an easy trail to the top where we had our lunch and enjoyed the view, and finally took a short nap next to the elevation marker saying 1544 meters (by now you have all seen the ridiculous photo on Facebook that Irena took of us snoozing).

On the way down, past idyllic views, Jim decided to run the last 2 miles, and he brought their NEW car back up the mountainside viewto ‘rescue’ us! (We didn’t need rescuing, but we were very tired and grateful, though [LOL!] Irena wasn’t convinced her new 2-wheel-drive vehicle belonged on the fire road!) Afterwards, we traced our route, and if we were correct that we hiked down ~60m to get started, then we ended up climbing just over 2100’ overall – a great day of hiking, Serbian-style!

On the way home, we were treated to a fantastic feast of traditional dishes at Irena’s Aunt Ljilja (her mother’s beautiful younger sister – my age, and very, very dear to Irena) and Uncle Raja’s unusual, modern home in Kragujevac. (Ljilja designed the house, and they managed its construction about 18 years ago.) When we arrived, Raja, a darkly handsome man, said “I’m starving – I haven’t eaten for two days waiting for you to get here!” Ljlija & RajaOf course rakija was offered first (Serbian 150-proof brandy) in the delicate little cut crystal glasses. The table was covered with dishes, and the centerpiece was meat in red wine, a kind of pot roast with ½” slices of beef layered with mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, garlic, and onion and cooked in red wine. The side dishes included a delicious Russian-style salad (shredded cheese, cream cheese, vegetables and ham), one of my favorite Serbian green salads called Šopska (chunks of tomatoes, cucumbers, red and green bell peppers, onions, shredded white brine cheese sort of like feta, and parsley), baked new potatoes, and rolls! And, this was topped off with TWO desserts – a fluffy, light baked meringue called “padobranci”, and a very sweet chocolate mousse type of cake. All was fabulous – Ljilja is a wonderful cook – and luckily we were very hungry, because in Serbia it is very difficult, as a guest, not to be fed to death for fear the hostess will think you don’t like her cooking!