In the spa town of Josanica, workers were repairing a Roman pipe, which for 2,000 years has been channelling sulphur-rich mineral water down from a hot spring in the hills. The arrival of two English cyclists, in their day-glo vests and tight-fitting shorts, provided the perfect excuse to down tools and pass round the sljivovica (plum brandy). I didn't understand what they were saying but it was clear from their gestures that they thought a swig of firewater was the perfect preparation for a bike ride. Politely declining, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was just 10 in the morning.
Serbia is not the most obvious destination for a holiday. Most people, if they think of Serbia at all, think of Slobodan Milosevic, massacres in Bosnia and NATO bombs raining down on Belgrade. There was suffering and atrocities on all sides, but the Serbs have taken most of the blame for the wars that tore apart the old Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
At this point I should declare an interest. For six months before visiting Serbia, I had been researching and writing a guidebook to Croatia, and almost everything I had heard and read about Serbia had been from a Croat perspective. I had seen what Serb forces had done to Vukovar. I had lit candles for the victims of war in Zagreb. If anyone was going to be prejudiced against Serbia, it was me.
So when I heard that Explore Worldwide was starting cycling tours to Serbia, I had to go. My appetite was whetted further when Bradt published its first guide to Serbia in March - always a sure sign of an up-and-coming destination. Serbia has a new, pro-Western government, Milosevic is on trial in The Hague, and the country is negotiating to join the EU. Perhaps it was time to put aside my preconceptions and see Serbia for myself.
Arriving in Belgrade, my first impressions were of a grey, Communist-era city of crumbling tower blocks, petrol fumes and crowded trams. Fortunately, it didn't take long to discover another side to the capital. I took a stroll along the banks of the Sava in New Belgrade, where floating cafés with names like Argument and Dijalog offered views of the city. I wandered up to Kalemegdan Park, designed around an old Austrian fortress from the days when Belgrade was a battleground between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. Hawkers sold popcorn, ice-cream, Red Army medals and Chetnik flags. Old women in headscarves tried to sell me lace and 500-billion dinar banknotes from the chaotic days in 1993 when inflation reached 100 per cent a day. Rusting Soviet tanks stood beside the walls of the fortress in what is now a military museum. Young couples lay entwined on benches, or sat on the terrace watching the sun set over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.
Cycling out of Sokobanja the next day, I encountered a world of shepherds, wheelbarrows, tractors and horse-drawn carts; of women carrying hoes, turkeys scrabbling beneath the trees, and tall conical haystacks, which resembled some pantomime straw bear that is paraded at festivals. At a 200-year-old watermill beside the Moravica river, corn was being ground with the help of an ancient wheel. Here was a true peasant lifestyle of hardship and simplicity, where you saw people and animals rather than combine harvesters.
"In the old days, Yugoslavia was the most prosperous of all the Communist countries, but for 10 years everyone else was working and we were fighting," said Vladan, who helps out with the cycle tours when he is not helping to resettle Serbian refugees. Although his home city of Nis was repeatedly attacked by NATO, I did not sense any hostility, merely a sadness about what had happened and the fact that the Serbs were still feeling the impact of the war. "Once we could travel all over Europe, to London and Moscow," he told me. "Now we need a visa even to visit our neighbours."
The cycling around Sokobanja was generally easy, on minor roads and cart tracks criss-crossing a landscape of gently rolling hills. A support vehicle is on hand to get you up to the mountain passes, so you can breathe in the fresh air and take in the views while freewheeling down the other side. With hotels, meals and luggage all taken care of, all you have to do is enjoy the ride.
After a day in the saddle, I was looking forward to soothing my limbs in the authentic Turkish hammam at Sokobanja, a spa resort popular with weekenders from Belgrade. Sadly, the bath was under restoration during my visit in April but I am assured that it will be open by the time you read this.
At Nis, I came across a rather less relaxing reminder of the long history of Turkish occupation - a 3m high Skull Tower, built from the decapitated heads of Serb victims after a battle in 1809. Realising that defeat was imminent, the Serbian general Duke Stevan Sindjelic is said to have blown himself up, along with 4,000 Serbian and 10,000 Turkish troops in a final act of defiance.
The fact that the duke is considered a hero and that the monument still stands says much about the enduring culture of infidel cruelty and the Serbs as honourable victims throughout history. Most commentators attribute this to the legend surrounding the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when Prince Lazar, offered a choice between earthly and heavenly kingdoms, chose the latter - condemning the Serbs to 500 years of Turkish rule but ensuring them a place in the celestial paradise as God's chosen people.
From Nis I headed north to the Resava valley and the delightful Motel Lisine, an alpine lodge at the head of a gorge, among forests where wild boar and wolves still roam. Local families drive out here at weekends for long Sunday lunches. The owner has filled the hotel with an eclectic collection of knick-knacks, from Chinese lanterns and Mexican hats to an entire bearskin and paintings by local Naïve artists. A short walk leads to a waterfall, while footpaths and bicycle tracks follow the canyon upstream between thickly wooded cliffs.
The Resava valley is home to Serbia's two finest medieval monasteries, shrines to Serbian Orthodoxy built as their memorials by Prince Lazar and his son Stefan the Despot. Each was as much a fortress as a place of worship, surrounded by high walls and towers in an effort to keep out the Turks. It was Lazar who founded the 14th-century monastery at Ravanica; after Lazar's death at Kosovo, Stefan vowed to build a bigger and better church at Manasija. Pilgrims queued to kiss the icons as a nun showed us around, pointing out the once bright, but now peeling and neglected, frescoes depicting Stefan as a holy warrior.
At Ravanica, a church built of layers of red brick and white stone stood in a tranquil setting among orchards and streams. Covering up my cycling shorts, I crept inside. In a shrouded coffin in front of the iconostasis were the remains of Prince Lazar, brought here after his defeat at Kosovo and finally returned in 1989 on the 600th anniversary of his death after being hidden at various times from Ottoman invaders and Croatian fascists.
I could not subscribe to the cult of Prince Lazar or to the idea of the Serbs as noble victims, but still I was moved by Ravanica. Here, it seemed, was the peaceful spiritual expression of an entire people who had been vilified by the rest of the world and thought that the world was against them. I lit a candle and said a silent prayer, dreaming that the next generation of foreigners in Serbia would be tourists on bikes, rather than United Nations peacekeepers or soldiers dropping bombs.
Tony Kelly travelled as a guest of Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk/cycle). The one-week "Cycle Serbia" group tour has departures on 4 and 18 September for £599 plus a local payment of €120 (£86), including return flights from Heathrow, seven nights' accommodation, transfers, bike hire and most meals.
Belgrade is served by JAT Airways (020-7629 2007; www.jatlondon.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow. JAT also offers regional departures via Heathrow. Regional departures are also available with SWISS (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) via Zurich.
Hotel Kasina (00 381 11 323 5574; kasina. stari-grad.co.yu), Terazije 25, a comfortable three-star hotel close to the centre of Belgrade. Doubles start at 5,800 Dinars (£50), including breakfast.
The Bradt Guide to Serbia (£13.99; www.bradt-travelguides.com), by Laurence Mitchell, is a good introduction to the country.
National Tourism Organisation of Serbia (00 381 11 334 2521; www.serbia-tourism.org).Reuse content