Archive for October, 2007

Golden Birthday

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Happy Birthday to you, James William Welle!

Today Jamie turns 28 years old on the 28th of October, which makes this his golden birthday! Normally the golden birthday celebrant should enjoy an entire day filled with gift opening and cake eating, possibly topped off by a gigantic blow-out party in the style of MTV’s “Sweet Sixteen”.

However, we are in Giurgiu, Romania today, so there will be no blow-out parties or gift opening sprees. Instead Jamie’s celebration will involve a trip to the grocery store to pick out some Haribo gummies, a Romanian cake, and anything he wants for lunch and dinner (it must be cookable on the gas stove, of course). We also took some documentary pictures of Jamie at 28 for future reference.

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Jamie is very lucky that we’ve rolled into a town with a real supermarket on his birthday, which will make his celebration feast possible. Giurgiu is the first place we’ve found a supermarket since Belgrade, Serbia. Grocery stores up to this point have been small mini-markets that stock just a few basics, which in this part of the world means canned and tubed meats, bulk waffle-textured wafer cookies, candies, and various pickled vegetables. Also, all the food in the Romanian mini-markets is kept behind glass counters. To buy anything you must ask the cashier to get it for you which is frustrating for us because we can’t say the Romanian name for the thing we want so we are reduced to pointing and then saying “No, no, no, no…” until the cashier points to the correct thing. As soon as you walk into a mini-market you are subject to the cashier’s unwavering steely gaze. She expects that you know exactly what you want, will order it promptly, and get out. I am not familiar with the types of things they sell in Romanian mini-marts so I always want to look around to see what the options are, but the language barrier and intense cashier-gaze always fluster me into giving up my browsing dreams. That plus the limited selection of goods means that we have a very monotonous diet. For breakfast we have yogurt and muesli. Lunch is bread and cheese. Dinner has been pasta, canned tomatoes, and canned beans. Every few days we find apples that are not shriveled up. It seems like most people grow their own produce rather than buy it in stores, so the selection is usually pretty bad.

Here’s Jamie with his birthday cupcakes and goblets of apple juice plus fizzy water.

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Gettin’ Medieval

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Romania is one of those countries where as soon as you cross the border it becomes apparent you’ve entered a whole new world. The first thing we noticed was the multitude of wells. They are all over the countryside and the villages.


Most are the traditional pulley type, but every so often we would see one that involved a giant lever.


Check out Sarah proving she is a true humanzee as she tries to figure out how to work this thing.

Along with the wells came an increase in the number of giant nests on the telephone poles. Every village seems to have at least three or four nests. Too bad we haven’t seen any of the giant birds yet!


We also immediately noticed a big change in the people and villages in Romania. Everyone is dressed very traditionally and horse-carts and bicycles have replaced cars as the dominant form of transportation.


We see dozens of horse-carts a day and they vary just like cars. You’ve got the antiques.


The old guys crawling down the street.


And even young guys hot roddin’ it up.


In most villages, the geese and turkeys outnumber the humans and all the locals are either herding their birds or sitting on benches lining the street and watching the action. It’s not uncommon to see a bench of three old women knitting followed a few meters down the road by one of three old men smoking.


There has also been a marked increase in the friendliness of the people here in Romania. Everyone yells and waves “hola”, “ciao”, “salud”, or “buna” as we pass. It’s a definite change from the severe stares we garnered throughout most of Eastern Europe.


We will continue to cycle east in the Wallachia region for a couple of more days before we cross the border into Bulgaria and then head southeast to the Black Sea.

Happy Anniversary

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Today is our one year anniversary!


I guess this means we are no longer newlyweds, but the honeymoon ain’t quite over yet people!


Saturday, October 20th, 2007

The Djerdap National Park has definitely been the scenic highlight of Serbia.

You’ve got beautiful views of the Danube and surrounding gorge.


And great cycling too. The road is called the “Danube Highway” but there is barely any traffic on it at all. The asphalt is like, totally fresh.


The only negative is that there are 21 tunnels on the road. Most are short but the longest is over 300 meters; they are all unlit. That would have scared us away if traffic was even moderate but we usually have the tunnels completely to ourselves.


We started this trip with front lights for our bicycles, but we couldn’t find a good way to attach them to our racks, so we gave up on them. We haven’t really missed them except when riding through dark tunnels, but then Sarah came up with the brilliant idea of wrapping our trusty headlamps around our handlebar bags. It may not look like much in this photo, but it works like a charm in a pitch-black tunnel!


We are still on the Danube bicycle route, but there are no bicycle signs at this point. You can purchase German maps but we’ve just been ridin’ freestyle since there is basically only one road to follow and the Danube is pretty hard to lose. The views have really been fantastic.


There are two hydroelectric dams here. I can’t imagine how beautiful this place must have been before the river was dammed.


Not many people live in this area of Serbia. The locals we’ve met have told us that most of the towns and villages around here are actually shrinking as the young people move to Belgrade or out of the country looking for work. We did meet one young guy, who was a bit of a nefarious character, but he was friendly and spoke English well so we spent an afternoon with him as the “face of Serbia” as he put it. That meant putting away about 6 liters of beer among us and trying some traditional Serbian food. We had a bland, white-bean soup with a delicious sausage in it and a salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, and copious amounts of shredded cheese on top.


We were amazed when he managed to ride and balance Sarah’s fully loaded bicycle while she perched sideways on the top tube. Sarah says this is the second scariest things she’s done on the trip so far.


We’ve been staying in a mix of campsites, private pensions, and hotels. The pensions are our favorite because we get to meet the local people and sometimes try traditional food. We usually cook ourselves on a deck or in the park to keep costs down and because Sarah is practicing for her new Food Network show, Gas Stove Gourmet.


When we do eat with the hosting family at a pension, breakfast and dinner are usually accompanied with what the Serbians call “schnapps”, but it tastes the same as the herbal brandy we tried in Croatia. It is always homemade, but neither of us has gone blind yet. Excellent sausage is also part of every meal.


Everyone also heats their homes with woodstoves around here. Walking through the villages, it is amazing how much wood is stacked up all over the place. We were wondering how there were any trees left in the forest at all. Most pension owners start the fire for us in a matter of minutes, but it was a bit more difficult for a couple of city slickers like us. We briefly considered using some of the gasoline from our fuel bottles as an accelerant before we finally got a nice blaze going. Toasty!

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We’re out of the gorge now and on the border between Serbia and Bulgaria. Now we’ll follow the Danube east to the Black Sea.

The Blue Danube

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

(Ed. Note – Public internet connections are extremely hard to find and extremely slow in Serbia. Thus, the pictures in this post are not links.)

It was a 115 kilometer ride from Novi Sad to Belgrade. It’s the last section of the Danube bicycle route that is signed, so we took backroads for much of the way. We (of course) got lost a few times and in general had a really long day. We arrived in Belgrade as it was starting to get dark. In Novi Sad we’d gotten in touch with Catherine, a woman from Seattle that was currently working as a teacher in Belgrade and had found out about our website from a mutual friend at Microsoft. We were looking forward to staying with a fellow American and were riding along searching for her house when we met a 15 year old Serbian kid named Phillip. He spoke excellent English and was really interested to hear about our trip, so we chatted with him as we rode along the bicycle bath in Belgrade. After a few kilometers we asked him where Catherine’s street was and were amazed that he volunteered to escort us to her front door. Along the way he asked a bunch of people how to get there (he didn’t know, but was helping us anyway), and then whipped out his cellphone when we got close to her house to call her and let her know we’d arrived. We were so impressed and it was such a huge help to have him with us. Thanks Phillip!


It was great to meet Catherine and find out that she was exactly our age and we had a lot in common. She even ran a marathon with her brother, just like me! We went out for pizza with Catherine and another American teacher named Melissa and then took a bus downtown to have drinks at the Canadian embassy’s happy hour. Who knew embassies had happy hours?! It was so much fun to hang out with Catherine and Melissa that we decided to stay for an extra day to attend a birthday pig-roast party at another teacher’s house in the countryside near Belgrade.

We went for a one hour bus ride to get to the birthday party house. I almost puked on the way there and also on the way home (so Sean, don’t worry, it is not your driving’s fault that I puked in Croatia!) The house belonged to a pair of American teachers that had been living and teaching in Belgrade for three years or so. The party was so much fun – roasted pig, home baked Serbian pastries from a neighbor, beer and wine, and birthday cake. We also had baked potatoes and roasted garlic cooked over the campfire. It was a teacher party and Jamie and I both had a lot of fun asking questions about what it was like to be a teacher and hearing all the crazy stories.


Jamie, Melissa, Sarah, and Catherine.


The next day we left Belgrade to ride along the Danube towards the Black Sea. After 20km of busy city roads we got onto a small dirt road that snaked along the top of the Danube’s bank. It was peaceful and beautiful, but slow going. To be honest, I did not believe Jamie that this was the “road” we were supposed to be on. I kept stopping and demanding that we turn back. It got better after a few kilometers, but at first it was muddy grassy ruts.


We’ve been lucky with weather. It has been feeling really chilly during the days (around 10C – 15C), so we’ve both switched to our long pants, gloves, and we wear our coats all the time now. At night it gets down to almost freezing; our thermometer is usually around 3C in the mornings. These temperatures would be miserable with rain, but so far we’ve avoided it. Here’s Jamie in his cold weather outfit.


The scenery has been river on one side and flat farmland on the other. Farmers are out all day long every day working in their fields. So much so that it is sometimes tough to find a private place to pee!


The small towns have been a lot of fun. In one town, all the old women were selling brooms at the market.


We also found a place along the Danube to balance our camera and take a few rare self-timer shots of both of us riding!


Camping is not very popular in Serbia, especially this late in the year, and we’ve had a really hard time finding campsites. In Novi Sad we went online and looked up all the official sites we could find in Serbia and marked them on our map. We found a grand total of two that were open in the country – luckily they were both on our route along the Danube

The first campsite was more of a trailer community near the Danube. They didn’t have hot water so we couldn’t take showers, but they did let campers stay for the first seven days free, which made up for the lack of amenities. The other good thing about this campsite was meeting a little dog that took a great liking to us. He hung around us all evening (even though we never fed him) then tried to get into our tent at bedtime using a great variety of tricks. He tried to dig through the side, took a running leap and hurled himself into the side of the tent, burrowed under a vestibule and peeked in the window, and then he tried to dig underneath the tent floor to find an underground entrance. The next morning as we rode out of the campsite he met us on the road and started trotting alongside us. It was fun to have a companion for the first few kilometers but after he’d been following us for 30 minutes we started to get nervous that he’d never leave. A full hour later he was still with us and Jamie was starting to talk about what we’d have to do to take him home with us, whether we could plan a route away from busy roads so he could trot along with us every day, how much dog food we’d have to carry, and how he was going to get along with our cats at home. Around this time the dog got distracted by a flock of goats which allowed us to pull ahead. He must have turned around and headed for home after harassing the goats because we didn’t see him again.


Look closely and you can see my little pet trotting alongside me!


The next day we ferried across the Danube in order to stay on the best roads for cycling. The ferry left at 11:30am or 3pm each day and when we started off in the morning we thought we’d have plenty of time to ride the 40 kilometers to the ferry location to make the 11:30 ferry. However, somehow we managed to travel so slowly that with one hour left we still had way too much distance to make at a comfortable speed. We did an almost-full-out sprint from 11 to 11:30 and miraculously rode right onto the ferry just as it was about to set off across the river. Whew! The ferry wasn’t a boat – it was more of a wooden platform that was hitched to a little tugboat to get across the river.


That night we found our second campsite in Serbia next to the Danube in the small town of Silver Lake. We were excited about this one because it looked larger than the other one, and was open year round so we expected them to have hot water and showers. No such luck. This one was basically a creepy lot near the river completely crammed full of small camper trailers that you could rent out. The campground was completely deserted except for us. There was no hot water. No toilet paper. I felt lucky that the toilet flushed at all. We were charged $14 for this delightful spot. I wanted to argue about the price after we found out how crappy everything was, but the caretaker spoke no English, no German, and was an ornery old guy. For example when we checked in he asked if we needed electricity; we said no. Later when we were cooking our dinner with our gas stove he ran over to see if we had an electric stove we’d plugged in and were using to steal his precious electricity! So in the morning we just paid our $14, were annoyed, and left.

One highlight was the sunset on the Danube.


The towns along the Danube have nice little promenades that are perfect for eating lunch. The views are great.


We are heading towards the most beautiful spot on the Danube – a deep gorge on the eastern edge of Serbia that’s actually a National Park.

Lucky 13

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

We’ve just entered our thirteenth country – Serbia! We spent the night in the Bosnia-Herzegovina border town of Zvornik. The town itself was fine, but the only two hotels in the city were ridiculously expensive. We ended up paying $70 for a tiny hotel room. There was just enough room to open the door, take two steps into the room, then jump directly into one of the two twin beds the room contained. An added treat was that the room was on the ground floor, the window by my bed had apparently been left open all day, and there were a few little millipede looking worm things cuddled up under my blanket. I was incredibly grossed out and had a hard time sleeping after listening to Jamie repeatedly ponder whether they’d be looking for a warm place to curl up and sleep at night.

We rode over a bridge into Serbia first thing in the morning. We didn’t have any Serbian dinar and were on the lookout for an ATM so we could get money out for lunch. Usually this isn’t a problem and we find an ATM within an hour or so of entering a new country. Unfortunately for us there were no ATMs in any of the small towns along our first day’s route. 85km down the road was a larger city that we thought would have an ATM but until then we were completely broke! We had some Croatian Kuna that we tried to exchange at a few banks when we started to get desperate for lunch money, but no one would accept them. We also had 2 Euro that I tried to spend at a supermarket, but of course no one wanted them. I was dejectedly walking out of the supermarket wondering what we were going to eat for lunch when I happened to spy a 200 Dinar bill ($4) laying on the ground. Yippee!! We used it to buy some food at the bakery and made it the rest of the way to our first stop in Serbia – the city of Šabac. The Serbian countryside we rode through during the day was pretty farmland. The poor road quality, small towns, and vendors selling produce along the roadsides made us feel like we were back in Asia.


It is harvest time here, and all day we see farmers driving tractors down the road and working in their cornfields.


Once again we had trouble finding an affordable place to stay in Šabac. There was no camping and only two hotels in town. They both cost approx $100 for a room. With no other options, we stayed in the $100 room and groaned about how this was absolutely destroying our budget. To rub salt in the wound, the room was not even nice. The shower didn’t drain, the bathroom smelled like sewage, and the cable going into the TV looked like it had been chewed apart by a mouse, which made the reception horrible. It was like the hotel quality in Cambodia at Western European prices! We ate bread, cheese, and apples for dinner while watching CNN and Animal Planet. The exorbitant price did include a buffet breakfast which was tasty. I enjoyed a nice selection of pastries and Jamie had some strange meats and pickled things.

It was another 85km to the large city of Novi Sad. Novi Sad is on the Danube and we were expecting the entire ride to be pancake flat. So we were both pretty shocked when we climbed a 300m pass followed by a 500m pass, including multiple 12% grades!


Near the top of the pass we stopped for a snack. While we were sitting there eating our bread, cheese, and apples two dogs came over to check us out. One of the dogs was smallish with black wavy fur – it looked exactly like a little lamb. I loved it. It lied down on the ground about two feet away from our feet and literally slithered over to us on its belly. It wanted to be petted and fed, which of course we did! Every time we see a stray animal we always wish we could take it with us.

Due to road construction we were forced to rejoin a major road for the final 20km into Novi Sad. Half of this 20km included winding steep descents towards the river basin. The drivers in Serbia have been some of the most aggressive, macho, and basically insane drivers we’ve seen anywhere in the world. They have a mania for passing each other, even if it is completely obvious that there is nothing to be gained by passing (i.e. slow moving traffic due to upcoming road blockades for road construction). This insatiable urge to pass every moving vehicle on the road persists even on blind corners, mountain roads with no shoulder, alongside slow moving cyclists, or the combination of all three of these things. To top this all off we have been seeing roadside gravestones every kilometer or so – I can only assume these are victims of traffic accidents. It is really unbelievable and has convinced us to stick to small roads whenever possible!

Novi Sad was a much bigger city that we’d expected. It is also really beautiful, especially around the main square.

The Catholic Cathedral’s spire is rainbow colored!

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Painted cows are scattered throughout the city.





We originally planned to stay in Novi Sad for one day to rest before heading to Belgrade. Last night we checked the weather though, and found out that there would be one more day of cold and rainy weather before things start to clear up, so we decided to hang out here for one more day before riding along the Danube to Belgrade.

The Balkans

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Getting out of Sarajevo was one of the worst experiences we have had on the bike so far. The only way out of the city is on very busy roads and we had to battle the heavy traffic and crazy Bosnian drivers for over an hour. The scenery was industrial wasteland and the smells were also quite disgusting. Garbage was everywhere and whiffs of soot and pollution were only interrupted by the stench of raw sewage. It really was the worst area we have ever cycled through. Finally, after what seemed like an endless 20 kilometers, we reached a quiet secondary road where we could cycle in peace and enjoy the fall colors that are starting to appear.


Our peace didn’t last too long though because we soon rolled through the town of Vareš. Wow. Vareš seemed to consist solely of destroyed buildings and giant Soviet-style apartment blocks. It was shocking and sad to see how much destruction the war had caused in this small town. It also seemed like every single person in the town stopped what they were doing to stare at us as we passed. Riding through the street with the destroyed industrial buildings towering over us really made it feel like we were on some sort of horrible movie set. It was pretty unreal and we began to get nervous about what we were riding into.


We were originally planning to stop for the night in Vareš, but after getting such a weird vibe and not seeing any accommodation, we decided to push on. The road continued to get smaller and smaller and soon we were on a barely one-lane road climbing high into the forested mountains. When the road finally turned to gravel, we knew we were lost and we began to ask every local we saw for directions. Everyone kept saying “kugel” and pointing us back in the direction we came. We backtracked until we realized that “kugel” meant tunnel and that we needed to go through a 600-meter, unlit, unpaved tunnel to continue on. Every cyclist’s worst nightmare!


We put on our rear flashing lights and were searching for our headlamps when a car pulled up. We flagged them down and were able to mime that we wanted to follow behind them to utilize the light from their headlights. We started out behind them, but our plan didn’t work very well because their lights lit up the road about 15 feet ahead of us but the area directly in front of us was pitch black. We couldn’t see the road surface at all, so we had to just ride blindly and hope that there weren’t any large ruts or potholes to take us down. There were about 30 seconds of complete panic when the car ahead started going too fast for us to keep up. I was pedaling furiously and screaming at Sarah, “Get up here!”, but it was hopeless because she just couldn’t go that fast. Luckily, just as I was losing all hope of surviving, the end of the tunnel became visible and we were able to cycle safely out. Ah, sweet daylight!

The area we were cycling in was extremely remote. The road was surrounded by thick forest and the villages we passed through were comprised of one or two houses and no shops. We were carrying no food and had run out of water too, so we were debating what to do when we rode past a house with a sign with a bed on it. We went up to the front door and met Jozo and Erika who welcomed us and told us they could feed us and give us a place to sleep for the night. Jozo spoke a little English and little German, so we were able to communicate fairly well and we learned that he was trying to develop tourism in the area. He had produced all kinds of brochures and maps with information and he and Erika had turned their small farm into a bed-and-breakfast type place for tourists to stay.


We had a great time staying with Jozo and Erika. We got to try some traditional Bosnian food that was produced by Erika with ingredients almost solely from the farm. Practically the only thing they purchased was flour and they were even thinking of starting to make that too. We ate three different types of homemade cheese that ranged from creamy to salty and tried fried pickles with homemade mustard and pepper spreads.


After dinner we got to help feed the chickens, ducks, and pigs and watch Jozo milk the cow. Jozo’s favorite saying was “slowly, slowly” which he applied to almost every situation and it seemed like he and Erika had a really relaxed, peaceful life up in the mountains.


In the morning, we tried traditional Bosnian coffee which was surprisingly good. Our Lonely Planet guidebook claims you will see Bosnians drinking their traditional coffee in cafes, but we have only seen tourists trying it. All the locals are drinking espresso. I expected it to be really thick and bitter, but it was nice and smooth.


After breakfast, we said goodbye and set off through some beautiful forest roads.


Jozo had told us we should check out the water-powered factory along the way where they have been using the river to power a metal-works for hundreds of years. We were afraid we were going to miss it, but it was easy to spot because the sound was deafening. The rushing water was used to power a giant wooden hammer that pounded the red-hot metal as one of the workers shaped it. We both agreed, it was one of the coolest things we have seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


We spent the next couple of days heading northeast and the rain finally caught us again. Luckily, the steep descents were behind us before it got really wet, so it wasn’t too bad. The locals have seemed to get friendlier and friendlier each day. We are almost as much of an amusement here as we were in Southeast Asia. Shopowners have been giving us coffee and tea to warm us up and we met a group of young guys at a cafe who invited us to sit down and have a drink with them. Our impression of the people has done a complete 180 from how we felt in Vareš.


Next stop Serbia!

Mostar to Sarajevo

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Location: Ten kilometers north of Mostar.
Conditions: Nasty headwind. Narrow road. Frightening traffic.
Realization: This is not fun, this is stupid.

Our original plan was to cycle from Mostar to Sarajevo but we ended up taking the train instead. The road from Mostar to Sarajevo is just not suitable for cycling. It’s a narrow, winding road with no shoulder and very heavy traffic. To top things off, there are multiple tunnels on the road with no bypass routes. We got about 10 kilometers out of Mostar before we decided to turn around and hop on the train instead. It’s too bad, because it would be a beautiful road for cycling but the view from the train was nice too.


The city of Mostar was great. After cycling through Europe for two months, it was a dramatic change to descend into Mostar and see the minarets dotting the skyline and to ride through the city streets while the call to prayer played over the loudspeakers.


Actually, the entire country of Bosnia and Herzegovina felt different from the rest of Europe right from the start. It seems like the entire country is under construction. Concrete and rough brick buildings are going up everywhere and it feels a little more like Southeast Asia in that way. In the first hour after we crossed the border, I saw more G-class and S-class Mercedes than I’ve seen in the rest of Europe combined. I have no idea why that is. The drivers are also a little crazy. I think the citizens haven’t decided on the national honking protocol because we’ve heard the “I’m passing you.” honk, the “Way to go!” honk, and the “Get the f**k off the road!” honk quite a bit. About half the drivers don’t honk at all. Drivers are pretty good when passing from behind, but way too many people ignore our bikes and pass in the oncoming direction while we are in the opposite lane here. I hate it when drivers do that more than anything else because I usually don’t realize it is happening until the car is right on top of me.

Mostar is famous for it’s bridge: originally built in 1556 and destroyed during the war in 1993.


The bridge was rebuilt in 2004 and there is a tradition of local guys jumping and diving off it (for money now). Here is a video we took of one guy taking the plunge. After he jumped, we looked out over the edge of the bridge and both decided we could do it too.

The old city is nice but the most fascinating thing about Mostar is the ruins of buildings destroyed during the war. You can walk down almost any street and right next to a functioning shop or office will be a bullet-riddled ruin. We spent most of our days there wandering around the city staring at the locals and wondering what they were doing during the war.


One other difference about Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it is pretty cheap. Groceries and restaurants are the most noticeably different, while camping and pensions are about the same as elsewhere (US$20-30). We haven’t free-camped due to the multitude of landmines that are still left in the country. Cheap food really makes a huge difference for us because we love to try all the local delicacies. The first thing we tried was Burek. It’s a buttery, flaky pastry sort of like a croissant filled with all different types of hearty food you would associate with Eastern Europe. We’ve tried potato, cheese, spinach and cheese, and meat and potato. The meat and potato was the best by far: nice and juicy and a little spicy. You buy Burek by the kilogram and one kilo runs about 7KM (~US$5).


Now we are in Sarajevo, visiting the museums and wandering around the city. It’s amazing how busy this city is. Walking down the pedestrian thoroughfare on a Wednesday afternoon, you wonder whether or not it is actually Saturday due to all the people out and about. The other amazing thing is how tall the young people are. We’ve noticed that all over Europe that there are a decent number of young women who are taller than me and the men are absolutely gigantic! We thought we were tall but we are beginning to feel like shrimps. We’re going to hang out here for a couple of days and then head northeast towards Serbia and Bulgaria.