Beauty, Butterflies and Bikes: An Afternoon in Zlatibor
The landscape changed as fast a dream. Within a minute of driving outside the city center of Uzice, we were in the mountains. Within ten minutes, I felt pressure in my eardrum from the ascent up to Zlatibor. I was heading there with Marko, the owner of Hostel Uzice, and Marko’s friend, Milan. On July 25th and 26th, a bike race called Open Downhill Tornik 2015 will be held on the Zlatibor ski resort, and race director Marko wanted to check up on the course. I was unsure what to expect—Marko had told me simply, “We’re going to Zlatibor—come”—but I was charmed by the red-roofed cottages on sloping meadows and by the group of horses that approached our car and licked Milan’s outstretched hand. We arrived at the sky resort and met up with four of Marko’s friends, Peter, Bojan, Nikola and Jovan, three of whom brought their bikes to test out the course. The six friends began to joke around in Serbian, and though I had no idea what they were saying, their banter could more or less be translated in any language.
Up on the ski lift, Milan explained to me that Zlatibor gets its name from Zlati (golden) and bor (pine). These pines, special to Western Serbia, have stripped bark that looks gold in the sunshine. Today there were big cumulous clouds in the sky, but the slopes were no less stunning for their lack of gold: it was lush green pines to the right and lush green pines to the left. The air was almost drinkably pure. At the top of the mountain, we walked down a ski run, turning off into a side path cutting through the pines. Compared to my hectic neighborhood in New York, this was Eden. There was no one else around, no sound except for the chirping birds, our voices and footsteps. There were more butterflies than fleas. What more could you ask for? Just as I was drifting off into this Serbian pastoral fantasy, someone shouted what must translate to “Watch out!” and I jumped out of the path as two of the mountain bikers rushed by, hopping over a fallen tree trunk and skirting a clump of rocks. Serbian lesson #32: Never drift off. The bikers stopped to debate whether the obstacle was manageable or too tricky, and then the process repeated. The next time I didn’t drift off.
At a clearing, we stopped to throw around Marko’s nerf football while the bikers rode down to the ski lift for another run. My old baseball pitcher skills impressed Milan and he called me “Tomahawk.” I didn’t understand the nickname until he explained that, when I threw it hard, the nerf football whistled like the Tomahawk missiles that the USA dropped during the 1999 bombing campaign. I wasn’t sure how to take this, but I decided it was a compliment. We pitched each other pinecones and swung at them with a club-sized branch. I never thought I’d find myself playing baseball on a ski slope in the Balkans, but Serbian Lesson #58: Expect the unexpected.
Soon the bikers zoomed into the clearing and, after a short break, they cycled and we hiked down the slope to where a dozen cows were grazing. I thought the day was over, but at base of the ski resort, we decided to get some speed for ourselves and took a ride on the new bobsled roller coaster ride. The ride pulls you about halfway up the mountain, and then flings you around tree trunks and under the arms of pines. Putting my faith in Serbian engineering, I pretended I was a mountain biker and hung on. My faith was rewarded. The ride was whooshingly good fun.
As we drove away from the ski resort, I again thought the day was over, but to my happy surprise we drove off the main road toward the red-roofed cottages on sloping meadows that I’d admired earlier in the day. We got out and walked past a farmhouse with broken windows, past four bobbling chickens and a rusting Yugo sedan and through a wooden fence with a Serbian flag to a cottage that Peter and four other bikers were renting for the month. Next to the cottage door hung a black plaque that the former tenant had put up, showing her stern oval gray photograph and her lifespan (1925—) alongside the inscription: “I am making a tombstone for myself while I am alive.” Now she was gone, and Peter had covered the plaque with a gaudy banner for Full Control Biking. Inside, it was more like the gray photograph. There were furniture and appliances from the Yugoslav era, preserved in all their awkward, box-like glory. Amongst the kitchen table, the four wooden chairs, the fridge-sized microwave, the two beds, the cluttered counter, the cabinet with decanters and teacups, and the very, very old stove, we managed to find places to sit. There was no drinkable tapwater in the house, but that was no problem, as Peter brought out a two-liter of Jelen beer and a bottle of rakia with a branch of kleka (juniper) floating inside it. Amid alcohol and pretzels, the gentlemen began to discuss, debate or argue about the upcoming bike race. I have no idea what they said, but I did make out such words as “kilometer,” “sponsor,” and “Red Bull.” After several minutes of trying to follow the discussion-debate-argument, I began to zone out, sip my beer and look around. The Serbian pastoral fantasy returned. A bent square of light through the open door lengthened almost to the kitchen; the slow drip from the hose outside that caught the sunlight was matched by a needle of juniper falling to the base of the golden rakia. The window offered a view of meadows, hills and sun. The guys continued to discuss-debate-argue. Peter refilled my beer. Somewhere between fifteen and forty minutes passed. It was 1965 in Yugoslavia, and life was box-like and simple, and I was getting a little drunk.
Finally, the discussion-debate-argument petered out, and I again mistakenly thought we were heading home. Luckily, Marko wanted me to tour the rest of Zlatibor, both the traditional part where we saw a girl picking wild strawberries, four kids sitting on a bank next to a stream, and a sign on the shuttered-up grocery store that said, “This is the 21st century, we need a market”—and then on to the new Zlatibor, with big brick hotels and villas sprouting up from money in Belgrade and Montenegro. The longest cable car in Europe is supposedly getting built from there to the ski resort. It was 2015 in Western Serbia, and the new buildings were, honestly, kind of ugly.
But as we drove home from Zlabitor—this time for real—the sun was out, and the landscape lived up to its name by glowing with faint gold. It was beautiful, but I was tired, and still a little drunk, and no amount of beauty or loud radio or Milan’s extreme sport driving could keep me from falling asleep. When I awoke, we were back in Uzice.