Having crossed the 2000km mark yesterday we're now in Belgrade for another pit-stop, but wish we'd gone round it now. The cycle into the city had the most hair raising traffic yet, and now we're here, first impressions are of a crowded dirty place with a very unfriendly atmosphere. So much so that we chose Mc Donalds and cinema over sightseeing, except of course for the Nikola Tesla museum which I had to visit. We got a very patriotic guided tour in which an old lady with a pacemaker almost got into some serious trouble when the guide fired up a powerful Tesla Coil right next to her. Very amusing. I should also say that although Belgrade has been disappointing, the Serbians have been great. We've had more car-honks and shouts of encouragement (at least I assume they're encouragement) than in any other country, and I was kindly offered a half smoked spliff yesterday by one passing local...at 8.45am!!

Anyhow, the cycle here from Vienna has been a lot of fun, with lots of new challenges, and we've joined forces with a Welsh chap called Benn for the time being, who's come all the way from Wales on a single-speed road bike! After a quick succession of more little city breaks in nearby Bratislava and Budapest, and with our budget in tatters, we turned south, glad to be back on the open road, and headed for the rural space of Southern Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. Signs soon started to emerge that we were getting into more exotic territory. Border controls were stamping our passports, horses and carts began to appear on the roads, and things like 'brain and eggs' and 'brains on toast' began to appear on restaurant menus. I tried the latter but it wasn't a smart choice - it had that taste of organs that I don't much like. We also continued to try and forage for roadside farm produce, although the only [immediately] edible stuff we could find that was ripe were fiery red chillies, presumably used to fuel the insatiable Hungarian appetite for paprika. Sadly we can only manage about half a red chilli each per sitting, but at least it knocks out a few taste buds which makes our cheap supermarket grub more bearable. 

After leaving Budapest for the next leg of the trip, there was also a sudden drop-off in tourist infrastructure as the popular family friendly section of Danube cycle route came to an abrupt end. This has had it's pros and cons. The well sign posted bike paths petered out and we're now getting lost a bit more, and having to share the roads with cars and trucks. Getting passed by huge lorries all the time is quite alarming and we've reluctantly had to start wearing our helmets. Having dropped my bike and smashed my rear view mirror a couple of weeks ago, I can't even see them coming without turning around which makes it even more nerve racking. They do seem used to cyclists though, and give us enough room most of the time so it's not too bad.
 
Another consequence of less tourists is that B&Bs and proper campsites are becoming few and far between. This can be good because I quite enjoy the thrill of wild camping when we have time to look for a campsite before dark, but on the first night out of Budapest we were caught out pretty badly and ended up in the dark, and the rain, desperately trying to find somewhere to stay. The situation was grim. We ended up on a boggy dirt track, dodging huge deep puddles that couldn't be cycled through, and before long the treacherous path turned on to an even more treacherous road, with cars zooming past in the dark. It was getting late by the time we came across a village with a sign advertising a room in a private house. The trauma of the evening soon faded away as we sat drinking homemade apple brandy with our host Aleksandr but we'll be careful not to get caught out so easily again.
 
As well as the difficulties above, the first few days after Budapest were also made considerably harder by crushing headwinds which must have been pushing toward 30mph. This was not a fun few days. They confirmed that in my opinion, it's not hills or rain, or even menacing trucks that are the true enemies of the cyclist. It's wind. With no end in sight, no sunshine on the other side, and no rewarding downhills afterwards, headwinds just seem to go on and on, slowly sucking away your strength and morale. Even though the terrain was flat as a pancake and the days were beautifully sunny, it was still the toughest cycling so far. On the second day we reached an all time low when for about an hour it seemed as though the wind had stopped and we started picking up speed. We had unwittingly taken a wrong turn and were now going in the wrong direction. This went on for 20km until we arrived back in a village we'd left two hours ago (on a different road)! This was extremely depressing, and to make up for the mistake, we ended up in the saddle for 10 hours that day. However, it all ended well, much like our episode in the dark the day before. Lesli, the wonderful owner of Hotel Kalocsa welcomed us in from the wind at a fraction of the normal price. We made full use of the sauna and jacuzzi and were packed off by Lesli the next morning with a big bag of cheese rolls and nectarines. Thank you Lesli!! 
 
Despite the trials mentioned above, this leg of the journey has been the best so far, and definitely the most exciting. With the lack of other foreign visitors, we get a much better picture of normal daily life unfolding in the places we go through, and with less cycle tourists on the road, we're more of a novelty to the locals. The attention has so far been positive, and very welcome. When we stopped for a quick break on a bench in a Croatian village, a little old lady spotted us and came pottering out of her house with some freshly baked donut thingys with plums in the middle. She just handed them over with a smile, and went back inside without a single word. Incredible! I can't remember a random stranger ever doing anything so unexpectedly nice (except for the spliff guy in Serbia, but that was a bit strange).
 
Other news....I've got my first bout of food poisoning! (Emily escaped somehow). Annoyingly, it was self inflicted, caused by eating 3 day old fried rice I'd made myself which had been festering in my panniers for 3 days. Eeugh! Luckily the effects were short lived. Also, Emily ran over a big snake...which she feels very bad about, and misunderstood the rules of a public spa / swimming pool in Budapest and went in naked...which she feels very stupid about.
 
So, with spirits high as we set off for the final two week push for Istanbul and the edge of Europe, we'll soon be parting with our beloved Danube as we veer off into Bulgaria. It'll be fun going off-piste, as it were, but no doubt there'll be a lot more getting lost, and a lot more moaning about hills.