Miroslava swept back her curly auburn hair with a pale olive bandana as she finished preparing dinner for her family of six. It was a meat-laden meal typical of Sopje, a small village in northern Croatia which abuts Hungary, only separated by the Drava river. It was an autumnal day like any other: the golden evening sky was fast fading and a slight chill gave the air a tang.

As she stirred the pot Miroslava’s phone rang; it was one of the young men from the village. She listened, nodded several times “da, da, da, naravno”. She swung into action. Crossing the road, she opened the gate to her late mother’s house, opened the door, flicked on the lights and quickly built a small fire in the square stove from dried corn cobs, naked of their yellow bounty. There was a commotion out in the yard.

They had arrived.

Miroslava saw the two cyclists, faces oil-streaked like mascara smeared by a drunk lover in darkness, push a bike through the gate. It was as long as a bus. They looked exhausted and slightly bewildered. They were followed by three young men she knew well, including the one who phoned her minutes before.

Miroslava welcomed these hapless cyclists with a big smile (it would have been a hug, but with times as they were…) and beckoned them inside.

Within minutes there were ten people seated around the table. The fire was burning orange and Osijke beer was in each hand, with a bottle of vodka on the table for good measure. Miroslav, her husband, arrived with two kolbasitsa, salamis as thick and long as a policeman’s baton. The ruby meat of one was deer, the other, boar. White fat shone like marble.   

Michelle looked over and caught my eye. We both burst out laughing and shook our heads in disbelief. How had this happened?

Two hours earlier we had set off from Sopje’s singular café, Luka’s, a place surprisingly pulsing with Croatian dance music, having fuelled on produzhena kava (double espresso). A few older men sipped beer and several younger guys smoked. The café lay the distance of one of Croatia’s ubiquitous football pitches up the road from the table where we now sat.

As we pulled away from the café, I noticed Chris’ front tyre was spongy. We clearly had a slow puncture. Stripping out the inner tube, I noticed some of the tape on the wheel’s rim had shifted, exposing a sharp edge. I layered on some electrical tape, and twenty minutes later (after much wrestling with the tyre) we were underway. We pedalled hard, eager to make up for lost time.

BANG!

An explosion ripped through the front tyre, a gunshot crack sounding throughout the village. The inner was shredded. Had I pumped the tyre up too much? We replaced the tube again, Michelle patiently holding Chris up whilst I worked on the tyre, putting more tape down to cover all the cracks. In hero mode, I thought this would be quicker, enabling the “expert” to work uninterrupted. It took me embarrassingly long to ask for Michelle’s help, after which our progress accelerated.

Somewhat tentatively, we set off again. It was now almost dark, the first stars beginning to show. We had 25 kilometres of night riding ahead of us. The last houses of the village passed by.

BANG!

After a string of unprintables … “Really?” “Again??” We pulled over. Several people came out of their homes and observed the spectacle of an inverted pink and blue tandem, bags strewn around, and Michelle and I using our phone torches to repair yet another burst tyre. I realised the electrical tape must have stuck to the inner tube and the extra friction had ripped it open in dramatic fashion. We fixed the tyre, much quicker now I let Michelle help. Regardless, we were exhausted, with nerves as shredded and feeling as deflated as the tube that lay at our feet.

A car pulled up, headlights dazzling us. Three large men got out the car and slowly walked over. It seemed like we’d attracted unwelcome attention. Perhaps they thought we had been part of the world’s worst hit-and-run operation.

“Can we help you?” they asked. “Maybe you need something – food? A place to sleep?”. They were the same young men we had seen at the café. We were quickly persuaded and followed their car 300 metres up the road to meet Miroslava in her yard.

The welcoming and effusive warmth from everyone around the table took me by surprise. We had presumably disrupted evening plans at short notice and yet the atmosphere was reminiscent of a Sunday lunch shared by close friends. We met Christian, Miroslava’s nine year old son, who came through the door laden with bottles “here is the beer!” and pulled out his phone to show me his three passions: fishing, hunting and Minecraft. No catfish swimming in the Drava was safe from him, it seemed, and he was the scourge of the local wild dog population.

Dora, Miroslava’s nineteen year old daughter led the talking, and drinking. She poured half glasses of vodka, topped up with lemonade, and regaled Michelle and I with her stories of drinking. The word “blackout” featured regularly. “Does your Mum know?” I asked, glancing at Miroslava. “Yeah, I tell her everything” Dora laughed. She seemed well set for starting university, and she was leaving the next day. She surveyed the scene with a mixture of boredom and bemusement. Everyone older than her was “old” (including us), and she reserved particular distain for the sliced sausage. She was vegan, as she was “sick of the taste of meat, I ate so much”. This made her the only vegan in the village, and a living juxtaposition to her family who hunted, fished and killed their own pigs.

We found out more about Sopje the next morning over much-needed coffee with Dora. Most of the inhabitants are farmers, and around “twenty percent” are also hunters. “People think Istria [Croatia’s westernmost region] is rich because of the tourism, but we’re also rich here because our land is rich in corn” Dora told us. Later that day, Dora would arrive at the Croatian Catholic University in Zagreb, though she was no longer particularly religious. The older generations of Sopje were, and the church remained the fulcrum of the village, even through the heights of Covid. “The church was full. Full full full. They are not afraid when it comes to church, they have to talk to God”, Dora said through a cloud of smoke, delicately tapping grey ashes from her cigarette.

Eventually we drained our coffee, and beer, which Miroslav insisted would help us on our way. He didn’t let us pay a penny. How common would it be in the UK for a family to change their evening plans at five minutes’ notice and treat two wandering vagrants as their own?

We wobbled off gingerly, dreading a third gunshot. The tyre held and we left behind Sopje’s long street of unremarkable houses but carried with us memories of spontaneous warmth and generosity.