By Jose Bernardo Reyes Facio
BELGRADE, As Vladimir Martinovic bikes through the streets of Belgrade, people randomly greet him like a lifelong friend.
Offering tips-only bike tours is an unusual way of making a living, but one that has won him many friends among cyclists, activists and entrepreneurs all out to promote a culture of biking in a city far friendlier to four wheels than two.
Fit and charismatic with short blond hair, 36-year-old Martinovic and Belgrade Bike Central offer tours every weekend from the centre of town to the New Belgrade district of the capital, covering 20 kilometers and three hours of history, laughs and politically-tinged critiques of Belgrade’s cycling policy.
There is no fixed charge, but those who take part, usually around eight tourists from around the world, invariably give a tip at the end of the tour.
“There is no price, people pay whatever they want,” said Martinovic, known to his friends and clients as Vlado.
Serbia, he said, has struggled to cope with growing numbers of tourists or to improve conditions for those who would like to see the city by bike.
Although many popular attractions in Belgrade are generally within walking distance of each other, most are located in the city’s historic Old Town, where there is little in the way of cycling infrastructure.
“Belgrade needs more activism in biking development,” said Martinovic.
Born in France to Serbian parents, Martinovic was studying in California when NATO bombed Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo war, but an expired student visa and denied refugee status brought him back to the Balkans.
He left again, this time for Southeast Asia to work as a scuba diving instructor, picking up a few more languages on the way. But the hot, humid days and abundant mosquitoes proved too much, so he returned to Belgrade well-equipped to work with tourists.
“There aren’t enough people who know how to engage with foreigners like I do,” he said.
Brazilian tourist Rajede Villaca was full of praise, describing Martinovic as “very professional, patient, kind and knowledgeable about history and curiosities. It was so pleasant to join his tour.”
Lucrezia Zeppa, from Italy, said: “You’ll learn a lot about the city and see it from a different viewpoint thanks to Vlado.”
In a country where the average wage is about 380 euros per month, Martinovic admits he is better off than many even after just three months in business.
“It’s complicated because I don’t have a fixed income… but I earn more than 500 euros a month, which is enough for me,” he said.
Martinovic cooperates with Ulice za Bicikliste (Streets for Cyclists), which tries to raise awareness of city cycling and the need to make Belgrade more bike-friendly.
“They are already improving city’s infrastructure but it isn’t enough,” he said of the local authorities. “I’m constantly asked why I stay here in Belgrade. I see Belgrade as a place that I love. Obviously it has problems, but I remain very optimistic.”