I had convinced myself that after leaving Belgrade the last bit of riding to Istanbul would no longer be enjoyable and it would be more of a mode of transportation as opposed to part of the experience. I worried about the quality of roads we faced, the traffic and the lack of pretty places to see that lay ahead.
The journey did change after Belgrade but in new and unexpected ways, as is always the case with bike touring. We started out of Belgrade, on what I hope will turn out to be the most terrifying ride I ever have. On a dual lane bridge with an 80km an hour speed limit and absolutely no shoulder (there was a raised walkway but we couldn’t get the bikes up on to it) our only choice was to ride as fast as possible with the traffic. In my highest gear, which kept slipping, I raced behind my partner and thanked my lucky stars I made it past that hurdle alive. Probably because of that experience and because of our previous struggles in Hungary, we blindly followed the Eurovelo route onto the river dyke path. The path at that point was only slightly less of a field than we had in Hungary and we quickly realised it was time to start breaking away from the route and making our own way on the more established roads.
Although a bumpy ride on the dyke, the views were enjoyable and we were happy seeing small town life in Serbia, as well as the opportunity to have a regular dip in the refreshing Danube. On our second day we tumbled along the dyke path again to reach our ferry crossing, of which we were advised by our guest house owner the previous evening that the boat was leaving at 12pm. We arrived to the ferry crossing with a healthy 20 minutes to spare, or so we thought, and were surprised to find our first group of serious cycle tourers (also stranded like us but excited to meet new people). In what I can only describe as a conspiracy concocted by the local cafe and the ferry company at the crossing, it concluded that the ferry didn’t actually leave until 1.30pm, meaning we had two hours to get to know our new friends.
The youngest of the group was from Paris and he was taking only a month or so to get to the Black Sea. Devastatingly thin and only carrying minimum camping gear, we could tell he was on this journey for the cycling. The next and most excited of the group to see fellow travellors was an older man who lived in Frankfort Germany and worked as a project manager. He had precisely mapped his entire journey and was the only traveller that we have yet met on this journey who already had all of his hotels booked in advance. We took an instant liking to him because his bike touring habits were more similar to ours. He told everyone how he tried to get all of his riding done before midday so he could get to a relatively nice room, have a hot shower, nap and food. We sniggered quietly knowing that is exactly how we approach most of our days in the saddle. There was an American couple from Seattle who had already made a tour across the United States, but who were a little weary and tired since they started their journey in France at the Atlantic and by this point were pretty ready to go home. And our final companion, the most rotund bike tourer we had ever met, who was coming from Belgrade, however being from Regensburg Germany he had taken his last recent holidays on other parts of the Eurovelo 6 route and had ridden most of it already. We would continue to meet him for the next few days because although he couldn’t maintain our pace on the bike he was steady and strong and covered the same amount of kilometres as us. It was a welcome change to our journey when we would see his bike in the corridor of the same hotel we were staying in and know that we would have the opportunity to have a drink and discuss the day’s ride with him that evening.
Not only was it really nice to finally be travelling with other people, it was also amazing to realise that we finally felt like ‘real’ cycle tourers. I think because we took so long to get into a rhythm, we have taken so much time off to explore cities, or because we have only used camping to save money when we have really needed to; there has been a feeling that we have not been ‘good enough’ to be real cycle tourers with other cyclists we have met. Now we finally realised every cycle tourer does it their own way and more importantly we are now covering the same distances as what we used to consider the hard core cyclists.
Following the very hot and delayed ferry ride we did make it to Golubac, the town that would totally change my opinion of the ride through Serbia and bring us back to understanding why we had taken on this challenge in the first place. Golubac is a beautiful small town with unbelievable views of the Danube. There is a castle about 4km out of town which starts your ride through to the Iron Gates Gorge. The Iron Gates is series of four gorges over 80 miles that separates Serbia from Romania. Through this part of the ride you climb up and down large passes and have to pass through 21 death defying tunnels (for some reason there is no lighting in Serbian tunnels). Although challenging, this was definitely some of the most beautiful riding we did on the trip. As the river widened and narrowed through the gorges , it felt like you were looking at scenes from an exotic paradise with island cliffs sticking out of the water and rocky beaches. I kept noting to my partner that I thought if this part of the ride had been in Austria, as opposed to Serbia, I am sure that it would bring visitors from all over the world to enjoy it (instead of only a few crazy tourers).
As well as beautiful riding you pass through charming towns on your way through the far east of Serbia, from Golubac (which I mentioned earlier) to Donji Milanovac, Kladovo and our personal favourite Negotin. One of the things that really pleased us the most in Serbia was the peoples’ dedication to taking care of you. Although I must admit we lived very cheaply and the guest houses and hostels were very basic (to say the least), we were more taken care of in Serbia than we had been for the last few months. In our hostel in Negotin we were given ice cream, a filo tart and a bean soup, all for free (just to make sure we were ready for our next big ride). Everywhere we stayed they immediately offered you coffee or a fresh drink. I suppose it was just the way they liked to take care of their guests.
Although we were really enjoying the end of our trip in Serbia and the friends and locals we were meeting, I started to feel really unsettled and anxious and wasn’t able to enjoy our rest days in the same way I had done before. We needed to decide what route we were going to take to actually get to Istanbul (in the end the most direct route, even though it would be over the Balkan mountains) and we needed to decide what we were going to do with the bikes for the rest of our travels and how we would get to India. Originally I thought I would be more than happy to give up the bikes, but after all this time I had become attached to my bike and found it difficult to think of travelling without it. I really wanted to ride our journey through Southeast Asia, but the thought of having to take the bikes on several flights was daunting. We had also been warned so much against riding in India it no longer seemed feasible. To add to this, throughout the trip we had been warned about the dangers of Romania and I was nervous about meeting wild dogs and where we could stay on the route. All of this anxiety started to affect the trip for me and we decided to spend our next rest day mapping the rest of the journey and thinking about the positives and negatives of taking the bikes. I spent my time researching how to ship bikes around the world without a solidified solution.
In the end Serbia was a transformative part of the journey for me. It solidified my love of travelling on the bike, made it possible for me to discover a new culture that I previously never thought I would experience, allowed me to enjoy incredible scenery and enabled me to meet amazing people and make fast friends. I now look forward to ending this part of journey and starting our next chapter.