Just a Hop, Skip and a Climb over the Balkan Mountains until Istanbul

With the end of this journey looming and the prospect of family coming to meet us In Istanbul, we concluded we wanted to take the most direct route to Istanbul over the Balkan Mountains. We started mapping our route without our trusted Eurovelo map and only an idea of what roads others had used previously when going to Turkey this way.

Serbia had been an experience and now we were ready to enter Bulgaria, finishing our journey on the Danube and heading into the mountains from Oryhavo. Cycle touring mates we had met on the journey informed us that we could get to Oryhavo quicker, and with less hills, by taking the road on the Romanian side of the Danube. Having heard from many along our journey about the dangers of Romania, including the wild dogs and the potential of being robbed, I was understandably a bit dubious about the journey.

We planned to ride 100km in one day from the Bulgarian border to the Romanian border where we would cross back into Bulgaria with a ferry.

We woke up early and were excited to see horse and cart road warning signs in front of us and we didn’t have to wait long to see the horse and carts in person (for a while there were more of them than cars on the road). It was a delightful change from the racing drivers of Serbia with the much more pleasing sounds of clip clopping along the roads as opposed to revving engines.

The journey through Romania was refreshing, the towns, although obviously poor, were welcoming and friendly. Children ran up to the bikes to give us high fives and most of the people along the roads and driving by waved hello. My partner was challenged to races with young boys who were also on bicycles. There were a couple of dog chases which, in reality, were more startling than terrifying. I kept my speed on the bike and stared at the dogs hard until they tired out and gave up the chase. This approach seemed to work fine for us.

We wound up really enjoying our day in Romania. We concluded our time there with a beautiful evening, a cold beer, some very different Romanian food, (curried chicken, polenta and a fried egg) England’s last contentious game in the world cup and a chat with our friend, the rotund cycle tourer, who happened to be spending his evening at the same motel.

Relatively disappointed to leave Romania we looked towards Bulgaria and the mountains that would be the final challenge of this stage of our journey.

I have to admit I didn’t enjoy our time in Bulgaria. We were able to ride through the country in only 7 days (with one day of rest), and unfortunately I found every day of those 7 days difficult. Admittedly I did work on our rest day and I probably should have taken the time for my body and mind to heal, but whatever it was I couldn’t bring myself to get past the pain of cycling and actually enjoy the jouney and the culture. I was disappointed because I had really looked forward to Bulgaria since two of my best friends in college were Bulgarian and when we got our first room in London we shared the house with a few Bulgarians who were some of the nicest people I have ever met.

True to my stereotype, the Bulgarian people were warmer than any we had met in a long time. The towns we visited were relatively charming and the food and accommodation had definitely improved since Romania and Serbia. There was a definite feeling of ‘up and coming’ in Bulgaria. You could instantly tell that this was a country that was modernising and changing quickly.

We needed to ride major roads to make it through the mountains efficiently and I can say pretty confidently that ‘Those roads are not meant for bicycles’! There were no hard shoulders to escape onto and even on dual lane roads the drivers chose to drive as close to you as possible and not take up a position in the other lane, as would seem sensible. We road in line as close to each other as possible with as much high vis gear and as many twinkling lights as we could manage to put on. My partner even attempted swaying into the road behind me with the intention of making drivers more aware of our presence, but nothing seemed to help. It often felt like we were sitting ducks waiting to be picked off and we would entertain ourselves on every ride by counting down the miles until we managed to leave one major road for another.

We hadn’t stayed with a Warmshowers host since Germany and it had gotten to a point where we missed the opportunity to get to know a place through the people that lived there. My partner booked us a host for the evening after our hardest climb in the Balkans. Shipka Pass is a 14 mile climb up a twisting road with an average 6-7% gradient. Lucky for us the traffic was actually not that bad, and relatively slow moving. With my partner happily taking in the views and enjoying the mountain breeze, I was pedalling hard and trying to focus on the climb. After 1200 meters we did make it and then we walked the last obligatory stairs to see the war monument and views, which were breathtaking. Unfortunately however the conclusion of the ride was weighing on my mind, I was petrified of the tight turns at steep gradients that I knew were awaiting us. Like a grandma on a bike I did come down the slope at minimum speed, however as soon as we made it over the mountain the heavens opened. We arrived to our Warmshowers host exhausted and soaked through.

Like all of our previous hosts, the Bulgarian family was welcoming and accommodating. We passed out in his unfinished upstairs apartment after the ride and woke up famished and bleary eyed. We had dinner with the family and discussed what sounded like fantastic mountain bike trails around the country. He wasn’t surprised, and actually agreed with us, about Bulgarian drivers and roads. We had hoped he would be able to help us alter our route so that we could continue on quieter roads but unfortunately he generally agreed with the routes we had mapped and we knew there would be a few more days of pain in store for us.

I was exhausted and deflated by my experience in Bulgaria. Since Begrade we had been riding hard with only a few rest days. We were climbing more than we had since the Black Forest and we were following our own route on busy, scary roads. I felt at saturation point with the bike touring and I knew the only cure for this feeling was the experience of entering an entirely new culture and finally seeing the sea.

Again we got up very early on our last day in Bulgaria and road as quickly as we could to the Greek border, we road for 35kms through the rolling hills of Greece until we finally came to our last border crossing on this part of our journey. With tears of joy brimming in our eyes we entered Turkey and knew we would soon swim in the ocean.

A Wild Ride Through Serbia (Part 2)

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).

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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.