Wild camping by the Danube in Romania

Cycling Through Serbia and Romania

After the rugged roads of Hungary, we enjoyed two fantastic days cycling through the north of Croatia where we were treated to beautiful smooth tarmac roads, vineyard, pretty towns and a few hills.  It was a welcome break and we wished we could have stayed longer.  We then arrived in Serbia with quite a welcome.

We crossed the border into a town called Backa Palanka where we were due to make our first stay a host from Warm Showers, an online community of cycle tourers who are willing to offer a bed, sofa or space to pitch a tent in a garden to passing cyclists.  We were a little apprehensive as this was our first experience staying with ‘strangers’ so we thought it might be an idea to get a little Dutch courage in a local bar serving a bottle of beer for 73p (well, it would be rude not to).  What a error in judgement that turned out to be.

Staying with Zoran and his guests in Backa Palanka, Serbia

Staying with Zoran and his guests in Backa Palanka, Serbia

On arrival at our host Zoran’s house, we were welcomed into what he called his “little piece of paradise” with not one but two shots of Rakia as this is, apparently, the typical way to welcome a guest to your home in Serbia.  Thank goodness we had that beer…We then discovered that we were not Zoran’s only guests that night as two Spanish girls and a German guy who were touring Serbia on bikes were also guests, they’d just popped out to buy some beer.  Excellent.  So, feeling that we needed to get into the swing of things, we duly popped out to get a few beers and on our return we found that Zoran’s mum was also staying and had cooked us all dinner; a traditional Serbian pastry based meal with tomatoes from the garden.  A couple of beers, some food and good conversation with our new friends learning more about our fellow guests. Zoran told us how he had spent much of his childhood refugee camps during the Kosovo crisis, however we did subsequently learn that he now had a successful career in the construction business and had traveled around Europe working on some great projects.  That was until he quit a few days before as he’d fallen out with his boss.

Around 9.30pm I was thinking, what a great evening, I’m looking forward to a shower and a good night’s sleep, when Zoran stood up and said, “Emily, James…quick shower and we get ready to go to out” [sic]. Panic set in.  We had 150km the next day planned into Belgrade, and had already had a few beers, and that Rakia.  But, what can you do?  Your host wants to party, and is allowing you to stay in his home for free, along with some peer pressure from the Spanish girls, (OK we didn’t need that much convincing) we duly showered and headed out to the local night spot, a small bar in town. What a fun time. Turns out that all the people in the bar where a similar age to us, and all grew up watching Only Fools and Horses and ‘Allo ‘Allo (a little awkward when explaining to the German member of our group) so many jokes were shared and appreciated.

Around 12.30, a few more compulsory Rakias later (it is rude to say no to a host after all…..) we headed home. We could not wait to get to sleep but it turns out that Zoran on the other hand had other ideas. On arrival back home he turned up the drum and base, stripped down to his shorts and started prancing around the house. Evidently he had been on the Rakia all day. Excellent. After a while, we were starting to contemplate finding somewhere to camp when he realised that we might actually need to sleep so showed us to a room on the other side of his house that we could sleep in and within minutes we were asleep.

The 7am alarm the next day was not remotely fun, nor was the cycle along the flooded cycle paths into Novi Sad, around 40km away. Here we had some food, drank a lot of coke and water and continued towards Belgrade.

With about 50km to go, and heads still pounding, we stopped for another Coke at a small shop and got chatting to an old guy with broken English.  When he discovered where we were from and how far we were cycling, he put his arm around James and started a rendition of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”.  James joined in the best he could whilst two other men, sipping their beers on a nearby bench, looked on with a look on bemusement.

We continued our ride into Belgrade where, thankfully, we had booked into a cheap guesthouse on the outskirts of the city.

Belgrade is not a beautiful place.  The city felt the full impact of the 78 day sustained bombings in 1999 during the Kosovo War as part of the NATO attempt to stop human rights abuses. The country as a whole has struggled to re-build the infrastructure and as a result the city is still under repair. One building has been left in its bombed state as a memorial and a reminder of the past.

Ministry of defense building in Belgrade damaged during the 1999 NATO bombing.

One day in Belgrade gave us a good flavour of the city and the underlying history however it was tricky be feel anything other that underwhelmed after all of the beautiful cities that we have been lucky enough to travel through. Apparently the night life in Belgrade is some of the best in Europe and therefore it is possibly worth a visit for the party animals out there.

President of the Republic of Serbia Building

President of the Republic of Serbia Building

The next day saw our departure from Belgrade and a shorter ride to a small Serbian town called Kovin. Although short, it was certainly not without its excitement. Belgrade is the steepest city I have ever visited, it baffles me why such a big city has developed on quite such steep slopes – all very well for the views and defensive position, but not so good for cyclist. A long ride uphill out of the city on a pretty main road which kept us on our our toes.

Once we were out of the city, we were greeted by our first set of unfriendly dogs. In this part of the world the dogs are real pests and we are expecting them to get worse. Dogs don’t like bicycles very much and so often they will chase you as you pass. When you struggle to reach 20km/hr on the flat, that can pose a problem, especially on hills as the dogs  are faster than you. We’ve been told that if you stop and get off the bikes, then they realise that you are humans and tend to back off. So far, this has worked out fine. With no owners, and no birth control, these dogs have freedom of the streets and breed like crazy, feeding off whatever they can get hold of.  On this occasion, we were greeted with around 7 dogs who all appeared out of the bushes barking furiously at us and chasing us up the road. With a deep breath, we stopped and got off the bikes and thankfully they ran off. But my goodness, I was happy to have passed them. Luck however was not on our side as we descended a relatively steep hill to be greeted by a security guard. Oh no…..what had we done? Apparently we were about to cycle through a huge nuclear facility. Not so good. So we turned around and of course, the only road out was up the steep hill past the dogs…..well, we are still here to tell the tale.
Cycling past Serbia's aggressive dogs

Cycling past Serbia’s aggressive dogs

Just outside Kovin while we were looking for a spot to camp, we chanced upon a small guesthouse on the banks of the Danube run by a charming couple called Draga and Ale who allowed us to camp in their garden. I was particularly amused by the photo of us they put onto their blog – which I believe to be a conversation as to whether we should have our helmets on or off for the photo but looks like we’re having an argument!

The next day we entered Romania, our 8th country and a country I had been really excited to visit.

Romania border crossing

Romania border crossing

Soon after crossing the border we were greeted by a 6km climb over a large hill which was by far the longest climb for a while and with a 12% gradient it definitely got the heart pumping again. Actually it felt good to be back on the hills as we have a lot coming up so it was good to start to get some climbing again. A descent into a town called Moldova Veche and we promptly looked for somewhere to stay. The town is right alongside the Danube and a lady in the town told us that around 6km further along is a great place to camp. We were not disappointed and so we dipped down off the road to set up camp on the side of the river just in time for a beautiful sunset.

Wild camping by the Danube in Romania

Wild camping by the Danube in Romania

The next day we were up early and continued our journey along the river.  The next 100kms were the most beautiful yet and a day’s cycling that I will never forget. A national park runs either side of the river – Romania on one side, Serbia on the other as the river travels through a giant gorge. It meant is was pretty hilly but with long winding switch backs and the views that we experienced as we meandered up tree lined roads overlooking the river, we were happy to climb all day long. It was breath taking. It is clear that Romania is investing in the area as we saw a number of new hotels, even water villas, being built along the river. I hope it does not become too developed as it is such a beautiful, peaceful place to come to escape the outside world. At the end of the day came a big climb to cross over where the river narrows from nearly 1000 to 150m at at area known as the Gates of Trojan. We had been recommended to pause at the summit and walk up to the very top of the cliffs so we stopped at a local shop for a cold drink, left our bikes with them and made our way up the very steep slope on foot to the view point. I’m not too keen on heights so the experience at the top was a little hair raising for me, especially as I watched James clamber on the rocks to get “the shot”!
Beautiful Danube gorge in Romania

Beautiful Danube gorge in Romania

A lovely descent ended the day where we stayed alongside the river.

From our best day on the road, to the worst. James wrote a blog about this already.

I’ve loved Romania – the people have been incredibly friendly wherever we have been. The older population tend to stare quite but they will wave and the children shout out Hello! Hello! Welcome! in every village, it’s been really good fun. It would not be Romania landscape without the traditional horse and carts flying past delivering farm goods and people around. It seems however that when driving a cart, it is compulsory to do so while drinking a 2 litre bottle of beer. Perhaps that is why everyone here is so friendly.

Our last day in Romania brought with it our first real mechanical issue with the bikes as I broke two spokes on my rear wheel. Having never fixed a spoke ourselves, we were bracing ourselves to work out the hard way, when a man approached us to see if we needed some help. Before we knew it, we had been whisked off to a back street bike shop where my wheel was taken away for repair. While we waited, the man who brought us there, Cezar, decided to stay with us and even bought us a drink and some local food. He was a sports massage student with a brother who was a doctor in London so he was happy to practice his English while telling us that the Romanians like to travel to England and the women are so nice. Hmmmm….

Sunset Turnu Măgurele Romania

Beautiful sunset as we cross the Danube for the last time from Turnu Măgurele Romania to Nikopol, Bulgaria

We managed to catch the last ferry across to Bulgaria where we managed to pitch the tent on the banks of the river Danube for one last time before we said goodbye to the river the next morning. It was a poignant moment for us both as we have been following the river for over 5 weeks now.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.

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