This post covers our time cycling in Serbia, largely following the Euro Velo 6 route along the Danube river. We enjoyed two wonderful weeks here in July and look forward to visiting again to explore more of this welcoming country.
Serbia is a wonderful country to explore by bike. Admittedly we only covered a small part of the country, largely sticking to the Euro Velo 6 route along the Danube river. This is popular among cycle tourers, particularly in the warmer month, so you will meet other cyclists on route. The EV6 passes through the Iron gates gorge which for us was a highlight of the Danube. The signage for the EV6 route is usually easy to spot; turnings are marked so do not turn if there is no sign. The roads are in good condition, the drivers are extremely courteous, but it is the people that stood out for us; they are extremely warm and generous. Stray dogs are of course common, as in many Eastern European countries, and the tap water is perfectly fine. We met a seasoned Israeli cycle tourer during our time here who had spend the past month cycling in Serbia alone and we hope to do the same one day.
Crossing the Croatian border control was pretty fluid, just a cursory glance at the cover of our passports. Things felt a little more official on the Serbian side of the Svetozara Miletića bridge. We had to wait in line with the cars and the guard turned a few pages in our passports before stamping our entry - our first official stamp!
This was also the first country on the trip that neither of us had visited before. As with any arrival into an unknown place there’s a natural reaction to try and suss the place out. There is no better way of doing this than people watching, and there is no better setting for people watching than a beach. So this is exactly what we did and found within the first few hours.
After having a lazy afternoon on the beach we began to think about where we’d sleep for the night. Wild camping in a country we hadn’t fully yet grasped seemed an odd choice but from our research Serbia was far less set up for campsites. We began hunting along the river bank.
Spots that we’d earmarked on our maps were slowly being eliminated. One notable rejection was the spot’s proximity to a man-made forest, full of angry dogs, surrounded by barbed wire. With the light fading I dived into the last area of forest before we were in a built up urban area again. The spots I surveyed along the river were muddy and smelt stagnant but had fewer mosquitos than previous searches. I ran back to Beck waiting on the fringes of the forest to tell her the good news.
After pushing the bikes through the forest to what I thought was a secluded spot, Beck noticed a man through the trees, standing on a tied up barge on the rivers edge, a moped propped nearby. Not to show we were spooked I suggested we started cooking to play it cool. After exchanging a few glances, the man swung his leg over the moped and rode off into the forest. We listened to the noise of a struggling engine fade to nothing to reassure ourselves he’d gone.
Cacking ourselves but out of options we tasked ourselves with setting up the tent. Just as we starting doing so, the noise of the moped engine rose from the forest again. Arriving from the opposite direction he’d left, the man pulled closer to us and asked us something in Serbian. “Um, English sorry”. “Ahh”, he said in a jolly tone and turned off his engine. I didn’t know what to make of this. I assumed the worst and thought he was pleased as he’d get to bludgeon us to death with his special weapon reserved for foreigners. But it was much better than that. In perfect English he explained that he was the park ranger (but wore none of the official uniform that might suggest this). He recommended we set up our tent on the barge, which was property of the national park. Now totally at ease we thanked him for the kind gesture and wasted no time in setting up. Maybe sensing our uplift in mood, he kept things weird by adding the smell along the riverbank was because “there are a lot of dead animals here”. And with that he left us in peace.
This was probably one of our most unusual camping spots. We sat back back and worked our way through our locally brewed wine we’d picked up in our last night in Croatia and blissfully watched the stars. We didn’t even let the fisherman across the water shouting something at us ruin our night.
This surreal forest presented one final surprise as we made our way back to the path in the morning. Stood high on the flood dyke as we pushed our way out of the foliage stood a huge boar. We froze as it starred down at us, steam, burning orange from the morning light, rising from its back and mouth. There was no way I was walking back though the forest so I edged past with my bike between the beast and I to show Beck it would be ok. I felt brave but in all honesty it barely moved as I slipped past and it let Beck do the same.
Rolling into Novi Sad it became evident it was the weekend of Exit, a dance festival held in the Petrovaradin fortress across the river from the city. It was around 7:30am and everyone was making their way back to the tents. I have never felt so fresh as I rolled against the tide of people at the tail end of a 24-hour bender. Having said that, if we were forward thinking enough we’d have definitely got tickets…
That night we stayed on a ‘domestic’ campsite, i.e. someone’s garden, to digest our previous night and get some chores done. Yasna the campsite owner was a very warm host, plying us nuts and fruits grown in her own garden. She spoke of the spirituality of owning a dog and how much enjoyment her dog ‘Peggy’ provided. I’m not sure if the dog reciprocated these feelings as it escaped later that evening. Yasna totally lost her shit, so of course we wasted no time in helping her look around the neighbourhood as she cried out the dog’s name. I’m pleased to say Peggy was found safe and sound half an hour later in the next door neighbour’s garden.
The next morning with recommendations from Yasna we pedalled on to Belgrade. Beck and I loved this city. We loved the approach through the cobbled streets high up in the suburbs and along the Danube waterfront before crossing into the main centre. We loved the commanding topography making it easy to navigate and continually offered amazing views out to the surrounding landscape. We loved the laid back atmosphere of the cool bars and restaurants, with workers that - unlike London - weren’t so obsessed with their own personal image that they forgot to do their job.
We really enjoyed Novi Sad too but for different reasons; maybe because it felt more European. The locals told us this is because of the influence from the Habsburg Empire days. Belgrade definitely had a unique identity that could only be said to be Serbian.
After a few days rest we got back on the bikes and headed for the 'Iron Gates' gorge. Many people we’d met previously had said the gorge, where the Danube slices through the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains, marked the climax of the EV6 cycle route. We entered it on a rainy day but this only added to the sense of atmosphere. Parting clouds offered glimpses of the 500m cliffs that flanked the river.
The weather lifted from the following morning and the next few days was an unforgettable ride along a corniched road and through tunnels that burst out to unbelievable views. We also faced our first few serious climbs since searching for the source in Germany.
See more picture here.
At the end of the gorge we had the option of crossing into Romania or staying on the Serbian side of the Danube. We’d heard Romain drivers were less accommodating to cyclists on the road (and we couldn’t be arsed drawing out another currency) so we stayed S-side (where drivers are considerate) and cycled away from the river. This may seem odd to some but peeling away from the Danube/EV6 route felt like an end of an era, albeit an era that had lasted only a few weeks. We’d watched the river grow from its source in Germany to the majesty of the previous few days. We’d grown an affection for it. But this was a good decision as Serbia had one final farewell gift for us.
On our last night in Serbia we stayed at another domestic campsite we’d found in Negotin, near the border with Bulgaria. The town was fairly unremarkable and when we got to the door of the campsite, we double checked our maps to be sure this ‘house’ was the right place. We went through the gate and found a perfectly urban oasis of a garden. The owner, Bojan, warmly introduced himself and immediately served us up with two cold beers- 'on the [literal] house'. It transpired that the whole set up was specifically geared towards cycle tourists so our host knew exactly what to do: put your bikes under cover, throw your rancid clothes in the free washing machine (scented fabric softener is on us), fresh towels in the bathroom and the kitchen’s all yours.
Another solo cycle tourer arrived later in the evening, a guy from Israel. We spoke about everything other than asking each others name!! He was stopping at the campsite for a second time having completed a month-long loop of Serbia. A seasoned cycle tourer in his 50s, we struggled to find a country on our anticipated route he hadn’t been and had acute knowledge of (save for any Islamic countries which he couldn’t visit due to his nationality). We all went for a mound of Ćevapi in a local restaurant and absorbed everything he had to say, from bike kit to what hills we should avoid in Georgia. The next morning he fixed Beck’s brakes, tweaked my gears and had a good laugh at how much weight we were carrying. The weigh-in confirmed I was carrying 48kg (luggage + bike + food) Beck was carrying 45kg (luggage + bike + water). This has triggered a radical re-think, an enLIGHTenment as it has come to be known (more on this soon).
We finally tore ourselves away just before midday, with Bojan and our new Israeli friend waving us off as we headed for the Bulgarian border. We were sad to leave behind this place but we couldn’t have asked for a better send-off. M
Total days on road: 61
Total rest days: 12
Total distance completed: 3,749 Km
Recent bike repairs: New cassette, chain, cables and tyres for Beck!
Best food: Burek, Cevapi, Custard pastry, Serbska salad
Cravings: Malteasers, Branston Pickle; Toast