Our first venture out of the EU (apart from Switzerland). A country with border control, where they all to see your passport on entry and stamp a visa upon it.
You can be here but you don’t belong here.
We’ve had it so easy, freedom of movement. What have we done…?!?
On leaving Hungary our route intended us to go through Croatia for a few days before entering Serbia, but on approaching the border we found a van full of armed police (watching telly) who pointed us another way. There’s no way through, they told us.
They indicated another road which was punctuated every half kilometre with a young man gazing towards the border, armed and completely bored. Many gazing at their phones instead, barely lifting their eyes to acknowledge to two dusty cyclists rumbling by.
Eventually we passed through the border, without any drama, and stopped at the next town to regather our thoughts.
Wrong route, no phone data. Need a plan.
Have a pastry. Luckily we’d stocked up in Hungary, because of course there’s a new currency to deal with too.
We sketch out two route options, one straight through Serbia, north west to south east on the main roads. The second, back to the border with Croatia to continue our original route. We decide on Croatia , then immediately start dithering when we see signposts for the eurovelo 6 pointing the main road way down a decent looking cycle track. We dither some more. We haven’t had to make many serious route choices as we go up until now. Finally, based on being smiled and waved at on our way through town we decide to carry on through Serbia. Or at least to the next big town where we plan to get some WiFi and research some routes.
We roll in to Sombor little while later. Its 4pm by now, and the diversion has severely limited our progress. We find a cafe where we can sit outside, near our bikes and far enough away from humans to not feel ok about not having showered for a few days.
Our research turns up a campsite just outside the town with 5 star reviews and a bike in their logo. We decide to call it a day and head over there too make some plans, get clean, recalibrate.
This campsite is the bomb. In a good way.
A kitchen for guests, with a fridge and a cooker. Hot and cold filtered water.
There’s Wi-Fi, a nice little sitting area, an honesty bar.
There’s showers, a pool, and a sauna.
There’s even a little washing machine which we didn’t need to pay extra for.
The owners were great, really helpful and friendly. Deserved every bit of the 5 stars.
In the meantime we decided on another route across Serbia, following the Danube more or less, then into Romania, Bulgaria then onto Turkey. I was glad, as I didn’t feel that I’d said goodbye to the Danube yet.
The next four days we traversed Serbia – passing through Novi Sad, Belgrade and countless little villages and towns on the way. Most of the time we were sharing the road with traffic, which was occasionally horrendous, but usually ok.
We took one detour through a lush forest, which ended in a gigantic building site, then a steep and mosquito ridden hill Back to the optional route.
It’s a poor country. There’s no hiding that. It’s pretty run down in a lot of respects, houses with once grand looking fascias now looking tired and dilapidated. Tips out of town – literally just dumping grounds. Rubbish strewn everywhere. Feral dogs rummaging. So much road kill.
Some of the villages have some money at least – they have new buildings, with columns and balconies.
I don’t know enough of Serbia’s history or present day situation to say much about it. It’s not our place to judge, we’re just passing through.
I liked that people take time to wave and smile and shout at us. We’ve become accustomed to little toots of the horn on the road, often indicating that they are about to pass, that they are there, that we’re seen. It feels friendly.
So, here’s what happened.
The first couple of days were flat, and not spectacular scenery wise.
Belgrade was unpleasant to negotiate at rush hour, and we made no attempt to stop to get a better sense of the place.
Day four we found ourselves bumping along another cycle track on a dyke, and were just about to stop for lunch when we spied a cycle tourist up ahead who’d clearly stopped to have a chat.
We never found out his name, but we call him Jorges, from Majorca. We had a bit of a chat, found out we were riding the same sort of route but we let him roll on as we needed to stop for lunch.
Jamie and I had discovered there was a ferry as part of the route, and had done a bit of research at the place we’d stayed overnight. One blog post we’d read said the boat left at 11am, 1pm, 3pm. We’d realised we weren’t going to make the 1pm boat when we decided to eat, but it wasn’t massively far so the 3pm sailing sounded ok.
After lunch the track got worse, more and more rugged and bumpy. We came of that on to glorious tarmac with 40 minutes and 14km-ish to travel. Doable.
We set off at a pace. Calculations going in my head. Ideally we’d keep a 28km/hour average so we have leeway for misdirection etc. Unbelievably we build up to 30-32km/hour – this is fast for a fully laden touring bike – and I think – amazing.
We’re counting down the kilometres. We see Jorges up ahead and slow down for long enough to tell him that the ferry is at 3pm and indicate that he can join the slipstream. I don’t think I’m taking a ferry, he says looking at his phone. Fair enough, we don’t hang around.
Ok, a turn coming up, we swing down on to a track. A bumpy rutted track beside the river. Shit.
I look ahead. I don’t see a ferry dock.
I check the sat-nav. 5km.
Our pace rapidly slows. It’s the kind of surface where speed is your friend to roll over the top of the bumps, but any wrong move and you’ve ground to a halt and you’re being bounced from pothole to pothole.
I’m not keeping up.
Jamie’s up ahead.
Just keep going.
We dodge cows who are happily grazing across the track oblivious to the time.
Just do what you can.
Don’t check the time.
Just keep going.
Finally some buildings come into view.
Jamie’s going to get there and make them wait.
It’ll be ok.
I roll up, sweating and heady, at 3.00 on the dot.
He says something.
I’m breathing so hard I can’t hear him.
I’m looking for the ferry.
It’s not there.
He says something again and points.
I focus on a sign and finally compute what he’s saying.
The ferry left at 2.30
A few minutes later Jorges appears. “The dogs”, he says, “did you see them? They got me”. His back bags are little torn. He looks shaken.
“You guys move fast.”
We apologise for misleading him on the time. The next and last ferry of the day leaves at 5.30, but at least there’s a lovely restaurant to sit at.
We drink beer in the shade and talk about bikes and life and travels. Jamie takes the opportunity to do – and talk about – some bike maintenance. Jorges reveals he hasn’t changed his chain since he started, 4000km ago. It didn’t look in the best shape, and Jamie couldn’t enthuse him to do anything with it.
The boat arrives and we board with some cars and foot passengers who’d clearly found a better route to the ferry.
Its 6pm by the time we disembark. We travel together for a hour, through breathtaking scenery in the almost dusk. The hills have found us, the Danube is right there being all stunning. The light is sensational.
We wave farewell when Jorges stops to find somewhere to sleep in town and we continue on to find a wild camp spot.
The following day has an epic climb waiting for us, which we leave late in the day to tackle. Partly purposeful, it was hot, and we sat late over lunch in a scenic restaurant bought with our last few dinars – homemade cheese, homemade bread, grilled chillis, and chips.
But the morning had been glorious, riding through the gorge. We rode on the road, but there was little traffic and what there was treated us with caution. There were
sections going in and out of tunnels, with blinding beatiful vistas waiting after each bout of darkness. These were interspersed with bridges spanning tree carpeted valleys, lush in their spring greenery.
The afternoon climb was ok. I’d been feeling increasingly anxious about it all day, but it happened, and as often is the case when I climb I had some words with myself, and had a small revelation or two.
I could choose to like climbing hills. Hmm. I think this is true, but I’ll have to ponder it some more.
As expected some more astonishing views at the top, which we failed to capture in photograph effectively.
We decided to camp on the mountain, rather than come down late and then scramble for somewhere to camp. We didn’t pick a great spot, and found ourselves too close to someone’s comings and goings for comfort, but it was too late to change location.
For once we were up early and off on the bikes by 8am. We began with a cheap 14km downhill and then the cycle to the border, which was uneventful other than bumping in to Jorges again. His chain would no longer carry him uphill, and he was now carrying a piece of pipe to ward off dogs – apparently more had liked the look of him.
We offered mechanical assistance, which he declined, and we parted ways – he to cross straight into Bulgary (as he called it), and us to venture into to the smiles of Romania.
Notes for cycle tourists.
Campsites in Serbia appear to open on May 1st, however I emailed a couple to ask whether we could stay and they replied saying they could arrange something. This was in the last week of April. In the end we only used the brilliant SoSul Campsite in Sombor.
We wild camped two other nights and if we were spotted no-one bothered us.
Two other nights we stayed in b&b/guesthouse, which were nothing to write home about.
It is a legal requirement that you register with the local police in the town/city where you are staying within 24 hours of your arrival in Serbia, unless you are staying in a hotel where you will be registered automatically on checking-in. If you don’t register you could be fined, detained or face a court appearance.
I was unsure how necessary this was, however the first campsite we stayed with filled in the paperwork for us.
I think we were suppressed to have a slip of paper for every night we were there but the next two nights the people we stayed with weren’t interested in filling out the forms, and one didn’t even care to see our passports.
As mentioned we wild camped the last two nights.
The border control at Portile de Fier didn’t ask to see the slips of paper, or ask where we’d stayed.
Stara Palankar – Ram ferry crossing
The ferry timetable seems to change monthly. On the back of the ticket there is a timetable, but it didn’t match the one pinned up outside the restaurant. They seem to go roughly every two hours.
If you need more accurate information you could try calling the restaurant – though it’s in their interest to have you hanging around!
The food at the restaurant smelled great, so if you can rock up prepared to eat some lunch.
The track the GPS took us on to reach the ferry wasn’t great, leave extra time for it, or find the long way round.