It’s always an exciting prospect when there’s a border crossing coming up. Today we would be crossing into Bulgaria, back into the EU, but also the last European country of the trip – after Bulgaria would come Turkey and a whole different part of the trip, but that’s future. Today, the last bit of Serbia and the start of Bulgaria.
The morning consisted of riding down out of the mountains and into the flat land that ran between the last big town in Serbia before the border of Pirot. The ride down was similar to the previous days, narrow roads that ran along the hills. But today was overcast, and with a blustery headwind which slowed us a bit (but not much)
Pirot wasn’t all that much to look at once we arrived. It bore all the marks of being s border town, lots of place changing money and selling cartons of cigarettes. We arrived a bit before lunch we stopped for a break. While we were sat outside a cafe a big tall Serbian guy came over to us and started chatting in English with us.
He had seen our bikes and heard is talking and wanted to find out a bit more. Never got his name, but he was an interesting guy. From Serbia originally he now lived most of the time in Sweden with his family and was back in Pirot visiting. He was very interested in the trip and after talking a while was suddenly struck with an idea!
He had friends who worked for a Serbian TV station not five minutes down the road, they would be very interested to talk to two Irish guys cycling to Nepal who had just crossed their country and he raced off to find them.
It would be great to be able to say we made it onto Serbian television, but unfortunately his friends weren’t available at the time and we had to move on.
The road from Pirot to the border was flat, straight into a headwind and boring enough not want further description.
We crossed the border a bit before three with no difficulty. The border was surprisingly quiet, I would have expect more people to be crossing over, maybe if we arrived in August there would be queues of people heading into Bulgaria to get to the seaside.
After the crossing we climbed for a bit over an hour across the highland that separate the two countries geographically. The wind was starting to pick up and the sky beginning to darken. The fist Bulgarian town over the border was a place called Dragoman. We picked up some stuff for dinner at a market there and then checked the weather forecast and saw this:
The wind was blowing stronger and we figured we should start trying to find somewhere to camp before the storm stated to cross us. We rode out of Dragoman for a while, intending to stop as soon as possible but there were no suitable camping spot up here on the exposed highlands. As a result we ended up hauling our bikes through some bushes, across a train track and into a field where we took shelter from the wind in a little dip in the field at the corner, covered by trees on two sides.
That night just before the rain came we were chased into our tents by the most vicious mosquitoes we had encountered. It started raining early on and continued non stop, but our spot was thankfully sheltered from the worst of the wind.
Once again our morning stared with a climb, and today it was a climb with some of the best views we’ve had in Serbia. It was a bright, clear day and unlike yesterday we were riding up hill on a nice, smooth, sealed Tarmac road. It was a really fun ascent, the gradient changed drastically every couple of meters so you could be riding along on a relaxed gradual climb and then be sweating it up some 13% kick, which could then smooth out to flat and so on.
The road was quiet, we were passed only by a few tractors and passed ourselves a couple of horse drawn carts. From the top we rolled downhill almost 20km, through the odd farming hamlet with some old people milling around, into the surprisingly pleasant river town of Knjazevac.
It was lunchtime by the time we reached Knjazevac so we stopped here for a while and spent some time on cafe wifi looking for hosts in the next city we would visits: Sofia, updating the blog – just the general sort of admin stuff you need to mooch of cafe wifi for an hour or two to do.
Out of Knjazevac was a lovely long and very, very gradual climb up a wide valley back into the mountains (or the foothills, whatever they are they’d be considered mountains in Ireland).
Riding along up this quiet valley for ninety minutes brought us to the town of Štrbac where, once again, there was a public fountain of drinking water. We filled our bottles and started off again to ride for another ninety minutes or so and then camp.
About thirty minutes outside the town we passed a waterfall with a large flat grassy bank beside, perfect for camping. You don’t always pass such nice spot to stay at so we decided to call it a day a bit early and set up by the waterfall.
The waterfall served as a great shower, we hadn’t washed since Belgrade so this was a welcome bonus of our campsite for the night. It started to get dark at about 7:30 and then it got cold a bit after that. Yes, our fist somewhat chilly night of the trip so far! Autumn seems to be moving along a lot faster than we expected.
Out of the camp this morning we continued on the climb we had begun out of Resavica the evening before. For much of the morning the road was similar to yesterday, a quiet country course that went up over the hills, scarred and pockmarked from the multitudinous potholes that were either forming or had been filed in.
At the bottom of the descent after the morning climb (during which time we passed by first an army barracks and then what appeared to be a holiday resort) the road forked. On our map both roads would eventually hit a larger secondary road that ran perpendicular to the two, and this larger road would take us out to the next town where we could find the next road south to the border (that wasn’t a busy road anyway).
So it was left or right, both would take us to the same location. Left seemed to be a smaller road still than the one we were on, so we figured that would be the more interesting route to take.
Interesting was one way to describe it, challenging probably another. We cycled along for a couple of kilometres, and the road then turned to a gravel track, which turned into a rocky strip and then finally a rocky and muddy trail, all going uphill. It was a fun ride, looking back on it, and it was utterly quiet the whole way, we passed only a smattering of dwellings and no tractors or motorbikes (the only motor vehicles that could probably navigate this track).
At the time though, it was tough. There was a lot of getting off and pushing when the rocks got to big, or the mud to thick. We spent about two hours making this climb, and at the top the road got better. Once we started descending we found ourselves back on sealed Tarmac again. We followed the descent into a river valley and stopped at the bottom for lunch.
After lunch we got onto the secondary road we had been trying to reach and in comparison to what we had been riding before this was the best road in Europe. We crested a climb out of valley and found ourselves up on a plateau with a big mountain stretching up out of it and it w as under this vista that we rode out east to Boljevac, a town where we could get on another tertiary route south to the border.
At Bojlevac, another one of these country towns with high rise apartment blocks, we picked up some supplies in the supermarket and filled up our water at the public tap in the square. A little bit of searching and we found the right road out of town that would take us south over the hills. We rode for thirty more minutes, but it was starting to get dark earlier and earlier so it wasn’t long before we were looking for spots to camp.
We ended up down by a stream next to an old stone bridge, one of our more picturesque camping spots, it’s always nice to find somewhere to sleep that isn’t the corner of a field.
The road from our campsite under the bridge to the next town over of Petrovac was a 15 km straight shot that undulated gently but never turned into a proper climb or descent. The weather today was much cooler than it had been for the past month. Ever since we crossed into Slovenia it was balmy and hot every day. Now it was a bit overcast and there was a slight chill in the breeze. As we rode along the road we started to notice the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn into the gold and red colours of Autumn. It seemed as though the season had changed overnight.
Out of Petrovac we rode on the flat, but soon we rounded a corner and saw mountains looming up to our left in a long continuous ridge save for a deep grove, a gorge, that looked like a gateway in some massive wall.
Our path actually took is through the gorge, along the course of the river that ran through it. Climbing up higher into the mountains we realised how much we actually enjoyed the uphill struggle, not only was the riding more interesting but it also often led to more interesting places.
This wasn’t some pass to be crossed, panting up switchbacks though. This was a nice long, winding route to through relatively small (highest peak only went up to 1500m) mountains. We passed by small towns, farms, barns, little orthodox churches. We were passed by all sorts of trucks, tractors, soviet-era motorbikes and horse drawn carts – and cars, too.
At the end of the day we came upon the strange town of Resavica, one of these places out in the middle of nowhere that someone had decided to drop a couple of high rise apartment blocks around. The town itself served as the terminus for what seemed to be an industrial freight only railway.
We decided to see if we could find somewhere for dinner here. The firs place we tried told us to go to the hotel.
“Where is the Hotel?”
“It’s big red building”
The hotel was, indeed, a big red building. I’d say it hadn’t been red when it was built, but somewhere along the line someone decided that it would be a good idea to spruce it up a bit by painting the whole thing red with a bright blue trim. In this drab Serbian town it stood out like a sore thumb. We were the only people in the whole establishment, we ordered “something good”(the whole menu being in Cyrillic) and got a plate of two big pieces of pork and a side of veg and fries each (€5).
Well fed we left Resavica behind and rode uphill for about ten minutes until we found somewhere to turn off the road and camp in amongst the trees.
Waking up we found we hadn’t made it as far out of the city as we though we had. I fact we were still pretty much right in the city. We wanted to follow the EuroVelo route along the Danube for a bit, but it wasn’t really feasible as it took us too far out of the way on the wrong side of the river.
So we followed the main road out of town, towards Smederevo the next city over. The route out was a bit hectic. High street shops turned into low rise stores and then side of the road stalls as the road got more and more narrow – but the traffic didn’t disperse. We had to ride sandwiched between a tram track in the right and the flow of traffic on our left, but it was exciting in its own way.
After we had reached the final outskirts of the city the traffic calmed a lot. We rode along undulating hills near the Danube, while in the other side of the river flat land stretched out for miles. Ill take the hills any day, riding for miles and miles on the flat isn’t half as interesting.
We arrived in Smederevo, which exists as a city because of the simple fact that it is the last bridge over the Danube before the border of Romania. We had lunch here and then put the Danube to our backs and struck out towards Požervac, a town where we could get on a road south towards the Bulgarian border that avoided the motorway.
Not much to say about the ride between Smederevo and Požervac except that it was flat and on a main road. We had been getting a lot. More friendly beeps than angry beeps though since we left Belgrade. In fact, after we had gotten on to our southward-bound route after Požervac, I’d say every third or forth car was giving us a wave. One Turkish family in a German registered Mercedes even pulled up alongside while we road and had a wee chat.
It was starting to get dark so we were on the lookout for campsites. Crossing a small bridge we saw that the stream in crossed had long dried up. It had been threatening to rain all day, so the prospect of some solid shelter sealed the deal and we wheeled down under the bridge. That night it did rain hard, and the solid concrete held up very well.
The day of our arrival into Belgrade we ran into not one but three people from Ireland!
The first was shortly after we woke up, we had camped 20km outside Belgrade so we could get a whole day out of the city when we arrived. On the road out of our where we had slept we ran into a guy with a dog at a gas station. He overheard me and Finn talking and came storming our the bathroom where he was filling water bottles. This was Mark Keating. He was from Brey and was in the Balkans walking a big loop for four months with his dog Pajo to raise money for Crumlin. He has just started so I’d say running into two guy from back home would have given him a nice lift in the spirits, he seemed to enjoy the chat for sure. He has his own website you should check out: http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/walk-for-their-lives-1915/
Leaving Mark behind after a long aul’ chin wag we continued on to Belgrade. The toad into the city was really busy, but with a stroke of good fortune we managed to find ourselves on a quieter back road that followed the Sava and then turned into an even quieter cycle track which we followed all the way into the city.
While stopped at an intersection to get our bearings on the way to a hostel we heard someone shout at us with a Cork accent. This was Carolyn; currently living in Dublin, originally from cork. She had just finished a cycle along the Danube with her boyfriend Gavin. She invited us up into the apartment they were AirBnBing for tea (which was greatly appreciated as the apparent was air conditioned and we’d been out in the heat for four days). We had a good natter there with the two of them.
Our hostel was not great, but it was a bed indoors which is all we really need in the end. It had a bath though, which was a plus, I could finally repair the small puncture in my air mattress that had been there since Croatia.
As always most of our time in the city was spent researching, planning and acquiring stuff for the tour but we got a bit of sight seeing done, as much as there is to be done in Belgrade. On the second day Finn finally heard back from the Croatian post that the package he had been expecting in Split was in Zadar and that he had to go collect it in person. Finn took the night bus back to Zadar, I stayed in Belgrade.
We met back up again at 7pm the next day, Finn with solar charger – the contents of the package – in hand. We were to leave Belgrade this evening and find somewhere just outside to camp, but walking back to the bikes we passed an open air cinema set up in the park, and decided to watch (it was The Usual Suspects). Unfortunately a huge rain storm blew in and it had to be cancelled as everyone ducked for cover.
We waited out the storm and then got back to the bikes. We rode out to the banks of the Danube and found somewhere to camp.
Not a very eventful day today, for most of the day the road was flat, not very scenic and it was very hot.
Leaving our little copse at which we camped we rejoined the same road we followed yesterday and rode on until we came across a bakery to pick up some bread for breakfast. A small commercial area had grown up around a crossroads a little ways down the road, and here we found a place just finished baking bread.
The journey after breakfast was, as I said, very dull, the road was straight and lined with either houses or farms. As the only road to Belgrade before the motorway the road was also really busy.
I don’t really remember much about this stretch as it was all pretty much the same. When finally the turn off for the motorway came up we were relieved. From then on there was a lot less traffic, as we climbed up into some hills, a bit more interesting riding.
We rode through the hills until mid afternoon, going through long stretches of countryside, occasionally passing through a small village or hamlet. We took a break at the first shop we saw, bought an ice cold drink and took shelter in the shade. We must have looked like wrecks after cycling for three days now in the heat. The woman who ran the shop took pity on us and offers us somewhere to sit. She then very generously pulled out to big bottles of water from the fridge and handed them to us.
Buoyed by our encounter with the friendly shopkeeper we continued our day, enjoying the ride a lot more even though the scenery and route were still much the same. Arriving in the town of Obrenovac we decided to call it a day, we were only 20km from Belgrade here and could easily make it into the city in the morning. We chilled out in Obrenovac, which is a very nice town focused around a central square with an awesome soviet style monument commemorating WWII.
The day began with a descent into the town of Vlasenica where we picked up some bread out of a bakery for breakfast. The road continued downhill for the rest of the morning after this. We were following a river from its spring in the mountains we came out of yesterday, down down out of the foothills where it got a wider and slower until we finally reached flat ground two hours later, the river by now slow and swollen, cutting through the land in huge meanders.
We followed the bank of the river for maybe thirty minutes, passing by small shacks, fisherman and numerous little wooden jetties. There were a lot of small tunnels that punctuated the road where rocky outcrops the river couldn’t erode remained.
We arrived at Zvonik, the last Bosnian town we would pass through before crossing into Serbia later on today. We got rid of the last of our Bosnian Marks on a refreshing ice coffee (it was hot, we hadn’t noticed on the descent what with the flowing river on one side and the cool rock face on the other).
Leaving Zvonik an hour later we crossed the bridge and found ourselves crossing into Serbia. Immediately we found that the road wasn’t in as good nick, there were less houses around and it had gotten hotter as we moved away from the banks of the river.
We rode along as it hotter and hotter. We hoped to stop at a market or somewhere to get lunch, but with no money and no exchange stands or ATMs in sight we had little reason to stop, so we just pushed on. After another two hours of this though, we decided to wait out the rest of afternoon in a small cafe attached to a tiny petrol station next to the road. We got going again at 5.
At 6 we pulled into the town of Lesnica where we came across an ATM and got out some local currency. Now we were on the lookout for somewhere to eat. I locked up the bikes while Fin went over to a young guy hanging out beside a promising establishment to see if we could get food there. From over by the bikes I heard the guy exclaim “you can speak English, its ok!” This was Mihail.
Mihail owned the place Finn had approached, and while his place didn’t do food, the butcher next door had a grill out the back where he would cook what he sold. Mihail recommended what looked like a burger with a bunch of herbs and spices and then took us next door to his bar where he bought us a beer and had a chat while we waited for the food to cook.
We ended up staying and talking with Mihail until it got dark, he was a really interesting guy with loads of stories and insights about growing up in Serbia and how it was today. We left, thanking him and promising we’d get in contact again before Christmas. Night had fallen since we had been taking and we rode out into the dark, lit by the street lights. The road, which before had been so devoid of development now had houses and farms lining it the whole way. We pulled off for a bit until we found a small copse of trees that we could haul our bikes between into a small clearing within where we slept, or at least tried to, through one of the warmest nights so far.