Through the Iron Gates

Our last day in Serbia was perfect. Lovely quiet roads, plenty of food, beautiful scenery, a tailwind. All the things a cyclist hopes for. There was a ferry crossing partway through the day, which was so expensive it caught us off guard. We knew we had another boat crossing to get to Romania, so we quickly went from wondering if there would be any place to change leftover money, to concerned about having enough Dinars left. We paid for the border ferry with about 30p to spare, even buying a bottle of drink that day would have left us unable to pay. The border crossing itself was from a textbook of how to take as long as possible to do a job and use what small power you have to make people wait for you.

The ferry and Romanian border were not where we thought they’d be. We thought we would dock in the town of Moldova Veche, but were dropped a couple of kilometres south. We made the smart decision to detour into the town to get supplies, because it turned out that there would be very few of those on this route, and to use a cashpoint of which we didn’t see another whilst in Romania.

The ride continued to be amazing, and even though it had been a bit stressful with the border crossing, we felt relaxed and were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We stopped somewhere before the village of Liubcova, but felt like we could go on for miles. We knew the next day had some climbing, which would be substantial in the heat. We didn’t know that there would be no shops, kiosks or roadside stalls. The morning arrived, and it was already in the 30s before 9am, so we knew it would be a scorcher. Still, the road was excellent, there was almost no traffic and the scenery was jaw dropping. Every corner we turned had me shaking my head at what I was seeing, and being grateful to be here. Don’t worry though, I can find some negatives! Oh god, the heat. It felt as though every bit of me was melting, and when there was a breeze it was the same feeling as when you open an oven door. We pulled over to some picnic tables in the shade – there are lots of parking areas on the route for people to pull over and enjoy the view – and spotted a monument with a natural spring fountain on the other side of the road. There are not many better feelings than to be baking hot and getting dehydrated, and be able to satiate your thirst with ice cold spring water. I filled up our water bottles, 6 litres in total, and had finished it by the end of the day.

A few kilometres further on and we could see the beginning of the climb in front of us, and even though it was hot and the road was steep, I was feeling pretty strong. I overtook Richard when he stopped for a drink, and when I next looked back he was nowhere to be seen. I have never been faster than him on a hill. I even had the energy to go back and get his bike when he was struggling even to push it. He’d had no fizzy drinks during the day, and while I’m happy and used to existing on water on a ride, his body was zonking without his usual sugar. We had a blissful downhill and then a shorter climb, which he could barely make it up. We stopped for the day after that, so he had time to recover. The following day’s climb saw normal service resume, with me plodding along up a hill and him in the distance, full of cola and iced tea.

But the excitement was building, as now we are cycling through the Iron Gates National Park, and a date with this:

Ever since I found out about the rock sculpture of Decebalus, the first couple of months of cycling has been all about seeing it. I’ve inundated Richard for about a year with links, pictures and endless talk about “Stone Face.” He didn’t know exactly which day we would get there (he insists he didn’t look it up, and he does have somewhat more self control than I do) but predicted that I wouldn’t be able to contain myself and would give it away. That part is kind of easy when I’m usually about a mile behind, but the dramatic rock formations and stalls up ahead made it obvious that Stone Face was near. It was surreal to be standing in front of something I’d imagined seeing for so long. It was exactly as advertised, there had been no glossing or shopping the online pictures, and no case of it being smaller in real life. Here he is again:

The road became quite a bit busier after Stone Face (though it’s still a fairly quiet road,) we think because many foreign tourists make a detour to see him, but there is no easy way to get there from the other side. We saw a few groups of touring motorcyclists go his way and then return the same way. The scenery drops off a bit from here also, and with the lack of services we’d experienced, the fact that we really enjoyed Serbia and its cheapness compared to Romania, we decided to cross back across the Iron Gates bridge. The ride between the town of Orsova (after Stone Face) and the bridge is one of the Danube’s notorious ones, but although it was hair raising in places, we lived. The Romanian border guard was a smiley happy chappy who wished us a safe journey onward.

Even though seeing the Stone Face was something I’ve looked forward to for ages, it was the last fixed place we had in mind, and now we can just go wherever we want. We do know we’d like to see more of small town Serbia, so that’s our only plan for the moment.

Hello, Salute.

Here is a playlist for the Iron Gates National Park ride:

Welcome to Serbia!

We had a smooth and efficient border exit from Croatia, followed by such a long stretch of no man’s land which, if you’re an over thinker (hello!) makes you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn and are now in Serbia illegally.

We rolled into the border town (Bačka Palanka) intending to stop for a coffee, when we were noticed by Trivo Ilic, who happily wanted to welcome us to Serbia, and insisted that we look round his business and have a chat and a cold drink. He has owned a driving school in the town for 30 years, and his father before him for 50 years, is also a professional football coach, and infectiously enthusiastic about those things and about how much we would like Serbia. He was adamant that his fellow Serbs would be kind and friendly to their visitors, and indeed he was right.

We’ve had some great cycling, and some awful cycling. There have been smooth tracks through rural villages, where we’ve come upon old school shepherd’s camps, complete with wooden crooks and herding on horseback. There have been long, fast narrow road sections, where the cars pass each other at insane speeds, and the roadside has countless memorial stones – we passed at least 10 in one 2 hour stretch. And we had a morning of lashing rain, which inevitably meant there had to be a long section of mud track. After about 100 metres both bikes became bogged down and we had to drag them back because the mudguards and brakes were too clogged for the wheels to turn, and then do a long detour to find a good road. The one thing that’s stayed consistent has been how warm and friendly the country’s people have been, and that’s kept our spirits up when things have been difficult.

And then nothing could have prepared us for the final part of our ride into Belgrade. There is no city I’ve cycled into that can touch Istanbul for near death experiences, but Belgrade is now second. There was no approach to the city that didn’t involve roads that looked like motorways. The final part was a bridge crossing. The good news is there’s a bike/footpath. The bad news is that sections of the paving were slanted and unstable and we could see all the way down. Not the greatest experience for someone scared of heights. The city itself wasn’t worth it at all. Travel sites probably bore on about the same copy & paste things they do for every Eastern European city – cafe culture, lots of clubs, lots of bars etc and there might well be a nice clean square at the centre, we didn’t go there, but in general it was shockingly dilapidated and run down. It’s very at odds with what we’ve seen of Serbia in general.

We took a rest day in a quiet town called Kovin, not far from the border with Romania. It was the first day off where we really didn’t do a lot. Richard got a haircut (for £2.52, as I’ve heard numerous times) and we both ate a lot, but other than that we just mooched around because it was such a peaceful place. I am not a woo person. Places don’t have auras or energy fields, and such stuff is bollocks. But I do think we subconsciously  receive and interpret many clues about our surroundings, and those add up to our instincts. Serbia feels open and welcoming, and an all round good place to be. It is the first country we’ve been through that we have a strong desire to come back to.

A “road.”

Here’s a playlist for the ride in Serbia:

Different Place, Different Pace

More gruelling riding in Hungary. The road surfaces are just really bad. It’s impossible to avoid potholes, and the constant jarring takes its toll on the wrists, neck and shoulders. Not to mention that it’s reignited saddle sores we thought were gone. And it’s either those roads or long straight gravel tracks where the horizon never seems to change. In all fairness, those trails are flat and the surface in the dry weather is better than the roads, but it’s draining mentally because it’s so monotonous and also very exposed in what is becoming scorching heat.

The driving here can be a mixed bag. When there’s nothing coming the other way, passing cars and lorries always signal and give us loads of space. But if there is something coming the other way, they will not wait behind us and they pass when there isn’t much room. I can’t imagine what it would be like cycling here having grown up riding in Germany or The Netherlands, where there are dedicated bike lanes everywhere, cyclists are given priority to cars in many ways on the roads. One advantage of being from the UK is that we’re used to this kind of thing.

Our first day south of Budapest  we were on some bumpy roads, when we stopped for a rest and were approached by a Hungarian family and invited to join them later at a campsite by the river. They were off on a kayak daytrip, but were camping in the evening. The people were lovely, and the campsite looked great. We were sorely tempted, but it was only 11.30 and we wanted to push on. I was kicking myself the rest of the day. We need to take these opportunities to meet people and to slow down. We’ve been in a kind of frenzy to go as far as possible every day, even though it’s beginning to burn us out. The campsite that night was a bit of a downer, which didn’t help. Dirty, most toilets out of order and no hot water in the women’s showers.

We did our longest day yet after that. One of the long, hot, monotonous days on gravel tracks with no shade and nowhere to rest. We were only a few miles from our destination and desperate to stop, when we took a turn out of the flat plains and were hit with a massive sharp climb. One of those ones where you think it’s over but round every corner is an even steeper part. There was a monument and flag at the top, and a couple of road cyclist who crawled up after us, so it did feel like an achievement getting to reach the end, plus the views and some downhill. The following day we started by riding through rolling hills. Far better than steep climbs, but still with nice views. It was some of the best cycling so far, and I think had we both not been so tired then we might have enjoyed it more. We promised ourselves that we will rest when we get to Croatia – we haven’t had a day off since Austria.

There was some anxiety about our border crossing. The Hungarian government website makes it clear that non-EU passport holders can’t use all border crossings, but don’t list which Croatian ones they can use. We were reasonably sure from looking at maps and pictures that it would work out, but it’s not easy to backtrack and divert when you’re on a bike. Fortunately it was fine, and we got our Schengen exit stamps.

Part of the ride across the border involved some rough tracks, fields, and a ravine, but once we got on the roads we had some smooth sailing. The road conditions here are really good, and there is nowhere near as much traffic as in Hungary. Even so, we were still getting a bit frayed round the edges and very tired. We picked the town of Vukovar to take the day off, purely on geography and exhaustion. We since found out that it was one of the key battles of the Yugoslav wars, and the site of a subsequent massacre and ethnic cleansing. The huge water tower which received heavy shelling has been left standing as a reminder of what happened here. There is now a museum near the top of the tower, and it’s a moving place.  

We’re heading now for Serbia, and planning on some shorter days and taking rest when we need it.

The ride into Vukovar

A playlist for the ride in Southern Hungary and Croatia:

Yodel It

We zoomed through Austria, barely pausing for breath. There are a couple of really stunning sections on the route through the North that we took. The ride from Engelhartszell to Aschach was definitely the most breathtaking scenery of our journey so far, plus we had to cross the Danube on some small foot passenger boats, which I get childishly excited about. There are some sections where it is oddly barren, with no shade and nowhere to stop. But most of the ride is through pleasant cornfields and other agricultural land. We had lots of trouble finding camping spots, so we nearly always did longer days than we wanted. We seemed to always end up with the dilemma of not wanting to stay in a city or large town for a couple of days due to the cost, but not finding campsites that are appealing enough or with enough to do to stop for long. So we just kept going. We didn’t even try the cakes.

We finally stopped just outside of Vienna at a really nice camping spot, and intended to get the bus or train into the capital on a day off. But an overnight storm brought down a branch that ripped through the tent, and by the time we’d fixed that and done our washing and bike maintenance, the temperature was in the mid 30s, and a visit to a city had lost its appeal. Fortunately the tent tear was on the sleeping side and only went through the outer shell, so it was still waterproof when it rained later in the night.

The following day, Vienna was easy to navigate thanks to bike paths, and the ride to Bratislava was very hot, but with pleasant views of endless sunflower fields and the city’s castle atop a hill. Slovakia’s capital is a bit of a stag do destination, I hadn’t heard as many British accents since leaving the UK, but it is good that this pretty city is getting some love and tourist money. It’s a beautiful place, and you should visit it.

We’ve since had some rough days in Hungary. After we crossed the bridge and border from Slovakia, the GPS wanted to take us down a road that was very clearly signposted “no cycling.” That road meant 5km to the next town, but the alternate cycling signs showed a distance of 27km. Bollocks to that. We took a chance and cut through a field, and ended up on a small road to town. The following day it rained every second well into the evening. We had to cross a mud trail for several kilometres, which was almost impassable, and left the brakes trashed. Somehow we stumbled on a self-service car wash in the next town and power washed the mud off the bikes. I tried to power wash my feet as well, but it hurt. After that experience  we decided to follow the main road instead of crossing another field. That evening we spent about 3 hours in the rain trying to find somewhere to stay. Our most draining day so far.

Cycling in Hungary so far has been in intense heat, and either on busy and potholed main roads with very little room to spare, or on trails across fields and gravel. But any rain there’s been has long since burnt off, so those surfaces were at least now rideable. We made it in no time to just south of Budapest. Even though the last week has been very challenging, it’s still an adventure and there are always bright spots and the rest of the ride South to look forward to.

Here’s a playlist for the ride across Austria and Northern Hungary: