Having visited Belgrade on a prior trip around the Balkans, it was decided that we would catch up on some much needed rest this time round and research our upcoming route. The exception to this was visiting the Nikola Tesla museum, which had been previously closed. Belgrade is a great city for the arts, history, restaurants, and the famous nightlife; but no visit could ever be complete without visiting this inspiring museum and getting an insight into one of the smartest minds of the 19th and 20th centuries. I could not recommend this more highly, even if just to watch the experiments being carried out on members of the paying public! It reawakened my inner geek. Fantastic stuff!
Leaving Belgrade following the Danube cycle route at rush hour in the rain is not something that I would recommend for anyone, EVER! Out of necessity it was required, and after safely negotiating the busy traffic we popped off on to a footpath, and almost straight down an uncovered manhole. The adrenaline at this point was at an all time high… but we plummeted straight back to earth when we saw the cycle path that was to carry us the 15km to Pančevo. A pair of rickety wooden planks beckoned us across a small stream and as we crossed them and mounted the dyke it was obvious that this was going to be a tough, tough morning. The dyke is designed to keep the river at bay, but there had been so much rain that, even atop the dyke we might as well have been cycling in the river. Two hours, and approximately 10.5 million calories later we finally reached the bridge leading into Pančevo.
The bridge was guarded by a garrison of road workers, surrounded by all manner of machinery, which did not bode well. The thought of having to go back the way we came, jump onto the motorway and approach the city from a different direction was almost too much to bear. We need not have feared; a large uniformed man, complete with coffee, cigarette, and hip flask waved us through. We cycled / pushed our bikes across the bridge; rounding diggers, welders and drainage holes en route to the city. We were glad to be over the bridge and into the city, but nervous about another 90km atop the same dykes. We therefore decided to abandon the cycle path and cut across country (a 50/50 gamble due to our (in)ability to read maps).
The decision proved to be a winner as, after seven weeks of pedalling we were finally gifted with a tail wind. I cannot even begin to describe how good this felt, and how satisfied we were with our decision. Cruising at 30km/h on a fully laden touring bike is good going and we were eating up the road in record time. At this speed however my bike developed a rather annoying creak in the derailleur, never fear though, WD40 to the rescue and on we cracked. All good things must come to an end, and after roughly 60km of this joyous cycling I heard a crack, felt a wobble and looked down to see a bolt drop off, bounce across the road and into the path of a slow moving tractor. At this point I was not too sure what was wrong; sitting upright to take in the situation gave me all the information I needed. The bolt that had been jettisoned from my bike was indeed one of the two bolts holding my beloved Brooks saddle in place.
We stopped to ascertain the next course of action, but given there was only one option it did not take too long. I took the required “hard pill“, mentally prepared myself, and off we went. Cycling with no seat is as difficult as you can probably imagine. At times I would attempt to sit “Tony Martin styles“, on the cross bar, but most of the time was spent standing on the pedals, which certainly takes its toll on the legs. The afternoon was to get much more interesting before it ended.
I rounded a corner to see Katie about 100m ahead of me, pulling away on a gentle downhill slope; the countryside was beautiful. Random little hills, not much bigger than large mounds dotted our vista, these were covered sparingly in young pines and were surrounded by lush meadows. The meadows afforded the perfect fodder for a flock of sheep. A couple of strokes of the pedals and I was freewheeling at around 30km/h and gaining on Katie quickly, who was also soaking in the view, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed them. Five (or six) dogs hurtling towards us, teeth showing, ears back, ready for the attack; my guess is that they were at a distance of 30 metres by the time we reacted! I shouted “DOGS”, and without a moment’s notice Katie had transformed from long distance cyclist to Usain Bolt and was off, and I was in hot pursuit. I am not too sure how far we cycled at full speed but the dogs were persistent and it took a mighty effort to lose them. This, combined with the morning negotiating the dykes, and the fact I had been riding for some time without a seat created the perfect ingredients to hit the wall, and I hit it hard. I was down off the bike, sucking in some big gulps of air and taking on as much fuel as I could handle… and the only thing that was running through my mind was the scene from Stand By Me: “Chopper! Sic balls!”
Coming to the end of the first day out of Belgrade, we had a decision to make, do we continue on to where we would be catching a ferry across the Danube the following day, or complete a 12km detour to visit a couple who live off the grid. We decided on the latter, and could not have been happier with the decision.
For anyone who is looking at cycling across Europe, we can’t recommend this stretch of the Danube more highly, it is more interesting than anywhere else along the route, people are friendlier, and if you take a moment to embrace Serbia you will be well rewarded. On the advice of this excellent account of the route, we decided to visit Snežana and Sava, who have been living off the grid and off the land for the past 15 years. When we finally managed to find the driveway to their abode we passed cautiously through a field, over a slight rise, and then down into their paradise. It is fair to say that this is an experience we will never forget.
On arrival we must have looked terrible, because after first greetings we were ushered inside their house, sat down, and then waited on for the next hour. All manner of homemade products were produced and we tucked right into them. Following this, Katie mentioned to Snežana (who speaks 15 languages) that the day had been particularly tough, as I no longer had a seat; that was enough for Snežana. She sent Sava out to the yard to not only look at my bike, but to try and fix it, and fix it he did! He managed this by taking a bolt from his own bike and then refusing anything in return, no matter how much I insisted; genuine kindness!
Apologies flowed from Snežana (Sava does not speak English) about the fact that there was nowhere inside to sleep as the damp from the continuous rain had made their spare room uninhabitable. This was absolutely fine by us, and we set about erecting the tent in their wonderful garden. As soon as this was complete it was back to the table and dinner was served; genuinely incredible venison soup with fresh peas and greens! We spent the next three hours of the early evening discussing everything that popped up, and we felt as if we learnt an incredible amount (certainly on their point of view) about subjects ranging from the Balkan war, the current state of Serbia, the EU (most people we met had an opinion), and what it is like to live off the land. It would be a mistake to think that people who have thrown in the city life to live this way are not up to play with current affairs; Snežana was certainly one of the most well read, intelligent people I have ever met. The evening was truly fascinating, and when we thought things could not get any better, they did… when moving from the house to the tent we were taken aback by how bright and vivid the stars were, never in Europe have we seen anything like it. It was comparable to the deserts of Africa, and we were mesmerised for god knows how long.
Their house is shared with a number of animals, most notably six “truffle” dogs, which they breed. Although it was not the truffle season, Sava was up and away early in the morning with the dogs trying to find us truffles for breakfast, he was not successful in his quest but did bring back a whole basket full of other mushrooms for breakfast. Once again, breakfast was a veritable feast, and was consumed over the period of about two hours, as we sat and continued our learning on Serbia, and in particular the Vojvodina province where they live (similar to Kosovo, it is an autonomous province within Serbia).
If it was not enough that we were welcomed and fed like members of their family, when it came time for us to leave we were given two blankets to help keep us warm in the winter; Katie was also given a fabulous scarf (as all ladies, according to Snežana, should adorn themselves with scarves as often as possible), and a magic “cream”. The so called magic cream is a concoction of herbs and spices which can be used for healing skin, or alternatively be used as a salad dressing. We can confirm that it certainly works on skin, and we have not yet tried it on salads! It was sad to leave as we could easily have stayed a few more days, but as per usual, the road beckoned and we had to leave.
The sky was painted in a perfect blue hue the day we left Snežana and Sava’s house, but there was a chill in the air, which we are expecting to stay with us well into March. Much of the day was spent lost in a daze thinking about the previous day’s experiences. All this changed however as we rounded a corner at the top of a hill and were presented with a truly spectacular view of the Golubac fortress. It looked like Helms Deep, except with a large expanse of water in front of it (the Danube is roughly 6 km wide at this point); and acts as a sentinel where the Danube forges its way into a canyon and goes from virtually a stagnant lake to a rushing torrent in the space of a few hundred metres. Viewing this would have to wait though, as it was getting late, so we stopped in at Golubac and enjoyed the finest sunset of the journey thus far.
The following morning we woke to an overcast sky, and the spirits that had been soaring the day before were brought crashing back down to earth with the reality of a potentially inclement day of cycling. Sadly, the fortress, when we finally managed to pass it (while having to battle into a ridiculous head wind) was not as impressive up close as it had been the previous day. We pushed on through the gorge where the views got ever more impressive, and it was a real surprise to see that we were virtually the only tourists in this area. The only thing impeding the continuity of the views were the ludicrous number of tunnels we had to cycle through; these were intimidating to say the least. We would slow right down, listen for traffic behind us, and if the coast was clear, we would go for absolute gold; plunging into the darkness at full speed, with only our dyno-driven lights for comfort. Due to the lack of lumens, it actually felt as if you were flying.
Shortly before entering the town of Donji Milanovac, we were presented with an option to either enter the town and look for accommodation, or turn off the wonderfully smooth, slightly downhill surface and head up a secondary road, covered in a patchwork of never-ending repairs. This option was only brought to our attention after reading the blog that led us to Snežana and Sava’s. What we found on arrival at Kapetan Mišin Breg was quite simply the best campsite we have had the pleasure of staying at on our journey to date. And the view was not bad either…
We pitched the tent, downed the obligatory shot from the owner, and set about sunning ourselves all afternoon; very pleased with the world, but more pleased that we had been so fortunate to see this part of Serbia. It is a road less travelled, but it is without a doubt a road worth travelling. Up to this point on the journey, the days from Belgrade to Donji Milanovac were by far and away our favourite; this was to all change when we reached Jabukovac, where we experienced a new level of kindness, hospitality and generosity. But that will have to wait for another day, as the sun is shining here in Sofia and I intend to soak in the views from the terrace of our apartment before an early night and two big days in the saddle en route to Plovdiv.