The next morning in Dimitrovgrad, we were treated to a Serbian breakfast (omelet and bread) and then prepared for our ride through Serbia. Having seen the EuroVelo 13 sign, we knew that navigating should become easier, although we were still hesitant in following the routes entirely because they weren’t yet certified and tended to add extra kilometers between destinations we wanted to reach; while we prefer the more direct path, the EuroVelo 13 would detour through hills and small villages. When we departed from Dimitrovgrad, the sun was still shining, and the air was fresh. Without many breaks, we cycled down a road that followed the highway and through empty farmland. In Pirot, we stopped to gather a few picnic items and then set off to follow a quiet road northwards. However, before we left the city, a small fortress caught our eye and begged to have its picture taken. Once on the road, we spent the rest of the morning slowly making our way uphill and winding through small villages. Unlike Bulgaria, these small villages were still lively albeit most of the inhabitants being around retirement age – they were still herding livestock and preparing wood for the winter. We reached the top of the small pass and decided to enjoy our lunch in the sun before descending into the northern (shaded at this time of year, so remaining close to freezing temperatures) part of the valley. The ride down was chilling and the rapidly appearing fog didn’t help – even though Cédric and I bundled up, we still needed to stop once or twice to warm up our digits. Shortly before sunset, we rolled into Knjazevac and managed to find the warmest hotel possible. In the evening, we strolled around the downtown district and found dinner at a small restaurant where we learned that the Serbian hamburger or “pijeskavica” only refers to the patty, no bun/condiments included.
The next morning, Cédric and I were treated to another Serbian breakfast (this time a plate of charcuterie) before heading off on the bike. The weather had turned grey and our spirits were a bit low – so to avoid camping outside, we decided to make the day short by cycling to the next biggest city as towns are relatively sparse in this area of the Danube: Zajecar. Instead of riding a usual day length, we went into the backcountry and visited an ancient Roman complex about 10 kilometers outside of the town. Without many breaks, we arrived in Zajecar in the late morning and dropped all our things in the room before heading out to Felix Romuliana, a Unesco listed heritage site. Cycling with an unloaded bike was a nice change and we noticed that we were just slightly faster when going up hills. We wandered around Felix Romuliana for some time, climbing over the foundations of the old palace and temple and peering around old complex walls. Because we still had time to spare, we also cycled up to the two mausoleums of the Roman emperor Galerius and his mother, Romula. We cycled back to Zajecar that afternoon and spent the rest of the day looking around the small downtown and treating ourselves to another Serbian meal.
In the morning, we left the city and continued north. In order to cycle through the ‘Iron Gates’ portion of the EuroVelo tracks, we needed to get close to the Romanian-Bulgarian-Serbian. Since we weren’t yet on the riverside, this meant cycling over a few more hills. The morning was crisp but cycling up and down the countryside warmed us up. Due to a lack of grocery stores or restaurants along the way, Cédric and I had to make do with gas station food for lunch, dinner, and breakfast. To add to the glamour, we ate our lunch (remaining bits of bread, spread, chips, and Coke) just outside of the shop’s doors. We continued cycling along quiet country roads that afternoon and enjoyed the remaining bits of sunshine. As the sun began to set, Cédric and I decided to spend the night camping since we were unsure of hotels in the nearby area. Using Google Map satellite view, we found a place with empty, self-made cottages along the Danube. We quickly pitched the tent before dark and then got in our sleeping bags for the remainder of the evening, i.e. after dinner at 5pm because it gets dark after 4:30pm – one of the benefits of staying in hotels or guesthouses is not having to huddle in a sleeping bag for hours before we fall asleep.
We woke up the next morning to cold temperatures and grey skies. It seemed like the bad weather caught up with us. Just as we were disassembling our tent- it started to sprinkle, so we rushed to pack our things before more rain came. It was still raining when we started cycling on the road, which didn’t make the cold morning any more enjoyable. We cycled over our few last hills before reaching the Danube route in Kladovo. There, we stopped for a hot chocolate to warm our fingers and toes before heading west on the Danube River. Finally, we thought, we’re homeward bound. If we continued following this river, we’d reach Donauwörth, which is just a few dozen kilometers north of Augsburg, a few more hours along the Lech river and we’d be back home. We continued for a few more hours before stopping for a lunch of fish soup and more grilled meat. The weather never improved throughout the day, but we enjoyed the views cycling between the Danube and the rocky cliffs of the Iron Gates gorges. In the late afternoon, we made our way to a guesthouse and turned the heaters on full blast to warm up our frozen bodies.
The cold weather hadn’t improved much overnight, it was still near freezing and grey, but we luckily had no more rain, only a lot of humidity from the large Danube river. As we prepared for the day, we put on our warmest clothes and hoped for the best. For the first hour along the Danube, we cycled past empty vacation cottages and small villages. We stopped quickly in Donji Milanovac to pick up some lunch supplies – although our current approach to keep warm includes indoor lunches, we can’t always expect an open restaurant to appear around midday. November is apparently also not the favorite season for tourists to come to this popular area, so a lot of businesses are running either very slowly or simply close for a few months.
After we left the village, Cédric and I had to cycle up one large hill – it was nice to have something warm us up, but we knew that the descent would be bone-chilling cold – it became clear that more than the weather itself, getting dressed appropriately according to the terrain was more tricky: a flat road is easy to manage, but ups and downs are a succession of over-sweating and over-freezing. At the top, we sought refuge in a bus stop to eat some cereal bars and try to hide from the wind to warm up our toes. On the long descent down, we passed through 20 small tunnels, all between 50 and 200 meters in length – which made the road like some Emmental cheese along the tunnel – and a big relief as our phone mapping application did not know these, and was showing us an infernal way going tens of times between the shores of the river and the ridges of the canyon. We could now see the end of the Iron Gates and as we approached our destination for the day in Gobulac, we went into another tunnel under the scenic and famous Gobulac fortress. We ended our day in an apartment in the town of Gobulac, enjoying deals of the low season in a normally crowded town, and again spent a few hours just warming up and drying of our stuff at the end of the day.
The Iron Gates area of the Danube had been an awesome ride the previous few days, with little traffic and dramatic views over this rugged part of the Danube (possibly the only one over its 3000+ km). Although pretty much following the river, cycling was quite hilly (nothing like Central Asia, but still never flat!), and the next following days would be much easier in plains heading to Belgrade.
The next morning, we set out in the direction of the Belgrade. Since our Eurovelo 6 routes for the day were a combination of dirt tracks and ferries, we decided to develop our own route instead. In the summer, this would have been fine, but the infrequent (or nonexistent in winter) ferry crossings and sticky mud made us decide to stay along the south side of the river. The morning was pleasant as we rode through small villages, but a few hours into the day we started to climb up and down a few large hills. Since it was the weekend, we also spotted a few guys hunting on the side of the road and hoped that we were colorful enough to not attract bullets! In the afternoon, we cycled through Pozarevac and made our way west. With the increased amount of traffic around Belgrade, the ride was becoming unenjoyable – the roadside was no longer quiet and we had to continuously check our mirrors. Just as we were finishing our last few kilometers into Smederevo, the light rain turned to sleet and snow, so we cycled as quickly as we could to our hotel.
When we awoke the next morning, the clouds were clearing up, and the dusting of snow was melting. The day was still cold, but we’d be able to make it into Belgrade. As we left Smederevo, we stopped to look at the old fortress, although not as picturesque as the one in Golubac. We crossed to the north part of the Danube and started following the EuroVelo 6 signs towards Belgrade. Luckily, we were able to find some quiet roads which made the morning’s ride through farmland and villages more enjoyable. Seeing that we weren’t going to make it to Belgrade before the late afternoon, we stopped in downtown Pancevo for a pizza lunch (I had been dreaming about pizza for the last week). In the afternoon, we continued west and decided to see whether the bike would manage on one of the muddy paths into Belgrade- it didn’t even last 1km before needing to dig out all the mud from the wheels – so we cycled along the main road to the northern bridge into the city. The bridge crossing was reminiscent of our Hobart crossing – pushing the bike for a few kilometers with traffic rushing pass us, not enjoyable at all. However, in Belgrade, the sidewalk stopped immediately after the bridge, so we needed to push the bike in the grass until we could merge onto a road. It is sometimes questionable how countries decide to build bike lanes: there are great paved lanes in the middle of nowhere near roads with little traffic, but then usually in the suburbs of large cities where roads are clearly a danger for pedestrians and anything that does not have tons of steel-shields there is just nothing but massive highways – and given the population density, bike lanes would be used much more there than in the backcountry! We navigated our way through Belgrade, a maze for cycling as roads are either forbidden for bikes, or have stairs, tunnels and multiple items making it good for pedestrians only. Okay, we aren’t going to complain much as Serbia was the first country to at least consider bicycle – but next time we are on the EV6, we will just do like Sofia in Bulgaria and keep the city 30km away. We were happy to find our hotel shortly before sunset and call it a day.