Cycling Serbia: Beautiful Valleys and Crumbling Villages

Serbia only recently began recovering from a kind of dictatorship-like government rule that followed the fall of the Yugoslav empire and resulted in assassinations, bombings and generally a bunch of horrible stuff that only really ended properly as recently as 2008. There remains a tense relationship with the disputed region of Kosovo which I don’t fully understand but basically, it’s tense and I try to avoid all that political shit in favor of beautiful nature and tasty beer.

Other than that, Serbia is a fascinating country that appears to be doing well for itself despite economic struggles and an ongoing and yet unresolved attempt to join the European Union. Geographically it benefits from both the spectacular Danube River Valley that runs along the northeast border and the Balkan mountains to the southeast. For cycle-touring, hiking and camping, these are both the highlights of the country.

I started my tour at the Feoni border coming from Romania and cycled a short, relatively uninteresting road to a town called Zrenjanin. Arriving late and leaving early I didn’t get to see the town but I doubt I missed much. The following day I continued along an equally uninteresting road to Belgrade, where I had to take a mild detour to enter the city without using the highway. Whether or not the police would stop someone cycling on the highway is debatable but in European (supposedly ‘westernized’) countries I generally try to avoid it – just in case.

I rested for two days at a cool hostel in Belgrade call Fair and Square, mostly to get some work done but also because it had been two months since my last cycle tour and I was still warming up my legs. It’s actually a really nice hostel and if you go to Belgrade I highly recommend it. My favorite memory is getting hella drunk with a cool Czech guy and laughing inexplicably at ‘The Fifth Element’ on their massive TV. But mostly I just worked a lot and drank all of their coffee.

After that my ‘Serbia’ cycle tour began in earnest.

My first day didn’t start out spectacularly well as I crashed when my wheel got caught in a tram track while trying to cross it and avoid getting run over by a bus. These tram tracks are a nightmare and they’re all over Europe – I don’t know how more people don’t crash and die on them. Anyway, I survived with a mild scrape on my shoulder and continued on to meet up with the Danube River heading east.

I had given away my tent in Croatia because I had to fly to Greece and then back to Hungary and then to America and then back and it would have cost about $200 in baggage costs to take it with – for a tent that cost $20. It was also now getting very cold at night because I had spent a month partying in Berlin instead of cycling so I had made the decision to not buy a new tent and just use the very affordable Serbian accommodation. To some degree, this was a good decision especially because I had a lot of work to do and needed the wifi and electricity – but there is also a wealth of really nice camping spots in Serbia that I felt bad missing out on. If you want to cycle this route I suggest doing it in July or August and taking camping gear. It’s not quite Sweden, but it’s pimp – trust me.

Anyway, so I booked that night at a nice place overlooking the Danube called ‘HostelChe2’ which has dorms for €10 and private rooms for €12. It didn’t include breakfast but the owner made some bizarre dinner that evening which he was kind enough to share with me for free, along with some locally brewed ‘rakija’ which he was proud to reveal he had made in a rusty barrel in his back yard.

Somehow I survived.

The next day I had to navigate a fairly complex dirt path along the Danube river to a ferry crossing which only ran every three hours. This meant if I didn’t make the 1:30 pm ferry I would have to wait until the 4:30 pm crossing, arrive on the other side an hour later and cycle the next two hours in dissipating light along tiny unlit backroads.

Fortunately, I’m a fucking machine and nailed it across the rocky dirt paths at 30km/h to make it in time for the 1:30 pm ferry. This shook a pannier bag off my bike and caused most of the bolts to loosen but still, I made it with 10 minutes to spare for a beer so totally worth it. The ferry crossing was quite relaxing and revealed the true extent of the massive Danube River, which gets quite wide in some sections.

On the other side, I briefly viewed a rather boring looking castle, made friends with a mangy dog and then continued to my accommodation. That night I stayed in a place called Guest House Keserovic which was essentially the ground floor of somebody’s house with two rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Since the other room was empty I had the entire house to myself, for €9 a night! I stayed two nights, got a shitload of work done and rested my legs for the next section, which would be a huge 129km cycle with 1,600m climbing.

The reason for this long cycle was because it passed through a very touristic area of Serbia that is full of expensive hotels which I couldn’t afford. That meant I had to go 129km to the nearest ‘affordable’ accommodation in the tiny village of Kostol. However, despite the massive distance and loads of uphill climbs, it was my favorite day in Serbia, with incredible scenery and 26 terrifying pitch-black tunnels to pass through. I took about a hundred photos of the Danube river as it passed through incredible cliffs and valleys that resemble a small version of the Norwegian fjords.

Eventually, I arrived in Kostol, one of the tiniest little villages I have ever seen – it doesn’t even have a single shop or restaurant. After navigating between some rag-tag street-football-playing kids and crumbling houses I managed to find my €8 accommodation for the night. This consisted of an old couple renting out some rooms on the upper floor of their house and once again, I had the whole place to myself. This place wasn’t quite as nice as Keserovic and while it had a kitchen, the cupboards were full of shoes instead of pots and pans. Luckily they lent me a pot to make my usual spaghetti and tomato sauce in and rustled up a warm beer out of their basement for me. They were actually a really lovely old couple and I enjoyed my night here – the TV in my room even had English movies on satellite and the room had a balcony!

After a morning coffee with my geriatric hosts and confusing attempts at conversation that meant nothing to either of us, I said my farewells and headed off south to a ‘Cycling Adventure Camp’ which I had found on Booking.com. The road was long and boring and featured some annoying roadworks that kept forcing all the traffic into these single lanes with traffic light ‘stop-and-go’ systems. I got hella bored of those quickly and decided that Serbia almost certainly doesn’t have enough traffic police to ensure people obey them, so I started to just cycle through. Soon enough I was surprised to find that they DO actually have traffic cops policing them but luckily those traffic cops DON’T care about cyclists ignoring the red lights.

The roadworks eventually came to an end and I left the main road to cycle down a small dirt road along the Danube River. This was far more peaceful although a bit slow-going. The riverside is lined with tiny houses, each with their own jetty that the owners seem to spend all day fishing off. It looks like quite an idyllic lifestyle, I was quite jealous, to be honest. I stopped at one of these houses which had expanded its property to build a small lodge and restaurant with rooms made out of old wine barrels. Initially, I thought they didn’t have food because they didn’t have a menu so I just ordered coffee but then the owner asked if I wanted to eat. I said yes, expecting a menu, but instead got served a massive three-course meal consisting of bread, salad, sides, Eisbein, chips, grilled halloumi, dessert, Rakija, beer, and coffee – all for €7!

After about an hour of eating, I admitted defeat and the owner kindly wrapped up all the leftover food for me in a takeaway bag. I thanked them kindly and rolled out of the restaurant on to my bike so I could roll some more for the final 10kms. Soon I arrived at this supposed ‘Cycle Adventure Camp’ which was less ‘adventure camp’ and more just a house in a small Serbian village called Negotin. However, the owner was a very keen cycle tourist and he was awesome! He gave me loads of free beer that night and free burek (this shit is the best – google it) and coffee for breakfast. The accommodation was the cheapest of my trip so far (€6.70) probably because it was just a tent, but it had a real bed and heating and electricity and I had access to my own kitchen and bathroom, so… not bad!

I was originally planning to spend two nights at the Adventure Cycle Camp if I met some other cyclists but since I was the only one there I chose to continue in the morning. It was only a short distance to nearby Zajecar (55km) so I chose to take the scenic route along the Bulgarian border rather than the busy main road. This started off very peacefully but after about 20kms suddenly started going uphill quickly. The hills were so steep I had to get off and push the bike for the first time on this trip so far! Plus it was crazy hot and I’d drunk four beers the night before so I was quickly exhausted and sick of it. The hills just kept going up and up and up forever until eventually, I was way up high on a ridge amongst wine farms looking down the valley towards Bulgaria.

Despite the terrible hills, it was a nice ride through a bunch of crumbling old ghost towns that initially appeared deserted but as I found later were not. The towns appeared to be inhabited by a few well-hidden old folks who were almost as decrepit as the towns themselves. Presumably, their children had long since left to find work in the cities, leaving their parents to tend to their gardens while the village practically collapsed around them. It was sad but kind of beautiful and fascinating too, and probably fairly common in any country these days. I could imagine myself buying a cheap house, fixing it up and living out here… as long as I can get wifi.

Eventually, I arrived in Zajecar and found my accommodation which, again, was a room in someone’s house. It was done up very nice like a hotel room though and the price (€12.50) reflected it. My most expensive accommodation so far! I did some washing and ate yesterday’s leftovers before finishing some work and getting to bed early without even having one beer! The next day was a long (100km+) ride to Pirot, near the border with Bulgaria so I wanted to be fresh.

I was up at 6:30 am and had breakfast with my hosts at 7 am, which consisted of traditional Serbian burek and coffee. It wasn’t bad but felt a bit overpriced at €3 since its just pastry and cheese. I expected the ride to be quite difficult that day but despite being double the distance, it turned out to be far easier and more comfortable. Maybe four beers the night before really do make a difference! I passed through some beautiful valleys along a mostly empty and well-paved road passing by more crumbling houses and farmland. Although not as epic as the Danube River valley, this was one of the most picturesque and scenic rides of this trip.

Pirot turned out to be quite a large town with a somewhat burgeoning although not quite developed tourism industry. To the north of Pirot is Serbia’s highest mountain Midzor (at 2169m), a small skiing village, a lake, and some caves. This I only discovered from brochures though, since there is no public transport up to the skiing village and I wasn’t about to cycle. Since the only other way up was a taxi cost about €30, I, unfortunately, was unable to enjoy all that Pirot has to offer. This is what I mean by undeveloped – you would think they would have organized tours? I guess most people visit with their cars.

Once again I had a three-bedroom house to myself with a huge room and balcony, although sadly no kitchen this time. For the first time on this trip, I actually took out my cooking gear and used my gas stove to make some pasta. My legs were killing me by this point so I decided to take a day off before the final ride to Sofia. I spent the day getting work done, wandering around the village, drinking cheap (40p) coffee and checking out the local castle. Fairly uneventful but I think this town has real potential if they only injected some funding into the tourism industry. It reminded me a lot of Brasov. For lunch, I went to a small restaurant and ordered a “gourmet burger” but instead got a huge slab of smoked pork wrapped around cheese. They clearly didn’t understand my order but, whatever, it was pretty good and only a few euros.

I was off early the next day for the final 88kms to Sofia. It was a bit confusing trying to navigate the massive border post and customs control with trucks everywhere but I made it through eventually without issue. Then I had to navigate miles of bumpy cobblestone roads to Sofia because they are doing roadworks on the main highway. It’s one of the worst sections of road I’ve ever ridden… but that story is for another day!

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