There is no road without at least one obstacle or hole
Dutch couple Audrey and Eloy have been together for more than 13 years. Not always in the same country though. While Eloy was doing an apprenticeship in South Africa, Audrey was studying in South America. They settled down in Antwerp where Eloy worked as a software consultant and Audrey as a family doctor. Now they have decided to leave everything behind and go on a new adventure, together! Want to find out where they are?
We are crossing Hungary from north to south and the first big city we encounter is Budapest. We feel the big cities are definitely worth a visit, but we can do without the (too) busy main roads. In Budapest, we take a rest in one of the many thermal baths the city has to offer.
Refreshed, we continue on our way. Hungary is fairly flat and there are vast fields of yellow rapeseed, waving grain, emerging sunflowers and thousands of red and purple poppies. Large stork nests, horses and carriages, Trabant cars, even a goat smuggled into the back seat. We pass a life-sized Rubik’s Cube and once (accidentally) end up in a swarm of bees. The latter becomes clear to us when the beekeeper vehemently tries to explain in sign language that we have taken the wrong turn.
One day we literally cycle through a rising cornfield. On the map it's a road but in practice the farmer has claimed the route. Further on there are train tracks that are not on the map or bicycle paths that are suddenly swallowed by highways, which of course we are not allowed to cycle on. We decide to return and take the ferry to the Danube route; there are campsites there according to the GPS. When we arrive around 6 PM at a closed gate of the fishing club, we understand that we cannot stay overnight there. While Audrey is still trying to explore the area, Eloy strikes up a conversation with a woman who is walking her dog and also happens to speak German. When she hears our story, she takes us to a small beach club a little further down the road. For €4 we can sleep there, but without a shower, because the ‘campsite’ will not open until June. A little later, the owner comes running with the pump wrench and gestures that he will connect the hot water, so that we can take a shower! In addition, he will come tomorrow at 9 o’clock with breakfast. We are overjoyed and drink a local beer with the only food available: a pizza roll (also our breakfast we realize in the morning). Perfect!
"The strawberry man in the middle of nowhere offers us his roadside hut for some shade
The following days we camp several more times on the banks of the Danube. Always in beautiful places. Also in Harta, where we are the only ones. The bartender tells us to pay at an old lady’s house further down the road. She loves our story and warns us about the mosquitoes. She herself has not seen any yet. But Eloy on the other hand is overpowered in no time. After a beautiful sunset and the largest pizza we’ve ever eaten we roll into our tent. Between the trees we can hear the nightlife getting started (a concert of frogs, the screeching owl catching its prey…).
Meanwhile, Eloy has discovered a new hobby. Singing self-made songs (usually starring Audrey, or is this to get Audrey’s attention?). Sometimes the roads are long, flat and hot, with no shade. The strawberry man in the middle of nowhere offers us his roadside hut for some shade and of course some strawberries. He proudly shows his work in the field behind it and in German we are able to communicate a bit. He seems to be selling well, as almost everyone stops here to buy a kilo or more of his delicious strawberries.
We cross the border to Serbia. It's exciting to visit a new country! Suddenly there is a Hungarian police van on the bicycle path. Let it be clear that nobody can pass here. The route continues for a few kilometers through Hungary to the official border crossing. There is a strange atmosphere. Abandoned houses, patrolling police cars every few hundred meters and lots of mobile toilets. Eloy renames the route “Dixi route”. At the border we first pass the Hungarian border police and a few meters further the Serbian one. He looks at our passports, asks how long we’ve been on the road from the Netherlands and where we’re going. He gives us a warm welcome to Serbia.
The first few kilometers we immediately notice that we are in another country. Many dilapidated and abandoned buildings between inhabited houses, road signs in 4 languages including Cyrillic script (Српска ћирилица ?). Greetings from honking cars, cyclists waving and people shouting ‘Servus’, ‘Zdravo’ or ‘Hello’ from their gardens. We are excited! On the other hand, we are also enthusiastically greeted by stray dogs. We have hardly come across these in Hungary, but here they are everywhere. We still have to overcome our fears and learn how to deal best with this new phenomenon.
"The pride in Serbia, the hospitality, the helpfulness can be felt, seen and heard everywhere
Today we also reach our 2000th kilometer by bike! It’s a Sunday and quiet on the road. So far the roads are better than in Hungary. We cycle through a vast nature reserve on the border of Hungary, Croatia and Serbia and Sombor is the first Serbian town where we spend the night. Before driving to the campsite, we visit the city center. Many things are closed because it is Sunday. The moment Audrey takes a picture of the town hall, a security guard suddenly appears. He doesn’t speak a word of German and his English is limited to 3 words. With gestures he tries to make it clear that we should follow him to the building. Then he opens the door and takes us into the council chamber with the pride of the city: a giant 30-meter wide painting. He is eager for us to see this history of Serbia and tries to use Google Translate to have a conversation. On his advice, we pose in front of the painting in our sweaty clothes. Then he opens the door to the balcony with a beautiful view of the city and says: “Welcome to Serbia”. Grateful and also a bit surprised we leave for the campsite. Our curiosity about Serbia increases by the minute!
Very few older people speak English or German. Yet we are apporached at just about every place we stop or eat. Gesturing to the flags, talking, sometimes asking if we need help, want water or something else. Despite the fact that we don't speak the same language, Serbian people keep on talking in the hope that we will understand something. Eloy sometimes gets a pat on the back, Audrey a hand or other sign of gratitude. The pride in Serbia, the hospitality, the helpfulness can be felt, seen and heard everywhere.
In Bogojevo we try to find the owner of a restaurant near a lake. Wild camping would be allowed here. As soon as Eloy walks toward the building, two giant barking dogs approach him. He turns around and says: “I’m not going to stay here”. The place looks deserted and part of the building burned down. But behind it there really is a restaurant where some people are sitting. The owner calms the dogs, says we can camp wherever we want and explains that he has puppies in the abandoned building. Part of the restaurant burned down last year. He can still make us food and there is a choice of ‘local fish or meat’. Later it turns out that this is the choice in almost every restaurant we visit. In the evening, three German guys whom we met earlier on the route, arrive at the same place.
Novi Sad (“New Garden”), the second city of Serbia, is considered by many to be the most beautiful city. When we go to dinner, we immediately see the large park and the bridge over the Danube that leads to Petrovaradin Fortress. From this bridge you can also see remains of the bombed bridge during the war in 1999. Later that evening, we realize why the center is so busy. 400 musicians are giving an open air concert in front of the National Theater. Novi Sad is also European Capital of Culture this year! A little later we are walking through the park when suddenly all the lights go out. We see a thunderstorm approaching along the water. When a sandstorm follows, we decide to quickly go to our room.
"Suddenly we hear a howl from very close by
We are on our way to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. We are assisted by a dog who runs with us for 20 km. We pause at a spot, try to take side streets or cycle away, but it doesn’t help. Fortunately he doesn’t bother us, but we prefer to cycle without the company of barking dogs. Before we arrive in Belgrade we cycle through Zemun, the almost idyllic suburb.
Once in Belgrade, the bike lanes stop and drivers are very assertive. Time to put the bike aside and explore the city on foot. We check out the Orthodox Church of Saint Sava. What an immense building, one of the largest churches in the world! Not much later, we discover that it is better to cycle than to take the bus. We get on the wrong bus and want to get off a little later. At least, Audrey gets off and the doors close. The driver doesn’t get that Eloy wants out too! To make matters worse, Eloy also has both phones, all the money and the bus tickets, so Audrey waits hoping Eloy will walk back (and he does ). Fortunately, we can laugh about it. From Kalemegdan Castle Park, we watch the setting sun over the Danube and the city with many locals.
Entering Belgrade was busy, but driving out is complete chaos. There is only one way out and every cyclist we meet afterwards says it was complete madness. According to the signs we have to cross the bridge on the highway, but there is no way out. We venture onto the narrow footpath with holes in the concrete. You can see the Danube flowing through the road surface! Here and there an iron plate lies over a hole. Then the road goes for 28 km on a completely deserted covered dirt dyke road, where hay bales lie on the road and shepherds graze their sheep. The contrasts could hardly be greater. When we almost reach our camping spot, Eloy almost has a heart attack. He sees 4 dogs behind a fence as we drive by. Suddenly the biggest of the 4 jumps over the fence and barks loudly. Fortunately it stops there. We had just gotten used to the idea that most dogs do nothing and just lie around to chill.
When we arrive at the (presumed) campsite, we see a shack boarded up with asbestos and wonder if there will be a hot shower. When the owner comes to us and another guest as translator leads us to the grass field, we notice that we couldn’t have had a more perfect experience. Because it is going to rain we are offered a roof, a few minutes later it is raining cats and dogs. And there are indeed hot showers! The next morning a man comes to give us 2 apples and wishes us a good journey. Before we can thank him he has already cycled on. The kilos of cherries from various people, the bananas from the cashier that Audrey was given, the Serbian flags for the bicycle from a girl who was running by, cheese, coffee… We don’t know where Serbian hospitality ends.
We notice this also in the next place where we spend the night. Srdjan welcomes us with home-made Rakija (brandy). Then it becomes a long evening with great conversations. The local bacon and cheese is cut up. Suddenly we hear a howl from very close by. ‘"Ah, there you will have the jackals." It seems like they’re almost right next to you here, but that’s because of the open grassy area. And they don’t go on for very long either, that would be too creepy. They just want to mark their territory now that the wolves are less and less present. It’s a great relief that there are jackals and wolves at night. With that in mind we go into the bungalow that is made available to us to get some sleep. At least with the Rakija that turned out well.
In the morning we try to pack up quickly, close up the accommodation (the owner is elsewhere) and leave towards the ferry. The German-Turkish Halit drives past the gate at that moment and says it’s only 8 kilometers. Later we find out it is 16 and we pedal as fast as we can past 3 different shepherds with herds of sheep and cows. When we arrive we see our other German friends again and get on the ferry to Ram. From there we keep following the Danube and the river forms the border with Romania.
At Golubac the width of the Danube is gigantic: as much as 6 km! From here also the ‘Iron Gate’ begins. A canyon of 134 km with on one side the foothills of the Balkan mountains and the other side the Carpathians. The road is fairly quiet, sometimes a single truck races by, but they make way and sometimes honk their horn enthusiastically. We drive through about 20 tunnels, some with a button at the entrance for cyclists, to let the drivers know that there are cyclists in the tunnel. The first mountains come into view and it’s the first time Audrey arrives at the top drenched in sweat. Eloy is more experienced, but the view and the descent more than make up for it.
Romania right side of the Danube river, Serbia left side. The road we cycled up is visible on the left.
The Serbian landscape also continues to amaze us. From bird-rich areas along the Danube, vast grasslands, deserted villages and cozy towns, to mountains in the beautiful Derdap National Park. We look forward to a few more days in Serbia before crossing a new border!