Sore Arse Chronicles #7: Serbia, Iron Gates Gorge, and Transylvania

Day 50, August 1st, Budapest to Subotica, 62km

I’m sat on a stationary train, waiting to leave Budapest for a trip to southern Hungary. Today is surely the hottest day of the trip so far. It’s absolutely sweltering, even more so than the previous days, and I’m so glad I don’t have to battle the traffic out of the city in the midday heat. Of course, I’m headed south, and it’s only going to get hotter. The temperature today is about 36°C, but it’s predicted to hit 40°C when I’m in Belgrade at the weekend.

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First thoughts on Serbia: after the surprisingly affluent Slovakia and Hungary, this country feels like the true start of Eastern Europe. Within minutes of crossing the notorious border, its tall barbed wire fence the legacy of the 2015 Balkan migrant influx, things began to look and feel different. Everything looks a bit more shabby and old fashioned. The quality of the roads is worse, and there are some real bangers on them- I wasn’t aware there were still Yugo cars in use! The Cyrillic alphabet* makes an appearance, and I’ve already spotted a few mosques.

*It never occurred to me until today that the term ‘alphabet’ is simply the Greek letters Alpha and Beta put together. A truly mind-blowing realisation.

While Subotica seemed a nice city and there were some cheap hotels to stay in, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try wild camping for the first time. So I cycled for a few kilometres on the road out of town as darkness crept in, eventually veering off down a dirt road between farm fields looking for somewhere to settle down.

It was more difficult than I’d anticipated, as there were still people out farming despite the late hour, but I eventually found a suitable patch of grass partially obscured by shrubs. I didn’t bother with a tent, instead lying beneath the starry sky in a mosquito net with a cacophony of chirping insects to lull me off to sleep. It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ll ever have, but it was a mini adventure and I’m glad I did it!

Day 51, August 2nd, Subotica to Novi Sad, 95km

Today was not a very enjoyable day on the bike. The sun was blazing, the temperatures were higher than any I’ve experienced in years, and the road was just a straight line with occasional kinks, stretching on and on through tedious countryside. I had to drink litre after litre of water, and a sore throat I’ve picked up seems to be the harbinger of something more serious. If it deteriorates further I may need to postpone my next travel days- cycling in 40°C heat while ill doesn’t seem like the smartest of ideas…

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Typical Serbian scenery

I’d must confess, the least enjoyable part of this cycling trip has been, erm, the cycling. To be fair, I love the feeling I’m crossing the continent under my own steam, and I’ve loved the way it enables me to visit places I probably never would otherwise. And there have been some wonderful days in the saddle, too. But too often it just feels like a long hard slog, and I find myself counting down the kilometres until I reach my destination. I reckon the cycling aspect isn’t something I’ll truly appreciate until I look back on what I’ve done in years to come, especially with my trusty rose-tinted glasses on.

Day 52, August 3rd, Novi Sad

Move along, people, nothing to see here: it was an uneventful day spent largely indoors hiding from the sun. The highlight was probably going to the shop to buy medicine for the ailment I’ve picked up. Novi Sad is the second biggest city in Serbia, yet it’s surprisingly lacking in things to do and see… I will have No-vi Sadness about leaving. Ho, Ho! That was a real diamond pun!

Day 53, August 4th, Novi Sad to Belgrade, 104km (3002km overall) 

Since I’ve been feeling a bit ill in recent days, I considered skipping this section on the train, in case the sky-high temperatures made things a whole lot worse. In the end, I chose to try and cycle the route as planned, and I’m quite glad I did so. The route was more interesting than previous days, taking me through some small towns and villages close to the river. While I didn’t see abject poverty, these places were quite clearly poor and underdeveloped. The economic gulf between Hungary and Serbia has felt larger than the one crossing the former Iron Curtain border out of Austria.

A universal sign of a developing country is the sight of stray dogs scurrying around on the streets. I met one friendly little fella when I stopped for a drink, his frantically wagging tail cheering me up. Later, though, I came across another a road dog- but this one lay dead, it’s luck inevitably having run out. Further along the road, a lifeless fox had met a similar demise.

When you’re cycling, you have so much more time to notice not just all the roadkill- every dead hedgehog is a dagger in my heart- but also the regular sight of roadside monuments and floral tributes to dead motorists (almost all young men, incidentally). A few more weeks of this and the grim reaper might start haunting my dreams…

 

Day 54, August 5th, Belgrade

Of the four capital cities on the Danube, poor Belgrade has drawn the short straw in terms of appearance. After the grandeur of Budapest, Vienna, and even Bratislava, Belgrade seems rather ugly. Lots of decades old concrete buildings, crumbling walls and pavements, graffiti scrawled everywhere… To say it could do with a lick of paint would be an understatement.

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What it lacks in appearance, however, it makes up for in character. I’m quite happy to be in a “proper” city, not another tourist trap like the settlements upstream. Belgrade has a great reputation for nightlife in particular, with the city’s two rivers, the Sava and Danube, lined with floating bars and nightclubs.

Me and two friends actually visited one of these establishments back in 2010, as wee 20 year olds on a interrailing trip through Europe. One of my intoxicated chums was alleged to have damaged the bathroom window in his merriment before fleeing, so the burly, shaven-headed bouncers rounded up the other two of us, and threatened us with an admittedly creative assortment of assault techniques unless we persuaded him to return. An hour later, the impasse came to an end and we were released, forbidden to return. Ah, memories…

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An exhibition outside the Parliament building, right next to another one castigating Albanians

 

Days 55, 56 and 57 – I was in suspended animation for three days, and don’t remember anything. Sorry.

 

Day 58, August 9th, Belgrade

So, today is my sixth day in Belgrade, and my last full one, for I have decided I will leave tomorrow. I had not intended to stay here for so long, but the persistently sky-high temperatures made me reevaluate my plans. I decided the sensible thing to do would be to take a few days off until it cooled down.

Well, that masterplan has become a bit of a failure. The temperature is still up in the high thirties every day, and I’ve become too impatient to wait for the cooler temperatures predicted to arrive later in the week. So, for the next two days I’ll be cycling in the same scorching heat that I was trying to avoid…

——

It’s 8:11pm, and I’m at the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade to watch a football match. The game is barely ten minutes old, but it’s already 1-1 between Partizan and the visitors, Vozdovac. I actually got in for free. I asked the steward on the gates where I could buy a ticket, and he just grinned and waved me on in.

The atmosphere inside isn’t exactly electric. It’s a 35,000 seater stadium, and I’d estimate it’s about 10% full. Partizan are said to be the best supported team in Serbia, too! Most of the ground is very quiet, but the Partizan ultras behind one end are making a constant racket regardless of what’s going on in the game. When Partizan won a penalty, it took me ages to notice because there was no crowd reaction. No ‘oohs’ or ‘ahhs’, minimal celebrating or applause, just incessant chanting and drum banging. It’s actually getting a bit monotonous…

—–

Full time. The visitors Vozdovac surprisingly won 3-1. As far as I was concerned, the game itself was far less memorable than what the Partizan ultras did when the opponents took the lead. On the fence at the bottom of the stand, a row of flares perhaps 50m long suddenly ignited, and within a minute the whole stadium was engulfed in thick white smoke. The game was stopped for a couple of minutes until the clouds had dispersed, and then play resumed again. No one else seemed to bat an eyelid or prevent the flares being lit. It was all very strange!

 

Day 59, August 10th, Belgrade to Moldova Veche, 152km

It’s half one, and the first part of my ambitious schedule for today is over. I am in the town of Bela Crkva- vowels are in short supply here- on the border to Romania, which I shall cross shortly. I set off early so I could make some progress before the temperatures were lower, covering 105km to get here, but I still have a lot further to go- it’s shaping up to be by far my longest day so far. The route thus far has been thoroughly unremarkable, but mercifully flat.

I set off again a few hours later and soon arrived in country number nine, Romania. The customs inspector on the border asked if I was carrying any cigarettes, alcohol or guns, and when I replied “no” his incredulous reaction made me check whether I’d misheard the question. Good job he didn’t mention drugs- the pressure probably would have led me to own up about all the cocaine stashed inside my inner tubes…

I had to climb and descend a big hill to get back to the Danube, and by the time I had found a shop to stock up on food and drink it was getting dark, and I had to rush to find a decent wild camping spot. I thought I’d found the perfect place, a huge sandy expanse away from the main road, but I’d gotten set up I realised the downside. From the sand emerged multitudes of these creepy, scorpion-like bugs, that swarmed across all of my stuff. I took refuge inside my tent, but the little bastards just found their way in through a tear in the side.

Then, the grotesque critters started biting me, and I realised I was going to need a new sleeping arrangement lest the bugs crawl across and nibble my face all night. There was a big pipe that, in my desperation, I tried to lie along, but that was never going to work. In the end I laid out my mat on the sand and hid beneath my tattered bug net, and thankfully it did the trick. But I had a rubbish night’s sleep, partly because I was too scared to emerge for a much needed wee in case my foe seized the opportunity to invade. God, for a big man I am quite a pansy!

Incidentally, in the morning I awoke to find the hordes had all vanished, save for one dumby left inside my bag. It was like their existence had just been some horrible nightmare, but I’m quite sure it really happened.

 

Day 60, August 11th, Moldova Veche to Drobeta Turnu Severin, 141km

After my rubbish night’s sleep, I set off for another long day with much yawning and eye droopage. It soon became clear I was going to have to battle not just high temperatures but an annoying headwind, but at least this time the scenery was stunning. It was to be my final day following the Danube, and on this long stretch forming the border between Serbia and Romania it is at its most scenic.

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The river cuts its way through the tail end of the Carpathians Mountains, forming a gorge- known as the Iron Gates- with huge hills towering above on both sides. The river itself becomes a bit strange, too, in some places ballooning into huge, lake sized expanses, while in others narrowing to the width it had been way upstream in Germany. The views were quite reminiscent of the Alpine landscapes of Switzerland. Happily, the road clings to the water’s edge almost the whole way through the gorge.

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I tried to appreciate the scenery, but it was another tough day, and I couldn’t spare much time for resting. There were a couple of big hills, and the first one I had the misfortune to tackle during the hottest part of the day. Again, it was a race to consume liquid as quickly as my body sweated itself dry, but in this rural area just finding shops was difficult enough.

After a rather scary final 20km along a very busy road, I finally reached the city of Drobeta Turnu Severin. I headed to Lidl to stock up for another wild camp, and as I was packing my stuff away I bumped into a Taiwanese man, doing the same route as me but in reverse- Istanbul to London! Despite the purported popularity of the Euro Velo 6 route, I hadn’t come across any cycle tourers on the road for ages, and it was interesting to finally meet one of my bicycle brethren.

Day 61, August 12th, Drobeta Turnu Severin to Craiova, 107km (and to Sibiu by train)

It’s late afternoon, and I’m on a train heading northwards towards Transylvania in the heart of Romania. I finished the final part of the gruelling 400km trip across Serbia into southern Romania earlier, and I’m very glad to be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the views of the looming Carpathians Mountains out of the windows.

The route today couldn’t have been much more straightforward- I left my camp, jumped straight on the road, and followed the same one all the way to my destination. Unfortunately, that road was probably the busiest I’ve had to cycle along on the trip thus far. There was a little margin on the outside which I could stick to, so it wasn’t particularly unsafe, but it’s just not very pleasant to have cars and lorries speeding past every few seconds for hours on end.

I got a better sense of the real Romania today. I’ve been to the country before, but my time was spent in the capital a day other more tourist friendly areas. It’s certainly been been pretty eye opening- stray dogs chasing me down the street, children begging, quite a few horse drawn carts, plastic bottles lining the road where they apparently been flung out of car windows.

Unfortunately, that was about all the interest I could take from the ride. Perhaps because I was always on the same road and there were few milestones to aim for, it seemed to drag on forever. I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled beneath the unrelenting sun, counting down the kilometres until I reached the end, drinking litres of water yet always needing even more. The road dipped up and down, and yesterday’s headwind made an unwelcome return.

Now, I feel utterly exhausted. My thighs are aching. I haven’t had a shower in three days so I’m covered in 72 hours worth of dirt and sweat, and probably have the odour to match. I’m unshaven and my hair is dishevelled, but then I suppose that’s always the case really. And for the first time, the blog series title is truly accurate: my arse really is rather sore!

Day 62, August 13th, Sibiu

A rest day, though it hasn’t been long enough to rehabilitate my aching legs. Sibiu is a nice little city, but it seems so inauthentic compared to the “real” Romania outside. Most of its historic buildings have been restored in recent years, and it has attracted legions of domestic tourists. The city feels like an island of relative prosperity surrounded by rural areas with which it has little in common.

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Sibiu, with the Carpathian Mountains in the distance

Day 63, August 14th, Sibiu to Sighisoara, 106km

After the blazing heat of recent weeks, temperatures were mercifully around ten degrees lower for my first day of cycling in Transylvania. It felt strange to be a bit cold at times, to cycle up a hill without losing half my body weight in sweat…

The route today was a really nice one. The undulating roads directed me through some pleasant countryside, full of farms and rolling green hills. There were a couple of Transylvania’s famous castles along the way, but most eye opening were the small villages dotted along the road. Passing through these little rural communities was like going back in a time warp.

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One of many little villages along the road

Once again, there were plenty of horse-drawn carts, with whole families sat on the back carrying their crops. Wizened old men sat outside watching the world go by, while tiny elderly women in headscarves tended their gardens. The buildings were all painted in different colours, but some of them were crumbling away badly. Perhaps the strangest sight was one bloke slicing away at his field with a scythe!

Once again, rural Romanian dogs are proving quite a nuisance. It usually goes like this: I’m cycling nonchalantly along a road when a dog in the distance, presumably taking its turn on sentry duty, starts barking manically. Then a bunch of them come sprinting out into the road, swarming around the bike, yapping like crazy, and chasing me for maybe 100m or so. Sometimes it’s amusing, usually it’s annoying, but when the packs are big enough it can be a bit frightening. I’ve seen enough dead dogs on the roads lately, though, to know that their tactics are more likely to bring harm to themselves than me.

Sighisoara itself is a really nice little town. Pretty small, but still a bit more time to see the sights would have been nice. The way the old town is perched up on a hilltop overlooking the rest of the city and the countryside is really cool. I can’t think of too many towns I’ve been to with such an impressive setting.

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Sighisoara’s hilltop old town

Day 64, August 15th, Sighisoara to Brasov, 130km

Another long day on the bike, and one that followed much the same pattern as yesterday: riding along undulating roads through pleasant countryside past rustic villages and ancient castles. There were a couple of other noteworthy things I spotted today: scantily clad women- prostitutes, presumably- stood along the side of the highway near Sighisoara, and later, a young kid in the fields marshalling a pack of about a hundred sheep. Life is very different out here…

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Rupea Castle, not one of Transylvania’s better preserved fortifications 

After crossing a big hill two thirds of the way through, the land flattened out and the vague silhouettes of the Carpathian Mountains appeared on the horizon, shrouded in haze. I pedalled southwards and gradually they grew larger, until I reached the historic city of Brasov at their feevt. This place was founded around 800 years ago by German settlers, which seems odd because the current German border is almost 1,000km from here.

And that is all for now. Only two and a half countries to go!

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