Cycling the Danube in Serbia (part 1)

Getting There

It was a long and tiring day to get from the Tatra Mountains to Belgrade, where we would start the Serbian leg of our ongoing cycle trip down the Danube. We left at 7am and drove through the narrow winding roads of the Low Tatras, before emerging on to the rolling landscape of southern Slovakia. Crossing in to Hungary, we headed for the M3 motorway and the fastest route into Budapest. On arrival, we dropped our rental car off at mid-day and had some lunch in a quiet suburban park.

At 1.30pm, the 8-passenger shuttlebus that was to take us to Belgrade pulled up and we climbed on board. For a while, there were only 4 of us and it looked like it was going to be a comfortable trip, but then we stopped at the airport and left with a full complement. Still, the route to Belgrade started out on the M5 motorway and we roared southward at 130-140 kph. I'd hardly woken from my nap, than we arrived at the Hungarian-Serbian border. We were leaving the Schengen lands and it was time for passports to be checked and stamped. Our queue on entering Serbia only had a 15-20 minute wait, but the queue of cars leaving Serbia stretched for almost 2km. For them it was going to be a long day waiting in the hot sun. This is what you voted for, Brexiteers.

Once in Serbia, our driver dropped off a couple of passengers at a small town (everyone else could now stretch out) and then roared down the A2, which passed through a flat landscape covered in a patchwork of maize and sunflower crops. After stopping briefly at Novi Sad to disembark more passengers, the fair Nello and I were the last two left for the final 70 km run in to Belgrade. We arrived at 7.30pm, two very tired people glad to at last find a comfortable bed.

We had pencilled in the next day to explore Belgrade, but with the temperature soaring to 38°C, it did not seem like a lot of fun wandering around the hot streets. Instead, we declared today a rest day and stayed in our apartment and its surrounds in Нови Београд (New Belgrade). This is an area where the city has spilled out over the Sava River, a mixture of crumbling appartment blocks and quirkily styled modern buildings, with broad boulevards. On a Sunday afternoon, it reminded us of home in the 1970s - very quiet, restaurants with a faint scent of stale tobacco (smoking is allowed anywhere here) and even cigarette girls, with packets on trays for sale. New Belgrade seemed to be struggling to find its mojo. But today it suited us - nearby, the pizzeria claimed to serve the best pizzas in Serbia, and I think they are right.

The old and the modern in Novi Beograd

Day 1 - Belgrade to Skorenovac (59 km)

Yesterday we decided not to walk through the centre of Belgrade because it reached 38°C .... and today we were getting ready to ride almost 60km in the same heat. Yesterday, we had a choice - today not - it was the first day of our self-guided continuation of riding down the Danube. To be honest, we were already a little concerned, as the crossing of the flat Danube floodplains of Hungary had not been particularly enjoyable, and arriving in Belgrade, we realised this region was part of the even flatter Pannonian Plains.

Still no point worrying - we had picked up our bikes the day before, and they were almost new, with disk brakes, front-wheel suspension, 21-gears and mountain bike tyres - it was time to go. Leaving our hotel in New Belgrade, we cycled quickly down to a branch of the Danube, lined with parklands and floating homes and restaurants. It was pleasant riding in the relative coolness of the early morning.

Houseboats on the Sava River

Barge entering the Danube from the Sava River

Kalamegdan Park

The Danube at Belgrade

Then it was across the bridge over the Sava River and into Old Belgrade. Here we took a cycle elevator down to the river side to continue along the cycle path as it wended between the Danube and the ancient Belgrade Fortress. A rusty old barge puttered out of the Sava and into the Danube as we passed.

Belgrade Fortress, first built in 280 BC

Crossing the 1.7km long Pancevacki Bridge

Back on Eurovelo 6

All good things generally come to an end and, in this case, it was the bike path. From here we had to follow a series of back streets through, first residental, and then industrial areas, to reach the Pancevacki Most, the 1.7 km long bridge that connects the south and north banks of the Danube.

It was a tedious trip, stopping frequently to check our guide notes and avoid heading up the wrong street (perhaps I should have learnt the cyrillic alphabet, although we did noticed that many signs and notices are romanized now - is cyrillic on the way out in Serbia?). Once across the bridge, we turned off onto a quiet street that led us to the levee bank on the Danube's north shore - no more traffic noise. For the next 11km, it would be a bumpy ride along the grassy top of the levee, crops and the back ends of villages on the inland side, lovely wetlands on the river side.

Wetlands on the north bank of the Danube

Bike path on the Danube levee bank

A couple of farmhouse behind the levee bank near Pancevo

Lagoon near the Dunavac Canal

In fact, we had rejoined our old friend, Eurovelo 6, and it led us over the bridge of the Tamis River, a tributary of the Danube, and into the town of Pancevo. The temperature was now climbing quickly, so we headed to a riverside restaurant for a large glass of home made lemonade.

Pancevo on the Tamis River

Road through the flat croplands of

From the restaurant, we rode down alongside the waterfront and past the many small fishing boats moored along it, before turning to follow a roadside bike path out of town. It was the end of the enjoyable part of the trip. Just before we rode past an immense petrochemical plant, there was a strange sign - "please cross to the other side as the path here has many thorns that may puncture your tyres". We dutifully did so, but when we next pulled up to quench our thirst, the fair Nello's rear tyre slowly deflated - thorns 1, riders 0.

Orthodox church in Skorenovac

After replacing the tube, we set off again, now riding on an asphalt rural road that connected a string of towns across the flat agricultural countryside. I don't remember the trip as riding through Vojlovica, Starcevo, Omoljica and Bran Brestovac in 38°C heat, with a hot, gusting headwind and no shade along straight, flat roads, being passed by trucks loaded with hay and farm produce.

I remember it as riding from a long cold glass of lemonade to a bottle of peach-flavoured ice tea, to a cold coke, to a can of guarani energy drink and finally to a large cold beer, when we reached our destination of Skorenovac.

Catholic church in Skorenovac

Each time we stopped, the sweat poured out and soaked our clothing, making us question the sanity of what we were doing. I think we each had one muesli bar, a few jelly babies and four litres of fluids during the trip.

Our accommodation was in Skorenovac, famed as the most southerly town in Europe settled by Hungarians (and who know it as Szekelykete), and we were staying at a small pension/cafe. It was time for that cold Serbian beer in the shade of the large courtyard tree.

Looking forward to a lie-down in the cool of our room, we walked in to discover its one window faced the west - the hot afternoon sun was pouring in. Then, for dinner that night, we were served a fiery chilli goulash, as one does when the temperature is in the high 30s. If I were to subscribe to conspiracy theories, I'd believe that someone was out to cook us today.

Never mind - tomorrow it promises to be cooler ...... 36°C!

Our guesthouse in Skorenovac

Day 2 - Smederovo Fortress (42 km)

Today's ride was meant to be a 50km loop that included a visit to Smederovo Fortress, built in the early 1400s by Despot Djuradj Brankovic, the last medieval Serbian ruler. It was built to resist attack from the land and the river, but that did not stop the Turks from taking it in 1459 and staying for the next 400 years. It was definitely worth a visit, even on a very hot day, but we cancelled the rest of the loop and made it a simple aller-retour. We did not want a repeat of yesterday.

The causeway leading to Smederovo Fortress

Circumnavigating the fortress by bike

An old riverside watch-tower

It only took an hour to reach Smederovo, pushing along quickly in the cooler early morning air - first along a quieter country road from Skorenovac to the larger town of Kovin, and than along a busy major road from Kovin to the Danube. We don't enjoy such riding and the rush of air when being passed by a large trucks is not our favourite sensation.

On reaching the Danube, we had a 2km ride over the large bridge that crossed its two channels here and the island created by them.

The walls of 15th century Smederovo Fortress

It was great to finally veer off the bridge on the south bank and head directly to Smederovo ...... directly past the large oil and gas tanks and line of fuel tankers coming in and out of them. This part of the Danube is highly industrialised.

The fortress itself is a quiet oasis of green on the banks of the Danube, hemmed in by town, rail and and industry. When we arrived, we cycled around its exterior walls, before entering the large internal space - grassed with scattered shady chestnuts. Here, we could cycle around the interior of the fortress walls, before finding one of the shady chestnuts and taking a long break in its cool shade.

During this time, we explored the interior of the keep at its north-east corner - a fascinating insight to how such buildings were structured and a euro well spent.

The Water Tower guarding the confluence of the Jezava and Danube Rivers

The inner citadel of the fortress

View over the Danube from the fortress walls

Feeling a bit hungry, we decided to cycle in to the centre of Smederovo and have an early lunch. It was a good choice, as this industrial town actually hides a lovely car-free square, decorated with flowers, scattered with shady cafes and dominated by a large Orthodox church.

Church of St George

Republic Square in Smederovo

300 year-old mulberry tree

Finally, it was time to bite the bullet and head back home in the, by now, 36°C heat - once over the long Danube bridge, I noticed a narrow track running along the top of the levee bank below us. It seemed a far better option than sharing a long stretch of road with fast cars and large trucks, so we left the main road, pedalled back toward the river and on to the levee. It was a pleasant ride, with the wetlands on the riverside full of waterbirds - ducks, coots, egrets, herons, cormorants and even a stork.

Danube wetlands near Kovin

Waterbirds of the wetlands

The levee led us into the back-end of Kovin town. We rode quickly along its streets to the centre and a long stop at an outdoor cafe, sipping bitter lemon beneath a cooling fan. All that remained was a fast 5km run back along a country road, with the wind at our tails, back to our pension in Skorenovac.

By now, high cloud was starting to drift in from the west and the temperature dropped a bit to more pleasant low 30s - making the pension a much better place to hang out and relax, watching the locals emerge for their evening perambulations and cycle rides. This time we were looking at real change in the weather for the next day of riding - a drop to the mid-20s and just a few thundery showers. Having rain fall on you is a much better way to get wet than sweating.

Day 3 - Skorenovac to Srebrno Jezero (60 km plus 2 km by ferry)

Hurray! The promised cool change arrived and, although we woke up to the sun shining, high grey cloud started drifting in from the west. It was also the direction of the cool light breeze, which meant we would have it at our backs for most of the days cycling - 60km to the small resort town of Srebrno Jezero (Silver Lake) beside the Danube (more cheers).

Sunflowers brightening up a dull day

We left a bit before 8am and zoomed down our route of yesterday to reach the town of Kovin. This time, though we turned north-west to continue our exploration of the cultivation of sunflowers and maize on the flat Serbian farmlands. However, it was a much quieter country road and we were on a mission - to arrive at the Ram ferry in time for its 10:30 am sailing. The next one would be three hours later, and the forecast included showers with the chance of thunderstorms from midday on. A little bit of effort to avoid a lot of wetness seemed justified.

After a quick stop in the village of Gaj to energise with some chocolate-centred pastries from the local shop, we pushed on. The fast pace continued - not long after Gaj, the landscape began to change with fields and flatness replaced by open grassland and some undulations. For the first time, we could look out over the landscape to the distant low hills beyond the river - for the first time we could coast down a gentle slope to brake the unending rhythm of flat-surface riding.

The tyres set up a gentle hum on the smoother asphalt surface as we passed through the villages of Sumarac and Dubovac to enter the special reserve of Deliblatska Pescara (the Deliblato Sands), an area of undulating sand dunes that were once part of an ancient desert. The part we cycled through is now covered with lush dense forest, plus a few areas of grassland where the underlying dune structure could be seen. It made a great change from farmlands.

A bit of main ride riding through the forest of Deliblato

Grass-covered dunes of the Deliblato Sands

Following the canal bank to Stara Palanka

Leaving the reserve, we crossed a wide canal, then left the road to follow its grassy levee bank southwards toward the Danube. Just before reaching the great river, we arrived at tiny Stara Palanka and the ferry terminal. The great race was over - cranking out 46 km in just over 2 hours with a couple of stops and a rough final 5km on the levee bank, we had beaten the ferry by 15 minutes. The landscape transition was complete - on either side of the Danube, hills rose up to wall the river in. We were glad to see the end of the Pannonian flatlands.

The ferry duly arrived, a flat barge pushed by a small tugboat, and some 30 minutes later left with a full load of cars, cyclists and foot passengers for the 30 minute trip to Ram on the south bank. The Danube is a very wide stream just here, with the long barges plying their trade up and down the river. Approaching Ram, we were greeted by Ram Castle, a 15th century Turkish fortification, perched on a hill above the river.

Fishing boat on the Danube

The ferry arrives st Stara Palanka

Crossing the Danube

15th century Ram Castle

Riverscape near Ram

Disembarking from the ferry, we headed up the steep asphalt road out of town - yes, a climb at last, followed by a long and pleasant coast down the other side. The road led quickly to the village of Zatonje - time for our first fluids break of the ride (very different to the first day), before heading down to join a narrow levee-top asphalt road to Srebrno Jezero. Srebrno Jezero is actually an old anabranch of the Danube that has been banked at either end to create a long lake - the relatively new resort that has grown up at one end has taken the same name and it was our destination.

A nice coast down to Zatonje

At last the bicycle path runs next to the Danube

It was while crossing the first dam of the lake that the rain nearly caught us. The greyness of the sky had been darkening for some time and we could see showers in the distance. However, after a few spits, the rain stopped and we coasted in to town, enjoying the views across the wide river to the steep hills beyond - Romanian hills in fact. From here on, the Danube would form the border between Serbia and Romania. We had ridden the 60km in three hours less than the same distance on our first day - that is the difference between 38°C and 24°C.

Srebrno Jezero (Silver Lake)

Riverside beach at Silver Lake Resort

We checked in to our modern hotel (very different from the little village pension of the last two nights) with plenty of time to relax, before heading out to a lakeside restaurant and sampling the local delicacy of freshly caught Danube River catfish as the rain splashed against the plastic weather awnings.

Rest day at Srebrno Jezero

Today, our cycling guide notes offered us an 80 km circuit to visit the ancient Roman ruins of Viminacium, which once had a population of 40,000 and is known as the "Pompeii of Serbia". It would have been very interesting to visit, but involved some retracing of our route and, unlike our circuit to Smederovo earlier, there seemed no way to shorten the trip.

On Silver Lake Resort

Watching the National Rowing Selection Trials

So, instead, we cancelled and opted for a peaceful day in Srebrno Jezero, wandering the water-edge paths, watching some games of beach volleyball and a rowing regatta on the Silver Lake to choose local contestants for the National Selections. It was a pleasant day and also gave me the opportunity to mend the two tubes that we had punctured on the way here and do a bit of bicycle maintenance in preparation for the next leg - an 80km push into the Iron Gate Gorge.

Why Silver Lake is so called ......

.... though at sunset you can add a splash of gold

I guess we will just have to visit Viminacium on Wikipedia.