Sultan’s trail (part 2): Crossing Serbia

Distance covered: 480km | Total: 977km

My last morning in Hungary was a sunny one after small showers overnight. Still it took me a while to leave Baja, as i was busy writing up part one of the journey to Istanbul to make use of the still free roaming (in Serbia my mobile provider charges 5GBP/mb!?!).

Into Serbia

I forgot to havea breakfast and was dead hungry having fallen alseep uber tired and without dinner the previous night. It took me to the next village, the last one before the border, to locate a bistro. That one didn’t have food though other than potato chips. Well, better than nothing. I also had an early beer to fit into the landscape – the place was full with drunk old men. But they were nice and my food/drink was on the house! Off to Serbia…

My first border crossing was smooth (other than locating my so far not required passport in my panniers). Just a curious question from the Serbian border guard as to where i am headed and that was it. I was in Serbia and miles were flying past me. I stuck to the road all the way into the small town Sombor where i finally enjoyed a decent meal.

From there it was a mix of small roads and dirt tracks along corn fields that were being harvested. Quite amazing scenery be it dusty as hell at times.

J just continued to Sivac that day (80km in total) and arrived by nightfall. There were no camping or booking.com options so it was wild camping that night. I did some shopping and picked a spot using google maps satellite.

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Situated near a canal a bit off the main road, it turned out more busy than expected. It was dark so i dont know for sure, but i think a harvester broke down and the repair work was pretty noisy. I was tired enough though to fall asleep anyway after munching away my sausage and cheese sandwiches.

Cycling in the rain

I woke up to rain drumming on my tent. I wasn’t in a rush and decided to wait for a dry window and did some planning for my Jan/Feb trip in South East Asia. At least some warm thoughts. By mid day the rain stopped long enough to pack up. Once packed, it rained again. So i rode in full wet gear. It was fine. Not wet. Not cold. Loved the waterproof gloves and trousers Laura and I bought after a pretty wet day up in Aberfeldy, Scotland.

My target for today was Novi Sad. Some 80km to go. I made good progress on the wet roads. That was until i stopped for a coffee and met Miro. He is 70 years old and used to be a Gastarbeiter for 10y in Bonn. We chatted for two hours about his life and mine until we had to say goodbye. Owe him a postcard and thanks for the beer Miro!

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Off to Novi Sad

The clouds had vanished by the time i continued and the sun peeked through. Nice. A wet morning makes you appreciate warmer weather even more. Riding was smooth on little roads all the way into Novi Sad, which i reached 75km into my short day. The landscape of endless fields was magnificent and the drivers actually quite respectful towards me cyclist.

In Novi Sad it took me a while to locate my hostel. Either battery dead or no wifi around. Eventually i arrived and got myself sorted. I ended up going for a few drinks with Alexander from Gdansk. He (a lawyer) and his girlfriend (a sound engineer) were on their way back home from a hitchhiking trip through the Balkan’s.

After a beer in the more upmarket Petrus bar we went to another local place for the famous last beer. Well, that was until we met a Bosnian guy with his Serbian friend and another Serbian couple. After some lively concersation in the said bar they dragged us into another Serbian restaurant with traditional local music. It was monday night yet it felt like prime time saturday. It was mainly young people there. Very enjoyable.

Alexander checked out after another beer while i stayed out. We ended up in the appartment of the serbian fellow, a fitness instructor, and continued chatting away. The serbs take hospitality very serious and wanted to make sure i took away some good memories – well, job well done! Thanks guys.

Uphill with sleep deficit

The first people left the hostel already around 8am. Not so my polish friends who also decided to sleep in against their objective of an early start to catch a ride towards poland.

I was slow and still pretty tired when i hit the road after 10am. Worst of all, right after Novi Sad a seemingly endless climb into a smaller mountain range made me sweat. The last thing i needed that morning! Well, at least it was sunny.

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After the first 25km and a well deserved downhill stretch i found a nice restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The souo with veal was excellent, but i was dead tired. I cycled a little further and decided to take a nap in one of the fields. Now that felt great.

I must have slept two hours until traktor noise woke me up. I sat up and looked. The farmer was wondering over. Trouble ahead? Quite the opposite. He asked me if i was hungarian or german. I said the latter. He also enquired as to my route in bloody good german and asked me if i eat apples. I said yes and had to follow him to hia trailer full with boxes of fresh apples. I took five and thanked him.

With fresh vitamins in my stomach and sleep caught up the journey to Belgrade continued. Another 50km and it was already after 3pm. Thankfully no more hills, some breaks to rest and overall good speed so that i got to belgrade center before 7pm.

When my 2,500km feel suddenly so little

Once in the center, the routine kicks in. Wifi, hostel, shower… Just this time someone asked if i needed help while looking at my phone. Her name was anne (well, short version) and she is from Belgrade. She was also on her touring bike though not fully equipped. Turns out that she has been riding around europe and asia since 2011 and writes travel novels to make money.

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As you can imagine, we had a great conversation. She even invited me for a serbian hamburger (Pljeskavica) before we said goodbye. You can find her travel stories http://www.snezanaradojicic.com. Very impressive. Good luck for your panamerican journey. Am sure we’ll meet again.

A day in the white city – hello Belgrade

The first time i got excited about Belgrade was in a British airline magazine. Their is always a travel colomn which argued that Belgrade is a great destination with fantastic nightlife. Sounds just right! Years later i was finally here. Technically my schedule only had one night here, but intrinsically i had already decided to stay a biy longer and catch up one day by train. No stress.

The first night was quiet after i checked into Yolohostel – central but certainly not one of the nicer ones i been to. Well, a bed is a bed. I enjoyed breakfast on a sunny morning next day and went for a city tour as I usually do. The politics of the region, present and past, are dazzling and the city raised to the ground many a time (one other tourist mentioned 40 times). Definitely a lot of work to do to restore buildings and streets. Maybe joining europe will one day help, but there is the question of kosovo to be solved.

My last morning came quick and I headed for the train station after another breakfast to catch up with my schedule and make it to Niš.

Over to Niš

Serbian trains run very slow and so the two hundred odd kilometres were scheduled to take more than 5 hours. I got round to reading 100 years of solitude meanwhile. Close to Niš, the train crashed into a car that was a bit late on the rail wail crossing. By the time all was sorted with police we had lost two hours more. Should have gone by bike!

The day ‘n night hostel I checked into the evening was very pleasant and well thought out. I met a Turkish guy and we ended up grabbing some food, drinks and chatted away until midnight in the hostel. Great evening and an invitation to Ismir.

Next morning I managed a little sightseeing (yet another fortress) after agreeing to leave my bike in the hostel garage. Probably the safest option in town. I will find out in a week. First back home via Bratislava for a school reunion, time in London and a wedding.

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Sultan’s trail (part 1): Austria – Slovakia – Hungary

Distance covered: 497km (to go: c2000km)

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Having recovered from the long hike in Scotland for a week in London, i took myself and my bike 🚲 over to Vienna to ride the Sultan’s trail. The route takes me some 2,500km from Vienna to Istanbul. In total 7 countries lie on my way (Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey). Fingers crossed the bike and rider can keep it all together. After all the only long distance cycling experience i have was one day in Russia last year…

The sultans trail… On Ottoman footsteps 👳 ⚔

The ottoman empire under suleiman the magnificent tried to take austria twice in the 15th century. Both attempts failed. The route now follows the path the sultan took to reach vienna with the Stephansdom, whose bells are made from melted turkish cannons, as one starting point (the other being istanbul of course).

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For planning and orientation purposes i mainly used the detailed routes from a dutch couple taking care of developing and promoting the trail (link). Dank je wel! I will follow parts of this route that takes you away from busy roads and passes by many landmarks, but partly will revert to faster/shorter options to keep on track.

Getting to Vienna

After a weekend with last-minute fixes to the bike, I loaded my panniers with a full set of kit including repair stuff, camping/cooking equipment, rain gear and lots of other stuff. Turned out pretty heavy at close to 50km including the bike. Good training i guess! First i needed to get all stuff this to vienna though. A quick 6km morning cycle from home to London victoria, where i put the bike in a carton transport box for bus and plane transport purposes (it’s actually quite hard to travel with a non-folding bike in london!).

On the other end i reassembled it all and cycled 20km into vienna (almost ending up on the motorway initially). For the first night i had booked a hostel near the center booked and enjoyed a fun evening out with other travellers from italy, canada and spain. We were in bed early though. I needed some sleep after a short night with laura who left for colombia early doors ✈👸🏻 🇨🇴.

Day 1: Vienna to Bratislava

I got up first in my hostel room and had breakfast just after 7am. The cathedral was only 10mins ride away through a slowly waking Vienna and soon i had reached the ‘trail head’. From here a bit of city traffic and past the belvedere palace with its stunning architecture and views over the city.

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From there i quickly hit the countryside. The route was generally quite different from i thought. Rather than simply following the (paved) Danube cycle path along the river, i was mainly on dirt roads. In fact, the first time i spotted the river was an hour before bratislava. The weather was kind and at times blatantly hot. Quite a change from Scottish summer.

On the way the route passed through many villages including Haydn’s birthplace, a former coliseum /roman training camp and loads of fields and forests.

Early afternoon the first glitch – lost a screw for one of the pannier holders. I have spares and it was quickly fixed.

By the time i got to the hostel it wa night and i had covered 105km. Time for a shower and the nice vegan curry that was offered as a communal meal.

Even though i knew i shouldn’t, i signed up for the pub crawl. After the first pub disaster stuck, as i received a message that some idiot had burgled my flat in london. In the end it turned out not too bad. Just some tech stuff and my wooden figure from papua-new Guinea gone. All replaceable i guess and no-one hurt. I guess a few more drinks were in order now…

Day 2: Bratislava to Zlatna na Ostrove

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My day started with a slight hangover and all a bit late. Sleeping in was also not an option as one of the girls (sharing her bed with her girlfriend) was snoring. So i left Bratislava after 10am. The road conditions were kinder now as the GPS tracks took me along the official cycle path for quite some time under the blazing sun. Early afternoon the switched to the left (northern) embankment again and was back on dirt road mainly along a danube dam.

After 90 km arrived at the small village of xxx again by nightfall and was lucky to catch last orders in the hotel. Delicious and cheap. Great combination. Outside a group of slovakians were drinking wine and singing traditional songs including one my uncle Jon used to play at family parties. Memories…

Day 3: Zlatna na Ostrove to Budapest

I left well rested and reasonably early. Following the road for a while speeded things up in order to make my dinner appointment with my good old friend Raul in Budapest. Sun was brutal yet again and i felt a sunburn is not far away now. The route was pretty flat throughout… Until i hit the final stretch where initially i followed uphill roads and eventually steep forest trails. The reward was a very long stretch downhill into budapest… Everyone out of my way! … Cycling like a 🚀! After 115km i had reached the capital of Hungary.

I met raul in his chic apartment. We had loads to catch up not having met for 5-6 years. Italian dinner was also welcome. Thanks for the great hospitality Mr Costa.

Day 4: Budapest to Dunaföldvar

The GPS tracks suggested 160km for the next leg initially on the west of the river and than back to the east side. Not for me today. I just followed the river straight south headed for the serbian border in 2 days time. No time to waste.

Once out of Budapest i was initially again on the road. Not too nice. Soon i found a nice cycle path along the river, be it dirt roads at times. Very pleasant cycling through villages and the great southern plain. 97km after leaving Budapest i called it a day.

I camped first time in Dunaföldvar in some seemingly deserted place. But they had hot water and given no one was at reception either at night or in the morning, it was free. In the village they had some sort party on with load rock music blasting from the stage. I was only interested in food (sausage, goulash), sampled a hungarian Pinot noir and went to bed. Exhausted.

Local youth sadly use the campground as meeting place… So 2 hours more loud music unwillingly before i finally managed to rest.

Day 5: Dunaföldvar to Baja

The sky was covered in clouds this morning. So jacket on for the first time. The path was again south towards Baja – the last bigger town before the serbian border. I began on offroad tracks and on a dam along the river, then roads. It was saturday and not very busy on route 51.

My breakfast was a tasty goulash followed by pizza volcano for lunch. One is so hungry on the bike. All the time!

While heading for the town of Kalocsa i bumped into another cyclist. A german as it turns out who decided to offload his weird life story and views on me. Glad he had to stop in town as it was not enjoyable to be honest.

Once in baja i headed for the camping again. I had covered 90km and that was it for me. I was tired. So i guess it was not surprising in hindsight that after a shower i fell asleep at 6pm. No sightseeing for me in baja beyond the ride through town before putting up camp.

Tomorrow the first border crossing awaits. Off to serbia. The first and only country on my tour i have never been to.