Belgrade to Golubac – Like the River Flows
6th September 2018
“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” – John O’Donohue
One of my favourite quotes is certainly true for thıs unexpected, hardly at all planned, bike trip, for this entire summer so far, full of bigger and smaller plan changes, plot twists and going with the inexplicable, magical, beautiful flow.
16th of August 2018 – Belgrade to Smederevo, ca 50km
Another long rest, another late start, Angela from the incredibly hospitable hostel in Belgrade had announced that we could check out until 2pm, a luxury we didn’t bother questioning until the next late morning when her colleague announced that it was rather 11am. She did grant us an extra hour and the opportunity to leave our panniers at the hostel while we went off to explore a city neither of us knew. Angela had left a long list of sights to visit, parks to explore, cafés to try and streets to roam and while the outskirts of Belgrade hadn’t quite managed to convince us of the city’s beauty, the street musicians, Kalemegdan Park, an oversized breakfast followed by a second and third one and the fierce sunshine over the Church of Saint Sava did their absolute best.
Sometime between 2 and 3pm, Dani suggested that we should leave at the latest around 4, maybe 5, to get a few miles in before sunset. It was his reaction more than anything that made me aware of how atypical a sentence I had said, and although those may not have been the exact words, it was something along the lines of: “We leave when we’re done.” I tend to rush things. Instead of being present, I tend to think five steps ahead and miss the moment. But right there and then, on a patch of grass somewhere in Belgrade, the moment – enjoying second breakfast pastries full of cheese and Serbian goodness with Dani – was more than good enough. I didn’t care about the road ahead, the miles already covered, the training I hadn’t done in days, the travel plans further down the road. I was perfectly content with things taking just as long as they needed to.
And so, more coffee, Cevapci, beer and ice cream was had before we finally cycled out of Belgrade, freewheeling down so many hills it made me question what I had done to deserve these lush descents – yet unaware that I would have to pay for them later. The afternoon sun was grinning down on us and just as I was about to stop to buy a sugary soft drink, Dani passed me an ice cold coke out of his pannier. Perfection is a thing best found in the details. Before we knew it, the sun was creeping lower and lower along the horizon, leaving us in the shade more often than not. I put my lights on, the bright yellow Hi Vis, and was singing old songs while rolling along without much effort.
In order to avoid a second night of waterless wild camping, we stopped at a petrol station where I refused to buy litres and litres of bottled water and add to our collection of plastic bottles. It seemed pointless, given that there was a perfectly good tap right next to the station. As expected, the assistant informed us that this water was for anything but drinking, and as usual, I tried it anyways. While it wasn’t as appalling as the one near Kanjiza, it carried a very distinctive petrol-flavoured bouquet. Despite having invented the entertaining – and occassionally diarrhea-inducing – travel game Which one is the drinking water once upon a time as well as being my father’s daughter – he has, on all of his travels, stubbornly, persistently drank water from taps and wells that even locals advised against and remained mostly unscathed – I decided to filter this one. The unfavourable taste remained after I had patiently squeezed about 6 litres of water through my Mini Sawyer Squeeze filter, but it did make me feel a lot better about the substances I was putting in my body. Once finished, I decided to leave the dirty water reservoir – about another 2 litres – filled up for having a shower along with the night’s wild camp.
Loaded up on water with the sun having almost disappeared by now, that’s when the hills hit and we finally needed to make up for all the freewheeling we had enjoyed so far. Until late, I panted up and down the streets, sounding more like a woman in labour than a cyclist enjoying herself, but I carried on. On the third or fourth hill, I remarked that the amount of water I was carrying for our shower later on was not helping, but I stubbornly refused to hand it over to Dani, insisting that it couldn’t be more than another one or two hills. I’d give it to him on top of the next hill, but there was no way I would take an unnecessary break on an uphill stretch…
We were looking for camping spots, but along the road, the hills were steep and overgrown and darkness had long since fallen when we considered alternatives. We were resting atop one of the countless hills after we had seen a sign announcing a small hostel within the next 3km when a loud bang interrupted our chit-chat. We turned around to see fire works all over the village nestled in the valley we had just cycled out of. If you know me, you might be aware that I am as fond of fire works as I always was of cycling: not in the slightest, I used to hide with the dogs under the table on most New Year’s Eves, but it is save to say that a thing or two have changed on this trip, so there I stood, drenched in sweat, feeling a little proud of my progress on the small hills, enjoying the colours of the fire works…
The hostel we eventually reached was a dream; a cute little kitchen, a lounge, a stand for our bikes, a huge dorm room we had all to ourselves, home-brewed beer to try and the company of a friendly Serbian worker telling us about his travels. Just the washing machine I discovered a little late, after I had already done my laundry in the shower. Yes, we had carried a lot of water for nothing and ended up pouring all of it down the drain. No matter how much effort had gone into filtering it, it unfortunately still tasted like shit.
17th of August – Smederevo to Golubac (Vinci), ca 85km
Despite the wonderful atmosphere of Hostel Che and a good night’s rest, I felt antsy for most of the evening and the entire morning, which wasn’t helped by too much coffee and yet another slow start due to some bike maintenance in the morning. Our Serbian friend had left by the time we got on the road. On the plus side, my laundry was dry, but I couldn’t free my mind from a bunch of irritating thoughts, couldn’t seem to shake the restlessness and tightness that had grabbed hold of my chest. For the first time I hoped that cycling might be somewhat therapeutic. I knew that movement was. The bike chain, freshly lubed and cleaned from the grit, dust and mud that had built up over the previous days, ran smoothly and after a grumpy, angsty morning, the meditative revolutions of my wheels underneath me calmed me. 20 minutes in, my mind had already become clearer and my chest had opened up a little.
The first half of the day went slowly, the road monotonous and the air unnecessarily humid and after a few hours of pedalling, I hit another pain induced low. Whingeing, I asked Dani, ever the passionate cyclist: “Does cycling ever stop being agony after a few hours?” He laughed and remarked that I went quickly from highs to lows and I felt worse for being overly dramatic, but the comeback of the pain and exhaustion in combination with a somewhat boring route and the heaviness of the air around me did nothing to help. When he suggested a break, it was a no-brainer. At that point. I would have taken one all by myself and caught up later. A beer and some Baklava later, it had begun to rain and I was still tired and grumpy. I still couldn’t tell why our little pauses were sometimes energising while leaving me more drained at others. The rain seemed serious and it was the first I had seen in months. I still didn’t enjoy having to repack and waterproof my panniers and getting my only long-sleeved garment out, a waxed Paramo mid-layer that was easily warm enough for this trip, but the fatigue made me shiver nonetheless.
I must have been a miserable sight, forcing myself to trudge on after our break, when a German speaking woman approached us, telling us that she had seen us cycling by the side of the road and was wondering whether we were on our way to Golubac some 50-60km down the road. She was living in Zurich, married to a Serb and originally from Germany, her cousin owned a restaurant and hotel in Golubac which she highly recommended. Determined to finally find another decent wild camp that night, we thanked her and carried on. Sure enough, after less than 10 minutes the inconsistent drizzle that had scared me into believing it would turn into a massive down-pour, let up. Dani looked back at me smugly as I was overheating in my long sleeves and couldn’t get to my now raın-proofed gear.
The day dragged on as we followed the Danube, and while my companion was enjoying the view out on the river and stopped to take pictures at any opportunity, I still hadn’t quite found my mojo when cycling path signs announced that we were approaching Golubac. Making fun of myself and the desaster that was today, a mock fight with Dani about the misery that was this dreadful cycling trip finally made me laugh and gave me enough adrenaline to ride into town. We took a long break some 6 or 7km before the finish line, sitting by the Danube watching families bathing and playing in the water. A long green stretch joined a beach full of relaxed people, a surprising lot of whom spoke German and tried engaging with us.
In Golubac, we stocked up on dinner, which turned into a delicious affair out on the pier in the middle of the Danube, accompanied by a mesmerising sunset and all the colours of dusk. Serbian Kajmak cheese on pickles was an absolute revelation and apparently just what my body had needed. Bread, tinned fish, local dark beer and fresh vegetables make it a meal.
Until late, we talk about everything and anything from lost loves to discipline. An interesting concept comes up: maybe, some people need discipline more than others, like vines will thrive on a frame to rank themselves around whereas red cedars will grow straight and tall with no need for a frame.
Looking for a camping spot, we backtrack for the first time, the detour of about 6km so worthwhile when we pass my favourite water fountain on the whole trip. The water tastes pure and clean, crisp and refreshing and I guzzle a litre straight from the small stream, splashing more on my face and arms, salty and crusted with the day’s sweat, before filling our bottles for the night. It takes some time to find the perfect spot but we finally find rest on a flat bed of grass, carefully cleared of brambles, less than two metres from the water. Sheltered from the busy side of the beach by bushes and trees, neither mosquitoes nor vacationers disturb us and it is the late morning sun that wakes me the next day.
My absolute favourite part of the entire trip – the Iron Gates – will follow shortly/when I have some more time off adventure planning, travelling and unexpected Turkish farm life.