We couldn’t believe our sleepy eyes when we cycled into the small riverside village of Stari Slankemen and saw what looked like the biggest, tent-filled campsite we had seen on this trip. After hardly any sleep before setting off from Belgrade early that morning, we were dreaming of quitting early and the site before us, set back from the river on flat ground with a huge number of proper outdoors-looking tents, was surely an apparition.
We jumped off bikes and wheeled them through the gates of what we later discovered was a big thermal centre and hospital complex, and looked around us for a reception area or office to check in. Before we had moved too far, a tanned German man welcomed us and asked where we had come from. We had chanced upon the Tour International Danubien (TID), an annual canoeing trip which descends the length of the Danube every summer with over 100 participants. Our welcoming party suggested no-one would mind if we found a place to pitch our tent and led us to a spot next to two friendly guys from the Netherlands.
Setting up with bikes where every other tent was complimented by a canoe, our presence didn’t go unnoticed with lots of friendly people giving our bikes and tent setup a good look over. We were told by one of the British contingent that we should really talk to a guy called Stephen Lord, who he swore was a guru on bicycle touring. We smiled at this advice, adding: ‘We know, we have his book!’
To our further surprise Stephen actually came over to our camp spot, asking if he could have a look inside our Hilleberg Allak. True to the rumours that he would buy any cycle tourists beers if they met him, he brought us over two cold cans before the evening was out.
We had planned a loop of the flat north of Serbia to wait out some packages which were somewhere on the way to Belgrade, so headed West on the Euro Velo 6 route to Novi Sad for a night before looping back east on the north side of the river to rejoin the cycle path. A night in Novi Sad was uneventful primarily because I ate too much and fell asleep. The next day is when a few bad things happen, we fail to find a neat riverside restaurant that Aleksander had given me directions to and are escorted out of a tiny village called Knicanin where they apparently don’t embrace random cycle tourists. Oh well. At the end of that 48 hours we arrive at a campsite just on dusk and the owners offer us our pitch for free. The next morning they give us two freshly baked muffins before we leave and we already feel a bit more positive.
The scenery on this side of the Danube reminds us of our cycling in the Po River valley, full of agricultural land and good tarmac surfaced roads which people seem happy to drive very fast on. We pull off the road to let a stream of military buses go by at one stage and later stop for a stream of tooting foreign-plated cars heading for a wedding. We’re held up later that day by the wedding procession. Its headed by several horses and carts carrying the bridal party and about 20 cars behind them.
After a memorable fish soup at Stara Palanka, we realise we’ve missed the late afternoon ferry crossing against the Danube to Ram and will have to wait until 7pm to cross the river, impeding our progress for the day as darkness falls at about 8pm here. We think we are out of options when I notice a much smaller boat pulling up to the wharf. With the aid of his departing passengers our transport is arranged, and even better he takes us for free. The south of the Danube goes back into hilly terrain, and we strike lucky on the free camping front, with a family with young kids welcoming us to stay next to them at a fishing lake just off the Danube banks. The kids creep closer and closer throughout the evening to stare at us strangers and their mother gives us some freshly fried puffed bread before we retire from the mosquitoes.
Our coffees are paid for by the owner of a cafe in Veliko Grandiste and we get a free bag of sultanas at the fruit shop. A local finds us a room within our budget in Donji Mihajlovic, the elderly couple who run it give us coca-cola and pepper us with questions about our route in Serbian. We spend a Sunday evening watching a 5-a-side football tournament and eating hamburgers in the cool air.
The cycling hugs the river and we spot canoeists from the TID group a couple of times on the water. We’re now travelling alongside the border line with Romania and I can’t help but stare over at the other side at every opportunity. It is tantalisingly close but we decide against rerouting through another country. We finish the last of 21 tunnels along this road, put our lights away and make a late afternoon dash towards a marked campsite on our map with the knowledge that Bulgaria will await us after one last sleep.