Serbia and Bulgaria

After a late morning, to make the most of my hotel, I set off. To begin with I was cycling roughly parallel to the river Sava, with dry-looking farmland all around

After a couple of hours I reached the town of Sabac. Being a Sunday, most shops were closed, but thankfully the Lidl was open. It was quite hot today; a chocolate bar in my framebag had melted by the time I got back to my bike. Thankfully it was still in the packet.

On the way out of town, I was passed by what I presume was a wedding procession. Perhaps 20 cars had ribbons flying off and were driving slowly down the road. They were honking, as were the vehicles they were holding up.

For most of the day it was very flat, the odd slight hill but nothing major. I passed lots of dead dogs on the road; but no dogs chased me – several barked and wanted to but were held back by fences.

As is common in poorer countries, waste management isn’t exactly great. There are a lot of litter heaps at the the side of the road.

On the other hand, the water here is clean. I’ll miss having free, clean, easily available water.

My bike barely looks loaded from the front!

Late in the day there was a hilly section. It only rose up to about 500m but at least it provided some scenery.

From here there was a nice descent through the town of Gornji Milanovac. There was a hotel on the far side which I considered staying at, but they quoted a price of €25. That’s a lot more than I’m willing to pay, considering I slept in a hotel the night before.

I rode on and pretty easily found a place to camp. It was an old section of road which had been blocked by a pile of rubble, which I climbed over. One part of it had clearly been used as a public toilet, so I was careful to avoid that bit. The ground was too hard for tent pegs, so I had to improvise.

If it works, it works. My bike held down one end and my saddle bag held the other.

I made an early start, on the road at about 7 o clock. I was moving quickly, reaching the town of Kraljevo at about 8.45. There was a bike shop there, which had a sign saying it opened at 9. I decided to stop for some food, and hope it opened. By 9.10, no one had showed up so I got back on my way.

A headwind had begun, and I was now on a busy road with trucks frequently passing dangerously close. It wasn’t fun so for the next few hours I just put my head down and cycled. I did get a short break when I was able to draft behind a tractor. This sheltered me from the wind and prevented trucks from narrowly overtaking me. Unfortunately the tractor stopped after just a few minutes.

Thankfully after the town of Krusevac I moved onto smaller roads, and even turned south so that I had a bit of a tailwind. Some hills broke the monotony of the plains.

The road turned to dirt for the last few kilometres of the climbing. Small flying insects started to gather around me as I rode, so I resorted to sprinting every so often to disperse the swarm. In-between sprints, I rode with one hand on the handlebars while the other swatted insects away from my face.

I tried to get a photo of them, which didn’t really work. Trying to remount the phone while swatting away flies and keep upright in the gravel, I accidentally paused my Strava.

They didn’t show up very clearly so I have helpful highlighted them.

For the last 1.5km or so the gradient was such that I couldn’t go fast enough to drop the swarm, and it just continued to grow. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a climb, nor been so happy to reach the end. I was disappointed when I realised I’d paused Strava, I’d love to know how fast I was going!

That was the end of the climbing for the day and a few hours of downhill then flat riding followed. As I approached Leskovac, a large town, I found an open wifi network and booked a night in a hotel. I made my way there and arrived just as it was getting dark.

I went out to a supermarket to stock up on food for tomorrow, and bought some fries from a fast food place on the way back. When I asked the price, he held up 8 fingers. I thought there might be some mistranslation at first, but as it turned out a big portion of fries really was just 80 dinar (£0.58).

Leaving Leskovac, the streets were pleasantly quiet. As has been the case in Serbia, drivers in towns are remarkably courteous to pedestrians – as soon as anyone approaches a pedestrian crossing, the cars stop.

Out of the town, I continued on a quiet road following the course of a river. It ran parallel to a motorway, so most of the traffic was on that.

After a couple of hours, I turned left and headed up into the mountains, toward Bulgaria.

Up in the mountains, I passed a few basic-looking farms. There were occasional springs at the side of the road and I saw several people with cars filled with bottles they were filling up.

Often mountains mark the boundary between countries, but not in this case. Once I was past the pass, I had 45km of gentle downhill to get to the border. I stopped at a small shop and spent the last of my Serbian Dinar there.

For the last stretch of Serbia, signs were printed twice, with very minor differences. Presumably one is Bulgarian Cyrillic and the other Serbian.

At the border, I was quickly stamped out of Serbia and headed off to Bulgarian immigration.

On the Bulgarian side, I handed over my Irish passport and they got out a big rulebook, then demanded a PCR test. Thankfully when I said I was just transiting Bulgaria, they allowed me in. I was about to get my passport back when the woman I’d been talking to asked her superior something. He replied, and it sounded like he said the words “Irlanda” and “Britannia.” My passport was then stamped – I suspect he said that Ireland had left the EU along with Britain. I didn’t bother to correct them.

I was about to leave when I was told I had to go through customs. I asked where, and was told “here.” We waited for the customs official, and a couple of cats came over. I took a photo of them, and the border guard asked “You want one? They’ve had babies.”

Unfortunately I did not take a cat. After a few minutes, a message came along and I was told I could go. Presumably the customs officer couldn’t be bothered. I rode off into Bulgaria.

Not long into Bulgaria, I was chased by a group of 3 big dogs. This happened a few times in Bulgaria, it’s definitely not my favorite thing.

When it started to get dark, I followed a disused track into some trees and set up camp. From here it’s about 170km to the Greek border, and I expect to get there tomorrow.

Visitors to Greece have to fill in a Passenger Locator Form the day before they arrive, so I did that online. I had to select whether I was travelling by bus, train or car. I said I was travelling in a car with the registration plate “bicycle.” Hopefully they accept that – worst case, I’ll have to cross directly from Bulgaria to Turkey which would add a couple days riding. Not too big a deal really.

In order to make sure I got to the border, I made an early start and was cycling just a few minutes after dawn.

After a couple of hours I reached Blagoevgrad, and made my customary Lidl stop. I was hungry so I had some food at the car park, and gathered an audience.

The road out of town was seriously busy, but I found an alternative service road. At one point I reached a closed bridge, but I just ducked under the barriers and rode around the workmen. They didn’t seem to mind.

Around midday I had the big climb of the day, taking me from about 200 metres to 1100. Traffic was reasonably busy which wasn’t ideal, but I just put on a podcast and got on with it.

After this was a couple of hours gradual downhill, taking me past a few towns. After this the road headed uphill towards Greece, and traffic finally died down.

Shortly before the border, a car pulled up alongside me – border police. They had me pull over and checked my passport before letting me go. These sort of encounters do make me wonder what they think they might find that wouldn’t be noticed at border control 1 kilometre on. I expect the answer is that they were just bored.

Bulgarian control was unusually slow to stamp me out, spending a long time peering at the passport and studying my face. They don’t get much traffic passing through here so they don’t have much else to do.

Then it was on to the border tunnel – an unusual feature. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another time I’ve crossed a border via tunnel.

Greek immigration was very quick. They checked my passport, vaccine certificate, and the form I’d filled in yesterday. They seemed to have absolutely no issue with the fact that my “car” only had two wheels, and I was free to go.

I rode on for a little while before, as usual, wandering off the road and setting up camp nearby.

Sept 5: 169 km

Sept 6: 207 km

Sept 7: 170 km

Sept 8: 185 km

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