Impressed by the beauty of the Balkans: cycling from Belgrade to Sofia

Before we started our bike tour through the Balkans, we didn’t really know what to expect from the region. We merely heard about its turbulent history with complicated relationships between countries and perceived it as a stopover on our way from Western Europe to Turkey. We didn’t know much about its people and what the scenery looked like. Now, after having spent 3 weeks in the region, we have to say that the Balkans have much more to offer than we imagined. We’ve got to love it here!

Sunset in Donji Milanovac with a great view on the Danube

Movie time: cycling in Serbia — we can only recommend it

We’ve spent about two weeks in Serbia and we really loved cycling there. Manon made a short movie about it.

Cycling in Serbia— made by the one and only Manon Brulard

From the Serbian capital to the Bulgarian one

Let’s continue our story in Belgrade, where we stopped last time. As described in our previous blog post, we liked the northern part of Serbia — which is mainly flat —especially because of its people who are super welcoming and eager to share their stories.

Over the last 2 weeks, we’ve cycled from Belgrade to Sofia through the eastern part of Serbia and northern part of Bulgaria. We enjoyed this part for a different reason: its nature, which made a deep impression on us. It felt like we were cycling from highlight to highlight. Below a chronological overview, starting with a failed attempt to get out of the city of Belgrade.

From Belgrade to Sofia — full itinerary on https://roadtotherisingsun.be/ + all GPX files on https://github.com/Driesvanransbeeck/biketour/tree/master/GPX

Waking up early for nothing

So far, plans work out the way we want them to most of the time. Unfortunately, one Monday morning in Belgrade, we woke up at 5:30 and wanted to catch the first train to Vršac in order to avoid having to ride on a motor highway. We bought our train tickets in Belgrade Central Station, put our heavy bikes on the right platform and waited, waited, waited, … until we noticed that something was wrong. We went back to the ticket office and asked why our train didn’t show up. Surprisingly, the ticket vendor — who didn’t understand any word in English — got very annoyed by our question, asked for our train tickets, reimbursed the tickets without looking at us and simply ran away. We thought it was a matter of bad luck, but we found out online that it’s not a coincidence: Belgrade’s public transportation is not working properly.

Belgrade’s big empty Central Station with a few trains and a few train passengers

After all, nothing bad happened. We only had to wait for 5 more hours to get the next train. Soon after we were able to catch the next train, 3 big highlights would appear on the horizon.

Highlight 1: Cycling in the Iron Gates gorge

Cycling along the Danube isn’t always flat. The Danube goes through the spectacular Iron Gates gorge on the border between Romania and Serbia. With Carpathian Mountains to the north and the Balkan Mountains to the south of the Iron Gates, this definitely belongs the most scenic parts of a bike tour along Danube.

This is how excited we got of the awe-inspiring scenery of the Iron Gates
Small ferry crossing in Stara Palanka to stay on the Serbian side of the Danube
Golubac’s Medieval Fortress along the Danube
Break time in Donji Milanovac
Beautiful sunset along the Danube in Donji Milanovac
The foothills of the Balkan Mountains

At the end of the Iron Gates, we had to say goodbye to the Danube as we wanted to head southwards to Belogradchik, whereas the Danube goes further eastwards to the Black Sea. In total, we’ve cycled from Germany until Bulgaria more than 1500 km along the Danube river.

Last picture at the Danube before saying goodbye

Highlight 2: Belogradchik

After we’ve crossed the border between Serbia and Bulgaria, we headed southwards to Belogradchik to visit the bizarrely shaped rock formations. The rock formations are very beautiful, but also the way to get there — especially the climb from Oreshets to Belogradchik — was more than worth it.

Nice view on Belogradchik from the hill in Oreshets
Exploring the rock formations in Belogradchik
Stairs to get up the highest rock

Highlight 3: Through the Balkan Mountains to Sofia

As we also wanted to visit Sofia, there was no other option than crossing the Balkan Mountains. After having cycled on mostly flat terrain, we were totally ready to discover something new. The mountains brought us more beauty in our eyes than pain in our legs. We enjoyed it very much!

At least, we knew what we were heading to: mountains!
Lunch with a view, near Berkovitsa
Top of the mountain pass near Varshets
Super steep descent (5 km at 12%) to get to the Iskar river
Arrival in Sofia
City life in Sofia

Countdown to Istanbul has started!

Street art in Belgrado: I wished that following Manon on the bike would be as easy as it looks here.

Our time in the Balkans will be coming to an end soon. We’ll cycle in the next days from Sofia via Plovdiv and Dimitrovgrad to the next chapter of our bike tour: Turkey.

In 2 weeks, we expect to be in Istanbul, where we’ll spend one week with our family. We’re very much looking forward to that!

Some more pictures to end with:

Our favorite stops are nearby bakeries — the legendary Börek
Tourist season hasn’t started yet: there’s still some time to take the chair out of the tree.
Spectacular scenery in the Iron Gates gorge of the Danube river
This dog accompanied us for a ride of 45 km
Sunset in Donji Milanovac with a great view on the Danube
In Negotin we planned to stay for one night at the Camping and Guesthouse for Cyclists and Adventurers. We liked so much that we decided to stay an extra night.
Long queues for the first strawberries of the year at Zhenski Pazar Women’s Market in Sofia

See you in 2 weeks — happy cycling!

Road to the Rising Sun

We’re Manon and Dries, cycling all the way from Brussels to Tokyo. This is our story!

Dries Van Ransbeeck

Written by

Crazy about civic innovation, open data, liveable cities & long-distance bike touring. Coordinator @OpenKnowledgeBE.

Road to the Rising Sun

We’re Manon and Dries, cycling all the way from Brussels to Tokyo. This is our story!

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