Queen of the hill

I have many shortcomings as a long distance cyclist, but perhaps the most significant is my pathological hatred for cycling uphill.

Nothing can break me down like cycling up a hill where I can’t see the end. Combined, my bike, kit, water and I weigh 150kg, which Google tells me is the weight of an adult panda. In 38 degree heat, on a climb with no shade, getting that panda uphill becomes a psychological game. Because the moment your gears run out, the voice in your head that tells you that you won’t make it is loud over the slow, slow rotation of your chain; and the worst thing you can do is lock-up, freezing your already frozen muscles until you need more oxygen than you can suck in.

Nicolas and I arrived in Belgrade after a few short, hilly stretches where the Danube flowed from Croatia into Serbia, and every night I would read to Nicolas from the guidebook the details of the next day’s climbs, like ghost stories. And for me they were more effective an any ghost story. If I skipped ahead a few days – here is “a steady 4km”, a “steep climb up a gravel path” the next day – I would not sleep for worrying.

Absurdly, more than the Himalayas, more than the Andes, crossing the mountains between the faithful, flat Danube path and Sofia in Bulgaria had been my greatest, most obsessive worry of the whole trip. If I met anyone cycling even vaguely in that direction, my first question was always: how are you getting from the Danube to Sofia.

So I lay on the floor of our hostel room in Belgrade and ran through the options with Nicolas, who is fearless, and who had blithely decided to join me for a quick trip to Sofia before continuing his journey down the Danube. Option a, which seemed the most common, was to catch a train across the mountains from Vidin to Sofia, bypassing the problem altogether. Option b was to cycle straight over the mountain. And then there was a new option, c: Rolling East had decided to put option b on steroids, and had found an almost entirely hilly, almost entirely gorgeous route that cut through the Serbian hills to the west of Sofia.

There is, I decided, no better way to tackle your fear of getting a panda up a hill then to plant yourself at the bottom of a number of increasingly difficult hills and haul the panda over them. So it was that Nicolas and I found ourselves heading out of Belgrade in 40 degree heat, across a nightmareish highway bridge, to bid farewall to the Danube at its most grand, the gorge that slices through the Carpathian mountains. The going was flat with the odd climb that had me wheezing for air and decanting bottles of water over my head, but inbetween we wild camped in apricot orchards, eating huge slices of a watermelon that Nicolas had carried on his back rack, one starry night lying on the ground untangling the French names for the constellations.

We made for Camping Kapetan Misin Breg, a beautiful site perched atop a cliff halfway through the scenic national park, and which every single group of cyclists ahead of us had recommended, then set off on the steady climb up the road that overlooked the breathtaking Iron Gorge.

And then, after a month and a half, I turned away from the Danube for the last time, climbing up and over a ridge before tumbling down to a campsite where the owner welcomed us with a bottle of schnapps.

The next day I held onto my screengrab of Rolling East’s route and their blow-by-blow account of the days’ riding like an amulet. It was my new Eurovelo guide. Day one they’d said was tough, with lots of steep ups and downs: and so it was. But, luckily, they came sandwiched close together, and one benefit of being the weight of a panda bear is that you gain incredible momentum going downhill. I think it was the only time in recorded history I ever overtook Nicolas. Laughing – shouting, claiming Yellow Jerseys and Chapeaux – we sped up and down the hills until a mighty thunderstorm rolled in and forced us to end the day early. Day two – past Zajecar – we pushed through one enormous climb then dived fast down into the valley, clods of mud flying off our bikes as we descended to an easy highway to Knazevac.

Rolling East had said of the next stage that they didn’t remember the details, which I think might have been a way to avoid spoiling the surprise that lay ahead. The road, unassuming, fringed with the chaotic little cornershops leaking vegetables onto the street, climbed up out of the city, and I can’t remember when but suddenly it turned left and it was like someone had dropped a still from Jurassic Park infront of my bicycle.

A valley – just impossibly green, so overgrowing with green that it made your eyes blur – cut ahead of us around the mountains, and it was without doubt one of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen. Yes, the road tumbled and climbed, and my legs were exhausted, but when at a summit an eagle – I think it was an eagle –  ripped out of a tree to fly along over Nicolas for a few metres I forgot everything I knew about lactic acid.

But we had another problem. We’d been warned of boars and bears in this region, and we knew we wouldn’t cross it in one day, which left us with a wild camping conundrum. The road had climbed away from the river, meaning we were unable to camp on the floor, and the evening was settling in when Nicolas called a halt. There was a sign for an Orthodox Monastery ahead, and a few weeks’ cycling with me had taught Nicolas that there are two things I will divert off course for: beer and monasteries. So we stood on our pedals to crunch up the steep track and as we did Nicolas said, “maybe we can sleep here?”

“This has never happened before,” said the Orthodox novice who answered the door to us. We had poked around the quiet complex – a beautiful, disused 15th century church high on the hilltop, some vegetable gardens and a modern house beneath – before we decided to try the monks. As the novice retreated back into the house to speak to the abbot I told Nicolas it would be a no: I had been turned away from perfectly sane patches of grass before by people worried about noise, where I’d shower, and reasonably enough, anxiety about having a total stranger slumbering in your nasturtiums.

“It’s a yes!” Said the returning novice, who seemed as delighted as we were. He gestured around, “you can camp anywhere, but there is a flat lawn up by the chapel.” I put my tent up in a daze, looking out and down across the valley from the shadow of the little white frescoed church. On the way down to ask the monk if we could use our camping stoves we met him coming up, carrying a plate overflowing with bread, cheese, vegetables and salami in one hand and a bag of fruit in the other. “I’m sorry it’s not much,” he said. “I sleep in the front room, there. If you need anything at all just knock on the window.”

It was hard riding, the next day, to finish the valley and reach Pirot near the Bulgarian border, which I had taken to calling Poirot in an unsuccessful attempt to annoy Nicolas. But we were flushed with success and, passing Poirot, decided to make a dash for the Bulgarian border at Dimitrovgrad. As the sun started to set we pulled into a roadside bar to drink the last of our Serbian dinar, then rolled easily down to the border.

Which was, unfortunately, stacked about 20 cars deep. Night fell as we edged forwards, breathing fumes in the hot night air, first past the Serbian border, then to the Bulgarian border; customs stops, vignette offices. Finally we were chased out of Serbia by a pack of wild dogs, racing uphill past some surprised HGV drivers who probably thought we the the world’s least effective drug smugglers.

The road from Poirot to the border had been a desperately unpleasant highway. Riding behind Nicolas, my heart was in my mouth at every lorry that whispered too close. One almost tapped him – it passed by inches – then lost control, veered onto the verge and back onto the road again. To our dismay, we found that this highway continued all the way to Sofia. It was night, and my lights weren’t charged, so we climbed anxiously up the first road after the border, turning hairpin bends until I stopped Nicolas to point out a sign on a lamppost that said “border area”: we were about to cross back into Serbia.

It was our closest wildcamping call, and we pulled finally into a hilltop field overlooking the border with a collective groan: there, perched on its edge, was a police surveillance van. But when we’d left the monastery that morning the novice monk had wished us a safe trip: maybe his prayers and the grace of that ancient tumbledown chapel held good, because to my amazement I watched Nicolas pick his way across the field over to the van, and two policemen get out, and a confused conversation in Bulgarian. Nicolas started back across the field towards me – “they said it’s ok to camp here” – and as I looked back over at the van one of the policemen raised his hand in a thumbs-up.

I lay awake in my tent that night listening to the traffic pass through the border beneath me, quiet stop-starts of cars and the occasional gleeful barks of the dog pack. Last night I’d fallen asleep to the trees whispering in the valley and the gurgling of spring water from the little grotto by the church; the night before that listening to torrential rain soak the hillside near Romania. Before I left I’d wondered if it would be stressful – not immediately, but gradually, corrosively – to sleep in a different place every night, not to know where you would sleep when you woke up in the morning.

But humans are adaptable creatures: every night my tent walls looked the same; my kit was always in the same place – phone in the little net above my bed, washbag hanging from the hook near the entrance – and it was only the change in the landscape of noise, the German nightingales, boats on the Danube, noisy toads at Negotin, that gave any indication I’d travelled another 100km since that morning, and into my 11th country.

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