For ago now I've been meaning to say something in this forum about a couple of little cycling adventures I had in Europe during the most recent northern summer. As I will shortly feel guilty about having to add 'last year' to any description of these events, today seems as good a time as any to rectify my failure to thus far post anything. :-)

So in late August, travelling from Istanbul to Prague, I found myself in Belgrade for a few days. It was a city I had heard a good deal about during my childhood, when it featured fairly heavily in news bulletins, so I was curious to see exactly what it was all about.

As we know, cities are funny things: many of the very things about them that are a good idea can, sometimes and simultaneously, also be terrible ideas (think serendipitous encounters, living at density and sharing space). So while it probably seemed strategically sensible to establish a city at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, that location has also been a strategically difficult one: Belgrade has been invaded 46 times during its history, as it changed hands between empires and kingdoms, mainly the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians.

The junction of the Sava and Danube Rivers, looking out to the Great War Island.

On arrival in Belgrade it was miserably damp and I spent my first morning there sleeping off a long and rather uncomfortable train journey, but after lunch the weather miraculously cleared and I headed out to take a cycle tour of the city, run by iBikeBelgrade.

During the summer months the tours leave from the centre of the city, in the Knez Mihailova (Prince Mihailo) pedestrian mall, every afternoon. Despite the glorious weather, there were no other takers and I was lucky enough to have tour-guide Nathan - an American living in Belgrade with his Serbian wife - and his expertise all to myself.

It's really quite impressive how much ground you can cover in four hours (about 15 kilometres, despite lots of stops and being in no rush whatsoever) - much more than would be possible on a walking tour, and with much more engagement than on a bus. Picking up our hired bikes in the old (Turkish) part of Belgrade, we rode along the Danube and past the marvellously Soviet-inspired '25th of May' Sports Centre (which now includes the tennis academy where a young Novak Đoković used to train) and the old Turkish position of Kalemegdan Fort.

We crossed the Sava at Brankov's Bridge which, now that it has a bicycle elevator, is part of EuroVelo6, a 3500km route that stretches from the Atlantic to the Black Sea - we saw numerous well-loaded touring bikes nearby, taking advantage of the fantastic facilities and the brilliant weather:

Across the river is New Belgrade (although the photo below is taken looking back into the old city).

Passing many of the embassies and official buildings located in this part of the city (many of them also marvellously Soviet-inspired), Nathan answered all of my curly and obscure questions with aplomb, until we arrived at Zemun. Now part of Belgrade, this was previously a separate settlement; a customs point, the very edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and no doubt a tense kind of place. We got to a riverside kafana (bistro) for a planned drink stop just as the heavens opened, and we watched barges pass by in the rain as we enjoyed the cooling breeze.

Cycling back towards the Sava River through New Belgrade, I managed to get a flat tyre (in the drizzle, hooray! - though Nathan sorted out a patch without much drama). Then just before we reached Ada Island, (minor) disaster: most of our riding was on quiet streets or wide off-road paths (which is a good thing, since I found Serbian drivers extremely aggressive), either fully separated or shared with pedestrians. In the latter cases, the cycle and pedestrian sections were clearly demarcated - sometimes with white paint and sometimes with a white, slightly raised edge. On one of these, where this lip was not sufficiently obvious, my tyre slid along beside it and, slippery after the rain, the bike tipped me off to the left alongside the path. I suppose I did myself some soft-tissue damage - I was really sore for a couple of days and didn't sleep at all well, since every time I turned over I would wake up! - although none of the medical checks thereafter (and in several countries) ever really revealed anything conclusive.

It's all good now, which I suppose is what really matters, and Nathan was extremely helpful and solicitous in what was a clear case of Engineering Fail. Anyway, we continued on to Ada Island, which we reached by way of a little boat across the Sava and by which time the sun had come out again: the 'island' is now linked to the mainland by two causeways, creating an artificial lake, and it's also home to grounds and facilities for a range of sports - including extensive cycle paths.

We came back to our starting point via the city's old port; passing the junction of the Sava and Danube Rivers at sunset was a lovely moment. Belgrade feels like a scrappy little place; its 'war wounds' are visible everywhere and there isn't sufficient public money to maintain some of its lovely old buildings. However in spite - because? - of this it's become a bit of a European party capital, with the riverside clubs heaving with party-goers from all over every weekend, and I ended up staying a day or two longer than I intended to because I met such fantastic people there.

To top it all off there turned out to be some very agreeable cycling options, if you know where to look - and iBikeBelgrade is a locally-run business, in a place that doesn't have a multitude of employment options. (Their website offers information about riding in the rest of Serbia as well.) If you're in a position to tackle EuroVelo6, give yourself a few days off in Belgrade...

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Comment by Kim on January 1, 2014 at 5:38pm
Great read. The Danube routes are great but you do need to pay attention at intersections otherwise you might end up in the wrong route!

What's the food like?
Comment by Bob Moore on January 1, 2014 at 5:43pm
Love the bicycle elevator. Just what they need at Milsons Point (?).
Comment by Scientia et Labore on January 2, 2014 at 10:15am

Love the international-woman-of-mystery riding companion!

Splendid story. Shame I missed Belgrade this year.

N+1 of places to ride

Comment by dr bean on January 4, 2014 at 11:41am

Hey Kim - I can probably think of worse options than riding off to the 'wrong' place in Europe... And the routes seemed (to me) fairly well sign-posted, so I'm somewhat confident that even I could head in the right direction!

As regards food, there was a lot of meat involved. The most memorable dish for me was pljeskavica (PLYESS-ka-vee-tsah), which are more or less Serbian hamburgers, served with dressings of choice and token salad things. There's also a good deal of eating to be had (and condiments to be made) from paprika and peppers and, if you like this kind of thing, the poisonously strong spirits that are popular in that part of the world. Oh, and raspberries: Serbia is one of the world's largest producers, and I was there in summer and stayed not far from the city's main green market, so I absolutely stuffed myself on them!

Bob - the bike elevator was not unlike the ones you see at railway stations here (I'm sure they'd be equally accessible to wheelchair users). Unfortunately, the several hundred metres of path leading directly up to the elevator was not properly bollarded (despite being signposted for bikes and pedestrians) and drivers apparently often think it's available to them - while we were riding through, we were followed along the path by a police car doing exactly that! :-(

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