I arrived in Bucharest in the wee hours of the morning, gratefully collecting my miraculously still-intact bike from my budget airline redeye flight, and after putting it back together and strapping my bike bags on, I dubiously set out into the terrifying Bucharest traffic with one goal in mind: to see as much of the Balkans as I could before I needed to be back at this airport three weeks later. I had a rough idea of a route planned, but little knowledge of what trails I would come across, so most days I was just working off a compass bearing and hoping for the best. Generally, this strategy worked out, and I found some memorable off-road riding in addition to (mostly quite potholed) pavement sections in between. Camping wild was easy, but with prices significantly lower than the rest of Europe and few tourists in most places, I also stayed in some cheap and cheerful guesthouses when the weather turned (which it certainly did a few times!), which was a great way to meet more locals and learn about the region I was riding through. My packing was extremely minimal, but distances between towns were often short, so resupplying was easy. As a solo woman I felt incredibly safe everywhere I went, with the major exception of packs of stray dogs who seem to have a particular appetite for cyclists…
Here are 9 highlights from 9 countries I traveled through.
The Danube in Romania. Once I left the bustle of Bucharest behind me, southern Romania opened up to flattened farm land, where enjoyable double tracks abound, but the best trail was definitely the bouncy track alongside the famous Danube. I spent an afternoon following the river, sharing the trail only with a few horse-drawn carts and herds of goats.
Trails in Bulgaria. From Romania, I crossed the Danube to Bulgaria, where hills seem to rise directly from the river banks. Almost immediately after passport control I found myself pushing up an incredibly steep, muddy trail, and Bulgaria basically continued on that theme from there. I found plenty of farm tracks as well as hiking trails in the mountains which led to immensely enjoyable riding. I could easily have spent an entire three weeks just mountain biking around Bulgaria – in fact, one day I might head back and do just that!
Wild camping in Macedonia. Macedonia has a completely different landscape from its neighbours. It is sunkissed, rocky, and rugged. I found a lot of enjoyable trails through farm lands and open grassy hills, where it was easy to find excellent places to pitch my tent and enjoy clear starry skies in complete solitude.
Friendly Kosovo. On my first day in Kosovo, I found it hard to maintain a steady pace as so many locals approached me to chat and welcome me to their country. It is an astoundingly friendly nation, and the incredible hospitality throughout the rural and urban areas was heartwarming and humbling. Don’t let history put you off visiting this fantastic place!
Dramatic mountains in Albania. I had been warned that Albania was not for the leisurely cyclist, and those warnings are pretty accurate. Albania is a stunning, mountainous country with steep grades, rocky peaks, and clear green lakes below. I spent a lot of time in the granny-gear, but the view from the top of every climb was beyond worth it.
Kotor Bay in Montenegro. I dropped down to the coast of the Adriatic in order to see the famous Kotor Bay, which did not disappoint. Set encircled by rocky cliff-faced mountains, this bay is one of the most beautiful in the world, and it was delightful to spend an afternoon doing some easier pedaling around the area, stopping for a cold beer to really soak in the atmosphere.
The Croatian coastline. I followed the coast into Croatia, where the road follows the Adriatic closely, although often well above the sea from the top of a plunging cliff. The descent along this coastal road into the Old Town of Dubrovnik is especially dramatic.
The Ciro Trail in Bosnia. Starting from Croatia and leading to Mostar in southern Bosnia, the Ciro Trail is a recently completed rail-to-trail project that I had entirely to myself in April. The trail makes for relatively easy riding between the hills of Bosnia, following a beautiful river, and leading to the must-see Old Town of Mostar, which was heavily bombed in 1993 and has been lovingly restored to attract overwhelming packs of tourists today. While riding the trail you are reminded that the past is not far behind: there are still unexploded landmines existing alongside the route.
Unspoiled wilderness in Serbia. I spent much of an afternoon dragging the bike painfully slowly through a drowned, muddy trail after several days of storms in southern Serbia, but while I was enduring this suffering I also saw deer, lizards, and plenty of birdlife, and enjoyed being blissfully apart from any signs of civilisation for most of the day.
While the scars of the recent past still dot the landscape throughout the Balkans, it is a truly beautiful region with welcoming locals, rich cultures, and exciting trails to explore. I only wish I had more time!
Be sure to check out Jennys video and head to here website for more – http://jennytough.com/
Front dry bag:
2-3 season sleeping bag
1 clean set of clothes
Bike lock (never used)
Tools: tyre levers, spare tube, patches, multi-tool, cable ties, duct tape, chain lube
Snacks (generally of the chocolatey variety)
1 person tent
First aid kit + toiletries
Gloves + tuque
Top tube bag: