Midzor (7,116ft) – Highest Mountain in Serbia
Bicycle Tour Leg 4: Campsite near Moldoveanu, Romania to Midzor, Serbia
The highest mountain in Serbia is actually a slight point of dispute, depending on whether Kosovo is considered part of Serbia or its own country. Kosovo is currently recognized by 110 UN members as an independent state, and is expected to soon become a full UN member, though it is technically not currently a UN member. Matthew and I define a country as a UN member state or observer state, thus this status is important.
The highest mountain in Kosovo (Djeravica, 8,714 ft) is higher than the highest mountain in Serbia outside of Kosovo (Midzor, 7,116ft). Thus Djeravica is currently technically the highest mountain in Serbia, though when Kosovo becomes a UN member the highest mountain in Serbia will become Midzor.
To be safe I decided to climb both mountains as part of my Eastern Europe bicycle tour in the fall of 2014.
I awoke in my secluded tentsite on the side of Moldoveanu, Romania to a crisp fall morning. The leaves at this elevation were at peak color, and a thin frost blanketed the grass in front of my tent. The sun was just about to rise as I started my normal morning routine – climb outside the tent, fill up my little red flexible bowl with cereal and powdered milk for breakfast, pack up my pad and sleeping bag to load into the red pannier, pack up the tent to put into my yellow panier, check up on my bike to make sure the tires were still pressurized, then load all four panniers onto the bike and head off down the road.
I usually tried to get moving just before first light to take full advantage of the limited daylight this time of year. I’m used to putting on 100 miles a day during a summer bicycle tour, but that was hard to do here in the Fall in Eastern Europe unless I was extremely efficient. Roads tended to be in bad shape, often being gravel where I couldn’t go very fast and got flat tires every other day. I also couldn’t really bike after dark since the roads were pretty narrow and it would be hard for cars to see me. It was also important to start looking for a campsite at least an hour before dark so I could be sure to find something. This meant if I found a good site early, I’d lose an hour of bikable daylight, but would take the site rather than get stuck in the dark with no campsite.
If I was efficient and left just before sunrise, I could get around 90 miles in per day, which still seemed pretty good. This morning promised to be a high-mileage day because I was starting at a high elevation and my first 20 miles would be mostly downhill.
I cruised out of camp and immediately started my long and awesome descent from Moldoveanu. For the first hour I didn’t have to pedal at all as I blasted through the colorful forests along route 7C. I rode along the shores of the beautiful Lacul Vidaru, passing tons of excellent camping opportunities. It’s too bad I couldn’t somehow bring this scenery with me to the evening, when I would have a greater need for the shelter of the trees.
As I crossed the dam at the southern end of the lake a huge white dog bolted up from its slumber and immediately started growling and barking at me. I was pretty experienced with dogs at this point in Eastern Europe, but unfortunately I had forgotten to bring a stick with me in the morning. I saw the dog get up and prepare to chase me, but I momentarily had the advantage. I swerved my bike to head straight for the dog, taking him off guard. His growl changed to a whimper as he turned around to get out of the way. Of course, I was bluffing and wouldn’t actually chase him, but hoped he would be taken off guard for long enough that I could get by and he wouldn’t catch up to me.
I swerved away from the dog at the last minute as he was running away, and continued on the road over the bridge. But the dog soon realized he was no longer being chased, and immediately turned around and started his pursuit. Usually at this stage in my dog encounters I would whip out a stick strapped to the back rack on my bike and raise the stick over my head while looking angrily back at the pursuing dog. Dogs in Eastern Europe are all aware of the meaning of a raised stick over a human’s head, and invariably cower away to avoid the perceived impending blow. This usually gives me enough time to get out of striking distance of the dog and bike safely away.
In this case, though I had no stick. As the dog pursued, getting closer and closer to nipping my ankles, I looked back and raised my clenched fist above my head as if I had an invisible stick in my hand. The dog immediately veered off to the side of the road, completely stopping his pursuit. It was like I’d activated a force field around me with the raising of a single hand. The dog looked up and growled angrily at me, but stood his ground and didn’t pursue. I had won the battle this time. I hoped the next dog I encountered would be as gullible as this one.
On the other side of the bridge I continued descending through the trees to the village of Cobeni. A light rain started now, punishing me for the previous week of dry weather. I was prepared, though, with waterproof ortlieb paniers for all my gear so didn’t worry. As long as I kept riding I would stay warm, even if I got a little wet.
The woods now turned to farm country as I rode through rolling hills to the city of Curtea de Arges. I stopped here briefly to stock up on food and bottled water at a corner grocery store before turning west on 73C. I followed the rolling hills through Budesti and Barsesti, before heading south to Galicea. Here I became a bit lost, not an uncommon occurence on this trip.
I was trying to cross the Olt river following a road on my map west, but the road didn’t appear to actually exist. It should have turned west from Galicea, but I went all the way to the next village south, Teiu, and saw no road. It wasn’t uncommon in Eastern Europe for maps to be wrong, roads to have been abandoned, or, more commonly, road signs to be non-existent. My tried and trusted recourse was to ask someone for directions. Even though nobody spoke English, I could usually figure things out.
I found an old man walking out of a store in Teiu and tried to ask for directions in English, pointing at my map and saying I wanted to get to Slavitesti. He didn’t speak any English, but was super friendly pointing me in the correct direction to Slavitesti. He couldn’t get over the fact that I was both on a bicycle and traveling solo. He kept saying the word solo and shaking his head. I shook his hand thank you and rode off.
The road indeed did exist, but was unmarked and much smaller than my map had depicted. I continued through the rolling hills and farms, stopping once more at a corner store to buy bottles of water before I started looking for a campsite. Just before dusk I found a nice wooded area next to a river with no houses in sight. I waited until no cars were coming before quickly darting into the woods and out of view. That night I cooked with river water to save my bottled water for drinking.
The next morning I started biking just before sunrise, as usual. My goal for the day was to find internet somewhere so I could buy a flight back to the US for the end of my trip. I had flown to Europe on a one-way ticket, planning to see how things went and how much progress I was making before committing to a return schedule. This is the same plan Matthew and I had used on a previous bike tour in Northern/Western Europe, and worked well because we had plenty of time but also plenty of uncertainty in our itinerary. I was in a similar situation now, and had projected at my current pace I could be pretty sure to be to Thessaloniki, Greece by mid-November.
As I rode through villages in the mornings I passed lots of children walking to school. Unfortunately all these villages were too small to have any facility with public internet. I continued through Fartatesti (that was a fun one to say), Balcesti, and Bulesti. I would occasionally stop in the villages and ask about internet, wifi, computers, or similar related words, but everyone I talked too just looked confused.
Finally I arrived in the major town of Craiova, and determined that if there were internet anywhere in Romania it would be here. I went to the middle of town, searching all the stores for something that looked like an internet café, but had no luck. I asked some of the storekeepers, eventually finding one that spoke English and said there might be one in a billiard hall a few blocks away.
I biked over there but saw no billiard hall. After wandering around for an hour I stopped at another building to ask, and this time got lucky. The owner was a Palestinian immigrant who spoke perfect English, and said there was indeed a pool hall just across the street that had a public internet café in the basement. He said he would watch my bike while I went (“This is Romania, you know. Everything is liable to get stolen,” he said). One of his workers even accompanied me to the café.
We went to the basement and amazingly there were 10 computers just ready to use, for only 10 leu per hour (about $2). I quickly logged in and started looking at flights as my Romanian friend also logged on to a nearby computer. I purchased a flight from Thessaloniki Greece to Seattle using leftover United Airline miles, so it only cost me $50 in taxes and fees.
I also took the opportunity to upload all the pics off my camera and catch up on a few emails I had missed over the past weeks. My friend had to leave, but wanted to tell me something before he left. His English wasn’t great so I opened up the google translate browser and he typed something in Romanian. Google translated it to “Be careful of the pool boys. Watch your wallet.”
I thanked him for the warning and waved goodbye. As my final minutes were lapsing on my hour I quickly looked over satellite photos near Craiova and found an excellent wooded place to camp 10 miles out of town. It wasn’t as far away as I’d liked to get, but there were no reasonable spots within the next 50 miles so I had to take it. No need to worry about finding a spot tonight, though!
With all my errands taken care of I walked back to my bike, thanked the nice Palestinian store owner, and got back on the road. I headed southwest out of town and within an hour had reached the wooded area for camp. It was still two hours before sunset, and I’d really only biked about 70 miles today with all the errands in town, but I still considered it an excellent place to stop and camp. Surprisingly there were quite a few mosquitos here, despite it being the middle of October and dropping below freezing at night. I was used to mosquitos, though, from plenty of bike rides up north, so had no problem.
I biked through farmland the next morning, heading generally southwest all the way to the Bulgaria border at Vidin. I had no problem crossing the border, and continued west on route 14 cutting across the narrow northern peninsula of the country. There was surprisingly only one small village, Kula, in this entire 30 mile stretch, and I stopped there to top off my water and eat some ice cream.
I hit the Serbian border at Vrashka chuka by mid afternoon, and as usual had no trouble getting through. The border agents would usually ask where I came from (I would say Ukraine) and where I was going (Greece). I would always explicitly say I was just passing through on my way to somewhere else, which was pretty believable given I was obviously on a big bicycle tour. The agents would always be surprised to see someone here on a bicycle, shake their heads, then give me the stamp and wish me good luck. I feel like this is not a common area for people to go on bicycle rides, given that over the entire month I didn’t see a single other long-distance cyclist. Compare this to my bicycle tour in Scandinavia one summer, when I saw a handful of other long-distance cyclists every day!
In Serbia the road descended all the way to the medium-sized town of Zajecar. My first priority here was to get some Serbian currency. Given that I only bought food at small corner grocery stores where I could keep an eye on my bike at all times, and that these stores were never large enough to take credit cards, it was critical that I get some Serbian Dinars.
In town I quickly found a bank and withdrew some cash. I didn’t know what the conversion rate was, but it was usually safe to choose the middle option of the three options of amounts to withdraw, so I chose 10,000 Serbian Dinars. (I later realized this was about $100, which I never managed to spend in the country and am now stuck with a large chunk of back in the US because no bank here will exchange for Serbian Dinars.)
Just outside the bank I discovered I had a flat tire, and quickly got to work patching it. The sun was setting and I really needed to get as far away from this town as possible before dark to find a secluded campsite. With the tire patched up I hit the road, following a wide and freshly-paved E771 south. Ten miles south of town I saw a dirt road heading into a nice patch of woods, and darted in. Just as the sun set I discovered a flat spot for my tent far from sight of any farms. I cooked my usual pasta and tomato sauce and went to sleep.
I was finally now within striking distance of my objective, Midzor. I continued south in the morning all the way to Inovo, stopping just briefly at Gornja to buy some more bottled water. A bottle of water in Eastern Europe is actually cheaper than the equivalent amount of purification tablet I’d need to purify water from a stream, and is much more convenient than finding a trustworthy water source to purify. I had a little Sawyer-Mini water filter in case I was in the woods and found a good stream, but in the city I generally just bought bottled water.
At Inovo I turned east on 222, winding up through the hills through more farms. The road eventually got quite steep as I reached the village of Crni Vrh (not sure how that’s pronounced). Beyond this village I entered woods, and soon saw ski resort chair lifts in the hills above. I guess it would make sense that there’s a ski resort in the highest land in the country.
The road wound up quite steeply until finally dead-ending at a small hotel called Babin Zub. This appeared to serve the nearby ski resort, as well as provide a base for many hiking and mountain biking trails in the area. I passed a large tour bus that dropped people off at the hotel. It appears, then, that there may be public transportation options to reach this point if you don’t have a bike like I did.
I talked to a nice Serbian family at the road end here, and the son was impressed that I’d biked all the way here. He showed me some pictures of his favorite nearby mountain biking trails. I finished up a snack and then rode east from Babin zub on a gated gravel road that doubles as a hiking trail. This was the trail to Midzor, and was clearly signed at the trailhead. I hoped to bike up as far as possible, though it likely wouldn’t be too far given that I had a road bike.
The trail soon left the trees and emerged at the top of the ski lifts, in a grassy meadow above treeline. It looked like it was a service road here for the ski lifts, but farther on it quickly deteriorated. I continued following the dirt track until it ascended an impossibly-steep hill. No truck without serious 4WD could possibly get up that, and I had no chance fully loaded on my little road bike.
There was a small grove of pine trees nearby, and I stashed my bike here, threw some food in my backpack, and continued up the road/trail. The entire area soon turned to open grassland with spectacular views. Clouds rolled in and out but I could definitely make out Midzor in the distance, not too far away.
I continued following the dirt road, and sorely wished I had a mountain bike. You could definitely get just about to the summit without problem with the right bike. The views continued to be excellent, and as I got closer I whipped out my GPS to confirm I was heading to the right mountain. Before my trip I’d loaded coordinates for each summit, and as many relevant tracks as possible.
Indeed I was nearly there, and within 10 minutes was at the summit. A 3-ft-tall concrete block marked the top, with “MIDZOR” written artistically on the side. I was technically on the Bulgarian border, and could see far into Serbia and Bulgaria from here. There was nobody else on the summit, nor had I passed anyone on the trail, despite it being a beautiful fall weekend. Perhaps people had hiked earlier in the day, though. It was nearly sunset now.
I quickly jogged back from the summit to my bike, reaching it just before dark. This was as good a place to camp as I could possibly hope for, next to a trail and very far from any houses, so I pitched my tent here and went to bed.
My next mountain would be Musala, the highpoint of Bulgaria.