Overcast skys, rain and a cool ferry crossing first thing. It could have been the Killimer Car Ferry but for the Black Terns keeping us company. This morning’s landscape is very different. Gone are the wide open flat vistas, now it is mountains closing in on you. A quick 30km through mixed cultivated land and past some riverside tourist beaches, looking forlorn just like Lehinch strand on a wet day. Then onto the spectacular and wonderfully named, Iron Gates Gorge.
The gorge is a 134km stretch of the Danube where the river cuts through a narrow, deep valley transecting the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. It forms the border between Serbia and Romania to the north, and the wooded valleys and hills either side are two large National Parks. The entrance to the gorge is guarded by the imposing Golubacki grad castle, a huge fortifications that rises from the Danube. The first part I would travel today, but the most spectacular section I will do tomorrow.
The clouds hung low as I approached the entrance to the gorge, adding a mysterious kind of foreboding to the landscape. After 30km of the grey valley the mystique dampened somewhat, and it felt rather like cycling a very long and wooded Killary Harbour, complete with its tourist coaches.
Lunch was a bottle of beer, for there was a power outage in the village where I stopped and nothing else was on offer. Immediately after my break, I was offered the choice of continuing along the valley for another 30km or taking the old mountain road to get to the same destination, albeit with a bit of a climb and a few extra kilometres. Well it wasn’t really a choice, and I headed for the mountain. Up the Serbian boreen I went, past the last few houses and past some cultivated fields, past clusters of mobile bee hives every couple of hundred metres. Then into woodland, with the road deteriorating all the time. Corner after corner, up it went, gradients of 12, 14, 16 percent spinning slowly, slowly keeping a rhythm going. A bend, then focus on the next, just keeping moving, up and up, with the woodland closing in either side and the rain dripping from the leaves. In places the road was little more than a river channel, but there was always just enough asphalt to know I was on the right track. Through beautiful old mature beech woodland unlike anything we get in Ireland, but no time for them now! After I don’t how long, I began wondering had I made the right decision way back down the valley. I convinced myself that the worst that could happen was that I would have to retrace my footsteps, provided I could remember the way; a right, then left, left again… Then I began to think the top of the mountain can’t be that much further. Turning the pedals, in the lowest gear, turning, turning, one revolution at a time; 6km done, 8km, 10km. Then, round a corner and the gradient levels out a bit, always a good sign. Then at 13km, just about at the point of no return, straight ahead was one of those lovely, comforting waymarker signs; whether it said 2km, 22km or 62km to the next village it didn’t matter, just knowing you were on the right track was comfort enough. Invigorated, another bit of climbing and the road leveled off, a couple of kilometres on an undulating track through woodland, then suddenly onto mountain pastures with wines of hay. Beautiful rich pastures, and as if by way of a reward for making the long slog up the mountain, the clouds lifted a bit and the view improved. I was suddenly looking at the Danube in the valley below. It was worth it after all.
The descent brought me through more mountain meadows with the sound of cattle bells somewhere in the valley below. Every couple of metres there were Great Banded Grayling, a large dark butterfly with a very visible white band, basking on the warm asphalt; they were everywhere. Then close to the bottom of the descent, on entering woodland once more I was almost defended by the sounds of cicadas, with their unrelenting chirring.
I was pleased with my days work; I had covered 105km and climbed 1,500m through a special Serbian National Park.