Jonathan Schofield enjoys the nightlife of Belgrade before exploring the river’s route through eastern Serbia

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Arimelle cycling the Danube bike trail

I spotted a waif-like girl on a bike riding along the banks of the Danube and dashed across the road to speak to her.
She was French. A teacher. She’d decided to cycle from her home in Paris to Vienna where she picked up the mighty Danube for the 2,875km bike ride along the river’s route to the Black Sea and, all being well, onto Istanbul. Wow.

I was on a more sedate sightseeing trip in Serbia, being driven along the banks of Europe’s second longest river as it heads east out of Belgrade to form the dramatic border with Romania and Bulgaria. My guide Yovan, who was in charge of setting up Serbia’s leg of the bike trail, said the cycle route – ‘Donau Radweg’ – connects eight countries and is now one of the greatest bike rides on earth. From the riverside castles, towering cliffs and shimmering blue waters dominating the view, I think he’s probably right.

Arimelle’s heavy looking paniers suggested she was cycling the full length and I was intrigued to know which country had impressed her so far.
“Serbia has been the most beautiful, she replied. “And the people easily the most vibrant, friendly and hospitable.”

On the cobbled streets of Belgrade

On the cobbled streets of Belgrade

I flew into Belgrade as night fell on the ancient city first settled by the Thracian Singi tribe in 4000BC. No-one knows what the Thracians got up to at night, but what is clear, their descendants six thousand years later know how to party.
The streets were buzzing. The restaurants and bars packed. The atmosphere is effortlessly cool and recent descriptions of the city as the most “hip and happening” place in Europe seem to capture its essence. It’s also dripping in history, and quite a volatile one, which is evident when you explore the city.
From the Thracians to the Celts to Roman rule to its sacking by Attilla the Hun, and back to Rome before the Avars and Slavs and onto Byzantine Empire rule before they in-turn were crushed by the Bulgarians who were followed by the Hungarians. And that only takes you to the 11th century, from there is gets really confusing. Another 400 years of conquests followed, when, in 1521 Suleiman the Magnificent enslaved the entire Serbian population of Belgrade and moved them to Instanbul. Ottoman, Hasburg, Austrian, Nazi, Communism, Milosovic and numerous Serb rebellions are just a tiny snapshot of the city’s turbulent journey into to the 21st century.

The impressive Iron Gates of the Danube

The impressive Iron Gates of the Danube

A city on the constant revolving door of empire has left some mightily impressive fortifications in the old town. No-one visiting should miss the fortress in Kalemegdan Park.

Even better, have dinner at the Kalamegdan Terrace restaurant within the walls of the medieval fortress. A glance over the sheer walls from your table and you will catch a glimpse of tigers and lions roaming in the city’s zoo.

On my second morning in the city I took a stroll along the wide boulevards –  complete with trams – that characterise Belgrade. It’s sobering to spot the occasional ruins of a tower block that was once a police headquarters or a TV station before NATO bombs destroyed them. As a Serbian man said to me one night in a bar – “We fought on your side in the Second World War – we never thought you would bomb us.”

Heading east from Belgrade it’s impossible not to be transfixed by the Danube. It’s mighty, magnificent, there are times when it is so wide it resembles a lake. As the waters enter the Iron Gate gorge National Park, 300 metre high cliffs tower over sections of the river that plummet a further 100 metres down to the riverbed.

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Golubac Castle on the Danube

The entrance to Iron Gates is suitably marked by the impressive Golubac Castle with its imposing turrets sitting high above the water. I took a trip on a small motorised dinghy – which only heightened the scale of the surroundings – towards the Danube’s most iconic stretch, where the mass of water is suddenly squeezed tightly between sheer walls of granite that form the border between Romania and Serbia. I’ve only seen landscape like this before in the fiords of New Zealand’s South Island. To put it in perspective, outside of the Grand Canyon, this is the world’s deepest gorge. The surrounding forests and mountains, which boast the highest flora and fauna diversity in Europe, only adds to the drama. The boat trip is a must for anyone interested in seeing Europe at it most untamed and grand. But it ‘s also the only way to view the Roman tablet carved into the gorge walls in honour of the emporer Trajan who oversaw the remarkable construction of a road along the steep walls of the gorge, allowing him to march his army into neighbouring Dacia, which he promptly conquered for the Empire.

Skeleton of a Roma legionnaire unearthed in Viminacium

Skeleton of a Roman legionnaire unearthed in Viminacium

Rome’s grip on the region – known then as Moesia Superiore – is best viewed close to the mining town of Kostolac where the Roman city of Viminacium stood. I arrived there on a baking hot afternoon. In the shade of a huge power plant the most extraordinary, and prehaps optimistic archaelogical dig, is gradually unveiling the sheer scale of the city which appeared in the 1st century AD around the barracks of the all conquering VII Claudiae legion. Viminacium became so powerful it produced its own mint.
According to the team working on the site the goal is to uncover the entire city and legionaires barracks. Based on the sections you can currently explore – including the haunting but impressive tombs – the result will be spectacular and on a scale unmatched outside of Rome itself. Ancient history lovers should go now, there was something ominous about the power station dominating the skyline and the huge swathes of natural resources beneath the surface. When industry takes on archaeology, there is usually only one winner.

But for me, it was during a meal that I knew I would be coming back to Serbia one day. It was the moment the chef, Mrs Milosevic (no relation I assure you) brought out the bowl of “young melted cheese”, which I scooped onto freshly baked bread, sprinkled with crispy pork and devoured in minutes.
The cheese dish, just a morsal of what was the gastronomic experience of a lifetime, took place in the perfectly preserved hilltop village of Rajac, overlooking the verdant Danube valley, which forms Serbia’s best wine region.

Indulging in Rajac

Indulging in Rajac

If I can set anyone with an adventurous spirit and a love of good food and wine a challenge right now it would be to fly to Belgrade, hire a car, rent a bike or take the bus and head east to Rajac.

For the price of an average pub meal in England you can stay in room in a perfectly preserved 400-year-old village and eat until your heart’s, and stomach’s, content.
It was tough to leave Rajac but bike rides along the Danube River in Belgrade beckoned and a final night at the city’s annual beer festival.
I got home from the beer festival at 7am. Two hours later I was being interviewed on national and local TV. “What do you think of our country? What is different about Belgrade to other cities? Will you come back?” asked an eager journalist. To which, in this abbreviated format I replied that, a) it is beautiful, b) Belgrade has an energy unlike any other city I’ve been too, and c) yes, I’ll definitely be back.

Must do’s in Belgrade and East Serbia:
– Sit in one of the rows of bars that line the Danube in Belgrade and watch the dazzlingly beautiful people stroll by
– Cycle the safe and seemingly endless bike trails that criss cross the city and the river via water taxi
– Take a boat trip along the Danube to Iron Gate National Park
– Explore the medieval Golubac Castle on the banks of the Danube
– Enjoy lunch in Rajac and sample the local wines while gazing across the valley to Bulgaria
– Hike through the mighty Vratna Canyon before relaxing in the Vratna monastery
– Go, and go soon, to the Roman city of Viminacium.

Getting there:
– Flights leave daily from Heathrow on JAT Airlines www.jat.com
– JAT Airlines run an hourly bus service, on the hour from the airport to the city centre – approx 30 mins
– Taxi services take 15 minutes, costing around 1000 dinar (about 10 euros).

About Jonathan Schofield

After 20 years working for newspaper, magazine and publishing companies Jonathan Schofield quit the commute, converted his shed into an office and went freelance. He now writes about travel, train networks, plant phenomics and fraud. When not in his shed he's usually in a canoe or on a bike.