Croatia

Dalmatian Coast, 2004

This was the second bicycle trip that Malin and I took together. Croatia has come a long way in the past few years and is rapidly becoming a major tourist destination. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of tourists end up at the coastal resorts and these are undeniably beautiful, the civil war appearing a distant memory.

Travel as little as 5km inland though and the reality remains starkly clear. With just two weeks, we did not really have enough time do the region justice; we were unable to cycle far enough south to visit Dubrovink for instance. On the other hand, we rode through a fantastic mix of varied countryside, coastline and islands. We were even able to finish up with a couple of days windsurfing in Bol.

Total distance: 480 miles Total climb: 8450 metres

Unusually, leaving Italy is a relief

We flew into Trieste in north-east Italy which, it must be said, is not really a city worth visiting. It is both a port and a border town and displays the worst characteristics of each. After a few hairy moments, notably attempting to ride the wrong way up a motorway sliproad, we eventually reached the edge of town and found a quiet road before crossing the border into Slovenia.

Slovenia’s coastline is extremely short and we spent only a night in the country, in Izola, but we left feeling that this is a beautiful country with very friendly inhabitants. I particularly enjoyed the black truffle pasta served at the campground restaurant – unusual but then the region is famous for this delicacy. Someday we’ll go back and explore some more, hopefully before the rest of the world discovers what it’s missing.

We rode across the Iberian peninsula with its attractive wineroutes and lush countryside. It was pleasant enough and we certainly enjoyed some of the unspoilt small villages in the centre. Less attractive were the huge campgrounds on the coast with every amenity attached. Surely this defeats the point of going camping? The Italians who come to this area in their droves in the summer don’t seem to think so.

Island hopping

On our third day, we reached Rijeka and decided to take the ferry to Cres instead of staying on the mainland. Avoiding the busy mainland coast road was definitely worthwhile even if it involved a steep 600m climb straight out of the ferry terminal.

The island itself was quiet but even so, we planned a route that avoided the asphalt road where possible. Our off-the-beaten-track route began from the main town of Cres by climbing an old Roman road. This, we felt, was the true Mediterranian island that we’d wanted to see. Sparse vegetation, a rocky road and olive trees more than compensated for the fact that this was an extremely tough road to ride up with all our gear in the Croatian heat.

Once off the Roman road, navigation became tricky with the map an approximation at best; marked tracks could be of any size and were often absent. This meant relying on the locals for advice which is always difficult. Some will look at you as if you are mad and assure you that a road is quite impassable by bicycle. If by chance you ignore this sage advice, it often turns out that this is a track on which one could quite easily drive a bus, let alone a bicycle. On other occasions a would-be guide will send you out on a track that disappears into a mass of undergrowth a few kilometers later.

Our arrival in the town of Osor marked the end of this excellent day and once again we found an excellent campground. This time we camped right by the sea which we could get to by clambering over some rocks yards from our tent. There is something particularly magical about camping in a beautiful spot after a hard days riding, cooking with fresh Mediterranian vegetables, sipping some red wine and then going for a sunset dip in your own private cove. With luck, tomorrow will be different, yet equally enthralling and enjoyable.

As it turned out, it was. We crossed the tiny strait between Cres and Losinj (only a few tens of metres across) and rode to Mali Losinj. From here we planned to take the boat to Zadar and were left with a few hours to kill. What better way of doing that than by having dinner in the sun outside a waterfront restaurant? The view from the boat leaving Mali Losinj in the sunset was spectacular was beautiful as you can see in the photo at the top of this page.

 To Zadar and beyond

Avoiding the coastal traffic, we took an inland route to Sibenik and saw quite a different side to Croatia.

There was building work everywhere, roads, houses, schools. Indeed, every second building appeared new. The reason for all this work was also evident, shelled out buildings that had been rendered uninhabitable and whose owners had decided to build another house next door rather than spend scarce money completing the demolition of the old one.

In places, whole villages were deserted with the new one built down the road. Inevitably there were memorials to the dead everywhere and, unlike any war memorial we’d seen before, these were commemorating events just 10 years before. Perhaps even more poignant for me were the gardens of the shelled villages whose flowers bloomed just as before in front of the wreckage, many of their gardeners doubtless dead.

Other reminders to war were the many minefields surrounding the road. No short cuts here. Promisingly though, Croatians seem to be rebuilding with some style. Unlike other countries I’ve visited, they were building individually designed homes complete with arches and verandas. Often, it was obvious that they hadn’t the money to finish at that time and so had left portions unpainted or windowless. Nevertheless, I’m sure that when the money is available, they’ll have their tasteful villages back. A great deal preferable to the characterless concrete blocks they could have saved money on.

We particularly wanted to visit Krka National Park, not just because of the absurd name, rather because it is home to some spectacular waterfalls. We weren’t disappointed and as an added bonus, enjoyed a rather nice nature trail boardwalk over the pools above the falls. Dragonflies and fish were abundant.

Our pleasant campsite was another example of Croatians stylishly putting their country back together. The field was nothing particularly special, but the young man running it had put loving care into building the shade coverings and washrooms. Simple yet effective.

Back on the coast after Krka, we had another attractive beachside camp at Primosten before visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site of Trogir. We had a few days left and decided to take a ferry to Brac before returning to Split. Brac, and particularly its town of Bol is very much a holiday island. Of course by bike, it was possible for us to see the touristy bits as well as the rest, which turned out to be pretty hilly. In fact we had to cross over a ridge at 600m in the centre of the island in order to reach Bol, where we did some windsurfing. Then of course, we had to cross the same ridge, though by a different route in order to get back!

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