Cycling Croatia 🇭🇷 

Cavtat- Dubrovnik – Ston 70ks

I am sipping on coffee and half listening to a conversation between an absolutely amazing little Croatian boy with cerebal palsy who has self taught himself English. The things he is saying are so thoughtful, and everyone in the outdoor cafe who can speak English are captivated. Marie is seated right next to him loving it.
We have been in Croatia three days now, and I have decided that whatever force created the earth was having a very good day when it moulded this portion of the world. I am getting shivers constantly when looking out over the dazzling ocean bays and immediate rock faces once the ocean meets the mountains. I swear everyone in the country has signed a contract to build a concrete house with a red clay tiled roof, just to add to our aesthetic appreciation. The ride into Dubrovnik was awe inspiring, and we stopped for a relaxed coffee break where I got a lip smacking, creamy iced coffee. We kept riding up some challenging mountains, bursting with excitement for our first view of the famed city of Dubrovnik. It was worth the mountains and the heat and the narrow roads when we laid our eyes on this surreal view from high above the city of 300,000. It was like everything stopped in time when I looked over it; the lavish yachts and their white wake were frozen in sheer beauty, the wind stopped blowing the ocean wild and the cars seemed silent for this pocket of time in my mind. I wonder if the gems of the world will escape the golden undertow of time, even when we are now longer around to see them. The city is framed by flowers popping with colour, and the city itself is just surreal. All of those red clay tiles tightly bunched inside the old city walls, which spiral high above the sea. We were eager to get down there and check it out, so we sped down the mountain and found a central apartment. Reluctantly handing over my stinking clothing to the land lady to wash, Marie and I pranced down in fresh clothing to the old city for some rocket and anchovy pizza in a glorious outdoor restaurant. On the way into this touristy part of the city, I walked Straight into my friend from Spanish classes at Uni, Lauren. Six degrees of separation for all if we slow down to notice! Lauren and I hugged and spent ages discussing travels. I knew she was in Europe but had no idea where, and we will see each other again in Madrid for Uni exchange next month. Marie went off on a mission to create awareness for peace through the Croatian media outlets, and I slowly wondered the narrow streets and lane ways of this romantic city, gelato running down to my elbow. I couldn’t care less about shopping because adding extra weight to my panniers is not even worth the cutest little summer dress of all time, so it was up at the architecture that my neck craned. Like a vision from Venice but less intense, Dubrovnik is small enough not to make you feel overwhelmed and big enough to feel like you are in a very happening space. I weaved in and out of the streets and churches and museums and then met Marie to walk around the top of the city walls, the must do activity. I don’t think words can do the views justice, might just have to come and check it out! We met some Australian boys while watching local kids leap off impossibly high rocks into the ocean below. Then we had a table with Lauren and her friend Tessa and the Aussie boys Scott and Adam for dinner. After people watching over pints with a master piano player behind us, we moved on to a restaurant which served honey brandy shots as a starter! It was an amazing night, and we chatted and laughed effortlessly until midnight, walking home on cobblestones with the warm wind wrapping its arms around us like an old friend. We woke up and cycled down to the old city to leap off the rocks into the chilled blue sea before an interview with the Croatian news network. All kitted up in our cycle gear, we met the reporter and camera man from the predominately political channel who wanted to interview us about the peace project. First we sat and had a coffee and had a very meaningful talk about the state of affairs in this world of ours. The cameraman told us about his experience fighting in the 1992 Balkan war, where so many lives were lost in the escape from the nationalist government of Serbia. Within Dubrovnik itself, some 20,000 people were killed between 1991 and 1995. My heart feels heavy for the Croatians and the uselessness of conflict. The boys are in the media to make a positive difference, empowering people and exposing truths. They interviewed us and we gave them heartfelt hugs before cycling out of this memorable place. The wind was with us in the most unbelievable way, and Marie and I were in our lowest gear, cycling UP mountains at 30 ks an hour laden with panniers!! The cars must have thought we were some kind of super humans. I screamed my lungs out numerous times following that coast hugging road, and I’m a bit afraid this is kind of like the high that drugs give you and I’m going to keep chasing it to get it back again. Lucky we have a few thousand kilometres to go so i might be able to find it again! Dripping with sweat and satisfaction, we stopped at an emerald bay and swam and sunbaked on the jetty with the waves lapping over us. I had a good look at the map and we decided to stop following the mainland an take a left to go to the famous island of korcula. We rode another 20ks in the evening, mouths wide open at the silhouette created by the endless mountains rising out of the dark ocean. I hope this is in some way expressing the excitement I feel in my chest even when I think about it now. We pulled into a town called Ston, accurately named because it is home to the second biggest fort in the world after the Great Wall of china. Marie and I looked at each other with a knowing fire in our eyes, so grateful for everything that has happened.
Diary 16

Rest day in Split then cycling to Brodarica – 105km.
To set the scene, we have just layed down by the water to have a siesta and some lunch just out of Zadar after 70kms of riding, and the loudest extended family in the history of man have just rocked up to ensure we don’t sleep a wink with barking arguments, big boats and screaming kids and a fluff ball orange dog that loves to yelp at Marie. They put the Thomas’s to shame. So I will write.
Jumping off the ferry and into Split, my heart was pounding fast in the hope I would get to see Hannie, my new BFF exchange buddy who I met at the start of the year. We only have wifi at cafés etc so I wasn’t really sure where she would be, and I always think of the olden days without smart phones and facey. The days when parents sent letters to hostels and they were hung on the notice board in the hope that their child might one day find the little snippet of communication. Pretty sure mum even mentioned sending wireless SOS calls Titanic style.. I’m a bit vague on the details but it all sounds like tough times. We are so past written letters that I get overly excited to receive personalised email! Anyway, we found each other with the help of some wifi at the ferry terminal cafe and caught up for a few hours before she had to bus to Zagreb and continue travelling Europe before Uni starts next month.
Marie and I abandoned the famed old city of Split in order to go and find the family of some of her close friends back in Sydney. My GPS holder is broken, so every few minutes I would wipe the sweat from my eyes, grab the GPS out and check we were on the right track. Probably shouldn’t have worn a black dress and thongs just because we weren’t doing our usual ultra marathon ride. When we arrived on pejuac street and looked around questioning which house held the Vuleta family, the postman conveniently appeared and took us to the door. We were welcomed with open arms into this beautiful home, and spent the afternoon drinking homemade pomegranate juice and learning about the turbulent history of Croatia and Yugoslavia. My body started to tire even though we hadn’t done anything, and I guess it’s pretty important to give the muscles a break after 20 days and hundreds of ks cycling. I slept all afternoon sleeping and came out bleary eyed just in time for an excursion to the old city. I managed to pick up some new swimmers and Marie a cute little beach bag on our way to the esplanade where we had a beer under the fading sun with Ana and her brother Nicola and thousands of other tourists visiting Croatias second largest city. Once it was dark, they took us for a walk in the old part of the city. The grandeur oozing from the ancient buildings in this area is inspiring. After walking through the ancient, dark passage where small boats used to arrive, we were greeted by a hidden forum of sandstone fairy castles, as though the ones my brother and I used to make on the beach had just come alive. White doves circled above, mixing with the neon lines the planes left in the sky, acting like fireworks. Heavy bells swung powerfully in archways over the cobblestones, polished smooth from eons of use by mesmerised tourists and travellers. Lavender scented air rose to the ferns sprouting from cracks of blocks built by countless men unknown to us but eternally remembered. Locals cash in on the hype with art and clothes and jewellery, where tourists walking around drunk on the romantic vibe of humanity are ultra vulnerable to put their hand in their pocket. Sex shops are only seconds away from high end hotels and there are so many gelato outlets that it seems acceptable in Split even to the diet conscious. Its a universal port connecting the old and the new.
We made a solid effort to lay out all of our clothes and have our panniers packed so we could leave split early after our rest day. We cycled out at the crack of dawn, taking the roads suggested by the Vuleta family. We felt very schmick and organised, and passed one sign that said airport and some other small city but nothing notable so we kept going inland on the A1 highway thinking that our coastal road would peel off any second. We didn’t say a word to each other as we battled against the wind and highway traffic up a steady incline, while Split became a bubble of white buildings to our rear and the ocean just a smear of sparkly blue. We passed through at least 5 eery dark tunnels, with one little light on the back of Marie’s bike screaming to be seen. My mentality to get over the fear was like ‘well there’s not much I can do about it anyway so may as well relax’. It was all very hectic, and when we saw the road continued to climb, we pulled out the map and decided we had taken the completely wrong highway. If we stayed on that one we would be inland for days. We turned ourselves around and sped down, back through the tunnels and chaos at a much more preferable speed. The full moon loomed over split which grew larger and larger as we returned to our starting point after 25kms of hardcore highway. It turns out we were supposed to take that airport road, so we had a coffee on the esplanade and went through the list of jokes that naturally accompany a temporary geographical embarrassment. We had just gotten our warm up in, we just wanted to be hardcore etc. We set off on the right road about 8am and had an amazing day of coast riding, seeing lots of other cyclists along the way. In fact, there are so many cyclists that they don’t even bother looking up to give you a smile! It makes me happy for a number of reasons. The drivers know there are cyclists on the road, unlike the poor truck drivers who suddenly came across a neon leopard print bum wavering across the road on the isolated mountains of Albania. And the other reason it makes me happy is because the coast must be beautiful and that’s why they are here! It is. They have done an awesome job of keeping the road hugging the coast except for occasional detours through dry and rocky inland pockets. We collected some juicy green olives, crusty baguette and cheese in Rogoznica, a lot of god damn peddles into the day and found the perfect shady slice of coast to crash for a few hours of sleeping, swimming, perving and eating (life’s essentials). After more riding with the wind as our friend rather than foe, we pulled into a small town after we were over a satisfactory 100km along the coast and jumped off the wharf into the refreshing blue water followed by a refreshing gold beer.

Diary 17

Brodarica- Zadar 90km
I am looking out the window of our ferry at the rain droplets accumulating on the glass, finding friends and then rolling down in a slippery stream and disappearing into the ferocious foamy whitewash below. It’s storm weather in Croatia, and we were warned about this by a German sailor at a seaside port over coffee yesterday morning. The weather up until now hasn’t really affected our plans, maybe our big smiles and peaceful presence just lure the sunshine into staying around. But Europe have indeed been complaining about a wet summer, (thank god because the lower temperatures have meant bearable riding). We reassessed the map and decided to stay in the magical city and large ferry port of Zadar for the night to spice up our plans by getting off the mainland after staying there. The Croatian mainland is beautiful, but repetitive. So we paid $20 each to catch this slow churning ferry to the long thin island of Mali Losing, escaping the weather and searching for another Island experience like Korcula. Then we have to decide whether to go around the Croatian peninsula with Pula etc to get to Italy or to go through the mountains of Slovenia to get there- if anyone has any advice it would be seriously pondered and appreciated.
So we set off from Brodarica super early and had a gorgeous ride with the wind. We even lost each other at one stage when I pulled over to wait for Marie to decide if we should roll into Pakostan for some coffee and wifi, but I was behind a big sign and she pulled off the road before she saw me thinking I had gone down another one. I waited there for about ten minutes, trying to quash all thoughts of a squashed Marie, and when I turned around to cycle back up the hill we found each other and nervously joked, deciding to always come back to the place we last see each other. Having someone with you on a trip like this is like having safety floaties on the skinny arms of the stress section of the brain. Whenever I see something amazing I unconsciously turn and look to see if she is seeing it. Whenever the road is horrific conditions for cycling I am more confident in the sense that I’m not alone. Whenever there are no houses or people for miles I know that we have each other. But then I think back to when I was alone for those first seven days and over 500 ks cycling Greece, and I felt pretty confident to have myself there. We have always joked that I am impractical and can’t read maps or fix things, but when I was alone I did tighten screws and feel my away along the road network. Don’t underestimate your value. I love having a cycling companion, but I am now completely aware that I don’t need one (relating this to all facets of life). I just feel radical gratitude to share the experience with an inspiring, wonderful person who has eyes and heart wide open and so much to share. Clearly the lapping waves and rocking of the boat are getting me all emotional.
So yesterday’s ride was pretty fun, sitting in our lowest gear most of the day and flying up the hills on a roller coaster of natural wind energy. Pulling into Zadar about 6, it’s old town is like the rest of the ancient forts in Croatias larger cities- totally awesome. We found a gorgeous run down apartment in the heart of it all, chucked out clothes in the washing machine (oh my god a washing machine!!!), and dressed in our super sexy civilians to have pizza and salad in a buzzing restaurant.

 

Diary 18

Mali Losinj- Osor- Pazin – 140km
’It was just perfection- a beautiful rhythm’- Marie’s view on the epic day.
We arrived at the gorgeous island of Losinj late afternoon and had all intentions to ride 30ks up the island to get some riding in for the day. However, when we saw this staggering little city dotted with pastel buildings and yachts, we had to enjoy a fishbowl glass of red and garlicky green pasta with prawns on the harbour before kitting up and heading off at 6pm. We chose this island to come to because it’s so log and thin that you can see the mainland on your right and the wide open ocean on your left, so we zoomed into dusk along the road carved into solid rock. Time flew due to enjoyment and the next thing we knew we were in Osor, a historical village which is part on losing island and connected by a ten metre bridge to the island of cres. Mesmerised by the huge church, cobblestones and sheep wondering around town, the accommodation options were pretty limited. When we saw a delectable grassy patch near the water, the decision was made. Not that we have any camping gear. Miraculously, someone left behind two mats, a blanket and a pillow, so we were fully prepped for our night under the stars! I banged myself in the eye locking up the bikes, so after pizza I was pretty keen to get into my silk liner and cover my head from the mozzies to lose myself in the warm and fuzzy world of sleep. And then I heard a rustle and looked over at an elderly couple looking around the bushes, I bolted upright thinking it was their blanket and pillows, and I almost gave the poor woman a heart attack popping up like a white sheet ghost from the darkness. We laughed ourselves to sleep and woke to pink skies and fishermen.
On the road out of Osor, we met the Slovenian cyclist I had been praying to meet because we needed help with directions on the best route through the most northern coast of Croatia and through Slovenia into Trieste, Italy. He was a realm of experience and information, and we continued on through hedges, corn fields and the most impossibly fairy tale, fairy floss clouds bouncing above our toothy grins. The riding was spectacular, the island dramatic and sparse and undulating gradients and views. It went from cliff faces and dense green vegetation to rocky outcrops and barren farmland. We climbed and climbed on one mountain, the eagles circling below us clearly appreciating the unbelievably expansive view as much as us. It took half the day to cycle the island of cres, ending with the best downhill I have experienced to date. Caravans and cars let us past, letting us have the mountain to ourselves. I lost Marie and went around the wide corners feeling like a Moto GP driver. Knee def touched the ground at one point. But honestly, it was incredible- all I could think was that when mum and dad and I were bushwalking near batemans bay a few months ago, I had just bought this cheap one way ticket to Athens and was trying to decide what to do in Europe. I looked down at the ground and thought hard, not seeing myself enjoying an alcohol fuelled tour or beach bumming for six weeks, and I love bike riding so.. I’ll just ride to Spain! Sounds good said mum, always encouraging my constantly changing plans and scheming. I got a tiny bit of internet and saw it would be around 3500km, so dad and I did the maths and thought, yeah, definitely can do it. Just catch a train if you need. I didn’t even know Albania was on the coast, that Andrew Sykes had written a book about crossing the med on a bike. But now I am right here in the middle of it all, almost one month in and 2000 kilometres down, cycling through numerous countries an having the goddamn time of my life in so many ways. It was a nice hill. We caught the ferry 15 minutes back to the mainland and proceeded up a hilariously difficult 14% gradient mountain to get Greek salad at a restaurant with a platform over the ocean and the island we had just negotiated with our little legs before us. A storm rolled in over the mountains, dark and wild. It made the wind fly in all directions and our hearts beat faster for the two hour mountain slog that was to follow. I listened to great music and danced my way up this inland pocket of our route, admiring bright purple houses amongst the cherry bushes and maize fields. The frame of Marie’s bike is so light that she had to weave over the road the entire way up. We did yoga on a victory rock at the top and then went inside a beautiful old church to watch a congregation of women in a chorus of song. Our legs were really feeling the day, unprepared to do any uphill that wasn’t necessary. So when we went into a little village and the accommodation was full, we were feeling pretty desperate. We zoomed down to Pazin, a huge ghost town, and asked around for a place to sleep. We were directed to Laura’s, a pink palace, and were pretty much salivating at the thought of a shower. We found two men on their way out; it was full. We asked Laura our other options and she pointed, no joke, directly vertical up to a mint green building which looked forever away. We cycled over painful cobblestones, each one feeling like a was stabbing into our tender buttocks, and when we reached the big church before the building, Marie and I looked at each other with smiles that couldn’t be brighter. And then we got to the other side of the church. There was a 100m deep, jungle covered, cliff smattered gorge between us and the hotel. I was so close to stacking with laughter and pain and the irony of the optical illusion and the situation. We had just ridden 110km, sweated until we shone, flown with the eagles, pushed our quads for hours, but this seemed ten times worse than all of that. We got a beer and sat and looked at the hotel, and met lots of fun stage production artists having an event at the church. One fell in love with Marie, so after another glass of red wine, we thought we better make our wobbly way up to the green hotel Lovac. They gave us a room with one bed by mistake, but I couldn’t even be bothered to go back to reception to tell them and just crashed on the floor. What an epic adventure!!

 

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