Croatian island hopping

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Moody Cres island
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Road resurfacing…

Island hopping in the sunshine – whats not to like? Well the sun shone as we rode downhill to the first Croatian ferry, but this wasn’t to last as we disembarked on Cres, island destination number one, under heavy cloud. Cres is a sparsely populated and rocky mass with, unsurprisingly, many hills. Once the few other cars from the ferry had sped past us, we then had the small quiet road to ourselves for the morning, passing nothing but rocks and sheep. This reminded us of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, helped by the fog and mist, and was a world away from the busy coastal road we had been on previously.

It really was desolate – the only civilisation we saw was when we got to the port at the other end to catch the next ferry (actually a surprisingly large number of vehicles – where had they all been?!) Anti-highlight of Cres was climbing to over 450m very slowly, then having the descent ruined by ‘road resurfacing’ which seemed to have involved a roller with spikes on driving down the new surface, creating a grooved pattern that when ridden over at any speed made our brains shake and eyes go crazy looking at its optical illusion effect.

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Sunset over Krk Town
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Narrow indeed!

Krk, island number two, was likely to be busier as it is connected to the mainland by a bridge and has a few bigger resorts. But out of season it was as quiet as the others, and in Krk Town we found a very cute old town, with a few more people floating around. We had a lovely bargainous studio apartment, so decided to take a day off (despite it being on the top floor of the building and our need to have the bikes in the room where we sleep meaning lots of lugging the bikes up and down stairs). The next day we took a ‘recreational ride’ around the island – the kind of thing cycle tourists tend to do on a ‘day off’ – visiting Vrbnik, home of the worlds narrowest street which we just about squeezed our bikes and us through (luckily no panniers).  The sun was shining again so we had lunch on a deserted beach with boarded up food and drink shacks, reminding ourselves of the benefits of off season travel as this beach is apparently packed in the summer. For us, nothing but the sound of the waves and our own company, until an old guy in a mobility scooter rode up and settled in right next to us.

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The bikes had some company at least

 

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Rab island got interesting

The following day, after a 6.15am start to catch the morning ferry to Rab, island number 3, we were joined on the huge ferry by one white van and a handful of foot passengers. We couldn’t see a thing from the ferry through the cloud so settled in with a cup of tea, second breakfast and The Apprentice (I know, we are adventurous). Rab is only 28km long so we didn’t plan to stay long, Rab Town was a charming if totally deserted third breakfast stop (essential after such an early start), and the cloud probably gave us a bad impression of the island but for 20 of the 28 kms the road was a seemingly endless string of rooms to rent. Whilst not built up, it definitely had less of an island feel to it, until we reached the bottom third and suddenly the houses stopped and it seemed like we had ridden onto the moon by mistake. The land became rocky and bare and the descent to the ferry through this strange scenery was ace.

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The coastal road

We rejoined the mainland coastal road for a short stretch, although the road is at one of its highest points here so we first had a killer climb up from the port. But the coastal road was a real treat, the sun was shining, we had mountains on one side and the sea on the other and there was very little traffic. 15km later we raced to the last daylight ferry to island number 4 in total and 3 of that day, Pag. (Northern Croatian islands are limited to 3 or 4 letter, one-syllable words it seems).

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Weird Pag

Pag continued the moonscape theme, and riding as the sun was setting through barren pale rock was really quite spectacular. There was no chance of pitching a tent here so once we reached the first town, Novalje, we started knocking on some of the many doors with ‘room’ signs to see what deal we could get. Yet there was either no answer, or they were not being rented out of season. Finally we found a lady who despite speaking to us in German, let us an apartment that was in the midst of renovation. Using skills learnt watching The Apprentice I negotiated the price down a few euros and this was lesson number one that although it looks like there is loads of accommodation, rocking up to a town to find a room isn’t that easy in November.

imageThe cloud was back the following morning so we have no real idea what Pag looked like beyond Novalje as at times we could hardly see 100m ahead. Pag Town is apparently an attractive small town that occupies a beautiful bay setting but to us it was just white cloud so after fuelling up with puddings (one of our current favourite calorific snacks, similar to a pot of cold custard) we rode on through the cloud. A bridge connects the southern end of Pag with the mainland and by this point the cloud had lifted, the sun came out and we went from wearing full waterproofs, reflective vests and thick gloves to shorts and t-shirts in a matter of minutes. At this point we also saw other cyclists for the first time in Croatia – a bunch of guys in Lycra on road bikes who waved but did not offer us the excited encouragement of their Italian counterparts.

Cres, Krk, Rab and Pag, four islands in three days, all very different but with their own unique charm. The island hopping was over for now as we rejoined the coastal road to Zadar, home of the famous ‘sea organ’ and the slightly less famous opthalmology hospital department, both of which we intended to visit (you can’t truly understand a country until you have experienced its healthcare system…)

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Out of season tourists in Croatia

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Slovenian bike lane

Despite its best attempts to keep diverting us back to the city centre with badly placed bike route signs, eventually we left Trieste, the most un-bike-friendly place of the trip so far and followed signs to Slovenia. The first new country for us, and although we only spent a few hours there, it wins the awards for ‘best short bike route’ and ‘cheapest Lidl lunch’ so far. Both of these are highly coveted awards for us and we do not hand them out lightly. The bike route was a combination of quiet rural lanes and a smooth, flat bike path between the road and the sea. As this mostly followed an old train line, there was even traffic-free tunnels thrown in as a bonus. A point is lost here for the fact that moped riders (helmets optional) can use the bike lane, but outside the towns these were few and far between.

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Lunch as the sun sets

All too soon we arrived at the Croatian border, showed our passports for the first time since getting off the boat in the Netherlands (and got a stamp after asking) and immediately hit a steep hill. Welcome to Croatia! With daylight hours disappearing we came off the wiggly bike route to Porec and took the main coast road instead where the importance of tourism to the area is evident every 50 metres or so. We passed huge adverts for 24 hour casinos, hotels, resorts, spas, campsites (despite these being closed), shopping malls… A combination of our odd meal times and the short days meant that we ate our lunch at a spot where the road met the sea as the sun set and then rode the last hour or so in the dark. To make this already tricky task a bit trickier we reached a point where the road was closed for resurfacing. Not wanting to do a massive detour we asked if we could go through and were waved on. What we hoped was a short stretch turned into 2 miles of rocks to ride/slide/walk through, not the easiest on loaded bikes and it was well and truly dark when we bounced out of the other side. Unbeknown to us we had arrived in Porec the weekend of a car rally, so fell asleep to the sound of engines in the distance.

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Limski canal

Despite the rally, Porec was eerily quiet. We are long past tourist season, which gives some of the resort towns a ghost-town feel. Bars and restaurants are closed and places are just devoid of people. From Porec we took an inland route in the direction of Dvigrad, an abandoned hill town (abandoned for centuries, not just for the winter, we see semi-abandoned towns all the time). It was so hot we had to seek out shade for stops rather than sun. Every other car that passed us going into Porec was a rally car which was cool until a bit later in the day we heard that familiar sound of the rally engine and realised our planned quiet scenic inland route overlapped with the rally route. Unfortunately as the small road to Dvigrad was being used for the finish it was closed to traffic so we had to abandon that plan and retrace our road back to the coast. It did mean we passed the Limski canal, a huge steep sided gorge where the sea cuts into the land. Back at the coast we stopped for an ice cream or two (they were small honestly) in Rovinj and decided to call it a day while there was still daylight left to enjoy and sat sunning ourselves for a while, enjoying the sunset from a bench rather than a bike seat for once.

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The only way to truly celebrate a wedding

This was also our first experience of Croatian Wedding Drivers. It’s easy to lose track of what day it is on this trip, but this phenomenon means that we get at least a weekly reminder. Every Saturday in Croatia we have been passed on the road by processions of cars beeping their horns consistently with their hazard lights on. The front car has a huge Croatian flag flying from the passenger window; some cars will have ribbons and other decorations, and all drive in a long procession, zooming past us on the road and slowing down when they reach towns, all blasting their horns. In Rovinj they were skidding around the small roundabout on the waterfront tooting wildly. The combination of rally and wedding drivers on the same day… we were happy to be off the road.

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Pula amphitheatre

The following day Pula provided an attractive lunch stop, it has a mostly intact Roman amphitheatre overlooking the sea, some other ruins and my favourite tourist attraction, a small scale model of the city complete with fountain to provide realistic sea. Ace. Another race against the daylight, which we again lost, meant that we rode towards Plomin as the sun set. Short autumnal days are annoying in many ways but we have had some spectacular evening skies and with the coastal scenery thrown in as well, we often ride the last hour with massive grins on our faces wondering if life can get any better than this.

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Riding as the sun sets in Istria

After a day off drinking Yorkshire tea with milk (a rare treat) with our English warm showers host in Plomin, we made the decision to island hop south from the Istrian peninsula to avoid the coastal road as much as possible. We had read that the road can be busy and narrow, and who doesn’t like going on ferries?

Italy part 2: Cities and cobbles

Bergamo was the start of a ten day tour of cities and towns in north east Italy. Strange really as cities are never our first choice place to visit when travelling by bike – busy traffic, lots of people, large areas to cover – and we had not really planned on visiting any until Venice. But somehow we ended up going to several.

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2000kms!

With panniers full of clean clothes and feeling slightly refreshed (fully refreshed is just a pipe dream) after a day off, Brescia was our first stop. We had our lunch picnic by Lake Iseo in Clusane, where well dressed retired pensioners stroll (we looked very out of place and got the usual mixture of staring and intense questioning in Italian). From the lake we followed a rare and lovely Italian bike path through vineyards and small villages, which was very well signed until it wasn’t and we lost it. Ah well. With the days so short we invariably arrive places in dusk/dark, combined with rush hour traffic this isn’t too pleasant but we were happy to pass the 2000km mark in the centre of Brescia next to an impressive 11th Century duomo.

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Arriving in Verona at night (well 5.30pm…)

From Brescia the next city stop was Verona, ‘home’ of Romeo and Juliet and a Roman arena still used for summer opera. We rode via Lake Garda, usually a busy tourist hot spot but weirdly desolate in October – strange to us at it was still so warm but the holiday season is very much over now which makes touristy places very strange places to ride through. As above we arrived in Verona in the dark which at least meant we saw the centre lit up with the arena looking particularly spectacular. It also rained for the first time in a while which was a bit of a shock to the system and made the cobbled Italian streets even more frightening on a bike, especially when our host for the evening told us a story about falling off her bike and breaking both elbows after slipping on a wet cobble…

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Montagnana – you should go there…

On the look out for a small town to relax for a day before reaching Venice, we turned south and rode along flat roads (this part of Italy is particularly level so we hadn’t ridden up a hill in a while) to Montagnana, a small town with well preserved medieval walls the whole way around. Now who doesn’t love a good walled town, and as the youth hostel there had a garden for camping we had found our ideal rest stop. The Italians who ran the place thought we were mental for wanting to camp and their tone implied that we were bound to die from hypothermia, despite it hovering around 7-8 degrees at night. After assuring them that as English people we were confident of our survival we cooked a gourmet meal (it included meat and no pasta), slept warmly in the tent and had a relaxing day wandering the city walls and drinking coffee in the sunshine. It would be easy to miss Montagnana while speeding through the more famous Italian cities in the area but we would highly recommend a visit.

Made it to Venice!
Made it to Venice!

And so on to Venice, the destination we have always had in mind as the end of leg one of the trip. Yet as you can’t take bikes into the city, leg one actually ended with a train journey into the centre to explore on foot. The weather was perfect, the crowds not too busy, and strolling around St Marks square it was a strange thought that we had pedalled (almost) all the way there from Leicestershire. We also saw the most selfie sticks per square metre of the trip so far, perhaps not surprising, but the average age of a selfie stick user in Venice seems to be around 57. Took them ages to get the shots lined up. The next couple of days we rode through miles of farmland with mountains always over our left shoulder to Aquileia, a town with a lot of Roman ruins (many still unexcavated) and once the second biggest Roman city. The ruins are very impressive, well worth a closer look when you are in the area visiting Montagnana…

Our final Italian stop was Trieste, the biggest city we had ridden in yet and a place where cyclists are massively outnumbered by mopeds. It has a very fancy square with buildings on three sides and the sea on the other, but it’s not a place recommended for cycling. Somehow we escaped the city after eventually finding the bike route that would take us through Slovenia and into Croatia.

Next stop Slovenia!
Next stop Slovenia!

So after two weeks it was time to leave Italy, a country that exceeded our high expectations, bathed us in the sunshine we were desperate for during those cold days in France/Germany and re-introduced us to partially complete cycle routes that take you off busy roads only to divert you back onto them a few hundred metres later. Made us feel much less homesick, so thanks.

Huge thanks for this stretch to Aldo and family, Donatella and Luciano, Alberto Sabrina and Agata, Francesco and Elena, Francesco and Giulia, and all the retired Italians who have marvelled at our journey so far…