It does rain in Croatia then (long post alert…)

 

Prancing around Zadar’s nicely displayed ruins

Zadar is famous for it’s sea organ, a stepped area on the sea with a mass of pipes underneath that make sea noises as the waves splash the stone steps. It really is a bizarre experience, and when the ferry goes past it makes more of a deafening boom than soothing sea tones. I went to see it whilst Debs experienced Croatian public healthcare. After reading an entire novel it was established that yes she would need to come back tomorrow to see an eye doctor. On the way home we spotted a cinema and having learned that films are shown in English, went back for a later viewing of Spectre. The second hospital visit was much faster than the first so we enjoyed an afternoon off in Zadar (I couldn’t keep the sea organ experience to myself). The town also has a number of Roman ruins, though interestingly they have not been left where they found but dug up and arranged in neat patterns in the centre square. It was pretty cool to be able to wander around chunks of old stuff and go up the bell tower to view it all from above. Peace was shattered temporarily with the Saturday ritual of Croatian Wedding Drivers coming in and out of the city, reminding us what day it was at least.

 

Krka National Park

From Zadar it was a 100km ride down the coast to Krka National Park, our substitute for not being able to detour inland over a huge mountain range to go to Plitvice Lakes, the most famous Croatian park. It’s hard to compromise sometimes, but you can’t possibly see everything in a country when travelling by bike – Krka has some very impressive waterfalls itself, we arrived at the park less than an hour before it closed and the falls were at the bottom of a long, hairpin descent. The ranger seemed to think it wouldn’t be a problem for us to ride down and back up again in time – he has clearly never ridden a loaded bike uphill. We zoomed down there in 5 mins, had a walk around the falls and then it took half an hour to get back up sweating like crazy, arriving back at the gate a respectable 25 mins after the park closed. So as usual we had a race against the daylight, which as usual we lost.

 

Losing the race against the sun

Next up was Split, Croatia’s second largest city that we were only visiting to catch a boat to our next island. On the way we called at Solin, the impressive ruins of a Roman town located next to a busy dual carriageway and industrial area of Split. Peaceful. We got in free for being cool bike travellers (maybe) and were then swamped by a group of school kids practicing their English. ‘My name is … ‘ is about as far as they have got with English but they knew how to repeat it again and again. At least they recognised the Union Jack – most kids seem to think we are American. C’mon kids, it’s a very different flag! Split itself challenged for the ugliest city award as we rode through miles and miles of busy, grubby suburbs – luckily it improved dramatically on reaching the historical area where the Diocletian Palace covers most of the centre, with lots of small cobbled streets which is probably fun if you are not pushing/riding a loaded bike. The next island on our agenda was Brac, producer of white stone used in many buildings including the White House itself. It’s one of the lesser visited islands but was probably our favourite – small towns that were not particularly touristy therefore still had life in them out of season, quiet roads that either hugged the coastline or took us up mountains for amazing views and very empty and peaceful in the middle.

 Back on the mainland, we were excited about getting to Dubrovnik – one of the few places we had in mind to definitely visit. Although there were several more ‘must-see’ islands on the way, as the forecast was for cloud and rain for a few days these were regrettably bypassed in favour of a city with more potential for rainy day activities. Next time, Korcula, Hvar and Mljet. It would also be the fist time we spent more than two nights in the same place in 8 weeks – much needed by this point. The ride into Dubrovnik was the most spectacular section of the coast road, unfortunately it hammered it down for most of the day. So instead of coastal scenery being the highlight, that day will be remembered for the 10km section of Bosnia (country #11) that the coast road goes through. But not for scenery, people or culture (though I’m sure these are all great when it isn’t chucking it down), but for food. Not wanting to pass through a new country without stopping, and starving and wanting a note for our map wall we took out the equivalent of about £7 from an ATM and went straight to a roadside bakery where £3.50 bought us a pile of pastries. We had become fond of the burek since discovering it in Croatia – a long thin pastry filled with either cheese or meat and rolled up – and the Bosnian one was our best yet. So we sheltered from the rain by a posh hotel where Japanese tourists ran into from their coach (not quite sure how they sold them ‘lunch in Bosnia’ as a highlight of the day, and in the rain it did not look it’s finest) and stuffed ourselves. Most cyclists on this route will ride in and out of Bosnia in about half an hour, we took almost two, most of which was spent eating. What’s not to like?

 

The ride to Dubrovnik and start of the rain

Finally we reached Dubrovnik, drenched and cold for the first time in weeks. The rain was like rivers on the road and threatened to wash us away at times. But the next morning we woke to sunshine so headed straight to the city walls. I love a good walled city and this is one of the finest out there as every corner of the wall offers an amazing panoramic view of the city and the sea. Being out of season tourists came in our favour as we practically had the walls to ourselves, after seeing pictures of how crowded they get in the summer this was very much appreciated. Although strangely one guy managed to get in all the photos Debs took for one five minute period – I had to commend him for such an achievement given the lack of people around. We ended up staying in Dubrovnik for 4 days, 3 of which it rained, and 2 of which we did very little (the only thing we scheduled for the last day was ‘take advantage of coffee and pancakes offer between 12-8pm’, suggesting to us that it was time to leave….) It’s a very ‘pleasing to the eye’ city, not wanting to be overrun by tourism none of the shops are allowed signs so they have the shop names inscribed on lanterns and on tabards which sets it apart from the rest of the country where you can’t move for adverts obscuring every view. It’s also amazing how the city has recovered from the heavy bombing it received during the Yugoslav war, it was quite sobering to visit some of the museums and learn more about a war that killed so many people yet was so recent I was in secondary school at the time. We sat and watched some BBC news footage from the time, captivated by images of buildings we had just walked around being shelled as well as the soothing tones of an English accent and full sentences we could understand.

 

Dubrovnik from above

We had high expectations of Croatia, and the scenery didn’t disappoint. Being there out of season was a little frustrating at times but also worked to our advantage with quiet beaches and cheap hotels (we didn’t sleep in the tent once, it just wasn’t worth the effort). The driving was a bit crazy and being on the phone whilst driving seems to be standard practice – we saw drivers watching videos on their phone. The people were perhaps the least friendly of all the countries we had been through (and have since) – not that they were unfriendly but there was not the warm welcome that we have experienced elsewhere. Interacting with people is difficult with the language barrier but usually we have some semblance of a conversation with local people several times a day, or at least a smile and a wave – in Croatia we were invisible. Probably so many people pass through on bikes in the summer that it is not of interest, and in the winter they just want their towns back for some peace and quiet before the season starts again. Understandable I guess!

Thanks to Frane #1 in Kastel Lucic and Frane #2 (and his family) in Pucisca for their hospitality, and the friendly guys at Extreme bike shop in Split for sorting us out with some essentials.

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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?