After a beautiful trip from the old city of Pula up the southwestern coast of the Istrian Peninsula to Vrvar, things went flat from there to Trieste. While Vrvar and Rohinj were classic charming seacoast towns, over development has taken the joy out of visiting the rest of the Istrian coast. My camera rarely left its bike mount. We were just putting in the K’s. We decided to skip the Italian city of Trieste and simply point towards Ljubljana.
A combination of the EuroVelo 9 and Highway 409 got us over the Slovenian border, then a beautiful series of cycling lanes brought us into the city itself. The cycle lanes combined with specific crosswalks made it so easy to deal with city traffic because they kept cycle and vehicle traffic separated. Cyclists and pedestrians have the right of way on the crosswalks unless there are traffic lights. The culture here respects bikers and hikers.
Cyclists are everywhere here in Slovenia. Whether they are elite road bikers, folks on new electric bikes, or just simple commuters on city bikes, they are in use all over the city. The infrastructure is here and so is the culture. People like us bikepacking travelers fit right in. We are welcome here.
Today we stored Lindsay’s trailer and everyone’s camping gear. Tomorrow we head northeast on the EuroVelo9, eventually switching to roads into Austria and then following a loop west before ending once again in Ljubljana for our trip home.
We had just spent a long cycling day crossing the isles of Krk and Cres then were dropped by ferry on the Istria peninsula with a steep climb yet still ahead of us to reach our accommodations. Terrain here rises sharply from the sea. Then it was three tired and sweaty cyclists trying to find an address on downhill lanes that google maps chased us down. Some helpful neighbors corrected the problem and we were soon on a deck overlooking the sea far below us with three beers our host kindly provided happy to end our day. All that was left after showers was a hike back up 300 meters to the restaurant.
We questioned our middle aged waitress about how slow the tourism seemed to be. Was it too early in the season? Residual effects of COVID? “No, COVID has been over. That’s in the past. The season is not early. It’s the war. No one is traveling. The memories run deep here.”
For people here, the war between Bosnians, Serbians, and Croats in the 90’s was like just yesterday. The bullet scarred buildings, those shattered by artillery fire, and the rock skeletons left by bomb blasts we’ve seen in so much of Croatia reflect the even deeper scars in the people themselves. We in America can have no idea. Our battles have been overseas. Our homeland has been untouched since the Civil War. We are seeing remnants of destruction from World War I, from World War II, and of course the 90’s as we travel through Croatia. It must be gut-wrenching for them to see war erupt again in Europe.
Tonight at dinner we overheard a conversation between the waiter and a younger couple at another table. Ukraine had come up. Lindsay asked them as we left if they were from Ukraine. One was from Russia and the other from Ukraine. They had left a business in Ukraine, and fled the country with their child. The man shrugged the situation off but the woman’s glistening eyes reflected the pain.
Since my last writing session, we have made our way up from the coast at Trogir, then did an about face back down eventually to Sibenak, where we enjoyed fine meals and a lovely city. Our original plans of biking a remote track called the Adriatic Crest were scrapped. We decided to continue on the EuroVelo route instead. Our various equipment was just not suitable for the steep climbs on loose rock. Also, the rough track just wasn’t enjoyable. We came here to have fun and have no masochistic urges in our later stages of life.
The EuroVelo route has been such a joy to ride. It has taken us to just the places we had been looking for on this trip. On safe routes.
The interior of the western part of Croatia is economically challenged. I find myself reminded of many parts of northern Minnesota. So much so that I found myself at the end of the day without taking a single photo. It all just looks so normal to me. Logging, hardscrabble farming on rock piles, and full parking lots in small villages where people were bused to jobs elsewhere. The food culture is meat based here with meager fresh vegetables or salads. Trout but not seafood. We’ve been spoiled by great seafood up to this point. No more BMW’s or Volvo’s. There are homes in many of the villages that seem abandoned. No children playing or barking dogs. Yet people live there. We see smoke in some chimneys and woodpiles in yards. Just don’t see people outside. Strange. There are bullet holes in a lot of the houses. Some have been repaired. Others seemed to be damaged by bombs or artillery fire from the war of the 90’s, or WWII, or even WWI. It’s hard to tell with most building made with stone,or concrete.
Now we’re back on the coast headed for the Istria Peninsula. It’ll be interesting to see the culture there.
Exploring the world by bicycle is a wonderful way to see the environment, smell the aromas, hear both the sounds and the quiet, and taste the pungency of the culture. A great way to meet people, too, since they appreciate our willingness to be vulnerable in their spaces. You’re not just a face in the window of a car or bus. You can wave, smile and say hello and get a response in return. You can take photos with ease. At any moment. You don’t miss much.
At the same time, you are vulnerable. On roadways with shoulders, small roads with little traffic, country lanes, and single track trails you can relax and enjoy the places you’re traveling in. On busy highways, city streets, and lanes crowded with people, cars, other cyclists, all senses have to be focused on the dangers. No time for the imagination to soar, or the camera to come out. All you smell are the highway fumes. All you hear is the rush of engines and the blaring horns of impatient drivers.
All that said is a prelude to my comments on Croatia. It’s really a stunningly beautiful country. The topography is either up or down. The ocean a very vivid blue. Food is fabulous and people open and friendly. Everything is clean and maintained. The only complaint we have is that the smaller highway that much of our route has followed has no shoulder. It’s quite busy and narrow. Much of it has a six inch drop instead of a shoulder for water to run. It’s a dangerous place to cycle.
So we left our EuroVelo route to take an alternate route out on the Peljesac Peninsula and then a ferry out to Korcula Island. We then peddled the length of the island to the delightful seacoast town of Vela Luka before taking the ferry back to Split on the mainland. We had a day off in both places. It was a great choice on our part as both the peninsula and Korcula are breathtakingly beautiful.
It was a long day with lots of climbing to reach the remote little village of Zuljana. Our apartment host there was a charming woman who readily volunteered to make us tired cyclists dinner and treat us to a bottle of her homemade Black wine. What a treat to sit next to a small still harbor in the quiet air of a slumbering village. To take a deep breath after a hard earned arrival and be so satisfied with the day. And enjoy a simple country meal with a couple glasses of very good wine. Not to forget the company of true friends.
It was a short ferry ride to Korcula where we heading right out on our route to Vela Luka at the far end. The mountainous ridges drop very vertically to the sea here making for steep climbs for cyclists. Also the sun is gaining power. Our route put us on a steep two track loose gravel road which was causing us problems. In the end we voted to head for the paved road and save our legs and tired bodies from the punishment.
Tonight we’re in an apartment in Split. We worked on bikes and rested. It felt good.
On every long bicycle trip you will find times where you fall into the A to B syndrome. Especially after some hard days. Your curiosity diminishes with the effort to move forward. You find yourself counting kilometers instead of smelling the lilacs you just went by. You may still see things but you’re not taking the time to stop and get that photo for your memories. I found that creeping in during our last days in Albania. The air pollution and jangle of busy roads and crowded streets in the cities we passed through inland contributed to that downward turn.
A day off and a new country was a great time for a reset. Both mentally and physically. What a beautiful and idyllic countryside to bring it all back: Montenegro!
Montenegro is a small mountainous country of about 600,000 people – most of them in the capital of Podgorica and on the coast. It’s a poor country but the differences between here and Albania have stood out to us. Clean roadways and villages. The mountain air is fresh and the villages and homes are well maintained. Biking through the mountains on our second day here was pure pleasure with quiet lanes, only the sounds of bird songs and my own breathing in the air. A land of stone – the scenery and the buildings. Old dry-stacked rock sheds and houses. Rock skeletons still standing of older buildings given way to time and change.
Most of the villages in this high country were smatterings of homes and small subsistence gardens. They have no shops or markets. No kids playing along the lanes. Few dogs. I suspect it’s mostly older residents enjoying the mountain air and lifestyle. Their kids have moved to more opportunities. However, the older stone homes and rock fences indicate a history of hardscabble living here.
It was a great day of biking in this lovely part of the world. The climbing was low-grade but significant. We took our time and enjoyed the views.
The descent to the Montenegrin coast was spectacular. Seventeen hairpin switchbacks spread out on this steep mountainside was amazing. As was the views below.
We are now on the coast and will enter Croatia today. Montenegro was very memorable.
Today Lindsay and I were a little over 84K’s out of Vlore when a familiar cyclist appeared peddling towards us. Brian. He had cycled towards us after a night in Durres where the bus had dropped him off after a 13 hour trip from Athens. He turned around and we began cycling together again.
There weren’t a lot of accommodations within the 20 or so K’s ahead that we were comfortable riding before stopping for the day. We are inland now in farm country. We settled on an old three story hotel right on our bike route called Hotel B&B. The newer highway had bypassed this place years ago. Without a website, poor signage, and an aging concrete bridge to get here, customers had to be scarce. An older gent greeted us with shots of Raki after hustling our cycles into the bar area. We had no common language. We settled on 90 Euros for three rooms and let him cheat us on the exchange to Leks. He’s an energetic man quick with a grin and one who doesn’t take no for an answer. He offers to take us to a restaurant in his car after we settle in.
We searched out a restaurant nearby but he insists we must travel 15k to a better one. It turns out this one is in a national park he wanted to show us and is a very special treat locally to eat here. Not fancy at all, it has a rustic charm and top- notch service. There is no menu, they just keep bringing you food . And saying no more has no noticeable effect. Grilled sea bass, a fish called kuce and sautéed jumbo shrimp. Potatoes and fresh salad. Toasted bread. All prepared simply but so good. We were persuaded to absolutely gorge ourselves. The proprietor just kept loading our plates and saying “thank you.” Maybe the only English he knew. I have never ate so much fish at a sitting. I don’t want to ever again either but these hosts wanted to treat us royally. Then when our stomachs were bursting he brought out bowls of yogurt and honey. There was a half a jar of honey in my bowl alone. Enough to trigger some kind of diabetic reaction in any normal person. I had a polite few spoonfuls.
After leaving the restaurant, our hosts gave us a full on tour of the area including his son’s bakery, his own olive and fruit trees, vegetable gardens and small vineyard.
Our host has two BMW’s, a house in town, and a pretty sizable property. A real anomaly for someone with a small hotel that change has left behind. Someone that eats ravenously with his hands. Someone with a neglected dog chained to a metal stake on a concrete slab in the backyard who barks and whines with loneliness.
It’s easy to miss- read appearances within a different culture and a language barrier. Our host was very generous to us.
Just three days ago Brian and I were finishing the last climb out of Greece. Brian pulled off the road to take off his jacket. I pulled off right behind him but stopped beyond him to take a photo. We were only about 4k from the border. Lindsay biked on passed us. Brian had put his Covid paper and passport in a little back pack that he had to remove to get his jacket off. We then both headed for the Greek border station where Lindsay and I had our passports stamped with an exit. On completing that task I asked Lindsay where Brian was. Lindsay said that he had biked back to the overlook to look for his backpack. He had forgotten it there.
Brian approached us upon his return. The pack was not there. In just the short time it had been forgotten someone stopped to pick it up. You wish they would have just taken the money and left the rest. But no, nothing was left. There had been very little traffic on the roadway. We were very unlucky.
I can’t speak for Brian, but when something like that happens to me, it’s a deep sinking feeling that overwhelms me. Disbelief. How could I be so careless. But really, for Brian it was not careless at all. Brian had the passport conveniently located for the border. They were in a pack on his body. Safe. On the climb he got a little overheated so the jacket came off. For that to happen the pack came off. Something then distracted him. Maybe something I said. Maybe a truck came by. Who knows. These things happen all the time to all of us. It’s only when the consequences are severe that we become really aware. Human.
When Brian arrived back at the border we all started working on a plan. Brian tried to call the Embassy. He never got to a real person but learned enough to know he had to go the Athens and appear in person. Then it was how is the best way to travel. He had to bike the 30K’s back to Igoumenitsa for sure. Then is it a ferry to Corfu and a plane to Athens? Is there a train? Will his bike stay in Igoumenitsa? Etc, etc. in the end he went to the hotel we had stayed at the night before and learned the best way was to take a 6 hour bus. Take his bike with him.
By the next day Brian was in Athens, had gotten to the Embassy where he got a new passport and on the following morning was on the bus again for a 13 hour ride to Durres where he is sleeping tonight after a good meal and a couple of beers. We’ll catch up to him tomorrow or the next day.
Bravo. We are all so relieved and happy to have Brian back on our bike route and ready to peddle.
The last two days have been hard biking days for Lindsay and I. 1639m of climbing at up to 19% grade yesterday and over 1200m today. Plus we’re putting in the K’s. We ended up not going as far as we wanted today. We climbed over an 1100m pass this morning that took us 3 hours and a lot out of our legs. At 3:30 we had the option of staying in Vlore by 4:30 or peddling another 44K’s to the next town, Fiers. We chose Vlore. Just too tired.
In landscape, Albania is much the same as Western Greece along the coast. Coastal mountains with seaside towns and beaches scattered between headlands. Beautiful countryside. Really good fresh food. Greece is inexpensive to travel in. Albania is downright cheap to travel in.
I have to nod off now. I’ll try to get some photos attached.
Today we are doing little chores like laundry and repairs, but mainly we are resting. Rejuvenating tired legs and bodies.
We’ve had some long cycling days with more climbing at a higher percentage grade because of the small roads and old highways we’re riding that have been replaced by the national highway here. The new roads and highways rarely get any steeper than 6 to 8 percent grade. In the US they have national standards to build them that way for safety, and also so semis can navigate them. Here, too, that is the goal. As cyclists we are much safer on gravel roads, small lanes and older highways with little traffic. Our route is designed to keep us there. However, it does mean a lot more climbing at grades 16% or higher. On some of the gravel and small lanes with short, sharp hills, the grade can be even higher but too short for my GPS to measure it. It’s very taxing on cyclists’ legs to climb these higher grades.
As in most places I’ve cycled around the world, people in Greece have been very courteous and friendly. The reaction to bicyclists is great. I think people appreciate that we are willing to be “vulnerable” . We are at their level, whether they are kids playing in their yard, women hanging up clothes, or old men chatting amongst their buddies at outdoor cafe. They smile and wave. Proprietors at cafes come over to chat with us. “Where are you from? So far away, and you come here?” We often are given desserts on the house. One lady handsqueezed a pitcher of orange juice which was not on her menu, just because we asked for it. Then we asked for another. “No problem.” Cars beep and wave in these rural areas. We feel very welcome.
I said I would write more of the 74-year old Frenchman we met along the way. He is cycling back to his home in Nice, France from Athens. He’s a short, medium-built man who is somewhat stiff with age. I came upon him when going to my bike to retrieve something. The hotel in that town had few guests and our bikes were stored behind a stairwell. When I saw him rifling through a bike bag I thought it was one of ours. “What are you doing there?” Then I saw it was not our bike and hastily apologized. In our ensuing conversation we quickly made amends. He is retired linguist who taught languages in universities in several countries. English wasn’t one of them. His many stories came out haltingly but we were not in a hurry. He also was an attache in the French Embassy in Berlin, France’s second largest embassy. His wife likes to travel to paint so then he takes off on his cycle. He told us later of trips hitchhiking in his teens and twenties. He was once robbed at knifepoint in Mexico and lost everything. The French Embassy there gave him a plane ticket to NY and $200. He made friends in NY who invited him to go to an outdoor concert. Off he went to Woodstock not knowing how iconic that week would become. He ran races most of his life including a 2:29 marathon. Now he has an artificial knee, so, along with increasing age, he has slowed down. We had dinner with him and invited him to join us in our ride the next day but it was too hard for him to keep our pace. We hope he has a good ride back to meet his wife.
Yesterday we met two young women cyclists from France while on a hilly country lane. They were headed to Athens on a similar route to ours. They asked where we were going, and when told them Albania was next, they said, “Great, the nicest, most accommodating people in Europe live in Albania”. We will be there tomorrow and hope the Albanians are just as friendly to three aging male cyclists as they were to two young, vivacious, and athletic French women
We’ve now had four days biking out of Athens. I’m beginning to understand why I don’t run into many Greek travelers. Why would they leave their own country? It has definitely exceeded my expectations. The countless islands, the exquisitely colored sea, mountainous topography, and orchards of olive, lemon and orange trees everywhere. Rural life with its country lanes and traditional lifestyles evokes memories of a simpler world.
Today we started to see more vineyards. Some had big fields of poles which held netting above and also smaller netting halfway down that the vines were trained to travel on. I assume the netting above were protection from birds and below to make picking easy. Other orchards we saw were more traditional.
We haven’t had anything but great food anywhere here. And friendly people. However, like everywhere, there is reality to life here. I may not tread much on that since we will only be here about eight days. It’s what’s harder to see for casual travelers like us. But bike travel does put you closer to it.
Two nights ago we could only find one hotel to choose from. We were happy to find one. In Greece it’s illegal to wild camp. The campgrounds we’ve found are still seasonly closed. It will be another week before everything opens up. The hotel that night could have opened in the 50’s and still looks and operates the same. The dining room was mostly taken up by old men drinking beer, downing ouzo, or sipping coffee. Most were chain smoking cigarettes. All were watching an old large screen TV with the volume raised so the people next door could hear. The patrons obviously were old friends. Easy conversation continued between them whenever there was a lull in the squawking TV. An older culture that reminded me so much of my home town of Grand Marais decades ago. We didn’t appreciate the smoking or the sound blaring but could recognize the importance of the meeting place this hotel marked for this older generation.
Tonight we are in a lovely seaside town called Mytkosia. Just had a simple but wonderful homemade meal of shrimp, potatoes and salad at a very small restaurant operated by an older couple. Our best meal yet. More later in another blog. My eyes want to close till tomorrow.
It was a cool and crisp morning when we left our hotel in old central Athens. Lindsay had made arrangements for a bicycle shop to give us a van ride out of the busy part of Athens. Those narrow heavily traveled streets would have taken us many hours to navigate our way out of the city. Lindsay had counted 168 turns we would have had to navigate to get through the cobblestone maze. The driver had a keen interest in our bicycles and gear, and also stories of previous trips. Having only bikepacked a couple of times himself, he was especially interested in how we packed our bikes. No shortage of willing participants for that topic in this van.
Although we had spent quite a bit of time on our route, you don’t really know how it will be until you ride it. We were so pleased to find ourselves on small streets, rural roads, double track pathways and peoples’ backyards on our way along the Adriatic coastline. Beautiful sea with undulating coastline, orchards and orchards of olive trees, constant hills to navigate, and mountains behind them with enough height to still be snow-covered. Lots of blue. We had a breeze in our face but not so sharp that it was tiring. Temperature around 60F. In short it was truly a delightful day and so good to be on the bikes.
We stopped in the small community of Kiato. It’s off season here now but easy to imagine how bustling and crowded it might be in another month. We had been riding on a quiet small 2 lane road along the sea when we decided to call it a day. 80 kilometers was enough for our first ride. Most of the accommodations are closed for another couple of weeks, but we were directed to an apartment which was great for us. We drew lots out of my hat. I won the bed, Brian got the couch, and Lindsay had to put his mat and sleeping bag on the floor in the kitchen. Some great pasta and seafood a couple blocks down the road finished off a great day.