Tivat (Montenegro) to Dubrovnik (Croatia)
Today was our last day in Montenegro and for once, the morning was bright and clear. We cycled around the coast to a small car ferry where a short €1 trip took us to the other side of Kotor Bay. On our 5-minute boat journey, we looked back at the row of quaint old stone buildings and the colourful fishing boats moored up and bobbing lazily in the sea. It was very picturesque and we felt lucky to be able to finally appreciate the coastline in the morning glow.
We passed through the border controls swiftly and rode along a valley into Croatia. It was beautiful. The thin green cypress trees stood tall against the orange and gold bushes. Though the road didn’t provide a great cycling space, there weren’t many cars that we needed to share the road with; only when we got closer to Dubrovnik did it feel a little busier.
We instantly liked the pedestrianised Old Town in Dubrovnik, the steep steps and narrow alleyways made it feel secretive and inviting – what was around the next corner of these huge limestone walls? (In some places, the stone wall is nearly 6 metres thick!) Though we had to lug our bikes+bags up many big stone steps to finally reach our guesthouse, the festive decorations and proximity to the Old Town made it well worth it. We were so close we could smell the mulled wine of the Christmas market.
Dubrovnik, through Bosnia, to Opuzen (back to Croatia)
Yikes, I know all we do is talk about the weather, but it did not stop raining. The sunshine can certainly give a coastline the glory it deserves, and we were desperately trying to imagine how good it would be.
We had to cycle a 12-mile stretch through Bosnia and Herzegovina to continue our journey up the Croatia coast, but still, the pellets of rain would not surrender. Discouraged to camp, we found a small hostel who provided us with sympathy and a radiator.
Opuzen to Autocamp Sirena
Small villages of limestone buildings clustered along bays, clinging to the steep shorelines, at the bottom of which was often a tiny harbour for boat access. The white, clean buildings against the deep blue sea was gorgeous.
We stopped for a break at a shrine to the Lord Holy Jesus and filled our bottles straight from a spring – the water was divine. We cycled on in the sunny afternoon and came across a campsite. It was open, but I don’t think they expected anyone in the winter. We and an older German couple in a camper van were the only guests. We chatted lots to the owner and his daughter who were very friendly and gave us access to the restaurant kitchen with big industrial fridges, huge draws of culinary weapons and massive pots and pans. Oh, what a feast we could make with all of our…oh…noodles.
Later, once we had pitched the tent, our Croatian friends warned us that some strong winds – the famous bura winds – would be expected tonight. Everything seemed so calm at the moment, and the sun was setting. Earlier, we had noticed the trees bent double, bowing to the sea, and posed for a photo, imagining the almighty force of the wind. Rather than stay in the tent that night, they advised us to sleep inside the restaurant next to the open fire. They even invited us to stick around the next day to put up Christmas decorations and decorate the tree with his granddaughter. The family atmosphere was so lovely and something we were missing a lot.
We enjoyed a lovely night with the owners and the German couple, and shared a very tasty bottle of homemade red wine. At bedtime, the others left and we chose a comfy place to sleep by the fire. We could hear the wind whistling through the trees…the bura winds had arrived.
Autocamp Sirena to Bilo
We woke early just as the sun was rising: the wind was blowing fiercely along the coast, whipping up water from the sea and spraying it above the surface like a thick mist. The wind created a conveyor belt of ripples, driving the waves in one direction: in our direction. Though we had to brace, and even stop, when the gusts came, nothing was going to stop us from taking advantage of this tailwind. The bura was full of power and made the sea alive with energy; it felt exciting to be out in it.
We cycled past tables and chairs that had been blown over in the night. Had there be any danger, we would have not continued, but actually, we felt partly sheltered from the wind by the hills and cliffs around us.
Bilo to Zadar
We had stayed in the tent in a closed campsite near the sea. Today was sunny but chilly and the coastal route took us slightly inland through fields of olive groves.
We made our way into the Old Town of Zadar, encased by an old brick wall, with expensive yachts harboured up next door and views of the snowy mountains in the distance. A hint of what was to come tomorrow.
Zadar to Obrovac
A quick dash out of the city and we were heading towards the hills and straight for mountains. We tried our luck by cycling on the A1 – a silky smooth road with a big hard-shoulder. We tried because the alternative was a much longer, tougher, more convoluted loop including a big climb. But when we saw the toll booth and the miserable ‘no bicycles’ sign we knew we wouldn’t be allowed to cycle on it; we sighed: the big climb it would have to be.
After a few kilometres, we convinced ourselves that this was the better route: it was off-the-beaten-track and traffic was pretty much non-existent. Soon, we learned that there was nothing else on the road because the route ahead was closed, blocked up ahead by a truck laying down new tarmac. The workmen realised we wanted to pass and didn’t see any problems – just squeeze by, of course. Everything was a squeeze with these bikes. So, we waited on the far side of the road in the gutter, leaned away from the truck as much as we could as it slowly passed us. The fumes, steam and grit that was expelled was suffocating, and it felt like a long time to wait trying to hold my breath. We were then given the all clear to cycle on the freshly-laid tarmac, still hot! Our wheels the first wheels to ever cycle on this path into the mountains.
After this excitement, nature reminded us of her bitter mood, and some ferocious icy gusts of wind reddened our cheeks like we had been slapped in the face. During our coffee break, we looked up to the snowy peaks: it was going to be cold up there too.
The climb started nicely, with long winding criss-crossing bends to warm up. No wandering into the bushes for a wee up here though – there were signs to warn us of land mines.
We had reached around 500 metres; we could see the tunnel below us that cut off the other 500 metres we still had to climb. We looked down longingly at the cars whizzing into the black hole like little moles scurrying to their safety.
Our asphalt road ended, and we were left with a path of loose gravel. It wasn’t long before the gravel had ripped the side wall of Lindsay’s tyre. A quick pit stop for a tyre change, but the wind was icy and a lot stronger here. We hunkered around the jet-boil, sheltering it from the wind, so we could make something hot to warm us up. The cold was sinking into our bones.
Eager to get the body moving, we carried on; well we tried to cycle as best we could. We only had 10km until the top, but the wind was getting fiercer, the temperature was dropping and the gravel even deeper. It was a case of getting off and pushing the bike, and suddenly a 10-kilometer walk pushing these bikes uphill wasn’t going to be a speedy endeavour. With everything against us, we decided to try to claw back some enjoyment from this day: we turned around and zoomed back down the hill we had just slaved up. A local man in a nearby village helped us find somewhere to stay: our priority at the moment was to get warm and out of winter’s grasp.
Obrovac to Korenica
A new day and a new plan. It still involved the big climb – only in our dreams would a big giant come along and flatten it, but the new route we had planned would avoid the shingle. The temperature outside was a brisk –2, but we could handle this. And the climb towards Gracac would warm us up anyway.
The road was a nice gradient along the ridge of the mountain and we made good progress. Though, around certain corners, the bura was waiting to blast us. Gritting our teeth and muttering many many expletives, we suffered and strained and eventually made it to the top. Snow covered the fields and icy chills lurked in the shadows.
We had to then pedal downhill against the bitch of the bura and dived into a café for a time-out. Will realised a noon-time shot of brandy would supplement the afternoon’s decision making. It swayed us enough to catch a bus to the next town. We accepted this element of cheating with good cheer: it was Christmas time after all.
Korenica to Karlovac
Our hotel had a stuffed life-size brown bear in the entrance hall, much to the amusement of the Chinese guests. Outside was –5˚C and there was snow on the ground. It was like a winter wonderland as we cycled through the dark green forests of the Plitvice Lakes National Park – a Unesco World Heritage Site.
We kept an eye out for any bears that might be playing in the snow among the trees, but only saw a winter fox running through the white of the fields.
Karlovac to Zagreb
We cycled past the collection of army tanks at the Karlovac museum and had an easy ride into the capital of Croatia boasting Austro-Hungarian architecture and Gothic spires. A day off to recharge and reboot was very much the ticket.