Adoring the Adriatic (on Touring Bicycles)- Croatia (Part 1)
After downtime because of rain, we were psyched up to continue our bicycle journey along the Adriatic. With rain clouds still threatening, we carefully guided our bikes down the steep, winding lane to the waterfront of Herceg Novi. From there, the road was flat around the bay and the route helped us avoid the narrow, one-way street we had thought about taking (it went the other way!!)
After about 5kms it was obvious that we’d need to climb, somewhat sharply, to the border post at the 9km mark. Thankfully, the road wasn’t busy yet and we arrived safely but red-faced and out of breath. The border formalities were quick and cordial and we began Croatia with a long 8% downhill that was very much appreciated.
It wasn’t long though before our route alongside a wide, green valley took us on another long climb to the top of a ridgeline. We made good progress though and the plan of leaving our camping and cooking gear in Belgrade was already paying off. The roller coaster nature of the Adriatic Coast means constant, prolonged climbs followed by amazingly long descents where we had to hold on tight to the brakes. The extra weight would have meant a much harder slog on the up and going downhill would’ve been trickier as well.
We took a well-earned half an hour out to grab a coffee at Cilipi, the halfway mark to Dubrovnik. The weather was holding for us and the sun had made an appearance. Just after the airport, we began a long, very scenic descent to the coast. The views were incredible as the blue-green sea met the dramatic cliffs, occasionally spilling onto the idyllic sandy beach of a small village with colourful boats lining the piers.
As we descended into increasing traffic, we knew Dubrovnik was close, but so was a very big climb with no shoulder! We took stock and pressed on, stopping where we could in driveways and bus stops.
From Google Maps we knew the last push into Dubrovnik was problematic. It involved a long, steep, shoulderless ascent over the top of the city on a very busy road buzzing with buses and trucks. Fortunately, we had done some very intensive homework, especially for this section of the highway and discovered an old disused road climbing the mountainside directly out of the old, walled city. The only problem; the highway’s guardrail ran right across it blocking access. Not to mention we’d need to stop and turn against the busy traffic hurtling down the mountain above us.
Our salvation lay in a narrow, improvised track that hugged the outside of the guardrail. It was about a metre wide and 200m long. One single slip would send us crashing almost vertically about 100m onto the rocks below (there was already a wrecked Volkswagon Beetle down there paying testament to the nasty nature of this section of the road). I decided to walk the track first with one hand trailing inside the guardrail for balance and wondering to myself if this was a very wise thing to do! About three-quarters of the way across, the path narrowed considerably. For about 40m it was only half a metre wide – we needed to think very carefully about this, it was like stepping out onto the ledge of a tall building. One look at the traffic though convinced us that we’d have to do it, we just needed to think it through.
After some consideration, we decided to strip the bikes and carry the panniers across a couple at a time, hanging the heaviest ones inside the guardrail as a counter-weight to help us keep our balance and ensure we could latch onto the railing if we slipped. This worked well, even if it did look a little precarious as we made our way across the narrowest section. Finally, it was the bike’s turn. I decided they’d have to be walked on the road’s edge inside the guardrail while we remained separated from the closing traffic on the cliff side of the railing.
Video of this completely crazy escapade coming soon
Our mad little balancing act worked a treat and we were thankfully over and onto the old road away from the crazy traffic. We looked at each other and smiled widely, but we wondered how many more times we’d have to do this – choosing between the devil and the deep, blue sea!
For our troubles, we were rewarded with our very own road where every bend around the sheer cliffs opened out onto amazing views over Dubrovnik, it’s harbour and the surrounding islands. We took our time and lapped it up. We had passed our first test on the mountainous road and came up trumps. Now it was time to enjoy Dubrovnik for a while and plan our next leg carefully.
As we were about to be reminded, Dubrovnik is “Kings Landing”, one of the settings for the immensely popular Game of Thrones (GOT) TV series. It was awash with visitors coming to see the many places within its walls in the series as well as a plethora of souvenir shops selling all sorts of official merchandise even remotely related to the series.
After a bit of internet research, we were able to get a room just outside the ancient city wall, right next to a tiny cove that features a lot in GOT. The only problem was negotiating the many steps down to our lodgings with the bikes. We eventually had to do it a bit at a time.
Within the walls it’s quite easy to navigate the narrow lanes of the old city, the lowest point being the main street. Like a spine, all other streets projected like ribs, with countless steps running up and away from it to the city walls which stopped them.
All the lanes feature colourful doorways marked with pot plants of various sizes. Over the doorways, on the next level up, small, wrought iron balconies overhang, decreasing both the space between opposing houses, as well as the amount of light trying to fill the lane. Getting a picture of these lanes without the obligatory tourists in the immediate foreground proved problematic.
To get a good orientation of the old town and its maze of laneways, you need to pay the 100 Kuna (USD 16) to get up on the walls. Fortunately, the walls exist in their entirety and you can complete an entire circuit well above the rooftops. This view out over the red, tiled roofs is the classic image you see of Dubrovnik on most of the postcards.
Getting in and out of the place was hard enough, but harder to swallow was the elevated prices of everything, especially since we had just left Montenegro which was quite reasonable.
Sunset proved the best time of day. Most of the tourist buses were gone leaving just the locals and those of us staying there. There were several good places along the walls to watch the sky change colour as the sun glowed orange and sank out of sight. The most popular place though was a park outside the northern wall that didn’t cost anything. It was a great place to take a drink and a pre-dinner snack and really enjoy the nightly spectacle with friends.
Back in town, we tracked down our first Croatian Craft beer experience at the Glam Cafe We could sit outside in the tiny lane at a table, which occupied half the width of the thoroughfare and watch the crowds as they trudged up and down the steep steps, navigating the obstacle course of tables, chairs, patrons and waiters.
On the second last day, I walked a few kms out of town to investigate the best route to cycle onwards, hoping to avoid the big hill and motorway that overlooked the town. What we couldn’t avoid, unfortunately, however, was the sharp climb up and out of the old city itself, a real heart starter first thing in the morning!
The coast road north along the Adriatic is a series of long climbs and descents. There’s no shoulder, but traffic seemed to diminish as we go further away from Dubrovnik and drivers seemed to be giving us plenty of room.
The hard work of climbing was rewarded with brilliant views along the coast and the pleasure of free-wheeling downhill for several kms.
We had decided we wanted to visit Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The old town there has a reputation for being very photogenic, and its famous bridge that had been destroyed during the Balkans War was now rebuilt to its former glory. Our plan would mean staying a few nights in Neum situated on a tiny slither of land on the coast granted to Bosnia by Croatia.
When we arrived on the southern side of Neum, the hotel we had booked was closed and being gutted for a major refit. Needless to say, we were pretty tired and not impressed! In our wanderings looking for alternative accommodation, we found a woman who offered us a room above her apartment. It meant lugging our bikes and our gear up quite a lot of steps, but it was a nice room and a chance to visit Mostar.
Upon asking around (yep, there were some English speakers!), we found out that there was one bus per day to Mostar and none on Sundays. We’d already missed that day’s bus and the next day was Sunday – oh well! So, we hung around and explored Neum for a couple of days, climbing up and down her steep streets and enjoying her spectacular sunsets.
Other than gifting Bosnia with a sea access for holiday homes (there’s no shipping port), Neum’s main purpose seemed to be tax-free shopping as all the buses stopped at a particular hotel with a shopping centre in its basement so that the frenzied hoards could procure anything from cartons of cigarettes and cheap booze to flat-screen TVs.
On Monday, we caught the bus to Mostar. It was cloudy and cool and rain threatened on the horizon. The bus took the road that we’d ride out of, so we got to see what we were in for the next day. It began with a 10% incline – ouch!!
The road descends down to the Neretva River and then turns inland to follow the river through to Mostar. There is also a border crossing, but no stamps, no interrogations, nothing! The guards stayed in the warmth of their cabins while we welcomed ourselves to Herzegovina.
There are 2 bus stations in Mostar, one near the railway station and old town, the other where we got dropped off, about 3kms away! It was now raining! Fortunately, it stopped long enough for us to find the river and follow it down to the old town – we didn’t have a map.
The famous arched, brick bridge which connects both sides of the World Heritage Listed old town has been rebuilt with foreign money. Much of the site has carefully been restored, unlike several buildings around the city itself that have been left gutted by artillery fire and riddled with bullet holes. I got the impression they were left that way on purpose to remind people of what they lost.
Meanwhile, back in the contrasting old town, hordes of Chinese tourists flooded through the narrow, cobbled laneways, their umbrellas at an eye-gouging level as the rain came down again. We thought the weather would keep the tourists away, but the tour companies want their profits, so there we were, jostling through the pack, trying to get photos of the place without it looking like downtown Beijing!
We got back to the bus station 2hrs early, leaving the crowds to suck up the sights with their giant cameras and ninja umbrellas. A warm, dry cafe provided something to eat before reversing our journey back to Neum.
The next morning we rolled slowly around the road out of town and began the long, steep ascent. Even though we’d left our tent and cooking gear in Belgrade, the bikes still seemed to weight a ton and we needed to pull over and rest every 10 minutes or so. Fortunately, there was very little traffic and we made it safely to the top and a viewpoint of the coast where we could also see our destination, Ploce, in the distance.
A view of Ploce in the distance. After a very long, steep ascent.With the hard work done for the day and some much-needed nourishment, we began the long downward run into Ploce. It took about 30 minutes to descend and our hands were aching from gripping the brakes all the way down. Back at the Neretva River, we turned left and followed her into town. Ploce is very small and nestles around a pretty harbour where daily ferries depart for the islands (our next destination). We had a late lunch and found the ferry office before we got a room for the night.
This blog is getting a little long so I’ve decided to split it in two. Head over to the next page to read about our experience with our touring bicycles out on the Croatian Islands of Korcula and Hvar, then onto Split.
Have you been to Croatia or know anyone who’s headed that way? What was your favourite part? Leave us a comment below and feel free to share this post with anyone else you think might enjoy it.