Croatia is shaped a bit like a Nike swoosh with its base along the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea. We cycled the country end-to-end from the highlands of Slovenia in the north-west to the bays of Montenegro to it's south-east.
What a glorious country it is to cycle. It has a bit of everything for the bicycle tourer, stunning beauty, good roads, welcoming people, fresh food and no Euro, which at the time made it a cheaper place to tour than some of it's neighbours.
We rolled down into the country from Slovenia to the Croatian coast at Opatija. It was a near perfect introduction to the country. There was something in the air that made me remember beach holidays as a kid, as the vivid colours of the forests gave way to the Azure of the sea. There was one thing playing on my mind though, my rear-end. I had been touring on an adapted road bike, which was fast but not very strong. A wobble from the back wheel had become worse over the last few days, and it was only a matter of time before my spokes began to pop out under the pressure of full pannier bags, and me. The 'Ping' and then the 'Clatter' of them snapping and snagging was shocking, but I somehow managed to limp down to sea level.
It was a nervy ride that day, but with no spare spokes and no bike shop, there was no alternative. I played down the severity of the mechanical issue when asked if everything was alright. I of course said that it was fine, but my white knuckles likely revealed the truth. Somehow or another, I made the port, where there was a bike shop. I thought that would be the end of the problem, but the owner seemed sorry as he had nothing suitable to replace my back wheel with. I loitered in his shop, browsing, then, in a quiet moment, I explained what we were doing, and why. After about 30 minutes he told me to hang on whilst he made a phone call. He had managed to find something belonging to his brothers friend, an old Campagnolo wheel-set. Ok, so it was old and expensive, but it would do the job and what other options did I have anyway? The owner then had his brother collect the wheel-set from his friends house, and drove his moped for over an hour to get it to me. Wow. What a good start that was to Croatia.
We enjoyed riding along the coast, so tried to stick close-by whenever possible. But one morning in the seaside town of Senj, we knew there was only one way out - inland. We were still finding our rhythm on this summer's bike tour from Italy to Turkey, and we met a real challenge only a few days in to this country. The climb from the seaside town of 1550 vertical metres to Melnice was a beast, but even with hangovers from a lovely bottle of red for sunset, we made it, and felt great about our ability.
The very next day, and probably the highlight of the the trip to that point was visiting Plitvice National Park through the back-door. We had stayed in a guest house the night before which looked and felt like a Swiss Chalet. The meadows and the animals surrounding were befitting, so we were in no rush to leave initially, as we were not sure whether the entrance fee for the park could be justified, besides where we were was pretty special anyway. We chatted to our host over breakfast, who explained that there was an old un-maintained farm road which entered the park from the south west, rather than the east where the entrance-fee kiosks were. We knew it was a bit cheeky, but we were bike tourers and so normally get away with a lot of things. In fact we are normally ignored by authorities at borders and checkpoints, so we went for it. The ride that morning was unforgettable. It was picture-perfect, like something from a children's book. Thick woodland on either side of a muddy, but thankfully ridable road, then meadows, then duck-filled babbling brooks shimmering in the sun, then geese, piglets and old-style farming families chatting at their gates. Gorgeous. We rounded more corners and the trees began to reveal a lake like none other i've seen. It was so calm, the water was like a mirror for the sky.
Understandably, it took us a while to get going again. We could have camped right there, but we had come to see the waterfalls and the bright-blue lakes of Plitvice, so we toddled on up winding roads, with little or no other traffic for a few hours. Then we saw other tourists, but of the 'package-tour' ilk, so we figured that we must be somewhere significant. Indeed we were, as we soon realised we were now inside the park, next to a viewpoint for something which looked like it had been made-up by Willy Wonka. Milky looking water falling into Raspberry-soda-blue lakes. It was quite enchanting, the whole day was really, except for the nagging on our conscience for not paying the entry fee. But then again, we had made a real effort to get in the hard (but free) way so we were going to make the most of it. Which, for us, as always, means a fleeting and efficient visit, pushing our bikes through bemused 'Awesome OMG'ers'. We walked our bikes right up to a gatehouse, and readied ourself to deal with the figure we would have to pay for what we had seen. Yes, it would have been worth a lot, but let's be honest, it's always better when you experience something without feeling poorer than you did before. The park was clearly doing well for itself, so we made no eye-contact with the park wardens, and neither did they. What a result, what a day.
A week later we took a boat across to the the long thin island of Korcula and cycled along it, back to the mainland, and eventually down to the poster-boy city of Dubrovnik. We attempted to ride our loaded bikes along ancient trade routes, one of these was less than a path, and it took us over 3 hours to do 10 kilometres one day near Orebic. Our chosen route ended up being a path to someones front door, up steps, with our laden bikes. It was hot and we were dry of water; it was real test for us, but with numerous stops and the occasional cider, we eventually made our way along precarious cliff-ledges to the (aptly walled) town of Ston.
It was great that travelling in a country in Europe could still feel adventurous, and Croatia certainly is unique. Honestly, some of the main arteries of Croatia are too busy for cycling in the peak summer months and infrastructure and provisions for cyclists are not a thing. Hence part of the reason why blood was shed in a poorly lit, steep, narrow and winding tunnel near Rijeka. Chainrings sunk their teeth into legs as we struggled to push our steeds out into safety. Ho hum. Overall though, its got to be in my top 10 countries toured.