Rolling out of the campsite I joined the sort of rush hour traffic around the little towns. It was to be the first of three days of cycling over 80 miles a day. I’d not had any breakfast and so was delighted to find a bakery. Two croissants and a coffee filled the spot along with a sandwich and cake for later on.
I’d been used to most folk speaking English but here in the deep German south then older people could help with the odd English word but little more. One relief was that whilst I never faced hostility then neither did I find a German wanting to strike up a casual conversation! It was all business like and if you passed a cyclist then there was literally never any acknowledgement. As Donald would say, ‘sad’.
The pattern of busy towns and quieter but hilly rural routes were common and I toiled away. Even more disappointing was the occasional sign saying ‘umleitung’. This translates as ‘road detour’ in English and can strike fear in the heart of any cycle tourer as this means a longer route and climbing.
On one occasion I simply ignored some long and hilly deviation and decided to push my bike through the roadworks. No one questioned my presence but as I pushed past a bulldozer, road roller, grader and assorted tractors with trailers I then came across the heavy duty construction kit putting wet asphalt down. At this point I conceded defeat and found a different ‘deviation’.
The schedule was always to do around 60 miles and then find a place to stop. Here with a good internet I’d see where I’d could get to for the night. In Schongau I decamped in McDonalds and embarked on eating something hot whilst charging my Garmin Sat Nav, iPhone and doing research. I’d taken to drying my laundry on the bike. However, whilst entering the fast food emporium to escape furious heat I emerged, briefly, into a torrential downpour. This saturated my previously bone dry laundry.
I really wanted to push on further west and hated not maximising that plan. On Google I found an understated campsite on a farm and decided to go for it. At around 7pm I got to the farming village and saw no signage for a campsite. At this point I’m thinking that I would be making my way to the largest local town to find a room of some sorts.
However going past one farm entrance I saw, unusually, a number of children riding bikes around the large farmyard and I turned in. I saw some scattered tents, loads of people with children and a lively scene. Fortunately a young mother with a prostrate child in her arms came up to me. She wasn’t the owner but said she’d help. She disappeared. An age later she re-appeared to say the farmer’s wife was milking the cows and later she’d find me after getting changed. I could stay but there was a toilet but no shower available.
Not good news but what could I do? She showed me a pitch (the corner of a small lawn/field) and where the toilet and washbasin were. (With a flannel I managed some tolerable ablutions).
Now who were all these folk staying on a working farm? The farmer drove into the yard at 9pm on his tractor. It seemed to be full of the same type of folk with young children. Apart from being together then the whole arrangement seemed a bit odd and whilst they all had shower facilities (!) then it was not in the least comfortable compared to other more recognised campsites. Again as I didn’t speak German and as no one cared to talk to me I never worked out what the attraction of a smelly farmyard was!
At this point I must add that like Holland the whole of the countryside in this part of Germany usually had the aroma of cow dung and urine. I suppose it is predictable but it followed me across the country.
So as light fell and the farmer’s wife had not appeared I climbed in my tent and wondered if the other campers were now all huddled around a large bonfire wearing face paint whilst sacrificing one of the surplus children to the omnipresent god, John Deere.
I like to be able to dismantle my abode, pack and leave a campsite so quietly that the neighbours wake up to a shock that I’ve gone. I think my French neighbours will have scratched their heads when they surfaced. No such problem about Stupid O’Clock for the Swedes as they marched their brood to the washroom for calls of nature first thing.
I keep waking earlier and earlier and I’m now on the road between 7.15am and 8.00am. I also finish between 6pm and 7pm. These are long days with generally two breaks for 30 minutes or so.
Despite the site being rural in its setting I was soon in Salzburg city. Believe it or not I had cycled to Salzburg before. Around 18 years ago we had an organised family holiday (my wife and two young daughters) cycling in the foothills of the Alps on fairly flat routes. The ride was about 15 miles a day and the luggage was carried for us from gasthof to gasthof. We ended the trip in Salzburg and did all the tourist experiences such as a visit to the castle, Mozart’s birthplace, a ‘Sound of Music’ evening etc. It is a delightful place. Today I skirted it on the inner ring road, took some pictures and kept going west.
In fact I was soon over the border and into Germany. The traffic was busy on the main roads and my concentration was always intense to keep a straight line and not swerve into traffic approaching from behind. The road did not remain flat and whilst never mountainous then going up and down through the gears was a continuous job.
In a conversation with Anna she remembered well our visit to Chiemsee. This is a very large beautiful calm lake with steamers crossing it and bikini clad girls soaking up the rays on its banks. Her recollection, however, was less happy as apparently it was here that for reasons lost in the sands of time I chose one evening to try and keep pace downing Austrian lager with a much more talented drinker. Her memory told her that I was very ill before I went to bed and mine remembered feeling distinctly rough the next day as we pedalled off in search of apfelschorle and or ice cream for the children. (Only a woman would keep this transgression stored away!)
My friends, the ‘cycle paths’ returned. However they stopped and started regularly and often they were indirect and generally I preferred not to use them. The popped up in more offbeat rural areas (as in the photo below) and often on busier urban routes. However the volumes of cars meant that I often briefly used them to give the queue of traffic behind me an opportunity to get past.
In fact given my optimism that the brutal climbing was over then I had a rude awakening as I clambered up some unforgivable hills to get to a campsite on the side of a lake. It was a small site with mainly caravaners in transit. It was also close to a noisy motorway and the Danes, Dutch and Germans were stopping off on their drive to Croatia or Slovenia. The grass was mowed to the length of your front lawn and I had no complaints at €15. However the malarkey that you paid €0.50/3 minutes for the shower just seems plain mean and bureaucratic. As usual friendly Dutch were on hand with mallets and small coin change.
I think I zipped up the outside of the tent at 9pm and despite the hum of high speed traffic I was soon in the land of nod.
So how resuscitating was one day off the bike after 440 miles in 7 days? Well, I’m not sure that I was a ‘new man’ after that brief sojourn but it was nice to wake up and think I had a day off (with a stiff back). You also feel a little restored by having clean clothes and other things sorted. However, it was time to throw my leg across that top tube again and go.
Bernadette shook my hand vigorously, in a bloke sort of way, as I paid and departed. (The two boiled eggs at breakfast are to remain a secret in case others request them).
So now for the next mountain up to a ski resort. This was another 600 metre climb. Fortunately the air was chilly and refreshing due to the altitude and I ground up on the ‘granny gears’. As trucks were passing I knew the climb was not too steep. They don’t ‘do’ steep climbs. Eventually passing these girls with their bells I reached Obertauern.
It is a large resort but quite empty at this time of year. Nearly a ‘tumbleweed scenario’ with loads of construction taking place in the off season. I felt that I should celebrate by having my photo taken. However the euphoria may have been misplaced as there was plenty of climbing on other days to come.
Meanwhile just over the summit Nicholas came into view. He’d left France with a pal (up the hill apparently) and was en route to Istanbul. He had no phone with Apps or a map. I’d also guess that he wild camped most of the way here. He’ll get there but it could be a journey of hell. I brought out my awful school boy French, which in fairness wasn’t much worse than his English and we pored over my map. He’d had enough of mountains! Frankly he may have to dig deep. I’d also tried to warn another chap from Dresden about the Katschberg. His grinning face suggested that I was a fuss pot.
So I fell downwards into the heat. It was soon in the mid 30°C’s again. Burning and impossible to remain stationary in. My water consumption is immense. I always try and have a couple of litres on the bike. However when I stop an ice cold Coke is up there with a glass of Chateau Margaux or a pint of Timothy Taylor’s beer in terms of pleasure.
Funnily enough the number of cycle tourers exploded into double figures for the first time. All heading upwards whilst I mainly freewheeled down the long hill. Interestingly outside of Werfen, beside the road, in high viz jackets were two university undergraduates interviewing cycle tourers. They wanted information to go back to the town with. Werfen recognised this tourism cycled past their town and wanted a piece of it.
Lunch was at a roadside shed manned by some Bosnians. The curried bratwurst in a flatbread wrap with raw onions was sensational. I sent a photo to my Favourite Eldest in London for her authoritative assessment. She had spent a year in Berlin. Dismissive might be an understatement of her feedback! How these sophisticates move on…
Toward the valley floor that led to Salzburg the traffic picked up. Truly sharing the road again was not a pleasure. I stopped to do some research on my phone and found a campsite just east of the city.
I pitched my tent in a splendid field away from the caravans, motor homes and motorcycles. I was next to two French male millennials on their way to Klagenfurt (in Austria) for a wedding (in a Peugeot). I quizzed them on Emmanuel Macron and what they thought? One, being a socialist, didn’t like him and worried about his social and welfare changes. The other, more to the Centre, suggested that it was too soon to say. I noted how fabulous their English was and that they had the good manners when debating my questions between themselves to do it in English for my inclusion. Classy boys. On my other side were a family of 5 children with their parents from Sweden. They were beautifully behaved and the father needed a Transit van to ship them around and carry all the clobber.
So what did Austria offer? Just let me get a good night’s sleep first.
Bernadette had probably had a long day but the decision to offer a room at €54 had paid off and a booking had been made. Frankly, this was a slow summer in Mauterndorf. Hotels here made their money during the skiing season from November to April. They were also trying to cover overheads by filing rooms. But where was he? The internet booking said he’d arrive between 7 and 8pm and as he’d asked separately about storing a bicycle he was leaving it late given the darkness.
At about 8.20pm she rang his mobile but no reply. She had wanted to close Reception early. It was Sunday for heaven’s sake!
In fact her guest was, at this point careering down a 15% gradient hill in heavy drizzle minding to be careful on the part of the road surface that was being scarified and was grooved as road upgrades continued. His main worry was the failing light and whether when he got off this wretched mountain there would be more climbing before the hotel?
The day had started in rain and I’d thought about staying on at this convenient site an extra day as one of my ‘rest days’. However, every piece of clothing was wet or damp and so was the tent. Maybe it would dry during the day but cycling on a Sunday usually guarantees lighter traffic to contend with and certainly a lot fewer, if any, trucks.
So packing my bags out of the rain, by the washroom, was completed and I was off and up! As I left the campsite I was overtaken by a Fraulein on a bike going up hill. Hers was an electric bike. These are commonplace in Austria (and Germany). As soon as the price really becomes affordable in the UK we’ll be as keen as these Teutons. They sell a million in Europe every year. Using Sat Nav and my map I embarked on a route that looked steep. In fact I had to push the bike up hill for about a mile.
This was a shock and maybe indicated what was to come. I rationalised that I was on an important road as traffic seemed to flow past me – always an indication that the route is passable. At one point a VW van passed and then came back down the road and the driver shouted something to me in German. I grunted back. I think he was alluding to the impossibility of pedalling a laden touring bike to the top. Either this or “cheer up mate, there’s a defibrillator at the summit”.
Pushing – ignominious? Well yes, on some tours you may never have to contemplate this but on occasion there is such a long stretch (over 50 metres) that it is as quick as cycling. You look for an easing of the gradient so that you can get back on because when the slope starts to become passable then you’ll go a lot faster astride. I must admit that on an day’s ride of 7+ hours I consider how much energy I will use up by manfully pumping away up an impossible hill. Is it worth this loss? Also I’m increasingly minded that the load this puts on the bike’s chain and gears is intolerable and ultimately the bike will mechanically start to fail. Pushing is a seldom event but it’s an option.
I did reach the summit and plummeted down and eventually came to Spittal where I ate a hot meal. I had a 32 mile climb left. It looked a persistent drag uphill but achievable; then would come a rest day. After having done 440 miles, mainly uphill, for 7 consecutive days the boy was due a day off.
Despite my struggles the scenery was amazing. The backdrop of the mountains, sun, clear air and wooded vistas are peerless. The forests look so vibrant and imperious. This is why the folk were out and about. Motorcycles are popular and I found myself sharing the road with many brutally powerful machines. Funnily enough (!) I didn’t see another cycle tourer all day.
After Spittal I cycled up hill following an old ‘A’ road that had now been replaced by a motorway that was constructed above it. There were a few settlements and when you did pass pedestrians then in the best Austrian tradition you were ignored with a lofty disdain. The fact that you were visiting their country and spending money in their economy seemed to be an inconvenience. The slope was reasonable and progress was made, albeit, slowly.
Eventually I came to Rennweg (1143m) and I was now within about 10 miles of the finish. Surely after all that climbing then I was due a pleasing descent for a beer? A sign said Katschberg 6km and I knew this was not good news. The Katschberg is a mountain peak (1641m) with a ski resort on it. My route research had not indicated that it was a ‘mother’ of an ascent at 15%. I was tired now and started to push the bike hoping that around the corner the gradient would decrease and I could get back on. At this point of pushing a man came down the hill on a unicycle. This poor picture is a result of me slowly finding my iPhone to capture this lunatic. He must be on his holiday from a circus but I did admire his panache.
Anyway the majority of these 6km I simply pushed. The bike was in effect about at my shoulder level on this gradient. I pushed and I pushed. (The next day I was crunching paracetamol to try and ease a back that refused to bend). Despite my optimism that I was nearing the summit I knew that there was some way to go as cars came past smelling of burning brake dust – always a tell tale sign of steep roads where the motorists had to sit on the brakes to cope with the twists and turns downwards.
Frankly, this is an extreme illustration of how these tours can go despite all the research and preparation. You just need the fitness and a determination to see the job through. However, I don’t expect much sympathy for having got into this spot of bother.
Anyway, Bernadette was glad that I got there at 8.45pm and efficiently administered the booking and then no doubt went home to put up her feet. I was really pleased with the room and came back down and immediately booked two nights before she left. I never book two nights immediately anywhere even though I plan to stay longer in the town. I like to know it ‘works’ before committing. I showered and went in search of food.
The next morning included a leisurely all inclusive breakfast. I was seriously hobbled after the pushing and couldn’t bend to tie a shoe lace! I dried the tent on the balcony: this shocked my neighbour who was also out on the balcony having a cigarette. (The shock was me in my ‘budgie smugglers’. How was I to know the balconies adjoined?) I did all my washing, re-arranged the jumbled panniers and then strode into town.
Bernadette had given me a free pass to the castle and to a ski lift up the mountain. Frankly, I’d had enough of mountains but was interested in the castle.
This served as a toll gate for travellers/merchants moving goods between the North and South. Apparently wine was the major item. Inevitably the toll went to the church. The Archbishop in Salzburg had his man installed managing and counting it all. The first construction was in 1250. The exhibits were all about the occupants and their lives. There was an audio guide that told you everything in great detail. I liked the fact that they had a clothes box for the kids to try on outfits and so provided something for everyone.
It fell into disrepair at various times during it’s life and early in the 20th Century a doctor bought it. The man in question served with Herman Goering’s father during WW1. Anyway it became a bolt hole for Goering during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The doctor’s wife left it to him when she died in 1939. However, he never signed the land registry papers to confirm his ownership: he was too busy with genocide and the like. He never came back as he self administered poison in 1946 at the time of the Nuremberg trials.
After this I wondered around this beautiful town. It really is chocolate box pretty and tried to replace some lost waistline.
Then it was back to the hotel as I needed to clean the bike and try and get all the Croatian mud off the tent.
Later I fancied some authentic Austrian fayre:
Me: I’ll have the soup. What is it?
Ditzy Fraulein: Beef with noodles
Me: Thank you, I’ll have the soup and Wiener Schnitzel
DF: With rice or fries?
DF: The soup is only noodle and no beef
Me: No problem, that will be fine
DF: Here you go!
Me: Ah, that’s the Wiener Schnitzel. Where’s the soup?
DF: Ah, you’re right. Sorry I will take this back.
Me: No, don’t worry I’ll have it and you can bring the soup later.
DF: No, it is wrong. You must have the soup first.
DF: Here’s the soup!
(She was right this time but it was tepid. I ate it, life’s short)
The start was flat! I trundled through these small holdings watching as the villagers woke up, drove to work or sat in cafes sipping coffee. I cycled along the wide and beautiful Sava river. They could take their time, it was Saturday.
Soon I was past Kranj ruefully noting that all my Alpine routes were now side by side with flatter and more direct motorways. I started to climb and passed several cycle tourers freewheeling downhill on the other side of the road. Mine was a steady climb with occasional steep sections. All this was easier with some gears that now worked.
The temperature fell as I got higher and whilst never chilly it was the first time since I set off that I wasn’t being fried.
Up in the valley were some larger towns and Jesenice was one. A grubby and industrial town that had a large ironworks. This meant that movement of materials was by rail. Climbing past this was now about tourism and a dedicated cycle path that led up to the ski resort of Kranjska Gora. The views were now terrific with crystal clear rivers and steep backdrops of rock. I passed this monument that I think tells me about the murder of local partisans by the Slovenian fascists in WW2. An impactful tribute I think.
In my discussions with fellow tourer, Olly, in Croatia he talked of 18% climbs out of Austria into Slovenia and with a leaden heart I turned up the hill that advised such challenges lay ahead over 3 km. I bottled it after 100 metres and turned around. Plan B? Well there was another crossing further along that may be less steep. The only problem was that all signage indicated Italy was ahead but not Austria? However, I pushed on.
Lo and behold the Italian border came into view. Borders in the EU are sad derelict affairs with buildings that have literally fallen into disrepair. It would be better to remove these border buildings rather than let them rot. Rolling into Italy the road fell sharply.
I just thought that I would have to ascend again and like all cycle tourers dreaded descents as much as ascents because of the future implications. Eventually I fell into Tarvisio where I saw from on high a football match. I suspected this was a pre-season friendly because of all the substitutes, no crowd, black players and a proper referee. I climbed a little, went through another derelict border crossing and still kept falling. I was in Austria. Rejoice!
I planned to stop as soon as I could and identified a campsite. I found a supermarket and bought some ingredients to make an omelette including butter. It was hot and it would melt but I would be at the campsite shortly, wouldn’t I?
Despite the short distance I had the bill ‘presented’ for the easy border crossing and ground about 2 miles uphill at 8% whilst the butter in my rucksack was getting warmer. Eventually I pulled into a campsite full of the Dutch and handed across my €15.
I think there is a good piece of university research in the offing as to why the Dutch like sitting on deck chairs in foreign fields during July and August. (One forty something Dutch neighbour on the site later told me they came here every year. They’d done that for 23 years. How much of the world have they missed?) I can confirm that I did seek and obtain a ‘Dutch’ hammer no loud music or nudity were involved in the transaction.
It started to rain and so my cooking was a rushed affair. I decided to hang my washing in the public washroom although I was doubtful they would dry at all (they didn’t).
I took cover at the bar with a beer and a map to plot one of the biggest cycling cock ups of my recent adventures. I will never forget it.
(For these other adventures including cycling across and down the USA and other shorter jaunts then head over to my other website at Tony’s other bike rides
So let’s call her ‘Heidi’. She owned the campsite and didn’t take plastic for payment. No problem: she’d drive me to an ATM in the morning and I could get some Euros. The short drive proved illuminating for her conversation. She was a 50 something ‘blousy’ blond half German and half Austrian. She’d come to Slovenia 32 years ago on the arm of her new Slovenian husband. Her language skills, including swearing proficiently in English were learned in various places including Estonia.
Her family disapproved of her marrying beneath the family status and cut her adrift. It seemed she’d found her way subsequently. The drive included me getting some Euros but she was mainly en route to get bread for the campers’ breakfasts. We left at 7.50am prompt. Despite being her home then she despaired at many aspects of life in Slovenia. The Government were ineffective, the police let most things go unless they really had to intervene, the mentality of the people was always of living in an ‘occupied country’ and following other’s rules.
On this point she cited that Slovenia’s recent history was mostly as a colony of the Austrian Hungarian Empire who controlled it for all the 19th Century followed by a merge with Serbia and Croatia after WW1. Then came Tito and Yugoslavia after WW2. Now it was the European Union. On this point she said that the Euro had, in effect, raised prices but wages had remained the same. She said how could a qualified, say, teacher live on €1,000/ month? The Eurozone crisis always hurts the weakest and the smaller countries were badly affected. With only a population of 2 million then how could Slovenia have a meaningful influence in Brussels?
I have to say that that prices I experienced for food, accommodation etc were similar to the more prosperous West. Also it seemed ironic that this integration opened the door for German business. Lidl, OBI and other high street retailers were enjoying new markets where the € made trading easy.
In fact she said the main benefit of the EU was movement around Europe. However with some Schengen nations carrying out checks at some borders then that wasn’t as welcoming. So ‘Heidi’ had previously run a riding school and claimed that business fell off as the middle classes couldn’t now afford the lessons. She’d just opened a campsite and excellent bar and restaurant: clearly foreign tourists had less financial constraints and she’d identified a lack of competition for miles.
Maybe her story isn’t the complete truth but it is one of the pleasures of a trip that you get into these conversations. Richard from Uppsala (near Sweden) was cycling home. A Swede, who installed suspended ceilings for a living, appeared by his hippy look and lightweight touring approach to like to wander. He’d spent several months in the Far East including Thailand. He was now heading directly North via Germany and Poland.
I took an idyllic spot to camp but it was near a railway line that kept up a steady flow of goods trains during the night. After paying I departed to the nearest town to try and get the chain on the bike replaced. I load too much weight onto the drive train (luggage, me and bewilderingly steep climbs) and the chain had stretched so badly that finding a gear was a bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. I could not contemplate further climbing with this state of affairs. I found a shop in Postojna and wheeled the bike, with luggage, into the shop. I felt that doing this would indicate ‘I was on the road’ and it needed doing now. (In York bike remedials needed booking in some time in advance: I had places to go).
This was completed and I also said goodbye to the couple of tourers from the Basque Country that I’d been talking to. She had a very guttural accent and I didn’t understand what she said when I asked where she came from. Eventually I got it. “Oh Spain” I said. A look of thunder came across her face “No, Basque”. Point taken.
The countryside was rolling and the agriculture seemed to be small holdings. I was getting used to seeing coniferous trees again. The buildings all looked Alpine and flower boxes spilled over with colourful blooms. I was still staggered that in such a short distance from Croatia the terrain, architecture and climate could change so quickly.
So I cycled into Ljubljana and from a long way out a conurbation became evident. A quarter of the country’s population lives in or around the capital. The city has a communist look, unlike the rural areas, with many square and drab concrete tower blocks for residential accommodation. Graffiti is dreadful and evident all around the city. The reintroduction of beheading for such activity will stop it, I believe – something should be done.
On the way into the centre and all around the country the State has invested in cycle paths. It is at a high level and to complement this there are rental bikes placed handily at ‘stations’ around the city. I’m very ambivalent, as a tourer, about cycle paths. They undoubtedly encourage urban cycling and improve the fitness of those who use them. They can reduce motor congestion and pollution. However they are often indirect, very ‘stop start’, badly maintained and impose a route on you that you may not want to take!
The very centre is busy and attractive with all the major European retail chains there. Tourism abounds and I heard many North American voices on the streets. Low cost airlines ferry Brits here and I had previously heard complimentary things. I suspect I never got to the heart of its charm but I’d maintain it would take some extraction. After a look around I pedalled on to the North. The plan was to find a campsite before ascension into the Alps the next day.
Good old Google gave me a site near Kranj. It was raining lightly and quite dingy so I decide to pursue. Located beside a river I checked in at Reception. The young guy took my €12 and explained where I could pitch my tent: basically anywhere.
So I cycled down and came across music. A man was bashing out quite delightful melodies on an accordion. I stopped to enjoy that for a moment and made a mental note to get as faraway from him as possible! This meant another field lower down.
I pitched the tent and then went in search of a hammer to bash in the tent pegs. As usual a kindly Dutch couple helped. On returning the tool the man said “Do you realise that there is nudism in this field?” Taken aback and being garrulous I rambled on about the time when I was 12 years old I had canoed down the Ardeche river in France. This involved paddling through a nudist colony. A potentially educational experience for a child, you’’ll agree. However, it had been disappointing because the type of people who were naked. They would have been best hiding their excess flesh and wrinkles.
As I’m concluding this anecdote it came to me (I’m slow but reliable, I know) that this man and his wife were looking at me stony faced. Quick as a Croatian post mistress I worked out that these two were ordinarily naked in the field during the day and possibly fell into my group of unlovelies.
Being evening, and chilly, there wasn’t much nudity but I did espy a woman washing up naked. I shall raise this idea with my wife when I next see her. The next morning an awful lot of female flesh waddled toward the recycling bins. I was worried she might get whiplash injuries.
As for the accordion man well he and his cohort made a dreadful row until midnight. The accordion was drowned out by men who sang with passion and the tunelessness of a football crowd. It was dreadful and inconsiderate.
It was such a beautiful day as I saddled up and pedalled up and out of Karlobag. First I needed to buy some fruit and specifically bananas. They’re great for energy. At the start of each day I think through what I’d like to eat and a thing I never expected to ever say would have been that I would have been delighted to find a Subway. Just to get a simple sandwich and some crisps (chips) would have been fine.
The ride along the coast had yesterday been up and down but the traffic was light and some of the views dramatic. The views continued to delight but the climb was all up and the type and volume of traffic changed; became fast and furious. Small ferry stations (that connected the islands) were shipping cars, camper vans, trucks and motor cycles across. I think that because the vehicles had to wait for boarding, wait to cross the water and then wait to disembark it came to resemble the start of a Formula 1 GP when they eventually got off. On the single track road cars jockeyed for position to overtake and motorcycles just did it! I was caught up in all this.
I lost count of the number of stretches where a car would pop out behind a camper van/ bus/ truck and overtake. The only problem was that I was only 50 yards away on the other side of the narrow road. As they squeezed by at Mach 4 I would either indicate that they were mental by pointing at my temple or use another well known English hand gesture that suggested that they liked sex (by themselves). Senj came and I found a restaurant down a side alley out of the glaring sun and had a glorious lunch.
Back on the road then as we got further north and nearer to my campsite at Crikvenica trucks became very common. These trucks were mainly articulated (semi – trailer), which made space tight. I’ve said before that professional drivers do have brains and courtesy ordinarily and whilst they may kill you it won’t be through negligence! On one stretch the traffic halted behind a recovery vehicle and behind that was a crumpled 3 Series BMW and some other hot hatch. All the result of this race track mentality.
You may wonder about my communication with home? I usually speak with Anna everyday and then there is WhatsApp and text. However, I am also tagged and via ‘Find Friends’ (on our iPhones) Anna always know where I am.
By 5pm I was torched by the heat and pulled into a targeted campsite. The tent went up but I needed a hammer/mallet to put the tent pegs into the ground. I found a bunch of other Croatian campers chatting and started with the winning line of “Do you speak English?” A chap there couldn’t have been more helpful and he found another ‘resident’ with the said device. I have to say that the Croats were always kind, helpful and courteous, if not driving, and I never felt in danger during my time there. Also whilst I never tested this then I didn’t think that any theft or crime was likely.
So down to the sea to bathe my legs – the sea wasn’t very cold! Later I had some spaghetti and hit the sack.
Busy campsites on the coast possess children. (Anyone would think that they deserved a holiday by the seaside!) They make a noise running around and shouting late into the night whilst mother and father take that next glass of wine safe in the knowledge the campsite is sealed. This was noisy for a tired man trying attempting to fall asleep. Added to that was a distant cafe bar with a singer who murdered most covers of 1980’s American chart classics. Stevie Wonder would have sought litigation but in fairness Donna Summer would have maybe been less upset.
I’ve stopped mentioning other tourers. They are simply far too many to mention. They are mostly heading south to Greece. With this heat have you lost your minds? Personally I would like to visit Albania but not in July or August. Olly and Aaron, from Cornwall, two millennials got to the site at around 7.30pm. That is pushing it on a campsite on this busy coast. They had tales of a hellish ride from Slovenia to Croatia – not what I wanted to hear as I was doing the reverse trip the next day. They had wild camped in Slovenia for three nights, I think a shower and some restaurant food held a great attraction to them.
The next day saw me follow Google Maps and my Garmin route to Rijeka. It was convoluted and I’d done 400 metres by the time I cycled through this unattractive port. For the sake of completeness I thought I’d cycle through the pedestrian precinct with its shops and restaurants.
Here I discovered ‘Mecca’: my first McDonalds for hundreds of miles! I locked up the bike and took a photo.
To the right you can see an old boy. As I’m locking the bike up to facilitate a quick entry to the temple he kicks off in Croatian about something. Two younger guys nearby looked similarly nonplussed. They translated that by leaving my bike there I was undermining his access and egress. Pillock. He wasn’t even a customer but just taking a breather on a free seat! Being the nice guy I am (occasionally) I moved the bike and went in search of a McChicken meal.
On my return he’d left – no doubt his minders in white coats armed with a syringe had tracked him down and had shoved him into the back of a van sedated. However, no seats remained and so Ian gave up his seat and I got talking my him and Marko.
Ian’s parents spent six years in Australia and hence the name. Both chaps worked in a nursery (tomato plants not children) and they’d got up at 3.30 am to start a 230 km bike ride. Beyond epic. I had an interesting chat with Marko about why Croatia hadn’t joined the Euro. He wasn’t keen as he observed then all it did was put up prices. Eventually the boys had to go and so did I.
I then had to ride up 500 metres to a town call Viškovo. In the heat and with unspeakable gradients I did quite a lot of pushing. This hill was unreal and I’ve cycled enough to have some perspective. After this climb I still had another 100 metres upwards before the Slovenia border presented itself.
A few drops of rain fell as I was struggling up the last bit and just as I’m looking forward to a great photo opportunity at the border torrential rain fell (with thunder). Why always me? All I could do was take cover as rain bounced back up off the road for 30 minutes. However, no photos.
Despite ending with hail the sun quickly came out and I descended into my second country of the trip, Slovenia. The main thing I know about the country, apart from previously being part of Yugoslavia, was that the long suffering Melania Trump is a native. She certainly knows how to lay on a welcome!
Hills to climb were splendid easy gradients and all the buildings had an Austrian appearance with lots of small holdings. Industry also was evident with this chipboard mill.
What a difference, all green and alpine scenery. I pushed onto a previously researched campsite within a delightful setting. I got there at well after 7.30 pm, it looked like that laundry would have to wait!
I tried to confirm the BBC weather report (that there would be thunder and lightning that night and the following morning) with a local. The site manager said that it might rain the following afternoon. What did she know as at about 10.30pm an electric storm started (and lasted 90 minutes).
Yes, we’ve all seen or experienced thunder and lightning but this was new to me. Torrential rain, lightning such that I could have read a book and thunder worse than being in the mosh pit of a Motörhead concert. My little tent nearly took flight as I was buffeted. Fortunately I’d try to ‘seal down the hatches’ before attempting sleep before the storm. And I may have got damp but not wet, as moisture abounded. On one side the caravan had his awning trashed and on the other the camper moved furniture, a tent and two children (into a car he went to fetch from off the site) during the storm. This was irritating given that I was beside this operation in a little tent. Given the weather then the noises and shouts were similar to how I imagine it was on The Titanic.
The next morning I awoke to noisy Germans slamming car doors at 6.30am (don’t they teach this lot any manners at school?) and I eventually got up to survey my property. The main issue was mud and tree debris on the tent along with most things being sodden that were outward facing. So I started cleaning by mainly hosing stuff down away from the pitch. I needed a surface that was not earth and stones.
At just before 10am I hit the road. I saw a Post Office and much to my amazement remembered that I had postcards to post (this task had been delegated by the departing Anna a day or two before). Now the postal service and its outlets appear to be a social club rather than business and I queued patiently whilst various souls unloaded their tribulations to the post mistress. None of these issues had anything to do with posting anything. Eventually fearing that my continued presence would require shaving kit I just abandoned the task and got pedalling. (Fear not I did eventually find a P.O. and did the deed later).
The first task was to head east to find another coastline to ride up. This took me through an agricultural landscape with fruit trees and some vines. Also to be found, in the shade, in these small villagers were very elderly men sat wearing singlets ‘shooting the breeze’. If I had been closer and spoken Croatian then I am sure I’d have heard them saying that France’s Anton Griezmann’s gazelle like leap over an outstretched limb (that he never touched) and his subsequent tumble like a sack of potatoes falling from the moon had brought into question whether his mother was married at the time of his birth. (This gymnastic misdemeanour took place in the first half of the World Cup Final and the free kick led to France’s opening goal).
I cycled through one shelled town that had a monument to fallen Croatians during the 1993 war. Islam Grčki was original the final frontier of the old Ottoman Empire and more recently came to be a Serbian enclave. (There was no religious influence that I could see). Here the Serbs and Croats fought and several buildings still remained in ruins and abandoned. It was not typical of this part of the country.
I’m still fascinated that Croatians might have been threatened (or worse) by Serbia but would you shell and shoot long term local neighbours? I imagine prior to this bloody conflict some men worked together, their kids went to the same schools and the women shopped at the same shops…
I stopped at Posedarje for a pizza and coke after declining the opportunity to make a bungee jump. From here I pedalled up the coast road. It was hot yet the road was quite kind, albeit up and down. I cycled past resorts and campsites but in time the coast line became jagged and rocky. The road builders struggled to build anything passable on the low coast line to construct a road. This meant the road went up and then down quite severely. I was a hot and weary traveller at this time.
I’d research a campsite in Lukovo Sugarje but when I got to this hamlet I could find nothing. Even worse was descending on the road high above the coast to find the only way of getting back was by pushing. It was getting late but apart from wild camping then I had no options other than to push on to the next big town 13 miles further north. Light was falling and even the traffic and motorcycles seemed to stop.
I got to Karlobag at after 7 pm and it was quite a lively place. This was mainly due to it being a ferry port to one of the islands. I was bounced at one hotel and so I asked for advice of where I might stay? I was directed to the still open Tourist Information who suggested an apartment. Even better was that the young staff rang up the apartment and agreed the price (€50 or 370 Kuna).
So I met the landlady by the petrol station and her English was as awful as my German. However, her daughter was at hand with fabulous English (at this point I remembered my Favourite Youngest Daughter’s advice to speak English normally rather than enunciate every syllable slowly in such a way that I might use when conversing with a simpleton). Actually she worked in Austria, in a bank, but was back in Croatia with her husband and sprogs for a holiday.
Anyway I showered and then descended into town for some dinner. A happy end to the day.
So it felt like a pending examination. I had some butterflies about the upcoming distance, the hilly terrain, narrow roads (and impatient traffic), sweltering heat, weight on the bike (with luggage) and a slightly dodgy right knee. I’ve been here before but had some anxiety about the journey home before I started.
This had a lot to do with a 6 mile 400 metre climb shortly after leaving the apartment on a narrow mountain pass and wondering whether Croatia losing the World Cup Final had a bearing on how they’d drive the next morning. After a wonderful time on holiday in Croatia (and too briefly in Herzegovina) I left Anna and Sophie (wife and youngest daughter) in Kaštel Lukšić to the west of Split to pedal home. The route is simply heading north. Up through Croatia and then into Slovenia. After this there is the small matter of the Austrian Alps to overcome before the relative flat of Southern Germany before I push onto France. I think it may be around 1,500 miles before I walk through my home front door.
Having toured before, whether through Europe or the USA, you think you know what to carry, how far to ride each day and how your body will react. However the first hill is the acid test: I have a relatively lightweight bike with 28mm tyres on 32 spoke rims but the kind of weight on the back wheel that beggars belief. I know everything will get lighter as the days go by including me! As I’m carrying all the camping clobber I added a 33 tooth gear to the rear cassette – I hope I can go low enough.I like to push on, frankly travelling is always better than arriving. When cycling in new countries then predicting the impact of the terrain, heat and other aspects of your environment such as traffic, campsites, availability of water is the unknown. It’s the risk and yet the exciting part. I’ll be self contained and plan to camp as many nights I can. I’ve pored across maps and accommodation websites to plan it all but I know I’ll deviate as I get underway and new/other opportunities or challenges present themselves. The route will be my own and whilst I plan to camp then I won’t be wild/stealth camping. I need a daily shower!
So back to that hill. It was terrible! Grinding up at 4 mph whilst large trucks nearly stall as they arrive at your rear wheel on a 9% gradient. Trying to keep the bike moving in a straight line at this speed is a challenge I’ve faced many times. However despite leaving at just after 7 am I hit the hill in 27°C. At the top a mild euphoria gripped me knowing that it was over. There I immediately discovered two young German lads en route from Bonn to Greece. If you look at the first one’s rear pannier the red box: it contains McVitie’s Digestive biscuits. I’m also carrying a packet. Cycle tourers of the world unite!
They’d only been on the road for 5 kilometres that day and were wild camping. It’s illegal in Croatia but I suspect the Police were otherwise engaged last night.
So I still climbed after this epic first mountain but not as steeply. On my eventual descent into Šibenik I came across a very bedraggled Korean who’d been pushing his bike after despairing at the climbing. I had some the glad tidings to pass on to him: it was frankly a very long descent to the coast after he topped out on his current climb (and then completely flat to Split). He’d started in Venice and was headed to Istanbul. Respect, but I worry….
I was too early for lunch when I arrived in Šibenek and asked for oatmeal at a cafe. It was mainly yoghurt with fruit. Delicious but not appropriate fuel. From here it was along the Adriatic coast until Pakoštane. I have to admit that the heat did frazzle me and even after drinking two litres of water then I had no urge to visit the loo. (I was on the brink of getting severe cramp and so I just kept drinking at the tent).
Pakoštane is a small resort with some cafes, a beach and several campsites just along the shoreline. For 200 kuna (c$30) I got a pitch after being rejected at two other sites. I was expecting this price and it is about three times what I expect to pay in Austria, Germany and France. For this I got a stony pitch with lots of bits off the trees on the ground. I obviously didn’t need electricity and begrudgingly my landlady waived the 1€ for the intermittent wi-fi.
The tourists are mainly Germans. Add a few Dutch, Italians, Poles and Slovenians and you have a very strange mix for a Brit to be consorting with! English was not as widely spoken as further down the coast and my German extends to “zwei beire bitten”. Yes, I accept my ignorance but frankly who doesn’t speak English nowadays if they’re in business abroad?
I thought I’d cool off and let my legs enjoy some cold water. I went in the sea at the bottom of the site. I really cannot remember how long ago it was that I actually last went in the sea. I discovered it was salty. So my advice is keep it away from your mouth and eyes (no please don’t thank me).
What unfolded next was literally biblical but I’ll save that for Day 2.
Anna had been the architect of the Croatian and Bosnian holiday and she picked Makarska for the next two nights. Passage from Bosnia had its moments of tension with a border to cross. This led to the long lost excitement of having your passport stamped. At the Croatian border we passed through Passport Control to be faced next with Customs. This was a slow process. At the booth a nice middle aged lady asked “do you have any cigarettes or alcohol?” I quickly said “no”. On my mind was a large sealed box with a bike in the boot of the estate car. It only had a bike (in bits) in it but I really didn’t want to have it opened with the removal of tape and the spilling of loose pedals, a saddle etc. So when my first wife, thinking she was hilarious, chirped up that she had a can of beer I anticipated that Alsatians would be sniffing the wheel arches and crack troops would be dismantling the car nut by nut. Fortunately the Customs Officer recognised my wife’s comment as a joke and we were allowed to proceed.Makarska is on the Dalmatian coast, about 50 miles south of Split. It’s a resort town with a flourishing frontage of pebble beaches, restaurants, bars, endless sellers of beach balls, knock off replica football shirts and water sports. It was heaving. Without the crowds it would have been attractive with its marina and sparkling clear water.
Anna had visions of something a lot more elegant and charming in mind when she booked this interim stop before Split. (I shall be supervising her more closely in future).In high summer there were mainly Croatians holidaying but also lots of Czechs, Slovenians, Poles, Bosnians and then the usual limited sprinkling of Germans, Brits and Scandinavians. I imagine that the resort was a well known Iron Curtain destination from back in the day and still remains popular with those who can reach it by car. It has no rail or air links but doesn’t lack patronage. It’s on the sliver of coastline that is still toward the south of the country before the borders push back inland to Zagreb in the north. Behind the coast are a majestic line of grey and very sunlit mountains.I hated it.If I had had a young family who wanted to be in the water or teenagers/ young millennials who like to mooch about in very little, other than Ambre Solaire, and then danced on a houseboat to Euro Pop until the early hours it would have been unbeatable. I didn’t and you were left in the day with considerable crowds milling about in 34°C, (93°F) whooping and splashing about (regrettably enjoying themselves!) The ‘front’ was probably two miles long. As Anna observed, attempting to adjust my withering assessment, then we didn’t see any drunken behaviour. It appears these holiday makers enjoy, rather than abuse, a drink. Also all prices encouraging fell as you headed north away from Dubrovnik.At this point I must add that Croatians speak excellent English and it is the lingua franca. It is the default language for anyone who isn’t Croatian. Less impressive is the use of it as the language on every T Shirt. At this point you think that some student of Friends has got a source for buying Bangladeshi cotton wear and has a printing press. Gems such as “I used to care but now I know I don’t” and “I believe in me” are typical along with “WTF”.(I know they wouldn’t dare use the same acronym in Croatian for the shame they’d feel in trying to explain to their grand parents why they had put some profanity on a piece of clothing they wore).Our accommodation for two nights had a wonderful view, balcony and a helpful landlady but for 1,925 Kuna (£230 or $304) we got a badly equipped studio with a fold out double bed from IKEA. Even your teenage daughter’s friends would have complained about spending two nights sleeping on this back breaker. Our host had a job near Augsburg in Bavaria in a dental practise. This we learned as she collected the rent before departing 600 miles north. However, we could contact her on her mobile if we needed anything. We did and dutifully a sister arrived with a kettle and ice tray for the freezer box! All was not lost if I tell you the highlights included finding a replacement for my broken soap box and a seafood risotto in a quiet restaurant way off the front whilst watching France vs Belgium. It will not make my ‘50 Places To Visit Before You Die’ list. We were happy to pack up and head north as soon as we could.