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St Georgen im Gailtal to Mauterndorf – 56 miles & 1824 metres climbed

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.

One helluva guy…

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.

All riding electric MTB’s

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?

Me: Rice

Sometime later…

DF: The soup is only noodle and no beef

Me: No problem, that will be fine

Sometime later…

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.

Sometime later…

DF: Here’s the soup!

(She was right this time but it was tepid. I ate it, life’s short)

Sometime later…

DF: And here is the Schnitzel

(Again she was right but no rice just chips)

You can see my challenges over this last week.

Kranj, Slovenia to St Georgen im Gailtal, Austria – 69 miles & 1142 metres

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

Postojna to Kranj, Slovenia – 55 miles & 391 metres climbed

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!

Psychopath

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.

Karlobag to Crikvenica, Croatia (61 miles and 1069m) then Postanja, Slovenia (64 miles & 1697 metres climbed)

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.

Accommodation for the night (Anna’s perfect tent)

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.

Scenery becoming more green?

War memorial to the fallen against the ‘Fascists’

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.

This plant is an old friend. Chipboard and me go a long way back….

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!

Pakoštane to Karlobag, Croatia – 75 miles & 915 metres climbed

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.

Memorial to dead Croats killed in 1993

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.

On this main road there is a bungee jump ‘station’

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.

Split to Pakoštane, Croatia – 61 miles & 968 metres climbed

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….

Look at all that luggage!

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?

Fire up the barbie

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.

Makarska – Croatia

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 to stop me jumping in to join the class
How many people do you hate enough to do this to them?

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.

Bosnia Herzegovina – Mostar

So an early start to departing Lapad saw us heading along the narrow coast road to the airport. Last night was very much an early morning affair for the Croatians. They’d crept past the Russians in the Quarter Final of the World Cup on penalties. Celebrations continued well after we turned in. I’d like to think that as repayment for the music, cheering and flares that the coastal mosquitoes dined royally on the revellers. Lord knows Anna and I had been a very tasty starter.The airport chucked up a wondrous hire car – a new Opel Astra Estate with all the accessories you’d want. So after leaving the airport I pulled over and we programmed the Sat Nav and connected my mobile/cell to play my large music collection on the iPhone. The south of Bosnia Herzegovina is the Herzegovina part and is quite arid and mountainous. I was thrilled to get into some wide open spaces and was more thrilled to see some cycle tourers battling the terrain and heat as we trundled along the single lane road. Sunday traffic was light and apart from a few buses there were no large trucks delaying progress.Towns were few and far between as we drove the 80 miles to Mostar. Interestingly there were minarets as well as churches dotted around. At one petrol station we stopped for a coffee to discover that unsurprisingly they didn’t seem comfortable taking Croatian Kuna rather than their own Bosnian Marks. Anna, however, persisted and did obtain two expresso coffees for some Kuna, the change was in Bosnian Marks! The reality was that we had no idea whether we’d got a bargain or been ripped off.After some fabulous scenery we got to a very small busy city. Our hotel was in the old town yet as the Sat Nav guided us there there was a man walking in the middle of the road directing us into some car park he was controlling. As I didn’t slow down he lost the game of ‘chicken’ and we got to the centre and a nearer car park.The Hotel Kriva Cuprija was service itself. We were sat down with a cold drink and our bags put in the room. (Now remember our bags included a heavy suitcase with my camping gear in it!) At this point we were told that the hotel didn’t take credit or debit cards but only cash and not even Kuna. Joy. This was an introduction to a lesser economy and emerging nation.However we were soon out and about on the famous ‘Stari Most’ bridge and perambulating along the narrow streets with their endless tourists trinkets, restaurants and numerous sightseers. Mostar is the capital of the south of the country: the Herzegovina bit. (The Bosnia part has Sarajevo as its capital as well as the country itself). The ‘old town’ is the tourist trap and the rest is an attractive re-built city with six bridges across the River Neretva that splits it. The Ottoman Empire occupied the area for four centuries before the Austrian Hapsburg’s acquired it in 1878. (Hence the introduction of Islam in the Balkans). At this point the Austrians built a further five bridges – up until this point then the ‘Stari Most ‘bridge was the only way to cross the bridge after paying a toll. It has subsequent become a protected UNESCO World Heritage Centre site. Sadly this didn’t stop the Croatians bombing and destroying it in late 1993. Those pesky Croatians eh?The town has a large Muslim population and this seemed to attract international Muslim tourists. You obviously know this by the women wearing hajibs or burkas. In fact there is a large Saudi Arabian Consulate in the town. Our Walking Tour Guide the next day pointed out that Marriott were building a large hotel near the old town to cater for Arab tourism. It seems that the numerous lodging scattered around the town are not plush enough for Middle Eastern tourists.So we wandered about, took photos and returned to the hotel for dinner. The setting was blissful.

Anna enjoys company for dinner

After dinner we had another walk and by this time the old town was a sea of lights and restaurants doing excellent business. Being in the old town meant that we had a loud concert playing badly amplified Balkan Electronica (not a genre I recommend) until midnight. This seemed strange to have it punctuated by the ‘call to prayer’ from the local mosques. After 12 am we were allowed to sleep by revellers and worshippers.Next day after sorting out the local currency cash demands of the hotel we met the Walking Tour at The Spanish Square. So named and funded by the Spanish in memory of the 23 Spanish UN soldiers who died in the war. In the party were Americans, Australians, Danes, Pakistanis and us Yorkshire folk.The recent history was that Bosnia declared independence like other former Yugoslav countries in 1992. The Serbs within Bosnia rejected this event as they felt more allied to the neighbouring country (Serbia) rather than the Bosniaks (Muslims) and Bosnian Croats. War developed and the Serbs were repelled. The Bosniaks and Croats then fell out and another war took place. All this left thousands dead and the city badly destroyed. I do marvel that despite all this that life and integration takes places today. I suspect there is still considerable tension but as they say the past is a ‘different country’.Many nations have subsequently contributed to the town’s rebuilding. There are still several bombed out buildings to this day. The guide advised that many nations contributed €11m to rebuild the old bridge but the British didn’t. He did wryly wonder why, therefore, Prince Charles re-opened it! The ambience of the city is a little looser than an organised European city and by being outside of the EU it doesn’t suffer all the rules. People rode motor scooters without helmets and H&S isn’t a concept worrying road construction workers yet. On the streets there were some child beggars being managed by, I presume, Romany adults. On our walking tour a very precocious child joined the group and worked her way unproductively around the group with her hand out. It really wasn’t a disincentive to visit the city but it is worth noting that it is an industry happening on the margins.Needless to say this small nation of less than 4 million people aspires to join the European Union with its various credit lines and cash. Not least for the young is the opportunity to move within the zone. I’m sure it is only a matter of time.

Reluctantly we steered the Opel south. I will come back and regretted that we had had too little time in the country. I was intrigued.

Croatia? I suppose I had a mixtures of views prior to going based on the location, weather, geography and not least a fairly brutal recent history. Budget airlines have been going there for a long time and holidays in Yugoslavia were popular before the Iron Curtain fell apart. Belying the ‘former communist’ regime and package holiday persona then I knew Croatia to be expensive as they leveraged their attractive coast and guaranteed sun. It was in Dubrovnik.

Departing from Leeds Bradford Airport was unique this time. Leaving the house at just after 4.30am I donned only a T shirt! Even in early July then no one in Britain starts this early in the morning without a couple of layers unless you are happening to be leaving (sadly) a heatwave. The airport was bursting as folk took early flights to the sun. ‘Check In’ had long but contented queues with many girls in their summer finery and full make up. The blokes wore shorts and flip flops and were contemplating their first pint of the day when they got into the Terminal proper. Me? I was just busy shuffling a very heavy box crammed with a bicycle and other touring kit around the floor as we inched toward the ‘Check In’. (I was planning to nurse a heavy bike box around Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for 10 days before I emptied the contents, re-assembled the bike and then pedalled north to York. Anna declined the tandem option and will fly home from Split). Consumption of early morning alcohol (6 am) still amazes me as I cannot think of a worse way to start a further 17 or 18 hours of being awake. Yes, I know, age either brings wisdom or a lack of adventure! Frankly there will come a time when they stop allowing this.

The flight was a breeze and I bought a newspaper that I seldom buy, The Financial Times, which lasted me until Dubrovnik. The taxi met us and soon we were in a suburb called Lapad to the North West of Dubrovnik, on the coast. Anna had rented an apartment in a complex up what was a very steep hill – I counted 305 steps down to the bus which took us to the old town. It was just as well I did the counting on the way down as counting them during our ascension in 30° C heat may have interfered with my ability at mental arithmetic. Later during our stay then even the millennials were whinging about the climbing when we met them on the steps.The bus was cheap and easy to find to the old town and about 15 minutes away. We had some lunch before a walking tour in the late afternoon. Dubrovnik old town is a gem, small and easy on the eye in the bright Adriatic sunshine. The guide explained that in its heyday it was an independent republic until being conquered by the French and then absorbed by the Austrians in the 19th Century. The 20th Century events led to many changes. Latterly the town came under brief Serbian mortar fire in 1991 and this necessitated much rebuilding. A result of all this was that many residents left the old town and the permanent population has dwindled to about 500 from 5,000. The city became a tourist hotspot and is now home to many holiday apartments, hotels, touristy shops and restaurants. The locals make a lot of money out of this beautiful spot but don’t live here. The old city had been a fortress with walls and a moat. It had its own government,laws and navy. A walk around is sumptuous with its polished limestone pavements and narrow streets shielding you from the midday heat and sun. You jostle with the other visitors; not least the six cruise ships that moored up and disgorged their passengers for excursions.

The guide, a serious and articulate chap with splendid English, gave dramatic insights into the ‘Homeland War’, which seemed mainly to be about the heavily armed Serbians with the other Serbian diaspora of Yugoslavia attempting to keep the former Tito led country together by genocide and military might. A horrific and blood stained time.I always note on all these ‘history lessons’ what is included but also omitted. E.g. Croatia had an inglorious WW2 by becoming a Nazi client state. A fascist leader implemented anti-semitic policies, supporting the German efforts and fought a long running battle with the Partisans. This latter group, led by Tito, were supported by the Allies and Red Army and they eventually prevailed. At the end of the war they formed the new Government and transformed the politics to communism. They dealt with the inconvenient numbers of former Croation, Slovenian and Serbian fascists (who were repatriated after fleeing to Austria to surrender to the British) by shooting them and disposing of them in mass graves. A conservative estimate is that 70,000 but others calculate 200,000 perished this way.

I didn’t expect him to delve into all this but all this history contributes to the mentality, divides, journey and aspirations that now prevail. Dubrovnik is now a flourishing part of Croatia. Tourism accounts for 20% of the nation’s GDP at over $9 billion pa. Anna and I were happy to contribute.Back in Lapad things were exclusively geared for tourism with lots of accommodation, restaurants and sun bathing. It was attractive, secluded, well serviced and expensive!

Ideal transport for perverts

An evening meal of two main courses, desserts and two drinks came to £60 ($80). Haut cuisine it was not. I’ve been to many popular hotspots around the Mediterranean over the years and it always seems to be a succession of ‘new places to go to’. They have their time of great popularity and then fade. Will this be the price that Croatia will pay, as it builds new towns, roads, resorts, airport extensions etc but prices themselves out of the market? Once upon a time the Brits populated the Spanish coasts during summer, then it was Greece, Portugal, Malta, Cyprus and now Turkey. Cheap flights are the vital component and it now appears that Asia and North America can be available on exceptional deals. So is the advice to the Croatians to make money whilst you can or become an affordable established destination? I think human nature will make them take the money and not worry about the future.

Our next couple of days were about chillin’ and then football. The apartment was well appointed and the World Cup was available on TV in German. This worked well listening to the commentary on the BBC Radio App, although this operated 20 seconds behind the action on TV. On the Friday with the France vs Uruguay game you could up to date with goals scored by the enormous cheers from the bars at the bottom of the hill. (When Croatia played Russia you could hear the cheers and see the flares set off!).

So tomorrow we pick up the hire car and drive into Bosnia. Can’t wait.