Croatia

I’ve just washed my shorts for the first time since Salzberg, or possibly even since the start of the trip, I’m not quite sure. They’re the only pair I have so it’s not practical to wash them because it would mean wearing jeans when exploring the towns in the boiling heat.( Or walking around in a t shirt, boxer shorts and a camera round my neck.).

We are in a rare position of having time, good weather and the coast to play with. This magic triangle means we can dry all our washed clothes out whilst sitting on the beach all day with nothing but our swim clothes on. We are just outside Dubrovnik after spending two nights in a cheap apartment and exploring this beautiful old venician walled city. We weren’t able to take any photos for various reasons but it’s a spectacular little place.

Compared to cycling, it can sometimes be more exhausting when being tourists so after our two days off we decided to have two more days off from both cycling AND tourism. We left the apartment this morning, cycled 3k along the coast and found a lovely cheap campsite in which to spend our last two days in Croatia. It’s the earliest we’ve ever set up camp:10:30am.

Our arrival into Croatia via the steep slovenian mountains greeted us with a great thunderstorm so we found a dirt cheap apartment in which to dry off, cook (in a kitchen!!!!) and flake out for a day and a half before heading to the ever awaiting coast. Our exhausting 80k journey to the coast was executed in an afternoon of full-on sun and mountains. We were greeted with the misery of a busy coastal road at the horrible industrial eyesore of Rijeka.

Next to our campsite

Next to our campsite in Rijeka

Our Croatian Coast Dream was further shattered by the onset of another vicious storm. We also found roads that didn’t exist in real life that were present on our map and consequently ending up on a slip road of a motorway (not present on our map). We duly turned back. It was this day that I equated such series of forces and accumulated circumstance to the Gamemaker of Hunger Games, or the director on Trueman Show (or any authority figure in any dystopian society….Big Brother… God). The Gamemaker was testing our agility and determination to meet our dream by throwing a series of extreme forces at us. In those four hours I could hear the Gamemaker shouting his orders to the operators “SUN!” “MOUNTAIN!” “They made it to the coast?” “MOTORWAY!” “STORM!” “CRAPPY CAMPLESS PORT!” “They found a campsite?” “REMOVE THE RESTAURANTS!”. When we eventually found a restaurant, we had grilled fish and beer. It was amazing. That day was emotional.
It wasn’t until two days later that our dream was met and we found peace on the quiet island of Cres. The sun even came out the next day so we were able to finally swim after four days of being on the coast. Our dreams of hopping Croatia’s numerous islands were shortlived when we arrived onto Lošinj and told that the next ferry would be leaving in five days time. We weren’t too impressed with the Gamemaker at this point because he had also switched the sun off completely after only two days and replaced it with rain. Stranded on a rainy island! Luckily though, the next day he switched it back on for the remainder of the week where we were able to wild camp in the exquisite coastal path near Vel Lošinj, swim, relax and enjoy. Here’s a few photos of that, doesn’t it look exquisite?

Swimming near Vel Lošinj

Swimming near Vel Lošinj

Swimming near Vel Lošinj

Leaving our spot near Vel Lošinj

Leaving our spot near Vel Lošinj

We left via ferry to Zadar where we performed our first night-ride because the boat got in at 2300. The next day we were treated to lunch by Bryan whom we had met on the ferry the previous day. In almost Christ-like behaviour, he fed us fish from an excellent restaurant in the back streets of Zadar’s old town. Perhaps one of the best fish meals I have ever had. Did we mention that we love north Americans’ instrinsic hospitality? Fuelled by my jealousy of Carmen’s read of Andrew Marr’s History of the World, we stopped off at the book shop for some light reading of my own, “The Fall of Yugoslavia”. We started a late afternoon ride down the mainland coastline towards Split. This part of the coast was fantastic, modest and seemingly barely affected by tourism. We found our first back-to-basics campsite here. No frills, cheap and friendly. Much better than the Campervan Sleeping Institutions with which we had been used to thus far. (I feel bad for previously accusing Germany of inventing them; turns out they’re the status-quo of camping everywhere so far.)

Lunching on pier at Mali Lošinj before getting the ferry

Lunching on pier at Mali Lošinj before getting the ferry

Korčula island

Korčula island

The small quaint medieval-looking hamlets around Kastela were an absolute delight as we approached Split. But Split was crap, at least arriving by bicycle, it’s crap. Another emotional turmoil saw us fight back The Gamemaker by taking the first ferry to Korcula island in order to cheat the coastline, with Dubrovnik in mind as a destination. From Korcula we would get the ferry to Peljesac island (actually a peninsular) and back to mainland. These two islands were great and full of quiet coastal delights. More lovely quiet, cheap and friendly campsites greeted us, one of which was run by an old Croatian married to an Aussie Sheila called Shelly, who told me that during the 91-95 war (she has been living there for 27 years) the island was cut off completely from travel and supplies. She wanted to return to Australia but physically could not.

We have also discovered the forces which test each of us. Mine is full-on-sun on a steep climb. Carmen’s is gravel tracks on hills. They will break us physically and emotionally, though not without putting us back together again in one piece after a couple of hours. Peljesac was where we were met with a 4k stretch of hardcore costal hilly gravel track. I ploughed through it fairly uneventfully and I dare say, with a bit of enjoyment. The opposite was definitely true for Carmen. For me it was the Wurzenpass that destroyed me.

At this point I would normally sign off the blog by saying something like

“recharged and ready, we now have a nice 6 weeks of easy-paced cycling to reach Bulgaria where Carmen’s parents will await us, (hopefully with the similar Christ-like behaviour demonstrated by our American friends?) Although sad to be leaving the coast, we are very excited to meander through Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. We really can’t wait!”

But it would be a shame to not mention Miguel. Miguel gets his own section. In fact I am even going to start the next paragraph with an indent, the equivalent of a sub-narrative if you will, or in video editing terms, anamorphic letterboxing. Sorry Bryan for giving you neither a paragraph nor an indent, but this guy was way out there.

We often attract the attention of various people who will strike up conversation with us. Some of these people are incredible bundles of energy, whose combined oscillation would shatter the world apart. An 80 year old german guy stopped on his tracks once while we were lunching on a beach in Croatia. “Woouw wouw wouw wouw” he exclaimed as he backtracked after having cycled past and noticing last minute our loaded bikes. He began a machine gun line of friendly questions which we duly answered in our bad german. “80k pro tag aber wir sind sehr erm…heavy” etc. Ten minutes later our goodbyes were accompanied by an invite to send him an email with simply a photo of us once arrived in Malaysia. These little exchanges are great and can tickle us. But our exchange with Miguel though was unprecedented on this trip.

As we sat on the coastal path behind Dubrovnik city’s wall enjoying the sun and swim, my eye met with that of a young chap in his early 20s wearing a hat, Hawaian shirt and a backpack. He seemed to have been walking towards us anyway but a brief smile to him may have sealed the deal that he would definitely sit next to us. He slung down his backpack on the stone next to us, pointed to our barbag map holder and said

“ahh cyclists! Where are you going? If you want I can show you some of the places I’ve been to, you might find it useful”.

To be honest it’s annoying when people start looking at the map and try to give us advice but actually he turned out to be very knowledgable of the roads we were about to conquer. He hitchiked and walked from his home in Estonia and had just arrived into Dubrovnik and headed straight to where we happened to be sitting.

He claimed to sleep under the stars every night, sometimes in churches. Mosquitos are of no consequence to him, for he is in direct touch with nature, thus immune to its perils. He met a lovely couple in Albania who offered him a threesome which was a step too far for him because, although he would have given her one, he didn’t have such extra-curricular materialistic needs beyond that of the love of two people. “Thinking about ditching the shoes soon too actually” he fitted in very quickly before spontaneously, for reasons perhaps beknown to himself, launching into a songlet; singing happy words sporadically about a slow beat produced by his mouth and ending on a big grin as if to say “do you know what I mean?”

The kid didn’t stop talking, his energy wore us out after these first 4 minutes. Luckily we were able to recharge because all the while he had been talking/singing thus far, he was stripping off into his boxers in order to go for a swim. He revealed a very healthy tanned and toned body, with a cross about his neck and the face-and-glasses-combo of Harry Potter. We observed him sort-of chat up a girl very briefly before diving in elegantly and perform a perfect butterfly full of energy which lasted for a few laps. Outside the realms of the swimming pools where people swim to get fit and become swimmers, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stong swimmer.

After this second 3 minute performance he exited via the shower, returned to us and declared that in fact, the chlorine in the taps makes him feel less clean. He dived back into the sea and performed a very fast and beautiful crawl for a few more laps. Came back out “ahh that’s better” and launched into a third performance which went something like this:

Carmen, noticing a stick sticking out of his backpack: ” is that a flute?”
Miguel: “yeah, it’s a Hungarian flute thing, I’ve been playing it for two weeks now, I’m not that great but I’ll show you” and then played this lovely song on the flute, with little hints of subtle beat boxing as he did so. He was quite good. As he dried off with his blanket, which presumably he also used to keep himself warm whilst sleeping under the stars and in the churches, he revealed that he gives music therapy. He also admitted that English not being his first language, his lyrics consisted mostly of primitive and earthly words. “Sun” ” love” “god” featured heavily in his repertoire of spontaneous songs. I wondered what kind of lyrics Estonians would be treated to. I wasn’t really following his chat by then but somewhere after some songlets and his own brand of conversation, as he was threatening to depart, he said that he’d be happy to arrange to meet somewhere or simply allow our paths to naturally cross.
“Or I could do a quick therapy session now?”, which obviously brought my conscious back into the conversation thingy we were having.
“Go for it”, I encouraged him without hesitation, intrigued as to what this final act of his theatre would be.

He had us sit upright with our eyes closed and placed an object on each of mine and Carmen’s lap that we held. He launched into another song accompanied by the unidentified musical objects on our laps that he played. The sound emitted from them was stunning and completely arrested our minds. We were very self-aware and conscious of the 100 people in our immediate vicinity. My cynicism stole much of the positive energy throughout what was actually a beautiful ten minute performance, and I squinted my eyes open slightly trying to catch a peripheral glance at our bar bags and their valuable contents located behind us. I also used the opportunity to ponder whether he had simply brought up his Albanian cultural experience as a prelude for further things with us; with this last performance being the hypnotic seal.

With our barbags and groins intact, we were afterwards treated to look and play with his instruments: they were gas tank drums. Invented in 2006, people have started making their own DIY versions using domestic gas tanks sawn in half with carefully perforated slots to produce half a dozen notes tuned in harmony. Miguel played each drum with each of his hands rhythmically and melodically (accompanied by his earthly lyrics). You can see two being played excellently here. And here.

Miguel’s performance was almost as good as this.

Despite how I may have made it sound, there was not an ounce of arrogance nor pretence about Miguel, he was a very, very loveable character. As he departed our company we introduced each other by name and he left, fully clothed with his backpack of drums, hat and charisma. Here is a bad photo of that moment.

Miguel from Estonia: reinventing living

Miguel from Estonia: reinventing living

We exchanged no method of contact. I instantly wished I could be in touch with him as I quite like the idea of one day spending 3 minutes with him. I’m off to be as cool as him and attempt a truce with Mosquitos.


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Sitting out the storm on our first day in Croatia. First of many storms to come.

Sitting out the storm on our first day in Croatia. First of many storms to come.

 

Remote village on Korcula island

Remote village on Korcula island

 

An evening by a campsite on Korcula island

An evening by a campsite on Korcula island

 

Arty shot of Dubrovnik, ennit?

Arty shot of Dubrovnik, ennit?

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Austria, Slovenia

Saying goodbye to the money-spinning face of Mozart in Salzburg, we decided it was time to face the fear that had been looming over us for over a week- the Alps. The first two days of Austrian cycling were actually easy enough, following cycle paths through valleys, usually along the riverside. (Austria is like the red carpet for cyclists- well signed cycle paths that make it pretty impossible to get lost, as we frequently did in Germany, and mountain passes on minor roads, meaning we hardly came face to face with cars the whole time we were in the country). I fell in love with the alpine houses, with their wooden exteriors and triangular roofs with wooden icicles built into the guttering (I always wondered how the icicles shaped so perfectly and evenly off the roofs in the snow- I didn’t realise they cheated)!

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We spent our second evening with a fellow pair of cycle tourers in the town of Schladming- Christian and Andrea. They own a really lovely cafe there called Artisan, and invited us into their home for a delicious meal and evening of good company. I had fun playing with their baby girl, Antonia, but unfortunately she was too scared of Joe’s new beard to go anywhere near him.

It was good to have a bed to sleep in so we could gather our strength for the tough section of the Alps, beginning with the Solkpass- 1788m high, 1000m climb over a 20k distance. Sounds easy really- just persistence, until you take into consideration the steep switchbacks at the end (my ‘mountain’ playlist on the iPod really helped to keep my legs going). It really was awe inspiring to see the snow capped mountains getting closer and closer, until there were actually patches of snow around us as we cycled. The scenery became more and more surreal- so quiet, with icy streams in all directions and walls of rock and ice everywhere. Eventually our road was lined with walls of snow as we began the switchback climb. It was definitely worth the pain, although the twenty minute descent made a mockery of the three and a half hour climb.

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Snow looming ever closer

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Finally at at the top

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Full-on snow! (First chance to model the beard-warmer- a handy going away present from my friends Emma and James).

Our next day incorporated another pass, but only 1,400m this time, and definitely not as steep, so we managed to make it all the way to Lake Ossiach. We assumed the final day would be easy- the Wurzenpass leading to the Slovenian border crossing was only 1000m altitude…surely our legs were up to the challenge?

It turned out to be the hardest day of the Alps so far. Although not as high, the climb only lasted about 5k. It was hard enough in the blazing sun until we turned a corner and were faced with a sign warning us of an 18% incline. The sight of this in real terms was horrifying. It looked physically impossible. Joe decided on pushing, but I thought pushing was probably harder as my arms are even weaker than my legs, so managed to pedal it by stopping every 10m or so for a long, panting rest. I think we only survived thanks to Joe’s genius idea of soaking our headscarves (or ‘buffs’ if you want to use the official term) in a cold stream so they dripped cool water onto our heads. Austria definitely doesn’t want you to leave. Never have we had to work so hard for a border crossing…

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The descent made it all worthwhile. Or first few hours of Slovenia were breathtaking, with Razor (best named Alp so far) looming over us the whole way down. A brilliant cycle path led us all the way along the valley, beside a bright blue alpine stream and through forests. We thought it was too good to be true. Turns out it was- Slovenia is still in the process of building it’s cycle network and the path went as far as Dovie, where we camped that night. The minor roads can be pretty good though, although inconsistent- tarmac one minute and potholed and stony the next. We really noticed the difference the next day in a village where they had decided to dig up the road, presumably to improve it. Rather than digging up half and leaving the other half for use, and then switching, they decided it would be a much better option to dig up the entire road and let people drive across the piles of stones and potholes as they work on it…makes sense…? No surprises that Joe had his first puncture on day two of Slovenia.

We decided we needed a break after our Alpine mission and had an evening and a long morning relaxing by Lake Bled. What better start to a day than swimming in the bright blue water, with the Julian alps looming overhead, out to Bled island and it’s 15th century church with steps leading right down to the lake’s surface? (Unfortunately we were too scantily clad in our swimwear to attempt to go inside). The lake itself seems completely unspoilt, with no motorboats allowed; only rowing boats going to and from the island.

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Eventually we forced ourselves to leave and pedalled away into the late afternoon sun and into the rolling hills of Slovenia. Heading south through this country has been, for me, some of the most relaxing cycling yet. Still extremely hilly, although the panoramic views make every climb worthwhile. For example, this was the view that greeted us the next morning after wild camping in a forest on the top of a very long hill:

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What could be more relaxing than meandering between quiet villages, each with its own church on a hill, with red carnations decorating every house window?

We’ve developed a new method for cycling now, as it’s finally stopped being rainy and cold and is all of a sudden boiling sun everyday. Now we make sure we rest out of the sun between midday and two pm to avoid the heat as it’s really difficult to cycle in (Joe uses the time to snooze, of course, and I read) and then we cycle later into the evening when it’s cooler. It’s also really easy to wild camp in Slovenia, as there is so much space, so we’ve managed quite a few successive free nights in forests, which is satisfying.

Yesterday we crossed the border into Croatia, after stopping first thing for an iced coffee after our forest camp, to refresh us ready for the day of climbing ahead. What we didn’t realise was the coffee was laced with a strong alcohol, which we discovered only after getting to the end! When we asked the cafe owner, he proudly declared it was a mixture of not only rum but a local schnapps as well! What better drink could you choose at 9.30 in the morning before cycling up a very large hill in the heat? Oops.

It didn’t seem to do us any harm however and we made it to Croatia in one piece, saying goodbye to the Euro as we passed through the (policed) checkpoint. Things are noticeably cheaper here (at least in the north, before we hit the tourist-populated coast) and thanks to a well timed storm at the top of a mountain, we decided to treat ourselves to the first apartment we’ve been able to afford. Works out as the equivalent of £12 between us for basically a whole flat with kitchen, bathroom, living room etc, free internet, free tea(!)..cheaper than most campsites we’ve come across in the other European countries! Feeling a bit giddy with luxury this evening- it really is nice to have shower after three nights of forest camping and washing in icy cold streams!

Now we head for the coast, and summer!

 

New pics

We’ve just arrived at a campsite about 30k into Slovenia after three days of mountains. We are shattered and looking forward to spending a day resting by lake Bled. In thr meantime, check out latest photos on Flikr, accessible from the sidebar anywhere on our site.

Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany

We are four weeks into our journey so far. It feels like months. Not because we’ve been having a bad time of course but because time seems to take on another form when you are sleeping somewhere different each night, with a changing backdrop as well as constantly meeting new people.

We have just crossed into our sixth country, Austria, where we are taking a day off from cycling by chilling out in Salzburg with Mozart’s face all over the place. Our second day off since we began our trip in fact. It feels good to do nothing.

Wild camping in Belgian forests was fantastic, a lovely scenic backdrop followed us all the way and it felt easy. We don’t remember too much about this lovely country because it was over fairly quickly. Oh yeah, this friendly beardy Belgian guy made us an amazing sandwich.

Stealth camping in Belgium

Stealth camping in Belgium

After two weeks of straight cycling, We took a much needed holiday in the linguistic utopia of The Grand Dutchy of Luxembourg. The capital city has the distinctive quirk of having upper and lower parts, accessible via a lift or the steep hills to get in and out of the valley. Everything here is deluxe indeed.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg

 

Luxembourg. Had a few beers sitting here

Luxembourg. Had a few beers sitting here

 

Luxembourg border with Saarland, Germany in background

Luxembourg border with Saarland, Germany in background

We then spent two weeks in Germany, entering from a stunning hilltop at the Luxembourg border into the delightful Saarland, which appears to be one of Germany’s smallest of provinces. We instantly found Germany to be well equipped for cyclists; a network of Tarmac paths, cycle shops everywhere, Fahrrad this, Fahrrad that. On the first day we were presented with a riverside main road which had been closed off for cyclists for the day, stretching for some 30km.

Its cycling networks were as friendly as the cyclists themselves; it was not possible to map-check for a few seconds without being seen by another 2wheeled citizen and being asked if we needed any assistance. This behaviour followed us through Germany and helped us out on many occasions including the time when a dozen senior citizens became our convoy to the nearest campsite one evening by the Rhine valley. My rusty german listening skills told me that they once did a 1500k trip! Either that or they were 1500 years old?

I had to avoid German supermarkets in fear of exiting with a pile of food too heavy to fit about our 10 panniers. They are great, especially the one called Rewe because it looks like my surname. I made Carmen do the food shopping most of the time in order regulate our expenses.

Apart from the copious daily amounts of chocolate and cheese and bread and crisps and bratwurst and we’ve actually been eating very well. Our favourite meals include:
Courgette and garlic pasta
Dhal with self made chapatti breads
Fried gnocchi (thanks to our warm showers host Sebastian by Bodensee!)
Steak, salad, fried onions, red wine and cheese

After stocking up in Salzburg

After stocking up in Salzburg

We also make fresh coffee every morning, without using a filter! Our little unleaded petrol stove is brilliant. I’ve refilled it thrice since we left, which equates to a monthly gas bill of €3.

Unlike our rent, which was around €300 for Germany alone. Germans look away now.

Yes, Germans seem to have reinvented camping. Just a patch of grass and a bit of water is not possible to find. Unfortunately for us, these two luxuries are invariably accompanied with:
Automatic sliding doors
Fancy Dyson futuristic hand dryers
Onsite bars, restaurants and bakeries
Electronic fob entry passes
Grotesquely huge camper vans (which were often permanent installations)

Taking into account theses luxuries, €20+ seems quite reasonable I suppose but i did wonder if Germany has the equivalent of a no-thrills campsite. Actually, I remember Spain and Holland being the same. Campervans have hijacked camping and the tents have all gone.

Lindau island

Lindau island

Wild camping was pretty tricky here too, we spent a lot of our time around hills so finding a plateau wasn’t easy. There isnt much disused land here; probably why wild camping is illegal. After stopping for a coffee in Wank one day and watching the Wankers going about their daily business, we pushed pushed our bikes up a very steep hill (out of sheer desperation of rent costs) and almost immediately the sky opened to a torrent of rain. Bless our little waterproof hybrid merino wool, polyester and cotton socks. After about an hour, exhausted wet and emotional, we set up camp on an incline, slept like crap and decided that €20+, Automatic sliding doors, fancy Dyson futuristic hand dryers, onsite bars, restaurants and bakeries, electronic fob entry passes and grotesquely huge camper vans were a great idea and that we’d simply bite the bullet for the rest of €-land. Even though wifi is never included. Death to the Euro. Europe is bloody expensive.

We exited the great republic via six days of hilly, picturesque and wet Bavaria, complete with little villages and villagers sporting traditional dress.

Markt Neubeurn

Markt Neubeurn

Somewhere in Bavaria north east of Bodensee

Somewhere in Bavaria north east of Bodensee

Neuschwanstein castle,Fussen. Stunning. Google images does it better justice. Plenty of great castles in Germany.

Neuschwanstein castle,Fussen. Stunning. Google images does it better justice. Plenty of great castles in Germany.

It felt good to be moving east-bound, away from the linguistic comfort of France which had followed us as we tickled the border descending into Germany. At one point we took a wrong turn, accidentally descended the steep hill we had just climbed, ended up by a stream, pretty much in a german family’s garden as they were lunching. Unsure whether or not we were trespassing we crossed their little footbridge and found ourselves in a French field,pushing our bikes out of marshland for the next 30minutes still in view of the german family across the border 30metres away. We spent the rest of that day in and out of the two countries and as we camped up in France I found myself wondering about the history of the area as we entered Ligne Maginot military areas.

All warmshowers hosts have been wonderful too,including Joe (great name) and his flatmate as well as Sebastian and all his friends. It’s great to break up our time with these fantastic social interludes. We even got stopped by a Floridian cyclist who took us in on a cold and wet day, gave us a bed and took us out for a meal. Amazing!

We spent this morning planning the route through the alps down to the T. The most difficult part of the path will probably be the 20k incline of 1000metres at Solkpass reaching 1790 metres. Not quite sure what all the fuss is about cycling through the Alps nor why there is a disturbingly low number of cycle routes present at http://www.cyclingthealps.com on our chosen pass.

We’re geared and ready.

 

 

Somewhere.

Somewhere.

Salzburg.Always good to bump into family. Max Rogers wearing Tommy Hilfiger suit. Joe Crewe in Jack Wolfskin and Berghaus.

Salzburg.Always good to bump into family. Max Rogers wearing Tommy Hilfiger suit. Joe Crewe in Jack Wolfskin and Berghaus.