#11 Croatia By Bus: Opatija to Opatija,
August 30 - Sept 16, 2007
Arriving in Northwestern Croatia
Opatija, the Adriatic Sea resort town where we'd spend our first night in Croatia, wasn't far once we cruised across the parched, rocky border between Slovenia and Croatia. We slowly descended the low inland mountains and wound our way towards the seaside on a quiet back road. We'd been there before and knew better than to look for lodging in the nearby larger port city of Rijeka, as it was all but devoid of accommodations. Opatija was the place to stay in the area and after a night or 2 there, we'd ride south along the scenic coast of Croatia towards ancient Dubrovnik.
But my pedaling efforts up the short, steep hill to our lodging was accompanied
by that nasty
crunching and slipping of gears I thought we'd left behind in Bovec, Slovenia
a week earlier. It was especially tense
when a bus rumbled alongside me on the narrow road: I wondered if my gears would engage with the next stroke.
If they didn't engage, I knew
I'd dump over on the pavement because of the complete absence of power transfer from my
pedals to the wheels.
My companion-mechanic instantly declared my pedaling problem a repair crisis. It wasn't really slipping gears as it felt but my rear hub going out--a problem we thought we had fixed by removing the worn-out grease. But the rear hub hadn't been perfect after servicing, even though we kept hoping it would "settle in" given the recently installed new chain in addition to the hub work.
A trip to a bike shop in Rijeka later that day had Bill walking back to our room with his plastic pill box partially filled with about a half teaspoon of light oil. He hoped that the heavier oil we used a week earlier was causing the hub malfunction. Unfortunately, when he opened the hub in better light than had been available at the Bovec mechanic's workbench, he could clearly see that my hub was damaged. Both the pawls and the ratchet ring with which the pawls engaged were visibly worn: sharp edges were now rounded, rounded surfaces had flat spots. Spinning the wheel in his hands was enough to reveal how much it had degraded in the last week.
A Sudden Change in Plans
My bike was declared un-ridable and relegated to luggage cart status until a new hub was installed. A flurry of options flew out, with the most sensible scenario being to buy a new hub in Rijeka and have my wheel rebuilt. But as the evening of problem-solving unfolded, our preferred plan of making a repair of my expensive hub became possible.
After being greeted by an answering machine on his first few attempts, Bill was finally able to speak with a technician at the "Phil Woods" specialty bike parts manufacturer in California. The mechanic said the mileage alone was enough to tell him that my rear hub was shot. Once again, our touring life had pushed parts over their edge--parts that we were told would last forever had failed. Bill carefully spelled the names of a string of regional cities that the mechanic had never heard of as the mechanic expected to locate a repair shop for us to visit.
The plan was for the Phil Woods mechanic to find a shop in Europe that could make the repair. He would then mail the hub parts to the shop and we'd arrive at that shop after the parts were delivered. It would mean a day or more of train travel, perhaps as far north as Vienna, for the 10 minute parts installation. Nonetheless, it was an exciting prospect. The effort would retain the more durable Phil Woods parts in my hub and eliminate the basket of uncertainty that would accompany a new, lower quality wheel assembled by a local mechanic.
Unfortunately, the California mechanic had been overly optimistic and he
found no suitable shop in Europe. His "Plan B" was to mail the parts to us, along with a
necessary tool, and Bill would do the installation. Bill had both the experience
and the confidence to make the repair as he had assembled our first pair of touring
bikes with these same hubs. Amazingly, the high-quality pawls and new ratchet
ring were free--we'd only be paying for the
We went to bed that night hatching a plan that revolved around solving 2 more problems in the morning. First, we needed to locate a business willing to receive our parts package--an operation with a staffed desk unlike our current private room accommodations. The second piece of the plan would be asking our current hostess to hold our bikes and much of our luggage for up to 2 weeks with the promise of several additional nights stay upon our return. If we could line-up a place to receive the package and a place to stash our stuff, then we'd be free to make a 10 day to 2 week bus tour of Croatia while the bike parts made their way from California to Portland for shipping on to us in Croatia by Bill's sister.
Opatija is a sought-after holiday destination because it is ideal for spending one or more weeks immersed in the beach and nightlife scene, but that never has been a draw for us. For us, Opatija was only an attractive place to pass through, not to linger in. So Bill had to switch hats from being a mechanic in crisis mode to being Map Man in crisis mode. His well-crafted 2 week biking plan was instantly put on hold and now we needed a replacement plan in the next 24 hours, one that was a flexible, 2 week bus tour.
Plan B for Croatia
Bill puts in the long hours doing all the research and planning for our routes; my role in planning is generally limited to generating a single bright idea when he gets stuck. After providing the "of course" new option, he takes over again and fills in all the hard details. Beats me why I've gotten away with this for 7 years of touring, but it worked once again in Opatija.
Map Man was tied up in knots in Opatija so it was my turn--I needed to provide a centerpiece for a new, flexible, route plan that we could implement the next morning. I remembered Bill's whining and stewing about how cumbersome it was for us to access one of Croatia's raved-about, inland national parks. Being removed from the planning details, it was easy to see that taking a bus to this park that we were on the verge of missing for our 4th time in Croatia would be the "making lemonade out of lemons" plan for the bike failure situation.
It worked like a charm: Bill latched on to the park as the primary destination and hiking as the theme for a new trip plan and I was off the hook again. He quickly came up with an itinerary and the next evening we'd be settling in at a hotel next to the inland park. We'd spend a few days at the national park, then hop another bus for the city of Zadar, and then it would be on to a coastal national park. We'd check the progress of our package and adjust the length of stay at each of 3 stops so as to arrive back in Opatija about the time our parts were expected.
We loaded our day-hike backpacks and a pair of overflow bags with just the essentials: toiletries, a change of clothes, rain gear, cooking pot, laptop, and a few books. Fearing that the first national park would have few grocery resources, we topped off our bags with all the food we could carry. It was more weight than we could comfortably haul to and from the bus, but it would be manageable given we'd only have 3 moves.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Inland Plitvice Lakes National Park was the first destination for our impromptu, mini-tour of Croatia by bus. Plitvice is the largest and oldest of Croatia's 8 national parks, having been formed in 1949. It is an extension of the same karst or eroded limestone that formed the fantastic caves in Slovenia.
The park's main feature is the tufa or travertine that develops from calcium carbonate sedimentation that mixes with tiny plants to build massive barriers and sills. This sedimentation process resulted in a very unusual phenomena: a series of a dozen or more terraced lakes, each being at a different elevation. Short waterfalls form between the lakes, adding to the natural beauty of the area. And in contrast to the scrub-like 'forests' elsewhere in Croatia, the beech and fir forests here felt like forests to us. Unlike most of Europe, these forests actually contain some brown bears.
The unusual lake formations and cascading water between them rightfully attract visitors, but the place was swamped by them. The masses of people made the walkways feel more contrived than charming. The narrow lakeside paths and meandering boardwalks through the marshes practically became the sites of elbowing confrontations between the bus loads of tourists on the most scenic routes. The normally interesting collision of multiple cultures was unpleasant as no polite convention for dealing with the congestion prevailed. At times it wasn't possible to take in the vistas because of the conveyor belt quality on the packed paths.
Despite what the bears had decided, we felt that Plitvice suffered from being "overly organized nature," which was echoed in several ways. The communist era goal of keeping everybody the same and together still seemed to be reflected in the tight and orderly bunching of picnic tables at several of the refreshment stops around the lakes. Instead of tight rows, we would have expected the tables to be loosely scattering to conform with the shape of the open space.
Amusingly, the orderliness in nature was reflected in the incidentally trained
fish too. Where the paths were at the water's edge, there would often be a 2'
wide band of fingerlings pointed towards the shore, presumably awaiting morsels from admiring
tourists. We didn't think fish had the brain capacity to learn much, but Plitvice Lake fish had
also learned to follow fast moving ducks. A duck would spot a
group of tourists on a more isolated path and frantically swim towards them for
snacks. Instantly, a V formation of fish would be in tow. Somehow, despite those small
brains, the fish had put
together that rapidly moving webbed feet led the way to easy pickings.
Luckily for us, the park's odd, amphibious looking buses and silent, electric boats allowed many visitors to short-cut the walking tours. That public transportation within the park left us with some uncontested areas to visit, but of course they were visually less dramatic.
We had planned a 4 or 5 night stay at the Lakes Park but cut it back to 3. We walked much of park that is open to visitors on our first full day enveloped by fellow tourists. The second day, we had the trails almost entirely to ourselves as it rained relentlessly. We dutifully donned our raingear and trudged around for our requisite 2 hours of fitness walking and called it a day. Had the hotel been more fairly priced, the food selection at the market included vegetables, or had the walking opportunities been more extensive, we would have stayed longer. But given all the strikes against it and then the torrential rain, we decided to move on prematurely.
Our next several hour bus ride, with considerably less food in our bags, was to Zadar, a maritime city of about 70,000. We visited Zadar in December of 2001 when it was wet, cold, and windy. This time, it was just wet and windy.
We were starting to feel like bad tourists once in Zadar. Here we were, in Croatia which we had so enjoyed before, and yet we were again going "harrumph" in Zadar as we had at Plitvice. We were under-whelmed at each of the stops along our guide book's walking tour on the old town. To us, many of the sites were 'ho-hum' or yawning quality.
We worked hard to be fascinated by what could be gleaned from
a little museum's 3 models depicting the shape of the
city walls in different eras. Outdoors, we carefully scrutinized the old city wall for the parts that
looked to be Roman. But the guide book allocades for the Byzantine-styled church left us
with "You've got to be kidding?" We are museum junkies and unfortunately
the Zadar archeological museum was closed indefinitely, so we don't know if a
would have tipped the balance more favorably for us.
But we made the most of one of Zadar's newest features, the Sea Organ, which was built in 2005. We lingered and tabulated its 70 holes on sidewalk and the 392 vertical slots in 7 panels. We studied the apparent lack of synchronization between the wave action and the initiation of the eerie tones it made. And we strolled while several batches of other tourists came and went as it was fun to watch them attempt to capture the auditory experience on film, as we obviously tried too. The continuous array of moans and whistles sounded a bit like a few instruments in an orchestra warming up on a half dozen notes. After being there, we discovered that with careful listening, we could barely hear the Organ many blocks away.
Unfortunately, the cool temperatures and
intermittent downpours made it hard to savor the general Mediterranean charm of
the old city after the historical sites had left us flat. Zadar does have some
old city appeal, but the chill interfered with taking it in and watching the water
and boats from a promenade bench was definitely out.
With food always on our minds, the high point of our Zadar visit was finding a grocery store to replenish our stores of 2 critical menu items: jars of a fine red pesto sauce for our dinners and a favorite brand of chocolate to be the high point of our picnic lunches. We'd fortified our sagging spirits with these essential food groups and headed out early for our 3rd and presumed final destination before returning to Opatija.
Paklenica National Park at Starigrad
A More Suitable Place to Call Home
The frequent rain, being under-whelmed by the sightseeing, and experiencing lunch-churning bus rides on windy roads made our first week of touring while waiting for bike parts less delightful than we'd hoped. But things looked up at coastal Paklenica National Park. Here, on the third of our planned 3 stops on our tour, we finally had a winning combination of features.
It took irritating the host's adult daughter by selecting the 1 apartment that
needed to be cleaned (by her), but we gained an inexpensive place we could happily stay for days.
It was a spacious, newly renovated tourist apartment with a separate bedroom, English news
on the TV, and windows on 3 sides. I love being flooded with natural light when
indoors and this space did just that. We also had a covered terrace when we wanted to
We choose to ignore the view of the ugly corrugated roof adjacent to our terrace, the occasional truck traffic on the nearby main road, and some of the awkward design details inside our apartment. It was about as good as it gets in Croatia and we knew it.
And, unlike at Plitvice Lakes Park, we could surround ourselves with fresh produce with the investment of a 15 minute walk to a roadside stand. An acceptable selection of less perishable groceries were for sale across the street. And the bonus of our new location was the free wifi internet connection in the lobby of a nearby hotel, which allowed us to upload one of our lay-over webpage updates. At 45 minutes one way, the walk into the hiking area of the park itself was a disappointingly long, but the park itself gave us a big area to roam (for a fee) for our daily fitness walks.
More Substantive Outdoor Entertainment
The Paklenica National Park wasn't an eyeful, as it was pretty much the same scenery in any direction. But it was hard to go very far in the park without it becoming quite steep, which provided the perfect walking conditions for cross training with cycling. The nice, inexpensive apartment combined with the trail network in the park had us extending our stay from 3 to 5 nights and we resolved to hike up its steep slopes, rain or shine, to retrieve some of our fitness needed for cycling. It wasn't grand enough that I'd recommend it to others for such a long stay, but it gave us what we'd been missing.
Like in Slovenia and at Plitvice Lakes Park, the local geology of limestone and dolomite resulted in karstic features such as fissures, crooks, cliffs, pits, and caves. Beech and black pine forests cover about 2/3's of park surface and UNESCO named it a heritage site for its biodiversity. In the late 1930's the local enthusiasts began establishing climbing routes in the area, of which there are now 500. The info sheets claim Paklenica to be the 4th most popular climbing venue in Europe and the Ohioan's staying at the same lodging establishment were in raptures. Their credentials impressed us, as they spend a month climbing in Peru every other year and do a new venue on the alternate years.
The almost 100 miles of hiking trails available to us didn't
offer a lot of scenic variety, with 1 exception. For 1 of our 4 hiking days,
Bill did manage to put together an adventurous route with some scrambling in
boulders and rock faces that had more visual appeal. And finally, despite the rain
that followed us to Paklenica, we had the experiences needed to be able to look
back on our bus tour time and consider it a success. Fond enough were the
memories from here that we spent 2 nights at the same establish when we later biked
down the coast. More bad weather turned that 1 night stay into a lay-over.
One nasty discovery had been learning that the Park's very prevalent horned viper snakes are the most poisonous of all of Europe's snakes. After reading that, I found myself walking more cautiously and trying to identify the unusually high number of dead snakes we saw on the pavement later on.
We had delayed heading into Croatia via Slovenia this summer for weeks because of the horrific heat waves and forest fires on the Balkan peninsula but once we arrived, the area was mired in storms. Bill moaned as he checked the first 10 day forecast for the region as it predicted daily showers. But those highs in the 70's sounded delightful, given that our neighbors to the north and west, Germany and Switzerland, were still recovering from flooding rains and areas farther south were still in the 90's.
Once we arrived in Slovenia, however, those predicted showers were instead several hour long, drenching rain and lightning storms. Our hiking in Slovenia's Julian Alps was clipped short because of the downpours and our walk in the nearby scenic Vintgar Gorge was diminished by the torrents. Disappointingly, the terrible weather followed us into Croatia where sometimes daily rain storms haunted us. We shortened our outings at all 3 of our bus tour stopovers because of the heavy rain and frequent lightning. Sometimes we'd get a a day or 2 break in the weather, only to have the entire following day succumb to torrents of rain.
But like so much of this touring season when we had wet weather, we learned that we weren't getting the brunt of any of the storms. One wave of wet weather in Croatia was causing Austrian rivers to breach their banks and flood and a later storm was pelting Russia with monstrous-sized hail stones. And at the end of September, a young Slovenian couple on bikes told us that the Franja Partisan Hospital we had visited was partially or totally destroyed in one of these rounds of storms. They were turned away in mid-September when they attempted to visit it and were given incomplete information as to the extent of the damage.
Back to the Bikes in Opatija
We watched the skies and the internet while on our bus loop--the skies to plan our days, the internet to time our return to Opatija. The Labor Day holiday weekend in the States caught us and the manufacturer off-guard and slowed the delivery of our package by at least one day. We cringed and hoped that it would be the only hold-up. Wrong addresses, misrouting, customs problems, and general bad luck were all possible hindrances. We'd opted for limited tracking on the shipment for a total shipping price under $30 rather than paying the $130 for a quicker, more trackable delivery. Of course, as the days of uncertainty accumulated, the price differential was looking less significant.
We ended our bus tour after 12 days and returned to Opatija on a Thursday, the earliest possible delivery day for my parts. Luckily, the package was delivered Saturday morning and our recipient business clerk promptly sent Bill an SMS message from her cell phone (our first!). We practically ran to pick it up, as the clock was ticking. The shops would be closing for the weekend between noon and 1 pm and we needed the use of a vise to remove and replace the small ratchet ring inside the hub.
Once Bill opened the package, he realized he needed a specialized bike tool, a chain whip, as the manufacturer had sent more new parts than he was expecting. We'd planned on asking the auto repair business across from our pension to use their vise, but now we needed to go the 10 miles into Rijeka to find a bike store with a chain whip for removing the gear cassette.
The wait for a bus and ride into Rijeka took over an hour and one by one the bike shops we called or visited were closed. One shopkeeper finally explained that it was the "Giro d'Istria" bike race that had pulled the mechanics and their tools out of town on this particular weekend. He would gladly have let us use his equipment, but his mechanic had stripped the tool bench for working at the race. It was after noon when he pointed us to a 4th shop that he was sure had a chain whip left behind.
Predictably, the next mechanic looked at the parts and said he
didn't have the right tool to make the repair. Of course, we knew that he
wasn't familiar with the non-standard design as the needed tool was in his
hand, we had provided it. Reluctantly, he told the English-speaking clerk we could use the vise
and needed chain whip. With the clock ticking the minutes by until they would
close, Bill dug into the hub deeper than he'd gone before.
His prior knowledge and several pauses to reason through questions like "Does it go back in this way, or that way?" and he was able to complete the job. Minutes before they'd be locking the door, we had our mess cleaned up, the tools put away, and were offering to pay for the use of the workbench. Graciously, the clerk declined payment and we were out the door with the wheel in hand to find a shaded bench to savor the success over our picnic lunch.
Two hours later and back in our Opatija room, Bill was fiddling with the wheel as he wasn't entirely satisfied with the fix. Even after over 30 years together, I can't always decipher his murmurings well enough to distinguish academic questions from possible fatal flaws. He finally came down on the side of "It should settle-in and be alright." Something about an O-ring-like dust cover that he hoped would smash down with time and thereby allow the wheel to spin more freely. So, with my personal mechanic's tentative blessing, we'd be on our bikes in the morning heading south along the Croatian coast after a 2 week delay.
Where We Are Now, November 4, 2007: Maratea, Italy
We arrived on southern Italy's east coast from Croatia just a month ago. Four nights ago, we arrived on the west coast of Italy, south of Naples, after a protracted meander through the hills and mountains in between. Bill expected it to be on the "ho-hum" side of routes, but it was a delightful assortment of interesting and varied scenery and historical stops. Certainly not "A List" sightseeing, but quite nice and a route we'd gladly do again.
The Maratea area is the hot new resort area for Italians in the summer and it's easy to see why with the steep, rugged mountains forming a dramatic backdrop to the sea. The lush though leathery vegetation and sound of birds made for a dramatic contrast with the harsher interior. Bill spotted a hotel which normally charges over $200 a night in the summer that was down to almost a third of that now and we extended our stay to 4 nights. Even on the rainy days, we were in heaven with the stunning setting and higher quality room.
We'll be flying home in about a month for our winter visit, with our last stop on the biking part of our 2007 tour being in Sicily. Bill finally scored one of those penny flights from Sicily to Germany. After all the taxes and added fees, our tickets averaged about $20 each--still a steal.