#12 Coastal Croatia by Bike: Opatija to Dubrovnik, September 16 - October 2, 2007
Heading Out Again
One of the unexpected benefits delivered by our recent, almost 2 week-long Croatian bus loop had been the opportunity to scrutinize the Adriatic Highway on our return to Opatija. In 2001 we'd started south from Rijeka on it and I just couldn't cope with the riding conditions. The narrow road with little or no shoulder, the heavy truck traffic, and the deeply deformed roadbed edge to which we were confined overwhelmed me. I could handle the riding stress for a few hours, but it was looking like days of dangerous conditions were ahead of us. Bill obliged me and my frayed nerves: we took a bus back north to our starting point so as to head south again, this time by island hopping. It was a great alternative, but we always wondered how much of the southern extent of the main highway would have been safe for bikes.
As we rode the bus back to Opatija from Zadar, Bill
started marking lodging and markets on his map.
Shortages of services had also been a deterrent for doing the main road in 2001
and we could see for ourselves that they were sufficient for us to ride with a normal food
As the hours rolled by on bus, we carefully studied the slowly increasing traffic volume,
looking for the point at which it was too heavy for our comfort. Surprisingly,
it looked manageable, even near Rijeka. And equally important, the pavement had
been repaired and the ruts big enough for small sewer lines had been filled in.
The field research we'd done from the bus emboldened us and we headed out the morning after my hub repair on the main road instead of through the islands as Map Man had expected (there went his plans again). The timing was perfect, as it was Sunday morning, the best time to avoid heavy urban traffic in Christian countries. Smug smiles came over our faces as we rode by dozens of big-rigs parked around the Rijeka-based oil refinery, trucks that would have been terrorizing us on any other day. As we rode we could see too that the new freeway was siphoning traffic off the highway around Rijeka, despite being incomplete. There were buses but no trucks on the old highway, making the previously frightening stretch of road smooth sailing on this Sunday.
Opatija was about 2 hours behind us when a white-haired, German-speaking, loaded cyclotourist whizzed by me. I did my best at quickly mustering in German "My husband speaks German" as he rode ahead. Bill was in an unexpectedly social mood and he sprinted past me to catch the man. After some close calls with cars while trying to chat, Bill suggested we all pull over to talk. Reinhardt was traveling alone and though he rode a bit faster than us, was in the mood to have riding companions.
Reinhardt weighs an average of 90 lbs more than either of us; rides a 15 year-old, 7-speed bike; has none of the fancy gear that we love; and still he left us in the dust. Even more discouraging, he claimed he only rode his bike during these annual 2 week bike trips. We rely heavily on mindful conditioning and fine equipment to get us around; for him regular stops for coffee and wine at lunch and dinner seem to do the job.
More amazing was that Reinhardt's gearing doesn't allow him to pedal up steep grades, so he plans bike trips over the same steep passes we do but expecting to push his loaded bike for hours at a time. The only thing harder than riding a loaded bike is pushing it. It is beyond us why a sophisticated person like him wouldn't cave-in to buying a more suitable bike but we had to envy his physical power.
By chance, we had enough pasta, red pesto sauce, and cabbage to invite Reinhardt to dine with us and he bought red wine at a nearby bar as the markets were closed. As a nuclear physicist by training and a current IBM employee, his English was strong and the conversations were all in English. He taught Bill a few new German words and helped him with some troublesome pronunciation problems.
As we swapped stories too late into the night, he countered our "Don't eat bay fish in Trieste" with his "Don't eat mushrooms in Europe." Our tidbit was because of the mercury contamination in Trieste from the Slovenian mine we'd visited. His nugget was that mushrooms continue to concentrate the long half-life cesium released from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Russia years ago. After an intense social experience together, we went our separate ways the next morning: Reinhardt headed inland, resigned to pushing his bike over the passes to reach Plitvice Lakes National Park that we'd recently visited by bus and we continued south along the coast.
Reinhardt was the first person in Croatia that we spent hours
chatting with; on another day we again filled our evening-chore-hours with conversation, this time with an American couple who were enthralled with their month-long tour
of rock climbing venues in Croatia. Later, we
played leapfrog with a hard driving 30-something German couple on a 1 week bike
tour. The only reason we
saw them more than once was because they had 4 flat tires in that single day--we
would never have seen them again otherwise. We were stunned at how they could
charge so fast on their bikes and yet pause to chat and walk through a historic
town--most who pedal as hard as they do get 'white line fever' and just keep going.
And the social streak just kept happening in Croatia. We had long sit-down conversations with 1 California couple on Split's promenade and with 2 different Canadian couples in Dubrovnik. In between those, we chatted several times at scenic view points with a young Slovenian couple on bikes. It was a delight to swap stories and experiences and exchange travel tips with others. As is often the case, it wasn't the locals that were in a mood to visit, but the other travelers who were more available. But even so, it was unusual for us have the opportunity for so much socializing.
The wet weather continued to dog us and the accompanying lightning had us sitting a lot of it out. One day we pulled off the road every time the weather turned nasty and we spent as much time reading our books under eves and in half-finished buildings as we did riding. We also started taking 1 or 2 layover days a week to let the rains and fierce winds settle. The Croatian coast is so beautiful, it seemed a waste to whiz by it with our heads down in the rain.
One sunny-weather layover day was for yet another bike problem. Bill's bike developed a 'click' and he was increasingly worried about it. Finally on a Sunday he decided that he would likely need parts from a bike shop to deal with the pedal crank, which he identified as the culprit. A 2 night stay instead of heading out in the morning was required to access a city-sized shop on a weekday. But as he began to disassemble the troublesome parts in the evening, he discovered that one pedal wasn't on tight and it was likely making the clicking noise. Bill has created bike problems in the past because of his tendency to over-tighten parts and sometimes stripping threads; now his conscious effort to reverse that trend was creating problems from parts being too loose.
Bill's worrisome but easily resolved 'click' would be the last in a string of bike worries. Fortunately, my rear hub dust cover installed as a part of my rear hub repair did smash down and a day or 2 out of Opatija, Bill was finally satisfied with the newly rebuilt hub. But during that time, my bike developed an odd whistle. It was the day we rode with Reinhardt and all 3 of us struggled to isolate the source of the increasingly loud noise. Bill finally figured out that a worn front brake pad was somehow creating just the right resonance to whistle and the simple regular maintenance job that evening quieted my bike down.
And No Further Delays
We had delayed our visit to Croatia because of an especially bad forest fire season, so we were surprised to see so little evidence of fires as we rode south. Our first sighting of the summer's fires was about 30 miles north of Split. The decision not to come to Croatia when planned was another instance of the risk assessment we do when traveling, and the wisdom of the decision was plain to see.
In the fire area north of Split, it appeared that all of the
village buildings had been spared but away from the communities, we could clearly
see that the fires had been allowed to jump the road. One narrow strip of a
campground on steep land between the high road and the sea had been razed. Had
we been rolling through on bikes, we'd have had a tough time escaping a
wind-whipped blaze on the steep terrain made into an angular labyrinth by stone walls.
We saw a number of old burned trunks with lush green growth around them, indicating fires of some years ago, but few other signs of this year's fires. Though while on the central coast in mid-September, we noticed flags at half staff and learned they were honoring the death of 13 firefighters trapped on Kornati island. It underscored that we had made the right decision in delaying our visit to the country.
On to Split
The miles clicked away more quickly on the Adriatic Highway than Map Man had expected, despite the rain delays. And it had that "main road" feel, with the emphasis being on efficiency rather than scenic beauty. Long slow grades, often away from the shoreline kept the pace higher than our usual tempo. The occurrence of towns large enough to support tourist lodging and grocery stores dictated our daily destinations, with most of our riding days being 40 to 50 miles.
Even though our 2001 journey was south through the islands,
we did hop over to the mainland to visit places like Split. We spent Christmas
Eve there in 2001, our first traveling year, we so have special memories of it.
Split is a highlight for history buffs because it is where the Roman Emperor Diocletian built a fabulous retirement complex of over 300,000 square feet for himself. He was born in nearby Salona, which was an administrative headquarters for the Empire, making the coast site of his palace a perfect spot for a retiring politician. Diocletian was one of the few Roman Emperors who actually died in retirement--most were murdered while in office. The grand seaside promenade in front of the palace didn't exist in his day, but it adds to the regal quality of the site.
Many of the old walls of Diocletian's Palace still remain, as do a few, almost complete, buildings. Actually seeing many of the Roman structures is difficult however, as the layers of later building sprees complicate the viewing.
Visiting the Palace is simultaneously exciting and disappointing, like the experience of kids on Christmas morning when the contents of a package don't deliver what was expected. The Palace is a fantastic piece of visible history, but the way it's presented to tourists leaves one hungry even after the feast of ruins. It's just too hard to spot the Roman era bits and pieces. Remembering that from our first visit, we didn't work as hard at trying to shake out what wasn't there. Instead, we meandered around, taking in the ambience and not fretting so much over the historical details.
Ston, like Split, had the immediate advantage to us in being a town name that we could pronounce correctly the first time. Like Split, it had a ancient history, though its heyday was much later, in the 1300's. Ston was a part of the Republic of Dubrovnik, with Dubrovnik itself being about 35 miles south.
As we approached Ston, the Great Wall of China came to mind, as the open hillside of the little seaside village is still enclosed within three and a half miles of stone wall that is impressively thick and wide. It was the lucrative salt works that had existed in some form since prehistoric times that lead to the building of this, the longest fortification in Europe. And we were stunned to see that, centuries later, it is still an active salt-producing operation. We watched in amazement the men scooping the salt up by shovels and pushing the loaded carts on rails.
Watching the salt harvesting led to a long discussion about
the larger process of salt production and the unhappy conclusion that "What we
saw was what we got." That meant that the salt probably wasn't washed and then
dried a second time, a process that would remove the spit, bird poop, twigs and
other natural and unnatural debris we saw going into the ponds.
Watching the low-hygiene process, I thought back to the salt label I grew up with that said something like "99.9% Pure" and realized the purity statement may have been more than hype. There were no such purity claims on the bags of salt from this works that we saw for sale in the next town. We assured ourselves that not much in the way of bacteria or viruses would grow in salt, but then there are all of those other potentially toxic, inorganic substances to worry about.
Pondering the hygiene of salt production and the farther reach of Dubrovnik than we'd understood in 2001 filled our minds as we rode on into Dubrovnik, our last stop in what had become a month-long stay in Croatia.
Grand Dubrovnik wasn't as enchanting as on our first visit and we decided it was in part because it had changed and in part because we had changed. I still however put Dubrovnik as #1 on the "Must See" list of Croatian sights.
Dubrovnik was an independent republic for centuries and experiencing the walled fortress adds immensely to one's understanding that part of history. Walking on the high stone ramparts, looking at its position relative to the sea and the mountains, and imagining life in the dark homes packed within the narrow alleyways gives one a powerful sense of life in those times. But the "Wow" factor of it was more intense on the first visit. After that first experience, one is comparing other partially walled cities or ruins they see to Dubrovnik. It becomes the standard by which others are judged and so is less rarified after the first visit.
Dubrovnik has also changed in 6 years. The prices were enough higher on all of the sites--the wall walk, and museums--that we declined to pay a second time. The streets were more filled with tourists, though an October 2nd versus a December 31st visit may account for that difference. And more of the buildings seem to have been turned over to souvenir shops and restaurants, leaving the city with a less authentically alive feeling, which also interfered a bit with imagining life in the former times.
In addition, the city of Dubrovnik has done a lot of restoration work in
those 6 years, giving it a less historic look. The sharp edges of the
precision-cut new stone were an unwelcome contrast to the rough surfaces
and patina on the old stone work. The charm, the special story of Dubrovnik is
that it is old and tough, and all the fresh new expanses of restored walls interrupted the link
with the past that was so dramatic. But Dubrovnik is a special place and no
doubt we'll take a stroll through the old town every time we are in
Finding the Croatia I'd Lost
Most of our stay in Croatia this year left me wondering why we'd liked it so much more in the past, but when it was time to depart for Italy, I didn't want to go. Unlike our other 2 coastal visits to Croatia, this year we'd taken the highway on the mainland rather than meander along the Istrian Peninsula or island hop our way south. Ironically, riding this mainland Adriatic Highway was what we'd intended to do in 2001; we did the route in 2007 and didn't enjoy it.
The new, though incomplete, freeway diverted much of the traffic off of the coastal road and the new pavement on much of the route made cycling quite accessible this time around. We found the traffic conditions to be acceptable and had few white-knuckle experiences on the road. And unlike the islands, the grades were moderate. We would usually accumulate significant elevation gain in a day, from 1,000-3,000', but it was generally dished out in a couple of very long, moderate climbs instead of the exhausting, steep gyrations of the islands.
The mainland road riding was easier, but the experience
wasn't as grand. Each day was about the same, with the mountains on the left
side, the ocean on the right side, and not many good looks at life in the
villages along the way. With few exceptions, seeing the delightful old villages with their
quaint harbors required a conscious detour whereas on the islands they are on
the route. We made a number of those scenic detours and stopovers this year, but the
cumulative effect wasn't as mesmerizing as on the islands.
On our last 2 riding days we did cut over to the island scene instead of continuing on the main highway. Suddenly, the magic was back. I found my mind kicking back, slowing down, and wanting to linger. The Mediterranean charm that had come through on our first journey, even in the dead of winter, was in the air. The tranquility of the villages; the hypnotizing rhythms of the shallow waves on the rocky shoreline; the soft, warm breezes all created that suspension of time feeling we'd missed on the mainland.
The constant up and down riding on the islands was harder work, but the squiggly route was more rewarding. We'd be huffing and puffing up yet another ridge and then sailing down for a long traverse along a harbor with oyster beds or fishing boats. The next little summit would deliver a view of endlessly lumpy hills that looked like the products of volcanic action instead of the "uplift and tilt" that they were. Our minds were more active as the terrain and people's historical response to it was far more varied than on the mainland. It was a pity to only experience for a couple of days out of a month in Croatia what I'd found so enticing the first time but on the other hand, it was reassuring to know that it was still there, we'd just been looking in the wrong place for it.
The Coast is the Tourist's Croatia
Hopping the bus from the pretty coastline of the upper part of the Adriatic Sea at Opatija and riding inland to the Plitvice Lakes National Park had quickly underscored why the coast and especially the islands are where the tourists go--there just wasn't much to see inland. One of the billboards promotes Croatia as where the "Sea, sun, and stone meet." Take away the sea and on some days the sun, you're left with only the stone. I love rocky terrain, both to walk through and to look at, but the lack of visual variety made parts of inland Croatia a bit tedious.
We've never visited coastal Croatia in August, in high season, as it is so popular and the roads seem too narrow for biking then. But even in September, we were stunned at the international traffic. The ready lodging availability made it clear that it was shoulder season, but the license plates on the road made us wonder. For hours at a time it would seem that foreign plates outnumbered the Croatian plates, even given that some tourists rent cars once there, like the South African 4-some we spoke with.
We saw license plates from about 30 different countries over the course of about 24 hours, including plates we rarely see like Finnish, Russian, Greek, and British. And of course, the Germans and Dutch, the travelers we see everywhere, were out in big numbers. But there were small convoys of campers from France and Spain and groups of cars from Czech, Poland, and Hungary. It was simply amazing to see so many visitors day after day even in the off season.
And it is no wonder that the tourists come.
Croatia's Adriatic waters are considered some of
the cleanest in the world.
The lovely part of Croatia is easy to find: it's the thin strip between
the road and the water on the mainland and on the islands The intensely
convoluted shoreline with little coves, harbors, and bays are
enchanting. The Aleppo pines grow down to the waters edge in the south and its
mesmerizing to plant oneself under a pine while
staring at the blue, blue sea. In those moments, it's hard to imagine why one
would be anywhere else or be doing anything else.
And looking at our photos, you'd think there was nothing but lovely weather in Croatia all the time.
Where We Are Now, November 16, 2007
We are in Trąpani, Italy, which is on the northwestern most tip of Sicily. We dashed here by ferry and then train from Reggio Calabria on the mainland a couple of days ago for recon work. It is from here that we will take a budget flight to Germany on December 1 in preparation for our flight to Portland on December 5. And it is from here that we will take a ferry to Tunisi for a 2-3 week stay in February. Trąpani is a small town but an important transportation hub for the region. Now that we (hopefully) have a place to store our bikes for 3 months, we will launch in the morning for a 12 day biking tour of this western portion of Sicily. Map Man had hoped for more time on the island, but the rest of the island sightseeing will have to wait until March.