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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Croatia

After all the rain in Hungary we had high hopes for our time in Croatia....and we haven´t been disappointed! The last two weeks have been filled with sun, swims in crystal clear waters, great riding and lots of time to relax and read.
We found Croatian people to be wonderful - very friendly and generous. Within an hour of crossing the border, we were given free vegetables and use of people´s cell phones. On our first night we rode late aiming for a small town where we thought there was a camping ground....alas no camping ground! With darkness approaching we stood in the town centre wondering what to do. We quickly attracted a crowd. The town drunk came to our rescue introducing us to the local PE teacher who was more than happy for us to camp out in his garage. We had a great night's sleep next to his 1500cc motorbike and collection of skis.

The riding was good and the landscape very different to neighbouring Hungary - greener and more mountainous. Frequent landmine signs made free camping out of the question.

As far as history goes, it doesn't get much more complicated than this region. Croatia is no stranger to war and conflict and has fought hard for its independence. It had been occupied by various European empires since Roman times and was then part of the former Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a federation formed after WWI comprising six republics (Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Hercegovina and Slovenia). The 1990s saw ugly ethnic and religious conflict across the region and the collapse of the Yugoslav state. In Croatia there was lots of fighting between the Croats and the Yugoslav People's Army (dominated by Serb communists). All is peaceful now, but the scars of battle are all too evident. We rode past vast areas of uncleared landmines, deserted towns with bombed out houses, the remaining buildings and streets pock-marked from shell fire. The graveyards were full of young soldiers and civilians killed in the war. It was a completely new and disturbing experience for us riding through a recent war zone. We encountered many area like this, both inland and near the coast, but outside these areas war seems like a distant memory in beautiful sunny Croatia.


By the time we reached Zagreb, KateĊ› rear wheel rim was seriously broken and buckled. We bee-lined for the first bike shop we saw and were greeted by a bunch of friendly helpful bike mechanicis who had a new wheel built within two hours, despite being totally bogged down with other work....sometimes it helps being two girls I think!!

We spent the afternoon exploring the Croatian capital with its beautiful centre and slightly more dismal outskirts. In the early evening we met up with Drago, our warm showers host. Drago lived in a small but comfortable apartment building. It has been a real education for Kate and I seeing how people in Europe live in such small apartments. I think we take it for granted in New Zealand how spacious and private our homes are.

We had only planned to spend one night in Zagreb, but the cycle touring forces had other ideas. As we rode out of the city Kate had a puncture. While waiting for her to fix it, I noticed that my bottom bracket was broken. The next major city was about 500km ride away so we decided we better go back and get it fixed. Being a public holiday all the shops were closed and we found ourselves having an enforced day of rest! We had a cool day hanging out with Drago and his friends at BBQ beside a nearby lake.
The next morning our mechanic friends had us all fixed and on the road by 9am. We really enjoyed riding through rural Croatia- green forests, sleepy villages and rolling hills. We camped the night near the Plitvice National Park.

We spent the following day exploring the stunning waterland of the park by foot. This series of lakes, streams and waterfalls is one of Croatia´s lead tourist attractions. Despite periods of heavy rain it was truly breathtaking- a very special place to visit.


From Plitvice we rode west toward the coast- only two mountain ranges stood between us and the Adriatic Sea!

We stopped in a small village and were lucky enough to meet lovely Rita Natkovic and her family. Granny (a classic rural Croatian woman all dressed in black) was happy for us to camp on her lawn. We watched on as she milked her one cow with a portable milking machine (wish you could have seen it Shane!) and we enjoyed fresh milk with our dinner and breakfast. The following day we packed up early with Granny watching on in fascination as we collapsed our tent and packed it away into its small bag. This is one of the real advantages of travelling by bike - getting off the beaten tourist track and seeing how the real people live.
We rode over a beautiful 1000m pass to be met by stunning views of the Adriatic Sea. We coasted down the hill toward the beckoning ocean thinking we had arrived in cycle touring paradise! 30km up the coast we took our first swim in the crystal clear waters and caught a ferry to the island of Rab. A little rain dampened our first afternoon...but since then the weather has been sunny and extremely hot- especially climbing those hills!
We spent the next morning swimming and reading before hitting the road again and heading south along the coastal road. It was one of our favourite sections of riding with hardly any traffic, incredible views of the gorgeous coastline and perfect swim spots. We camped at a beachside campground and enjoyed a few beers while watching the sunset this region is famous for. We continued south and rode 140km in hot conditions to be rewarded by a dreamy campground near Sibenik....so dreamy in fact we couldn´t leave the next day! Kate, dressed in her biking gear and raring to go, returned to our campsite to find me in my bikini not having packed a thing- the decision had been made. A day of swimming, reading and drinking beer at the campground bar...sorry to all those people who are currently enduring a cold New Zealand winter!
By the time we had reached Split- a large city on the Croatian coast- Kate had five broken spokes on her rear wheel! Our mates who rebuilt the wheel obviously hadn't done it that well. In very hot conditions we searched the city and found a bike mechanic who could fix it straight away. We then headed to the ferry terminal, chose at random and booked tickets to the furthrest out island, Lastovo.

We didn't leave Split before making a bit of a scene....A slight misunderstanding and me taking far too long (nearly missing the ferry) led to an all out shouing match on the waterfront. It was quite entertaining for the tourists (Kate saw one woman pulling the video recorder from her husband who was filming us), but not so much fun for us! All forgiven, we had a lovely five hour boat trip out to the island.
Arriving at Lastovo at 10pm we had no idea where we'd stay. After a few enquiries, it turned out the campground owner just happened to be on our ferry. Our bikes were thrown on the back of his truck and we drove the 17km to the island's one campground. We spent a blissful three days on the island - exploring its hilly terrain, roman ruins, swimming in quiet inlets and hiring a 4m boat for the day (Kate was in heaven).


From there, we caught a ferry to Korcula Island and rode the length of that. It was hilly with lots of vineyards in the centre (which we didn't visit.... wine + 35 degrees heat + riding over big hills = disaster!!)
Over the next few days we rode the last 250km along the coast to Dubrovnik. It was pretty uneventful apart from me having to hitchhike back 60km one morning after realising that I had left my bikini at the campground!!

Right on the sea, surrounded by stone walls, and with white marble streets, Dubrovnik is a very unique and beautiful place. Unfortunately it was swarming with tourists and we were glad to only have a afternoon there before catching our ferry to Italy at 11pm. A few more photos....

This machine is used to clear the land mines
Tilda jumps from a 4m wall The inside of Kate's drink bottle
Another great sunset