If Carlsberg did campsites they would look like this one. All marble walls, heated floors and lavender scented soap. The showers are, in fact, so nice I feel that I am too grubby to use them, a first in my entire camping life and a world away from the site we have just left.
Over the last few weeks the hills and the heat have continued unabated which has made finding a good campsite to rest and recover something of a necessity. In the past few weeks we have pitched up in some of the best and worst of the tour so far.
Take Ljubljana, a tongue twisting collection of consonants and the capital city of Slovenia.
At less than 300,000 inhabitants it’s one of the smallest capitals in Europe, it’s a wonderful mix of old town and new, the former a pleasure to explore, the latter a necessity to find replacements for my pedals which have disintegrated alarmingly in the last few weeks.
Luckily it boasts one of the largest ever shopping parks in the E.U, or a ‘Retail City’ in the the tourist blurb. We spend a surprisingly delightful day shopping, touring on the bikes, cruising through the various neighbourhoods and parks to complete our city to do list whilst soaking up the sites. The architecture is stunning but I will admit my favourite discovery was the giant 2 story slide between floors in one of sports retail outlets.
Staying in any city campsite choices tend to be limited, usually to big, expensive family caravan parks out in the suburbs.
This time though we were surprised to find a small site on the outskirts, on the plus side it was cheap and central. Less appealing were the compete lack of shade and the 4 portaloos/2 shower cubicles for upwards of 100 people. Even better, the showers were mixed with no changing area necessitating an impressive dance within the tiny airless shower to dress/undress, wash and change without displaying your glory to the random stranger beside you. After managing to slip over and also tuck the soggy shower curtain into my knickers by mistake I gave up and wore my bikini to the bathroom like most of the other women on site.
The heat and the dust were getting everyone, compounded by nightime temperatures of 30 degrees well into the night. The choice was between an airless sauna of a tent or sitting outside into the small hours getting dined on by insects.
After 2 nights of no sleep we were more than ready to leave the capital.
Since leaving England, nearly 50 days ago we have not ridden through a drop of rain with 2 days off the bike coinciding with the only cloud bursts. Coming from England this is unprecedented, it’s an exceptionally hot and dry summer as we keep being told but still, frankly it’s weird.
On leaving Ljubljana however, as if sensing our dark mood the storm clouds gather, lightning flashes in the distance and, with welcome relief, the heavens finally open. It’s still too muggy to wear a rain jacket at first, but the sweet relief makes us laugh like loons as we splash and pedal our way.
We’re tired though after long hot nights of fractured sleep and long scorching days, baking on the exposed tarmac and climbing large unforgiving hills.
The lure of a campsite just 25 miles away is too good to resist so we set our sights and pedal through the rain. The day conspires not to make the distance easy however, the combination of a large hill climb followed by a gravel trail which includes fording a river, removing shoes and socks and getting soaked in the process. We arrive wet, exhausted and stunned at the poshest, cleanest campsite on the planet.
Camp Podgrad is the cosseted child of Renata, a woman with pillarbox red hair who never remained in the same space for more than a few seconds and who seemed to be constantly cleaning. The campsite was spotless. Manicured lawns led to fruit trees and a lake, surrounded by shade. It was tranquil, relaxing and frankly just what we needed. We even stayed an extra night, treating ourselves to one of the little timber cabins with a porch, electricity and a local Italian restaurant which sold wine for €1 per glass.
Our camping luck had definitely turned a corner again.
After camp Podgrad an insane 66 mile day, our longest yet, took us through stunning farmland, beautiful and crumbling towns, alongside motorways and up the kind of hills which would make you cry if you had breath they are so steep. Our destination, the town of Maribor, famous as a centre for World Cup mountain biking, compete with ski lift to the bike park and optional use of the professional ‘black run’
Being knackered after such a hard day we pitched up and relaxed in the little ski resort for a day before taking to the trails on some decidedly dodgy hired hardtail bikes (all that was available). With only one trail (other than the black) available to us we loaded the bikes on the gondola lift up to top to explore the mountain before clattering and skidding our way down the blue run, stopping to take photos of the pro-line and to rest shaking limbs from the significant and crumbling features on the way down.
After a not so relaxing a break we were both feeling pretty sluggish as we packed up once more and headed back the way we had come towards the Croatian border. Despite a brief but spectacular thunderstorm in Maribor the days remained scorching and the ride to our final Slovenian campsite, whilst hot, was mercifully short and flat.
As last night’s go, ours in Slovenia was made special by our final hosts.
The Bee Happy campsite is on a small family run farm at Podlehnik near the Ptui border crossing.
As we pulled up Matey, the owner, was eating lunch outside with his family. Not only were we immediate plied with a glass of homemade wine but were invited to join them for pudding, a local egg custard dish with soft fruits and pastry, hot and delicious. As we chatted Matey explained how he had left his job in marketing to turn around the ailing family farm. Realising he needed to diversify to make a profit he turned over a small patch to campers/vans and started selling his neighbour’s wine and his own honey. His parents who lived there were sceptical, as were the villagers, but Matey it seems has won them round. If people turn up he tells his (Slovenian-only) speaking parents “Just give them wine and point them to a pitch”. His approach seems to work too. 4 years on and he has a new, small but beautifully built shower/toilet block, some hard standing for a few vans, and a beautiful field for tents, with pitches mown in a swathe amonst the wildflowers from which the bees make honey. The honey has 4 distinct seasons a year with different flavours from seasonal plants, including an unusual ivy honey which comes from his land, deliberately diversified with flora rather than the usual mono-crops.
Even better, at 9pm every night Matey lights a fire by the house and invites guests to join him for a complimentary wine tasting. It’s brilliant, people sit on deckchairs, mix, talk, laugh and we learn about the wine and his passion for local sustainability. It’s one of the best nights of the trip and at 11.30 pm I happily (and just a little tipsily) stumble in to the tent with a very warm glow for one of the best night’s sleep so far.
We debated staying another night it was so welcoming but the border beckoned and as we rode away we ran in parallel with our next country, Croatia, separated by an endless grey concrete wall studded with odd, disconcerting yellow doors, like something from science fiction -the portal to another world.
If we had felt relaxed last night with Matey the border crossing soon put paid to that.
With Shengan-rules, I had become complacent about crossing into other countries, borders being open, non-existent affairs, usually just signs in the road. Crossing into Croatia however, not yet part of this club, meant border control. Added to this because of Brexit we needed to get our passports stamped, both leaving the EU as proof and entering Croatia. What I had failed to realise however that this checkpoint was not set up for bicycles.
In fact it involved a dash acrosss 6 lanes of traffic to the exiting border control booth and a miserable 1km push up a non-existent hard shoulder to the entry checkpoint, at the side of the freight lane. As lorries passed by just inches away it was a case of grit teeth and hum a happy song. The border control guard had cautioned us several times to be careful as we pushed through but I think they must have taken pity on us somewhere along the way as the lorry traffic suddenly stopped in our lane and we were able to ride the final metres unmolested.
It was a massive relief to pass the entry point, collect our passport stamp and return to the quieter roads even if they did then throw a huge hill climb at us just a few miles later!
Despite the rather brutal mountainous spikes in terrain at least the campsites so far are small and quirky, welcoming us with hammocks, a swimming pool and even copious glasses of homemade slivovitz, a homemade plum brandy of around 50-60% proof and strong enough to strip the lining of your throat, as well as make camping more palatable. Very much needed as the heatwave continues unrelentingly.
Hello Croatia, so far it’s been in-tents!
Distance travelled: 1322 miles, altitude gained: 46,614 feet
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