In all fairness we both saw the big, red X sign at the start of the military road but it’s amazing what you can convince yourself to ignore when doggedly following a line on the sat nav.
The route we had picked seemed to have unwittingly taken us through a restricted military area, for about 10 miles.
Now my lack of language skills meant that the warning signs could have said “Road closed at night for firing practice”. Or this is what I sheepishly tried to explain to the stern looking gentleman in the military jeep who pulled us over then unequivocally escorted us back to the main road and a 15 mile detour.
Apart from this singular error however (back in France) the free mapping website we have been using for our trip has been absolutely top notch.
Cycletravel has allowed us not only to pick our way across 4 countries on an amazing and intricate network of roads and trails, it has also given us the most immersive experience whilst doing so. Sometimes literally when we’ve waded through the odd river.
With the choice of sticking solely to tarmac or going off piste on gravel we opted for the latter and its taken us to places we never would have seen from the highways. The roads to almost-nowhere.
This function has really come into its own in Croatia, testing both us and the bikes to their limits. With a dearth of tarmac options in some areas, apart from horrendously busy D roads, we’ve found ourselves heading off into the forests on gravelly access roads in the back of beyond, running alongside railways and rivers or through knee high grass and pools of luminous butterflies.
The scenery has been stunning, winding up pine-scented mountainsides, through deserted, boulder-strewn woods and into places where the most frequent traffic are the deer and birds.
It’s been hard going physically. With slick, skinny tyres and hauling 22kg+ of luggage, slewing through sand and gravel is a major challenge, as is trying to carefully pick your way downhill through large rocks gardens, trying to minimise the chance of punctures and the panniers flying off.
Added to the mix has been the increasing number of skull and cross bones style signs littering the trail edge, warning of unexploded mines if you venture from the track.
M was seemly a little put out when I mentioned these to him, apparently he hadn’t noticed them before.
Natural selection, that’s all I’m saying.
Levity aside, the presence of the mines is a salient reminder of Croatia’s recent, turbulent history. Within living memory of many, including my generation, is the fierce struggle for independence following the collapse of the former USSR and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In a bid to break free of the the oppressive communist regime controlled by the charismatic Tito, former countries, never destined to be lumped under one flag, fought to remerge, including Croatia and Slovenia.
For Slovenia, a quick dash to seize Yugoslavian arms and the staunch support of Austria, saw a relatively swift and peaceful re-constitution.
Croatia and other borderlands did not fare so well however.
From 1991 to 1995 years of fierce and bloody fighting ensued between the newly declared Independent Croatia and the Serbian controlled Yugoslavia. After a long and bitter struggle Croatia won through. An achievement remembered every year on Victory Day (5th August) and a national holiday which we experienced whilst staying in Karlovac.
As a key strategic city between Zagreb (the capital) and the sea ports, with Bosnia to the South, Italy and Slovenia to the North West the area saw some of the fiercest battles as the fall of Karlovac would have split the entire country.
Today Karlovac is a thriving city whose main industries are the production of pistols and beer. As we travel though it’s all too easy to still see the legacy of that fighting in the countless bullet holes in walls, in the overfull mountain graveyards, often more populated than the sparse villages surrounding them and in the acres of grassland roped off with red tape to indicate unexploded ordnance.
It’s very visible everywhere in the buildings as well. Thousands of abandoned homes, not just in the countryside but in the middle of towns, often in well tended/populated streets where there will suddenly be a derelict or burned out house, like a rotten tooth in a beautiful smile.
Again, this is a legacy from the war which saw thousands of ethnic Serbs leave Croatia, forced or fleeing their homes.
The buildings now are in such poor repair that most, even if passed on to family members are too costly to restore. One Croatian man we talked to said that the younger generation wanted new, modern homes not old relics.
I love peering through the windows of these unloved places however. Many being reclaimed by nature, trees growing through windows and creepers along the walls. In the decay there are often beautiful features remaining in the carved beams and columns and ornate plasterwork. In one there was even a table and 2 chairs, standing serenely amongst the collapsed chaos, waiting for their occupants to return for one last meal?
Despite or because of its past Croatia is a country that is striving to compete with it’s more affluent neighbours and is in the process of joining both Shengan and the Eurozone (using Euros as a currency) from 2023.
Building is going on everywhere too, roads, houses, campsites. It’s already a hugely popular holiday destination and, as we near the coast, campsites are enormous (and completely packed).
It’s very different from it’s neighbouring Slovenia, the houses less polished, the people a little more reserved. The car drivers have been some of the worst of the trip too, with enough close-passing to rival the UK roads. Here it seems that in the context of mobile phones ‘hands free’ refers to the steering wheel so drivers can text or call on the move. It’s truly alarming when a van whizzes by with the driver glued to their phone. Even more so when the bus driver back from Plitvice spent the 90 minute journey making multiple calls!
There’s lots to make the heart sing however and what I’ve enjoyed most are those wild, rugged forest tracks and sweeping grasslands, all against the backdrop of the beautiful Dalmatian mountains. The opportunity to swim in cool, inviting rivers and lakes and to eat my packed lunch on the side of a rocky trail with just the birds and the clouds for company (OK, and M).
We’ve been tourists too and have visited the beautiful, but completely overrun Plitvice lakes, castles, museums and the packed Adriatic beaches.
I’m grateful however that our route has given us the opportunity to travel a little off beaten track as this is the Croatia I have come to love.
For now though we have ridden the last few miles on this leg of our whistle-stop Eurpoean tour. It’s been hot, oh so hot, it’s been hilly, there have been tears but mostly smiles. Mountains have been climbed and descended, lakes and rivers swum in and starts gazed at.
There have also been:
74 days on tour, 53 days of riding.
5 countries, England, France, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia.
1556 miles, 58,122 feet of climbing.
One dropped chain
Highest recorded riding temperature 45 degrees.
Nights under canvas 60!
Insect bites 1,000,000+
Differences of opinion from travelling companion [undisclosed]
Beer, wine and cake consumption…. who’s counting?!
All that’s left for now are a few days in Zadar to prepare the bikes before a brief journey back to the UK. After that North America and who knows what awaits on the next adventure.
For those interested we have been using a Garmin1030 Edge, downloading routes from cycletravel which helpfully also displays such necessities as campsites, accommodation, water points, food outlets and bike shops.
Any historical/factual errors are entirely my own, but as with any journey it has been a learning process, about both the here and now and also the countries through which we cycle.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.