As any crazy scheme originates as a simple thought in the mind of the tight-rope-balancing, thin-ice-walking among us; so too was our adventure born and later expressed in less-than-poetic fashion – “dude, I wanna go on a bike trip”. It’s happened to me before. Becoming wrapped up in their fervent, insane desire to push the envelope. I ran the 2011 Space Coast Marathon after a “yeah, that’d be cool” to a “we should run a marathon”. I bicycled from Empire, Colorado to Yellowstone National Park in 2013 with my brother because the idea of long-distance cycling had been so romanticized in my mind from the stories our parents told of their cycling adventures. If all the bandwagonning, cliff jumping, and occasional daredeveling reveals anything, it is that I am impressionable and at times easily persuaded to push the boundaries of my physical abilities in the pursuit of an experience, and for the sake of a good story. Though I can’t say much of the retelling, my time on two wheels through Croatia definitely makes for the latter and was certainly a hell of the former.
Prelude: Blending In
Euro-trashy was the look we were going for. Wide, frosted-tipped mohawks with double racing stripes. The local barber in Milot hooked us up with a blended pheauhawk look that took on the appearance of a duck’s ass. It worked well enough. A dollar fifty box of blond hair dye, two plastic bags, a pencil, and a couple toothpicks facilitated the rest of the transformation. We woke up early the next morning scared of our own reflection, but ready for our eight-day adventure on bicycles through Croatia. Though, we still had a lot of ground to cover on four wheels before we got on two. We hitched a ride to Shkodër to meet up with my friend and coworker, Jon, who had agreed to give us a ride across the border to Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro). It was to be the most pleasant and relaxing part of the journey.
In Podgorica we left our bags at the hostel to do a bit of exploring. The city didn’t have much to offer as the capital of a European city, but we bought a couple beers and relaxed along a riverbank, soaking up the sun and taking a dip now and then to cool off. That night we took an extended walk in the downtown area, observing the nightlife scene as scientists would a gathering of apes – keenly interested, but wary of joining in. In fact, many of the males we observed may have given a silverback a run for its money in a one-on-one confrontation. Montenegrin men are monstrously large human specimen. Many of them dwarfed my 6’4’’, 210 lbs constitution. It was perhaps the longest I have ever felt the need to stand up straight – the Napoleon complex in me surreptitiously activated as I passed by men seemingly taller than me sitting down.
The next morning, opting to hitch rather than take the 25 Euro bus to Dubrovnik, we set out at dawn with our thumbs in the air. By the time we had reached the outskirts of the city, we happened upon a small van that charged only 6 Euros to Budva. It began raining heavily, and we were happy not to be caught in the storm, but sad that our coastal view had been so sadly obscured. Arriving hours later, we again opted to take a bus as the rain had not let up. We got as far as Herceg Novi, a town only about ten kilometers from the Montenegro-Croatia border. The sun was out, and we struck out again with high hopes of landing a free ride across the border. An hour and a half later we had trekked through the narrow urban streets covering the full distance between the North and South ends of the city.
Just before losing hope, an RV pulled to the side of the road and we hastily sidled up to the passenger window. “Where you guys headed?” After a brief exchange we were invited it. Flow and his girlfriend Ella were an Austrian couple half-way through their six-month excursion through Eastern and parts of Western Europe. So far, they had made it around Austria, through the Slavic countries in route to Turkey, and were now headed North through the Balkans, having already passed through Albania, albeit briefly. They had picked up a two-week-old kitten in Turkey, and had smuggled it across numerous borders; having expressed slight reservations about picking us up less our presence elicit unwanted attention from the Croatian border police. Their “shit tank”, as Flow referred to it, was full, and they promptly apologized for the smell, which was horrendous. Nevertheless, the odorsome ride and interesting conversation was much preferred to the open air of the street-side curb and confounded mental DJ playing single-verse theme songs to accompany our previously unsuccessful hitchhiking endeavor. As entertainment, Flow stimulated the clandestine kitten’s penis as he explained how doing so would prevent the helpless animal from urinating on itself, thus sparing them the job of bathing the little hairball. The border crossing turned out to be smooth sailing, and the young couple seemed relieved at having secured safe passage for their tiny pet with an uncontrollable bladder. And, we were relieved to have secured a ride to Dubrovnik. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad ride, though we were somewhat disappointed to be dropped off on the outskirts of the city as they turned into a nearby RV park, most likely to empty that “shit tank” of theirs.
Rather than walking, we elected to wait for the city bus – another 45 minutes to add to our already time-costly trip. We were lucky enough to catch the five-o’clock bus to Split from Dubrovnik. The bus went up the spectacular Southern coast; effectively introducing us to what would be the next five days of our biking adventure. Expecting as much, and exhausted from a long day of walking, we shut our eyes to the many spectacular sun-set views which accompanied our 20 Euro bus ride to Split. We arrived very late, having saved only 6 Euros, and having lost more than 6 hours. We checked in to the hostel, grabbed a bite to eat, and managed to meet up with the guys we were renting the bikes from before calling it a night and getting some much needed sleep.
Dejan and Drazen are the kind of guys you might expect to find in a start-up company like RED Adventures – Relax, Explore, Discover (RED). A dynamic duo of outdoor enthusiasts who somehow found a way to make money from doing what they love. That is, cycling, kayaking, rock climbing, wind surfing, and all the rest. Except for the paperwork, I suspect that work rarely feels like work to them. Their company, which they started only a couple of years ago, has a small, personal feel. They do both self-guided and guided tours, and handle everything from equipment rental, drop-off and pick-up, trip planning, and general support. When we arrived the next morning, Drazen was there to send us off.
Link to RED Adventures website.
They had us set up with brand new Merida Cross 10 hybrid bicycles. They were black and white with lock-out capable front suspension, seat suspension, and beefy 29’ tires. If it hadn’t been for our differing tastes in bike shorts, we may have appeared to be either differently proportioned unidentical twins or a gay couple outed by our matching bicycles and frosted-tipped mohawks. I, of course, preferred my bibs, which I had sent from home. When shirtless, they gave me the appearance of a 1920’s bare-knuckle boxer. Luke, still undergoing withdrawals caused by the recent departure of our good friend Karl, opted to wear his shorts in commemoration, which were passed down to him as a parting gift. When shirtless, Luke appeared a top-heavy hunk of rock, unfairly chiseled in a broad V-shape. We both looked like idiots wearing diapers. Or, as Dejan would later put it, “nudist bikers”.
We were fully equipped upon leaving their small, glass-paned office – two bicycles, a small tool kit, extra tubes, a bike pump, rear panniers, bike computers to track our speed and distance, and a detailed map of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia with our route highlighted in bright pink. They even lent us a local SIM card for our phones so that we could keep in touch with them in case we needed anything. It was agreed that in eight days, they would drive to the capital, Zagreb, to pick up the bikes and to drop off our backpacks, which we had left with them along with everything we thought we wouldn’t need on the trip. They took a picture of our passports and sent us on our way. We felt as though we had made out like bandits, not having spent a dime on any sort of down payment, rental insurance, or for the eight-day rental of the bikes. They hadn’t even taken our credit card information. Supposing we would pay up at a later date, we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and crossed the street to pick up some snacks at a whole-sale health foods store. The trip had officially begun.
It was late in the day to be starting our first leg of the journey, and we still had to make it out of the city. We were looking for the old national highway which ran adjacent to the new one in order to avoid the big semi-trucks and generally faster pace of traffic. But, the parallel roads proved much more difficult to discern in reality than they had on the map. After an hour or so of searching, we ended up following an old set of railroad tracks through a rail yard before happening upon the old coastal highway we had been looking for. We settled into our high gears and left the city behind. Before too long we had reached the historic island town of Trogir. With our shirts off, we toured the cobble-stone streets, weaving between the old churches, cathedral towers, and shopping districts as shameless foreigners with the feigned interest of a couple of jocks stuck in an art-history course on a hot summer day. Our true aim – ice cream, and a nap. Next door to the Kamerlengo castle was a gelato stand, and having eaten our fill, we laid down beneath a shady tree on the manicured lawn of the 15th century fortress and napped under the disparate rays of the Adriatic sun.
Smart campers would, by now, have started thinking about setting up camp. But the days were long, and we still had another couple hours of daylight and a couple dozen kilometers more to go to make up for our late start and hour-and-a-half mid-day respite. Around the 50 kilometer mark, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Primošten came into view. Doubting there would be opportunities to camp in or around the city, we ventured into an olive grove buried deep in the hillside forests overlooking the tied-island of Primošten. The forest though, had not provided us a flat, earthy space to set up camp. Strangely enough, the forest seemed fertilized not by soil, but by a great heap of stones. Our exploration had been an inopportune waste of time. The sun had set, and we had only another 20 minutes or so before the residual light of the sun would be replaced with darkness.
Out of the forest and perhaps only a kilometer or so down the road, we happened upon a vacant concrete slab just off the highway which provided us both a perfect place to set up camp, and a wonderful view of the city and sea. The slab was clearly an abandoned construction site. It concealed us halfheartedly behind a line of bushes. But as we undressed and set up camp, a number of cars and buses pulled aside to take pictures of the deep red backdrop of the horizon. The red soon turned a dark purple, and we were left out in the dark. Since we hadn’t eaten anything and had no food packed for dinner, we threw on our lights and struck out again on the bikes to grab a bite to eat in town. The bikes felt a thousand times lighter, and the night air felt refreshing as we coasted down the mountain towards the seaside city. There we ate and had a few beers on the beach before ascending back to our campsite atop the hill. We slept under the stars. Day one was over.
By the time we made it out of our sleeping bags, the sun had been up for hours. The view from our concrete slab was breathtaking, which explained why busloads of foreigners would unload there almost every five minutes. Out of spite, I decided to undress to air out a little before slipping into my bike bibs for the day. My naked splotchy sunburnt frame acted as a deterrent, at least for a while, from the swarms of tourists unloading to take pictures. Though the next bus load seemed not to notice us as they made their way in and between our camp – their view-finders acting as peripheral blinders that effectively blocked us from sight. We left promptly afterward, leaving Primošten behind to be captured in spectacular digital form in the SD cards of a thousand more DSLR cameras.
Our asses were a little sore, but we were really moving. We arrived in Sibenik around noon, but we were misdirected and had to backtrack 15 kilometers or so were we stopped for lunch and an ocean front nap on the grassy lawn of a brick-laid academic building. By the time we struck out again, a strong headwind had formed which battered us relentlessly backward even as we struggled against it. The road had taken us away from the coast and further inland, but as the day wore on into the evening, we veered off towards the inlet of Tribunj, which was the first of a small string of islands. There we found a flat piece of land near the water facing an old looking church just across the shallow bay. As the day signaled its end with an offering of a deep, blood-red sky, we peered into our fire, finished our humble meal of frank and beans, ripped a few, and settled once again into our side-by-side, head-to-toe formation inside the tent.
The next morning we set out from Tribunj without breakfast, hoping to find a grocery store once we got off the isthmus. We hadn’t gotten the best of sleep and we proceeded to go through the motions of tearing down camp, repacking our bags, and gearing up in complete silence. It wasn’t that we were annoyed with one another, but we each had a mission, and we were each dead set on achieving it – finding food. Motivated by our hunger, and without a store in sight, we pushed through 25 kilometers in no time. When we finally came to a store, mastication seemed to loosen our jaws enough to enable speech, and we laughed about how we had arrived so quickly and silently to our first destination.
Restocked and refueled, we continued at our earlier pace until just before mid-day, when we stopped for a swim along an abandoned beachfront. There we found a rickety old dock and made some waves off of it. The water felt great and we stayed there for approximately two hours before drying off and suiting up to continue our monotonous journey on two wheels. The monotony continued uninterrupted except for a brief respite for lunch. Already 50-plus kilometers in, we decided to shoot for the island of Pag, some 45 kilometers away, making for our longest day yet.
The tendinitis in my left knee remerged with a vengeance – an old war wound from a previous bike trip with my brother across the continental divide. The pain was intense, and the only way I could abate it was by pushing as hard as I could and maintaining a slow, high-geared cadence. As we pushed along, we came to the bridge of the island, adjacent to which rested an ancient cliff-side castle along a natural sea-jetty. To our left was open sea, and to the right, separated by a narrow sliver of sea, were the mountains we would soon have to climb over once we crossed the island. There we stopped to take in the view, and enjoy some cold ice cream.
When Pag finally came into view, I was nearly at tears from the knee pain. I had popped a few Ibuprofen which hadn’t done much to subside the stomach-turning sensation I experienced with every rotation of the pedals. Nevertheless, we cruised into town and found a place to lock up the bikes as we explored, grabbed a couple beers, and enjoyed a bite to eat. Our enjoyment was a little too long lived; however, and we ended up searching until dark for a place to camp, finally finding a swampish, mosquito infested area to inhabit behind an old meat warehouse. It was already dark as we tried in vain to sleep through the balmy, sticky, itchy night ahead.
The sun’s heat had manifested into sauna-like temperatures early on, and we awoke sore and sweating after a pitiful night’s sleep amongst the tiny-winged creatures of the marsh. As we packed up to leave, a shepherd passed by with his flock and greeted us warmly. A short conversation ensued with neither parties understanding a single word the other spoke, but somehow comprehending the meaning each evoked. We grabbed breakfast at the local supermarket before crossing the shallow bay and beginning our fist ascent of what would be a long day of steep ascents. It was hotter than it had been on any previous day. Our asses were sore from the saddles, and tendentious had now crippled the both of us.
Somehow we pushed through the pain. The long, tough climbs were made much easier with the promise of downhill reciprocation. We milked those 6 – 12 kilometer descents for all they were worth. Our emotions corresponded with their typography, and every time we regretted having begun this adventure, we would quickly and gloriously experience a change of heart. I cannot describe the joy of bombing down a mountain with the wind in your face and the Adriatic Sea stretching out beneath you, as if providing a protective net in the event that you might be tragically misdirected off the side of the two-lane cliff side highway. By noon, we had ascended three difficult passes, each over 500 meters in elevation change. The sun was merciless along that road – a completely barren strip of asphalt. But the worst was yet to come.
Our last descent took us right to the end of the island, where it would have marked a disheartening turn-around point in our journey if it hadn’t been for the ferry. As all the other passengers hung off the railings of the boat to enjoy the fresh sea air, Luke and I occupied the air-conditioned cabin and attempted to take a nap on the soft, padded benches. The ferry crossing took much less time than we had expected; however, and we were soon dispatched again on solid ground where there awaited dozens of vehicles packed with summer vacationers and college partiers who had congregated to receive passage to the very place we had just departed.
Worse than being confronted by the fact that we had clearly missed out on what we presumed would probably have been a really good time, we were now, once again a very long way from the top of a very tall mountain. It would be our worst climb yet. We were popping Ibuprofen like drug addicts and sweating like we were experiencing withdrawals. I’ve blocked out how long it took to reach the top, but it must have been close to two hours of straight climbing. The view from the top was spectacular and we felt incredibly accomplished for how far we had come despite the hard day of climbing. Unfortunately, no equivalent descent awaited us, and we continued high above the glistening ocean as our hunger grew with every rotation of the pedals.
Eventually we arrived at a gas station where we fueled up on snickers bars, cold water, and nuts. We sat on a bench across the road that was shaded by a single pine tree. It was the only shade we had come by since the ferry crossing. Happy to have found a place with food and a little shade, we made out for the city of Senj – our last coastal town before turning inland. Soon we passed by a series of restaurants and kicked ourselves for settling for roadside snacks rather than holding out for a legitimate meal. We continued to climb until finally, the road dropped off before us as if we had reached the top of a roller coaster. But on this ride, there was no loop-ti-loop to save our momentum and so we continued our dead drop for 10 – 12 kilometers before flattening out along the banks of the Adriatic Sea. With Senj in sight, we pulled into a beautifully situated RV camp, set up the tent and hammock, washed our clothes in the outdoor sink, went for a swim, ate dinner, had a beer, watched the sunset, and went to sleep. It was our first night apart.
The next morning was brisk. We packed up and left camp without paying (there was no attendant at the gate, but we admittedly didn’t try very hard to find anyone). Our last ride along the coast was a relaxing, cool 10 kilometers that took us straight into Senj. In town we grabbed some breakfast from the grocery store and sat down to eat along the docks of the harbor. The sea air felt great, and we grew nostalgic of our time on the coast, especially since we knew our trip inland would begin abruptly with our highest climb yet. In fact, the city itself lay at its base. It would be straight up for the next two hours. In anticipation of this, we stopped by a pharmacy to restock our by now depleted reserve of Ibuprofen.
This day, our fifth, would be Luke’s worst in terms of knee pain. The climbing certainly didn’t help things, but he grunted it out without complaining. It was a more gradual rise than any of the passes we had summited previously, but the end result was 700 meters in elevation change. An old abandoned hotel sat at the top, and we traversed our way around the overgrown and damaged parts onto the second floor balcony where we granted ourselves an extended snack break as a reward for our tiresome efforts. It had been a rewarding experience. The view from the abandoned hotel balcony offered us our last view of the ocean, and we simply sat there for a while to take it all in.
We had heard that inland Croatia was not very beautiful. But as we bombed down the other side of the pass, it became clear that one could not objectively compare two so different things. Moreover, comparing anything to Croatia’s coast is a good way to belittle that thing being compared. However, the rolling valleys and bucolic scenery which filled our field of vision on that ride down offered a promise of beauty still to come. Eventually, we leveled out onto the valley below where the road was aptly shaded and provided us an interesting change of scenery. We ate lunch in the beautiful river town of Otocac, inhaled a beer and pizza each, and immediately became very sleepy. It would be a very slow, hot, tiring 40 kilometers before deciding on a spot to camp.
We had chosen a nice looking spot atop a small grassy hill in a large rolling valley beset by mountains on all sides. In the distance we saw a paraglider descending into a field. It was a truly beautiful evening, and we were happy to be out in the middle of nowhere, away from the hustle and bustle of the coast. We had made it just to the outskirts of Plitvice national park and went to bed happy with our progress thus far. It was much more humid in the valley, which quickly manifested into dew overnight and drenched my hammock. Though it wasn’t particularly cold, the wetness chilled me to the bone. Out of desperation I crawled back into the tent with Luke, where it was much warmer and much dryer. The hammock never made a reappearance.
In the morning we made some oatmeal as we dried our wet gear in the morning sun. We set out around nine and quickly found ourselves inside the national park. With the wind at our backs we were cruising almost effortlessly into the heart of the park, where we hoped to unload our bikes and find a good place to nap. The map showed at least two passes along the way. In no time we had made it to the top of what was supposed to be our first climb. We had noticed a possible shortcut on the map that appeared to be just after the summit. Thinking the turn would come soon after our precarious decent, we set off down an 8% grade and covered a quarter of the park’s perimeter highway in less than five minutes. It was awesome! And, it was the first lucky break we had had – having come up the short side of the mountain and down the long side. Unfortunately, we had also missed the shortcut. Looking back over our shoulders, there was no way we were turning back now. So, we continued along the perimeter highway towards our next climb, which we could have easily avoided by taking the shortcut. We weren’t hopeful of having similar luck with this second mountain as we had had with the first. Luckily, the second pass was just as easy, with the longer, steeper side being the side we went down instead of up.
Soon we had made it to the Plitvice lakes. We changed, put our bags in the luggage room of the hotel, locked up our bikes, and made our way down to the lakes where we grabbed some lunch, a couple beers, and found a nice shaded grassy area where we soon passed out in our own drool. Around three o’clock, I forced myself to wake up. The Plitvice waterfalls are an unbelievably unique sight to behold, and as we had only another couple hours or so to kill before we would have to set out again, I wanted to have some time to see them. Luke was still sleeping, so I set off by myself to explore. No words can describe what I saw. Essentially, the interior of the park is a series of lakes separated on different levels, each spilling over into one another via hundreds of cascading waterfalls and streams. It was the single most uniquely beautiful place I have ever seen.
Luke and I met back up at the hotel after about two hours. I had been waiting in the lobby for at least thirty minutes or so, attempting to put out what had turned into a raging fire, originating from my failure to transfer funds to my checking account and over drafting as a result. It was a slight misstep that was interpreted by my parents as the trailer of some disaster movie. As I had not been able to check my e-mail for a couple days and was generally unaware of what had happened, my parents had called Peace Corps, Peace Corps had called the agency we had rented the bikes from, and when I finally did check my e-mail, it was flooded with messages from all three parties who had gathered together to form an impromptu search and rescue party. With that fire put out, we changed back into our bicycle gear, packed up, and got back on the road around six o’clock or so.
Not too far out of the park we found a town where we had dinner and soon came across a lovely public park where we eventually set up camp. The next day; however, we realized that it was in fact the back side of an enormous RV park, complete with showers, toilets, and a place to fill up our water bottles. We left this park the same as we left the first one – without paying. We had now made a habit of our outlawry. And, in that spirit, we got the hell out of Dodge. Our final destination was Karlovac, about 70 kilometers away. By one o’clock we had made it there, covering the distance of our entire first day in roughly three hours. There, Luke persuaded me to eat McDonalds against my better judgment. I must say though, those two McDoubles and Snickers McFlurry really hit the spot. As if to put the cherry on top of our gluttony, we bought a couple beers to enjoy as we laid down again under the shade of a willow tree to enjoy a long, deep nap, no doubt looking like two homeless men who had recently come to acquire a matching pair of bicycles.
Luke had popped a tire just before coming to our nap spot and we devoted some time to fixing it upon waking from our mutual slumber. Next we found an internet café, where I soon realized the fire I had put out was not as yet extinguished. Finally, after proverbially urinating over the embers of my erroneous figurative campfire, we set out to explore. Eventually we had dinner, ate some ice cream, and snuck back into the public park to find a secluded place to set up camp. Our best bet was a spot that offered the greatest cover, but that as a result was also clearly a frequented shit site for joggers who found themselves without any other option. It was smelly and mosquito infested, but despite the stench and circumstances of our camp site, I had grown to really love the town itself.
The next morning, we fueled up again at McDonalds, this time shoveling down two bacon egg and cheese biscuits, along with the compulsory Snickers McFlurry. The capital, Zagreb, was only 50 kilometers North East of our current location. Our last leg of the trip flashed by in an instant, and we reached the city center by eleven o’clock, still with plenty of time to explore the city. We arrived at our hostel, cleaned ourselves up, and elected for another long nap. I noticed, sometime later, a serendipitous Facebook post by my former grad school roommate who we had planned to meet up with in Sarajevo the next day, but who had apparently decided to visit Zagreb and had in fact been there for some time. Luke and I eventually made it out of bed to explore the city, having agreed to meet up with my other buddy, Tyler, later in the evening. We ended up spotting him cruising down Zagreb’s nicely paved streets on his skateboard and were pleasantly reunited. That night, our Croatian friends from RED Adventures showed up to confiscate their mud-speckled black and white bicycles they had rented to us and, after some convincing, the money we owned them. Our journey had come to an end. It now exists only in our memories, and in the words on this page.
Epilogue: Blurry and Hazy
The weeks and months that followed our trip are all a blur. Luke, Tyler, and I ended up spending three days in Sarajevo, mostly confined to our friend-of-a-friend’s apartment, enjoying the luxury of not having to do anything and resting our legs. Then, after enduring more than twenty hours on a bus through Bosnia and Kosovo, we had made it back home to Albania. Tyler and I crashed with Luke up in Bajrum Curri for a day, and then gradually made our way down south to Gjirokastër. It was great having Tyler with me, and having the opportunity to show someone from back home what my life has been like for the past year. I’m afraid though, that I wore him out. I too was worn out, and by the time he left, I made a promise to myself to stay in site for a while. It was good to be back.
Strangely enough, my return coincided with the Albanian government’s showdown with the armed cannabis drug-lords of Lazarat. The entire ordeal was a spectacle to withhold, but thankfully, not much of a fight. The government troops easily overwhelmed a small force of inadequately armed teenagers who had attempted briefly to keep their attackers at bay. Over the next couple of days, the government burned thousands of tons of marijuana, the smell wafting over to nearby Gjirokastër and inundating the nostrils of its residents. If there was such a thing as second-hand-high, we all certainly would have been.
Since that time I have kept my promise to myself, with the exception of attending a mandatory Peace Corps sponsored training in Tirana in mid-July. However, I must now relinquish myself of being obliged to that promise. Today, I set off to visit by brother, sister, and brother from another mother in Italy. I’ll try my best to follow up on that trip in a much more timely fashion than I’ve done with this one.
Here are some more pictures: