I cycled from Dubrovnik to Makarska; Croatia turns out to suit me well. Soon it will turn out to be my favorite country in the whole of Europe.
But for now, our tent isn’t the same anymore since the bura wind played with it. Early morning after camp we head to Šibenik, another stunning walled town. At a very rainy day we decide to stay in another apartman. The reason is that the tent can’t protect us any longer against heavy rain and hard wind. It is because the rain falls with force out of the sky that I notice the charm of an old walled monumental city building. Somehow my attention shifts from architecture outside to the way of building inside: the thick paint on the walls is peeling, the broad wooden stairway makes a tiresome sound while the cracking of floors seems to whispers.
Apartmani’s are nice and luxurious and warm and cozy, outfitted with a kitchen and have many benefits over usual lodging, yet I prefer camping.
The camp spots are tremendously great. Whether it is because the population lives concentrated in towns, not a person really strays. It might be the nature itself, shattered with rough boulders, stones and hills. It could be the former regime, whereas earlier agricultural fields are now neglected and have become forestry patches. Shepherds seem not to exist so no one’s strolling through ‘our camp’.
One camp spot, and it’s surrounding valley, is divided in small plots by high walls. Those walls are erected by humans, and that must have been such a tremendous work that it might have been under some one’s dictator ship?
One camp spot has a soft grassy ground with purple flowers spreading around like fallen stars. Bores obviously come to find food, truffles perhaps. The ground is shoveled in places, by big tusks.
We speed through Zadar, head North towards Posedarje on the 56 road, and take a left. We spend the night along the road between bushes, and cross the Paški Most bridge. Then we find ourselves on an island, nearly a peninsula. And here it start: the uncontrollable beauty of Croatia!
We started the day with riding between lusty starting autumn colors, only pine conifers and leafy conifers. We meet with Alex, an American, one on a Surly bicycle who doesn’t see danger in chatting with us while parked on the bendy road.
The midday abruptly changes to rocky ground where sheep manage to graze, and then we cross the bridge and I feel thrown back to the Sahara. A feeling of being far away, from where I feel I better belong, takes over. A feeling of meaningless sneaks in too. I let the gushes of the wind-swept openness air my thoughts and focus on the peaks right of me, craggy mountain crests with hazy wooly clouds.
We have chosen for the cheese route, left aside the olive- and wine route. Most selling points are closed anyway, and cheese we get in the supermarket, the big advantage of not being in the Sahara. The road is lined with high reed, almost like sugar cane or bamboo. I think I see salt fields, sheep are trotting back home, a robin dart from branch to branch and deep orange trees are all part of our camp for the night.
The island of Pag is famous for its production of Paški sir, cheese made from the milk of the island’s autochthonous breed of sheep. I don’t think this cheese is extraordinary tastier than all the rest of the Croatian cheeses, but the sheep are here and that’s what matters.
Or? Maybe not so. Finding a place to camp becomes difficult now, since shepherds seem not to fancy walking with their herd. Instead the island is divided by man-made rock walls creating many pockets of rocky covered fields where sheep are held together. Each rock-fence has a rickety gate in a rather narrow entrance. And so we need to open a gate, enter unseen –difficult since the ferry’s just spitting out a new load of cars- and rearrange the rocky surface.
But then we have a clear starry night where lights flashes slowly down and horizontally through blackness. The Milky Way appears brightly in a heaven of quietness. Complete stillness. We are in Europe! We are covered, literally, and surrounded by nature. The kind of nature I prefer; rocky barren land with apparently little color nor life.
I love camping as only here I sleep perfectly undisturbed, and I awake in the most beautiful of places. Such that I think ‘I could have a little shack out here, that one little dwelling up here.
Up we are. It’s a constant climbing and flying down. The roads are void of many cars. Certain times I don’t know where I am anymore ‘is this Europe? It could be the Karakoram range in Pakistan.’ I stop and marvel, I gulp the surroundings in and feel I am transported back to Skardu, Baltistan. Then Spiti comes in view, but since I struggled on my bicycle over there I know I am in Croatia, on the island of Pag, not far from Novalja.
I am a very lucky person, to be able to do what I do. I realize it every day, although it fully comes to comprehension when Nature captures me, instead of the other way around. And here, I am totally aware that I am in place.
I look at the cars in amazement and pity, for how can they drive past this unrealistic stark beauty in a rush?
A ferry deposit us at the mainland, a huge climb to the road above us follows and 15 kilometers later we stop at a perfect camp ground.
We could be in national park Sjeverni Velebit, where the earth is red and the woods abundant. We were worried to cross, perhaps the island contained more beauty, but both roads and their surrounding are candies for the mind and eye. Although not all…
It is interesting to see how land is used in the past and overgrown now. We sleep at a soft grassy terrace growing out to be a forest, slowly becoming mature.
We stop to marvel, and see two cyclists coming up. It is Japanese Shinsuke and American Amanda of whom we all are impressed (although that might be a bit of an offence). Amanda is cycling on a foldable bicycle from Portugal to Dubrovnik. That is impressive. Like me, she uses a lot of oily grease on her lips, but Amanda smears it all around her face, which I find cute. As most Americans she is very talkative, Japanese Shinsuke has not much space to do his side of the story. But when she announce she is 60 years of age we all sigh in silence…
Is that an offence, to think someone looks good at 60? I would be if a 20 year old announce ‘you look fit and strong and quite beautiful still, and you are already 43!?’ Of course, I am fit and strong and beautiful. Why should I not be?
The quietness and softness of the surrounding nature disappears after a long downhill toward Senj. Here it becomes busier and more realistic. We are cycling towards Rijeka. Ton and I loose sight of each other again, where Ton takes the high road, a highway, I stay on the low road. Usually he awaits me if we have not seen each other for a small number of kilometers. When he is out of view for more than 7 kilometers I know something is going on.
After reconnecting at Plodice, a mega supermarket at the edge of Rijeka, we cruise into Tito Avenue, and on to an apartment.
“The bicycles are probably very… uh, expensive?”
For the owners of an apartment, the bicycles are not an inconvenience at all, they may go up and into a bright white heaven. And again I wonder how these women run their business of apartmani? Running this business seems often done by women. Are they accessible at all times? Do they alternate with flexible hours at office/work? Do they have so many apartments that this is their total income? Sometimes we are awaited by a woman sipping coffee at an opposite café. Sometimes husband comes along, but always we are welcomed warmly and enthusiastically.
We cruise along the 66 while I think we are going to Rupa on the 8 road. Turns out we are going around Istria the long way. Fine for me. The longer we are in Croatia, the better. I don’t want to be in Italy where civilization is chique and refined too much.
Leaving the city we cycle past people waiting for the bus, long harmonium vehicles stuffed with other people not wanting to pedal to work. There are no cycle paths to cycle on, no signboard betraying a culture of cycling.
‘Refugees welcome’ says a spray paint on the wall in Pula. I don’t see any refuges, as we don’t see any supermarkets. We do see a group of stray cats and we come back to feed them some sausages I don’t want to eat. There is an abundant farmers market though, and I leave the apartmani late mornings to buy pastries and fresh produce. Tom prepares a feast every evening, whether we have a kitchen or not.
Ton is almost hit by a car, the driver pulling in to the path of her house. We stop to mention she almost killed a person. She say’s ‘sorry’. And with that we continue, assured that people in Croatia just cannot drive a car properly. As the case in all former Yugoslavian countries! Yes I dare say that.
Since long, and for the first time upon taking the direction inland, houses are not built to suit the Mediterranean climate. Houses are to accommodate the people working in the factory. Similar functional squared houses with small windows and an exact copy of all the rest. Here aren’t apartmani for tourists but a rather steamy factory, and -hurray!- a shepherd herding a flock of sheep, and many donkeys grazing.
The route trough Istria is winding and over and down hills. It is a beautiful ride. Daytime temperatures slips down to a pleasant 12 degrees. Istria is showing its own beauty; hilly surroundings with small villages built around a church, it’s tower the tallest and wavering over the leaning old houses below. I see sheep, smell the distinctive perfume of the billie goats. Olives are picked by families, a ladder resting against the dry curved trunk. Grape plants are growing on every plot of private land. Tiny little houses are built between the walled fences, without using anything other than stones coming from the earth.
It is a feast of white and purple daisies. Yellow, orange, red and green are joining in the party called Mediterranean autumn. Gnarled dry trees, hardly any buildings, sometimes a church and for the rest Nature. Purity in Europe. This little round ball I took with me in my pocket, not knowing what is was. Do you know?
I am elated by off-season Croatia!
We peddle into Slovenia via a speedy downhill, leaving the forested area’s behind us. And a lot more than that… Then into Italy, where the next post is about. The last post for some time to come.
We cycled in Croatia for a month, 17th of October to 16th of November 2015