As the tourists desert Croatia’s stunning coastline this September, Stuart Wadsworth sets off to explore by bike and ferry. Along the road from Trieste to Dubrovnik he is smitten, and bitten, in equal measure…
A pleasant tail-breeze was blowing, a herd of sheep were braying by the side of the road, and the sun was beginning to move slowly but unerringly down towards the horizon; a glowing red disc that had warmed us all day as we had made our way over the boney, arid, hilly landscape of Pag towards its capital, Pag town. Following the green and luscious geography of Rab and Krk, this lunar landscape had come as quite a shock; the micro-climates of the Croatian islands producing, within a matter of kilometres, a geology and psychology so utterly different that you feel you may well have crossed into another continent, or universe, by mistake. Old women work on the island’s speciality, lace cloths, weaving by hand in the time-honoured tradition by the side of the street in Pag town as children play and old men sit in the shade and talk, sipping local wine, smoking, chatting, watching the world go by. Time here has not got the same meaning as ‘Westerners’ are used to. No one is in a hurry. This may sound like tourist book cliché, but in the case of Pag, it really is true. The added virtue of being on a stark island with few tourist attractions is that there are few tourists, especially in the month of September.
September is one of the best possible times to visit Croatia. The sun’s blazing heat has begun to subside, the tourist crush has disappeared, and you have your pick of hotel rooms and restaurant seats, while paying up to 50% less than the peak summer months. By bike, crucially, you have roads to yourself and you can feel free to explore one of the finest coastlines in Europe, if not the world, unmolested by speeding holiday-makers and traffic fumes. We had started our trip down the Dalmatian coastline in Trieste in Italy. From that elegant commercial port city, we had passed through the sliver of Slovenia containing pretty Koper, and then embarked on a cruise through the rolling, fertile peninsular of Istria, taking in the beautiful old fishing villages of Porec and Rovinj, sleepy and welcoming, and the historical port town of Pula on the way. The feeling of really getting off the beaten track and discovering Croatia hadn’t begun however until we stepped on board our first ferry, to the island of Mali Losinj. From that point on, it felt like we had left behind the real world for three weeks.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about combining cycling with island-hopping that you can only really understand if you do it yourself; I had experienced something similar ten years previously on a trip around Scotland’s Western Isles. A sense of freedom perhaps, of really being the master of your own destiny, flirting with land and sea, and watching an ever-changing landscape go by before your eyes and under your wheels like a particularly interesting film or music video… all you need to do is provide a suitable soundtrack. All being well at this time of year, you should have pretty much guaranteed sunshine; unfortunately, our first week had been rather windy and wet and Mali Losinj’s dramatic landscape was experienced in a grey mist with damp clothes forever clinging to my skin as persistent rain fell. Arriving in Krk via ferry from Mali Losinj, all that changed, and for the next three weeks we were to enjoy almost unbroken sunshine and temperatures hovering around the 25 degree mark, combined with light sea breezes. In other words, perfect cycling conditions. Mosquitoes were our main enemy, especially in hotels at night, more so for my cycling companion than myself, his blood for some reason proving more attractive than mine. Krk and Rab were pleasant, hilly, picturesque islands, but in places, especially Krk and Rab towns, were still quite touristy, with a few too many middle-aged German holiday-makers to be considered truly idyllic. Arriving in Pag was a lovely contrast. The 63km wide karstic island is a strange moonscape defined by two mountain ridges, patches of shrubs and a dozen or so villages and hamlets. There are peaceful coves and bays for swimming around the main towns of Pag and Novalja, and indeed as a cyclist one of the most welcome sights after a hot and sweaty day of lugging your machine over the challenging gradients of Dalmatia is an azure sea bay with nary a tourist in sight. The simple pleasure of having a cooling dip and drying off on a towel on a (usually) pebbly but deserted beach becomes almost heavenly.
As we moved southwards from Pag back on the mainland, vegetation once again became more abundant. Fig, cherry, orange and olive trees line roads, and no one is around to stop you from taking your pick of the burgeoning fruit trees lining a great deal of the coastline. Taking in first Zadar, a stately city overlooking Ugljan and Pasman islands, and then Sibenik – a beautiful and ancient Mediterranean harbour, dotted with ochre-coloured rooftops and featuring winding old cobbled alleyways – before arriving in the spectacular water world of Krka National Park, with its stunning karstic rocks dotted with deep canyons and waterfalls, we were briefly back on the mainland. For the main part however we managed to avoid the busy coastal highway, taking minor roads and tracks all the way down to lovely Split. Possibly the pick of all Croatia’s stunning Dalmatian towns, Split’s personality is like its climate: warm and welcoming. Its café and bar life is the most lively outside Zagreb, and it features enough tourist attractions to keep you happily wondering around for a couple of days, particularly Diocletian’s Palace, one of the most imposing Roman ruins in existence.
Back on the ferry – Split is a major port for several islands in the region, most important of which are Brac, Hvar and Korcula – we started to near the end of the trip, but the warm September sun wasn’t in danger of abating. The contrast of these islands, laid out like dominoes in a line north to south, with the more northerly islands (particularly Pag) could not be starker. They receive the same, if not more, sunshine but (especially in Hvar’s case), are luxuriantly green and verdant, with brilliant patches of lavender, rosemary and heather. The fine weather is so reliable that hotels give a discount on cloudy days and a free stay if you ever see snow (which does occasionally happen but is a neat marketing trick since there are no tourists in winter), Hvar town is a real gem and arriving here, we felt like laying down our bikes and staying for days; as it was, our tight schedule only allowed us a couple of nights, but it was enough to take in the surrounding splendour. The town lies between protective pine–covered slopes and the Adriatic, and its fascinating little cobbled alleys, Gothic palaces and whitewashed cottages seemed unchanged since its 13th century city walls were constructed. The traffic-free marble streets are a joy to wander around, and you can see why its buildings are so lovingly and carefully constructed as you observe its stonemasons (famous on this island) at work. A stroll up through the trees takes you to a vantage point where you can take in the town’s bay, which is dotted with a little archipelago of circular islands stretching out into the inviting blueness of the sea.
Leaving Hvar was tough, as it was arguably the highlight of the islands that we saw, but the end was in sight; a ferry-ride (the longest of the trip) saved our tiring legs, and took us in super-quick time – around three hours – to Dubrovnik. The city, which lies some 300km south-east from Trieste as the crow flies (but about twice that or more the way we went) lies on the thin strip of coastline at Croatia’s southerly extent, a barrier between neighbours (and foes) Bosnia and the sea. Only fifteen years ago, Dubrovnik was being shelled, and its famous red roofs took quite a battering in the Balkans war; now, after loving restoration work, you would never know. This may be a bone of contention for less touristic cities in Croatia which still bear the scars of that time, but nevertheless it has to be said that Dubrovnik’s charms are such that you forgive her this vanity. Dubrovnik is a city where man’s presence can arguably be said to have enhanced nature; what was already spectacular (a natural harbour protected by the little forested island of Lokrum) is enhanced by impressive city walls enclosing a profusion of stunning architecture dating back over five hundred years. It was truly the perfect setting to end the trip and kick back for the our remaining three nights, exploring the warren of alleyways and getting lost in the medieval streets with its vibrant café culture, sampling seafood and sweet local wine to our hearts’ content.
Our trip had taken us around three weeks, and we hadn’t cycled more than 80km on any one day; our average was about 50, though we had a few days out of the saddle too. Our biggest gripe, along with the mosquitoes, was the hills – Croatia can be unforgiving for the inexperienced cyclist – but a few days in the saddle soon gets you fit, and I am certainly not in peak condition. Despite being well-known, the beauty of Croatia is just how easy it still is to get away from tourists, and, though admittedly not at the bargain prices of ten years ago when the country was still trying to recover its tourist infrastructure, it’s still at a much more affordable price than say Italy or France. The amazing thing is I feel like I have only scratched the surface on my trip – there are over a thousand islands on this coastline, enough to keep you occupied for a lifetime if you so wished. We didn’t even discover beautiful Brac or Korcula, unspoiled Vis or Bisevo’s fabled Blue Grotto. The lure of those treasures means that I’ll gladly do battle with insects and 12% gradients all over again.
This is not the first time Urban Travel Blog has got on a bike, so check out what happened when Michael Bailey attempted a two wheel tour of Armenia’s stunning monasteries. Or read up on Duncan Rhodes’ adventure on a Soviet-era Rog bicycle in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
All photos by Henry Wasung.