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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Biketour: Croatia - Bosnia and Herzegovina

In English / na engleskom

24 July – 9 August 2015

Most people who come to Croatia on holiday go to the beach. Even those who come on bikes often limit themselves to the overcrowded coastal road. But Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have much more to offer, sometimes in the least expected places. Here's one story of what one BicPop volunteer and her chums got up to this summer, (mostly) far from the beaten track...

Route: (Zagreb-) Sunja - Hrvatska Kostajnica - Novi Grad - Prijedor - Sanski Most - Ključ - Čađavica, Mrkonjić Grad - Jajce - Travnik - Kiseljak - Sarajevo - Jahorina - Pale - Goražde - Foča - Tjentište - Gacko - Stolac - Hutovo Blato - Metković - Ploče - Pelješac - Korčula - Split

Day 1 – 24 July - Sunja - Field somewhere after Novi Grad on the Sana

We needed to be in Sarajevo by 30th so took the a new bike-friendly train to Sunja to save a bit of time. After grabbing a snack we escaped from a loud guy at the cafe by the station who wanted to buy us a drink. Once on the road, it was very, very hot, but not very hilly luckily. We stopped for a drink in Hrvatska Kostajnica and whizzed along the River Una to Novi Grad, with copious advice from the border police on what places in BiH we should visit, none of which were on our route. Last time I went to Novi Grad it felt like New York compared to the depressive atmosphere on the Croatian side. This time it felt like Waikiki beach (probably): everyone was on the Una.

After grabbing a bite, we headed out along the Sana - avoiding the main road but soon hitting some gravel, flies and mosquitoes. Bad, bad, bad. Finally we came to a bridge and crossed to a field on the other side and set up our tents. Too bad that the construction works for a new bridge and flood protection system on the other side continued late into the evening. One of the builders swam across the river to talk to us, showing us where we could light a fire and inviting us for a beer.

Day 2 – 25 July - Field somewhere after Novi Grad - Another field by the Sana after Sanski Most

After a swim/wash in the Sana we got going... as far as the next cafe. Then a busy road until Prijedor... and after Prijedor. But at least after Prijedor there were more places to eat and swim, and we spent hours doing both. In early evening we got to Sanski Most. For some reason everyone there was getting married. We managed to escape without getting wed, but Ioana's knee started to give her problems on the uphill towards Ključ. We made it off the main road into the Sana valley and found a place to stop for the night, then did some leg exercises by moonlight.

Day 3 – 26 July - Another field by the Sana after Sanski Most - Lake Balkana

We woke up to the gentle patter of rain but it soon passed. It left behind a series of slugs though, including one on my sleeping bag and one in the toe of my shoe (urgh!)... We got on the road, which soon turned to gravel and didn't stop for the next 20 km. It was in relatively good condition and the valley was gorgeous, but Ioana's knee wasn't impressed. Eventually we made it to Ključ, a small town with a pretty setting. In preparation for the forthcoming 12 km uphill to Čađavica we had some lunch, and I narrowly managed to avoid having chicken put in my vegetarian pasta. After a few kilometres, seeing some people waiting for a bus, I suggested that Ioana might try to skip this bit rather than completely messing up her knee. Sure enough, a couple of hours later we were re-united in a restaurant at the top of the hill, ready to speed across the plateau towards Lake Balkana near Mrkonjić Grad. We hoped to find somewhere to camp, but found a fancy hotel and some wooden cabins, so we treated ourselves to a cabin.

Day 4 – 27 July - Lake Balkana - Karaula pass (Jajce-Travnik)

We skipped Mrkonjić Grad because it was down in a dip, off the route, but we had a good look round Jajce and ate some lunch there. Wanting to avoid the main road route to Travnik we opted for the direct route over a mountain. It started off as cute as could be, then the road turned to gravel, the houses turned to ruins, and soon we were in the middle of nowhere with only mosquitoes and horseflies for company. Level gravel turned to uphill gravel, uphill gravel turned to steep uphill gravel, the 6 km to the pass never seemed to diminish, the 100 vertical metres still to go turned into at least 500, rain started to fall (for a few minutes), dark started to fall.... and then it finally happened: the hill levelled, a meadow revealed itself, the lights of Turbe/Travnik were visible in the valley below, we put up our tents and made the best polenta ever.

Day 5 – 28 July - Karaula pass to Kiseljak

It wasn't the most restful night's sleep... Ioana and I both woke up when we heard a vehicle passing and wondered who could be up here at this time of night, feeding our imaginations with paranoia. In the morning, to our great surprise, the place became abuzz with activity. At least two cars and two motorized saw vehicles passed, then on the way down the hill we met first three women, then a guy with some cows and a child, then another guy. And then... a village! Asphalt even!
There followed a blissful downhill with a blissful spring, and a bit later a stop at a blissful cafe. The main road from Turbe to Travnik was a bit less blissful, but Travnik was as cute as ever.

Ioana in the meantime had got her cycling knee back and we speeded along for the rest of the day to Kiseljak. Given the lack of obvious places to camp we stayed in a rented room.

Day 6 – 29 July – Kiseljak - Sarajevo

After stopping at the Kiseljak spring for some mineral water, we managed to spin out the 35 km left to Sarajevo very successfully, visiting the freezing Bosna Spring and Ilidža on the way. We only just got to the centre before dark, again. We stayed with a friend, Boris, who kindly hosted us, enabled us to wash our clothes, and gave us some tips on how to avoid the main road to Jahorina the following day.

Day 7 – 30 July – Sarajevo - Jahorina

Despite the shortness of the route (around 27 km) we managed to make it last all day. First we pushed our bikes up steep Sarajevo side streets for what seemed like several hours before landing at a restaurant with an amazing view and having great trouble leaving.

When we finally shifted our butts and pushed our bikes up more hills, eventually we got to the surreal concrete ruins of the bobsleigh run from the 1984 winter Olympics and a refreshing spring. A bit further on and we finally got to some asphalt and actually rode our bikes. It wasn't to last long though, as we spotted a mountain hut sort of place and decided to stop for a drink. Within a couple of minutes Ivsha had somehow figured out that the guy there works for Greenways and knows some people we know, and a bit later it turned out I'd actually met him once before... We sat and talked to him for a while, then it started raining so we sat and talked some more. After a break of about three hours we finally left, armed with some massive meaty sandwiches that they insisted on giving us.

After a whole lot of uphill, we made it to Jahorina where Ivsha was going to help with organising the Jahorina Ultra Trail. We stayed next to the old-school Hotel Bistrica in a make-shift camp organised for the race. The only guy to have arrived before us told us to watch out with our tent as he'd had to move his during the night due to strong winds and had a massive rip in it due to dogs attacking his tent for the food inside.

Day 8-9 – 31 July-1 August – Jahorina

He was right about the winds. There was a storm in the early morning and the weather stayed crap all day – not much good for drying our clothes. Ioana and I bought an all-day ticket for the swimming pool in Hotel Bistrica only to find that it was actually quite cold when the sun wasn't out. A wave of nostalgia for the British seaside hit me as I sat on a sunlounger with one towel over my legs and another round my shoulders. After various trips to the reception cafe, restaurant etc, we at least managed one more swim before discovering the 80s-tastic world of Club Bistrica, where we tried our hand at ping-pong, darts and billiards under the watchful eye of a big cuddly Vučko (mascot of the 1984 Winter Olympics, still very popular it seems). We rounded off the day by trying out the local apricot and quince brandies.

With better weather the next day we hung up our clothes to dry and walked up to the Ogorjelica peak (1919 metres), occasionally being passed by Ultra Trail participants looking knackered. We took a ski-lift downhill and landed by the Ultra Trail finishing line just around the time that Ivsha was finishing his mega-shift of measuring times and generally solving problems.

Day 10 – 2 August – Jahorina - Goražde

We whizzed downhill to Pale, met up with Kaja who was joining us for the second leg, then after a minor uphill had kilometres and kilometres of beautiful downhill. Our idyll was broken when Kaja got a flat tyre. Ivsha and Kaja stayed behind to fix it and Ioana and I got ahead and found ourselves on some z-bends going uphill. We stopped at a spring where an old guy told us we had 14 more km of uphill (gasp!) but that there was a spring in the next village 1.5 km away. The former turned out to be about right; the village though was 6 km up the never-ending hill. It started going down at times but then continued up again. Just when we were getting utterly, utterly sick of it, we came out at a pass with a rainbow, some horses, an old man with some goats and a view that made it all worth it. Kind of. We continued downhill and found a hotel run by the local hunters' association – not my first choice of places to eat but it was surprisingly nice. Then we continued on something that the waiter had described as “all downhill”, which involved a stretch of gravel as well as quite some uphill. Finally we got to Goražde, which still looks quite a mess at the edges but was quite lively in the centre. Unfortunately dark was falling so we pressed on to find piece of grass to camp on rather than checking it out in more detail.

Day 11 – 3 August – Goražde - Tjentište

Since we were camped on a random bit of grass by a road we made a quicker start than usual, stopped for some breakfast, and then arrived in Foča, where Kaja bought a new tyre. We continued past Brod na Drini and looked for somewhere to take a dip, and sure enough we found a restaurant which had a way down to the river. We had a freezing dip, ate some lunch, then waited for a storm to pass before continuing. A Chinese guy appeared on a bike with hardly any luggage. We continued uphill towards the pass into Sutjeska National Park and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

Day 12 – 4 August – Tjentište

We stayed in the camp by the swimming pool that claims to be the largest in Europe, fed by the Sutjeska river. It might well have the largest frog in Europe as well. We didn't actually take a swim as we managed to find a guide to take us to the Peručica primeval forest (it's prohibited to go unaccompanied) and spent most of the day there. The forest itself was great but the best parts were the viewpoints towards the Skakavac waterfall and surrounding mountains. Kaja went off to look at the monument commemorating the Battle of Sutjeska in 1943, and joined us later at the restaurant run by the guide's wife. The conversation with the guide started well with a super-entertaining story about preparing his cousin's marriage proposal but somehow ended up in on the war, inter-religious relations etc. Again. Sigh....

Day 13 – 5 August – Tjentište - Meka Gruda

After a long breakfast and a flat tyre before I'd even begun, the day started beautifully, with a gradual uphill through stunning scenery. Just beyond the national park boundary we stopped for food and met a guy on a bike called Matt from Manchester who was participating in the gruelling Transcontinental Race from Vlaanderen to Istanbul and needed some chain oil. Ah, that might explain the Chinese guy as well, though he looked much fresher...

We had to get up to 1300 m from around 550 m and then go through a 2 km tunnel, so it took a while, but then we had an excellent downhill to Gacko. I've been to Gacko before but this time it was even more depressing than before. It's not only the lignite power plant or the dusty open-cast mine, it's also the sheer run-down-ness of the place, the derelict Hotel Metohija, the dryness, the nationalist graffiti... We had a drink and stocked up on food there before continuing on our way into the great Herzegovinan rockiness.

Along the way we met our third Transcontinental cyclist (Karl Speed), who was wearing a neck collar after being hit by a car in Slovenia and was having some kind of problem with his front wheel. He asked if we knew where the next bike shop would be.... bad luck mate!...Amazingly, he got to Istanbul ... I never thought he'd get further than Lovčen.

In the middle of all the stone we found a vrtača (karst dip with soil in the bottom) to pitch our tents in, just by the delightfully named village of Soft Lump.

Day 14 – 6 August – Meka Gruda-Stolac

Soft Lump, by some miracle, turned out to have a cafe and a small shop, so we had a morning coffee and some kind of breakfast before a few hours of scorching until Kaja got a flat tyre. We stopped for lunch in the metropolis of Berkovići and then continued on a huge downhill, eventually joining the river Bregava going down into Stolac. Having read that there is a proper campsite in Stolac I was itching to settle there and wash my clothes, but at first site it didn't look like anything special, just a big gravel lot with some cabins and containers, and I felt a bit disappointed. It turned out that its appearance was just due to it being new though. The owner had planted a lot of saplings but they hadn't grown too big yet, but apart from that it was great. There was a washing machine, place to cook, shelter from the rain that had just appeared, and it was just by the river where we took a quick dip in spite of the rain and saw some river crabs.

During the evening we learned from the owner that someone from Zagreb called Marina had passed by bike the previous day, on the way to Dubrovnik... must be the one and only Marina K, my colleague from the bike workshop! What a coincidence.

Day 15 – 7 August – Stolac - Korčula

Kaja, Ioana and I set off at 07:30 to make sure we got to Korčula that night. We had some hills to climb in the first part of the journey and wanted to get them over with, and indeed it was hot, hot, hot. Ivsha was planning to catch up with us on the way. We had a breakfast break in the very cute centre of Stolac, where the Ottoman town centre is being reconstructed. It was gradually destroyed over the centuries and then finished off during the last war, but it's starting to look pretty good again.

We topped the first hill, then the second one, stopped in a village to get some water, continued and were disappointed to find yet more uphill. Up we went, up, up, up. We finally reached the top but then the road turned to a gravel track. We stopped to figure out what was going on and then Ivsha called. “Where are you?” “Good question. Somewhere at the top of a hill on a gravel track”. “Aargh, you've made a wrong turning, I'm already in Metković.” We whizzed back down the hill we'd just spent ages climbing up, collected more water from the only people we saw on the whole stretch, in Brštanica, then took the turning we should have taken, passed Hutovo Blato and headed for Metković as fast as we could. Which wasn't that fast actually - we had to stop in a cafe and drink lots of water and Cedevita. Yes, after 12 years in Croatia I've finally discovered what this mixture of sugar and artificial vitamins is for. Bingo!

While we were there, Ivsha discovered the unwelcome news that the last ferry from Vela Luka on the island of Korčula to Split no longer leaves at 16:30 as it did during our trip there last May (and we thought that was early...), but now leaves at 13:45, so after this Herzegovina sun-and-rock-fest today we get to wake up at 06:00 am tomorrow... great.

We made it to Metković, grabbed some bakery products, then Ivsha went ahead to briefly meet a friend in Opuzen while Ioana and I did our fastest sprint of the whole tour to get to Ploče. Kaja was feeling drained from the surplus uphill and wanted to get a better look at the Neretva Delta, so we agreed that we would go on ahead, and if she caught up with us, fine, if not, then ok. A merciful rain shower refreshed us along the way and we got to Ploče in time to have a drink before the ferry set off to Trpanj. The ride over Pelješac was uneventful, and after a quick dinner in Orebić we got a ferry to Korčula and pitched our tents ready for a short sleep.

Day 16 – 8 August – Korčula - Vela Luka - Split

We set off early as planned, the first hills went ok, but when we got to Pupnat, neither of the cafes were open... better luck in Čara at least. The section to Smokvica was great but getting to Blato took forever and felt like a bit of a desert. We only saw about two cars along the whole way and one of them managed to bump Ivsha's bicycle as it lay on the ground, deforming the seat a bit. Blato was a lot nicer than its name “Mud” would suggest, with a tree-lined avenue in the centre, but we lost some time waiting in a queue in a shop behind some Czechs who bought at least 100 litres of wine. Nor was the downhill to Vela Luka as much downhill as a remembered it ... but we did at least get there on time to have a quick lunch before the ferry set off.

Only once we got to Split did we have time for a swim, but at least we finally managed it before eating some dinner and getting the train back to Zagreb. After a couple of hours additional sleep at my place we had a mighty closing breakfast and went our separate ways.

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