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Cycle Touring Croatia. We Love You, We Hate You

Cycle Touring Croatia
Pedaling along the Mickey Mouse campgrounds of the Istrian Peninsula in Vrsar.

As I nervously hugged the  strip of white paint while cycling along Croatia’s Highway 1, I checked my rearview mirror constantly and listened intently for approaching cars. With every distant hum of a motor, I either breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the sound of deceleration or held my breath in anticipation of a close call.

Please, please let this car give me enough space as it passes me.

I need this car to see me around the blind curve. I need this car to see me around the blind curve. Please see me.

Please, please, please, don’t let this car behind me think it’s safe to pass with oncoming traffic taking up his passing space. Oh God, he’s going for it.

Jen, pedal straight. DO NOT hit this uneven surface and fly into the road.

What the fuck is this oncoming driver thinking that he should pass this car while I’m in his passing space?

Before we departed on our trip, I told Dave, repeatedly “I am NOT going to Croatia in August. I refuse to join the hordes of sun-bathing tourists and pay exorbitant fees for daily necessities like food and shelter. We are NOT going to Croatia in August.”

So when we found ourselves cycle touring Croatia in August, we changed our plans in order to avoid the Dalmatian Coast. We became friendly with some Swedish cycle tourists we had met in the Czech Republic who warned us of the “testosterone-filled motorbikers, ‘tourist problem,’ and ferries that don’t take bikes.” They ended up renting a car to avoid becoming roadkill.

Cycle Touring Croatia
Our last views of the Croatian coastline before heading up, up, up into Slovenia.

After a month pedaling through Croatia, we developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the country.

Istria

We loved the Istrian Peninsula. Istria is a bit like the black sheep of Croatia – it’s super liberal (they voted in favor of gay marriage when the remainder of the country steadfastly turned it down), the residents consider themselves Istrian first before Croatian, and the language varies from the rest of the country. Formerly part of Italy, the bilingual region speaks Italian in addition to Croatian and often German and/or English as well. The region offered delectable delights like truffled everything, pizza that rivaled that of Italy, small, very local wines, and ripe, juicy stone fruits. Further, the shores of the Adriatic cooled our sticky, salty bodies after a long day of cycle touring in 95-degree weather.

We hated the busy roads filled with caravan-toting-absent-minded-tourists, careening-semi-truck–drivers, and the I’ll-drive-as-fast-as-I-wanna-Croatians. We cycled in fear for much of our tour through Croatia.

We loved the abundant bodies of water. Whether the Adriatic Sea, the calm and warm rivers in Karlovac, Rastoke, or Korana, Croatia provided plenty of natural resources in which to play.

Cycle Touring Croatia
Cascading waterfalls in the town of Rastoke, where we swam in the warm waters of the river.

The first few days were easy cycling thanks to the Istria Tourism Board who planted bike maps at regular intervals and provided wonderful well-labeled cycling maps in conjunction with their detailed website – some of the best we’ve seen to date.

The routes avoided the main road and we bounced along the coast, until our only option became either the main road or the mountain biking path. Generally, heavy touring frames toting a trailer aren’t meant for rocky dirt paths.

After a semi nearly squashed me into the grassy knoll on the side of the highway, we beelined for the mountain biking trails. From then on, we made every effort to pedal along any other route than the main highway, which included meandering through the hoards of dawdling tourists at the 1800-person capacity Mickey Mouse campgrounds, huffing and puffing up hills so steep that I stopped midway to take a photo in order to see the amount of sweat pouring from my face, and bumpy roads that tested the strength of my bike racks (all survived). We took a tourist boat from Vrsar to Rovinj, somehow piling our bikes, trailer and gear into the bow of the ship, cycled a whopping 5km one afternoon, and took a weeklong break in Rovinj, where we met up with friends and hid from the scorching sun.

Cycle Touring Croatia. Night time in Funtana.
Night falls in the town of Funtana.

Summer Heat

Braving the roads, the four of us continued on towards Rijeka, the capitol of the region, departing at 6AM to beat both the heat and the traffic. Busy, windy (both serpentine and blustery) roads with careless drivers and the desire to extend our days with friends ultimately decided our brief escape back into Slovenia.

Upon re-entering Croatia after about a week in Slovenia, we commented on how markedly different the drivers in Central Croatia were from those in the Istrian Peninsula, even in the capital of Zagreb. The traffic lightened, the truck drivers gave plenty of space when passing, and the tourists virtually disappeared.

That all changed after leaving Karlovac, as we made our way towards Plitvice, Croatia’s beautiful waterfall-filled national park. As someone who detests crowds, especially of the tourist variety, I had reservations about visiting the crowded destination. Friends, native Croatians, and Dave expressed our need to visit the national park, and I begrudgingly relented.

Cycle Touring Croatia. Rock jumping.
No real relation to this particular story, other than this photo was taken in Croatia, and Sora is super cute.

For two days, we pedaled alongside the constant traffic, and I my breath at the sound of each roar of an engine.

Leaving Karlovac, we quickly tired of fearing for our lives and ventured in search of side roads. Dusty, rocky, slippery, and hilly, we progressed slowly spending much of our time pushing our bikes uphill as the hot sun pounded on our backs.

One hour and a long downhill later, we decided to test the busy paved roads once more. Five terrifying minutes in, we found ourselves having to decide between the lesser of two evils: sharing the road with insane drivers or navigating the never ending hills of the countryside. In favor of our lives, we opted for the hills.

Dave stopped counting the hills when we reached number twenty four. I lagged far behind as I inched my way up and over the hills, exhausted. Parched and out of water, I asked a woman at the top of a hill to refill my water bottles, hoping that she would provide potable water. At that moment, I didn’t care. Diarrhea in exchange for water seemed a fair exchange at the time. She asked I wanted to buy their house schnaps. I made some sort of grunting noise accompanied by my defeated, sweaty, dirty face, to indicate that no, I did not want to purchase any grappa. Did I look like someone who wants grappa?

Cycle Touring Croatia. Sunset Slunj.
The sun sets beyond the hills that defeated us earlier in the day in Slunj.

Just beyond my water stop, I saw Dave and Sora walking sans bike, indicating that he had located our accommodation for the afternoon. We somehow mustered the energy to ride to Rastoke, Croatia where we cooled our tired bones in the river among the cascading waterfalls

On day two of our pilgrimage to Plitvice, we arose before the sunrise at 5AM in an attempt to beat both the heat and traffic. As we ate breakfast on our patio, we listened to the wave of cars travel the road on which we were about to embark. Where were all these cars coming from and where were they going?

With dread, we flew down the hill, making our way to the busy road towards the inevitable Mickey Mouse campground awaiting us near Plitvice. With just 20km to ride for the day, we arrived at 8:30, unloaded our bikes, erected our tent, and made way for the national park, 11 very long kilometers away.

Cycle Touring Croatia. Dave defeated.
Defeated, after a hard day of cycling in intense heat and spending an hour trying to locate our accommodation for the evening.

With the the fellow waterfall-peepers awake, we followed the droves of camper vans towards the lakes, filled with anxiety.

One impatient camper-towing tourist later and I called it quits. This particular driver found gallons of cascading waters over rocks so important that he felt it necessary to pass me with an oncoming bus. I clung to the edge of the road as best as manageable while still maintaining my balance. Had I wanted, I could have reached out and touched the car with a bent elbow.

Korana River

Shaking, I caught up to Dave in a parking lot and refused to go further. Just 7 km from Plitvice, we opted instead for a day playing in the smaller waterfalls of the Korana River that allowed both swimming and dogs, and was free. Similar to my beloved Opal Creek of Oregon, we waded through the shallow waters and leaped off of waterfalls, sans the tourist brigade.

Cycle Touring Croatia. Jen Playing in the Korana River
We skipped Plitvice, but I was more than contented playing in the waterfalls for the day.

The following day, our final in Croatia, we were faced with the terror of cycling along the truck route into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The only option for a border crossing, we had no other choice.

For hours the night before, we poured over maps willing an alternate route to appear. We asked several sources about other border crossings. There were none. During dinner, we counted the number of trucks compared to cars, as we nervously nibbled on pizza.

Overcome with trepidation, we set out in the wee hours of the morning light and made the left turn onto the truck route and the road to Bosnia & Herzegovina.

To our delight, a sidewalk guided our travels for the first five kilometers. The tourists continued onto Plitvice and the Dalmatian coast, while the trucks, few and far between, slowed to our speed and passed with caution. For the first time in days, we felt safe on our bicycles.

Cycle Touring Croatia. Heading towards Bosnia.
Looking onto Bosnia as we bid farewell to Croatia.

The hills dwindled as we approached Bosnia and the layered mountains in the distance beckoned us, welcoming our arrival.

Jen Sotolongo

Jen is the Chief Storyteller and Photographer for the Long Haul Trekkers. Born with the travel bug, she has lived in Spain, Chile, and New Zealand. When she’s not galavanting around the world by bicycle, she is running long distances in the woods, exploring nature, or whipping up delicious vegan meals. She is always planning her next adventure.

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