By David Ward
It was raining steadily, and as I climbed I kept wondering if I should head back to the hotel. I wasn’t prepared for rain, and I knew that descending in this steady rain would be sketchy. But, it was not cold and I had a goal: The crest of the largest falls in the Plitvice (pleet-vit-suh) National Park of Croatia.
My daughter, Jessica, works for the Foreign Service and as a result has lived outside the United States for the last nine years. So nearly every year my wife, Karma, and I go visit Jessica for a couple of weeks wherever she is then living. Of course, we take full advantage of seeing the country of her current posting and many of the surrounding countries when we do.
Currently, Jessica makes her home in Belgrade Serbia. On our visit this year, we decided to do a loop through Bosnia, Croatia and back to Serbia during which we planned to visit Sarajevo in Bosnia, and Dubrovnik, Korčula and the Plitvice National Park in Croatia.
For a bike, I was able to borrow one from Miloč, a Serbian friend of Jessica who works at the Embassy. Built up by him as a “city” bike, it was a mountain bike frame with no shocks, a straight handle bar and narrower high pressure slick tires. It was ideal for buzzing around town, and I decided it would serve nicely for my purposes.
The next day, we drove to Sarajevo. I got up early the next morning for my first ride of this trip. Riding a bike in a new place is exciting for me. Not only do I see new sites, but I get a feel for the area I explore, a sense of the lay of the land.
Don’t get me wrong. I love doing the tourist thing. What you see and experience on the tourist path are there for a reason. But on my bike, I get to see the locals as they head to work, do their early morning shopping, walk their dogs and open their shops. On a bike, I can cover quite a lot of ground, yet at a pace that allows me to observe all that is, and is going on, around me. I get to see and sense a place more for what it is than just what is on the tourist path. And I often come across some real gems I would not otherwise see.
Sarajevo is situated in a river valley running through the Bosnian mountains. We descended from those mountains as we drove in, and from that and the balcony of the apartment we had rented I could see the city rising up the steep surrounding foothills. I decided that from somewhere up in those foothills, I could get a good view of the city and I wanted to get up there. There appeared to be a road headed up that way, so I went searching for it. I never found it, and ended up climbing a very steep street. Thankfully, this bike had a granny gear, and I was in such a low gear that when I pushed a little harder, the front wheel would start lifting off the pavement.
After finally making it to the top, exploring this neighborhood and getting a great view of the city, it was time to head back to our apartment. As I started to retrace my route, I saw a road that headed down toward the town center, so I decided to follow it. It was fairly steep, but not too bad . . . until it took a turn to the left and became so steep I worried my brakes would not hold. Then it got steeper. It also got narrower which worried me as I feared it might just end and I would have to go back up this incredibly steep road.
It did, and I did. I knew there was no way I could ride back up this beast. So, I took off my cycling shoes and started pushing my bike back up this roughly paved road. It was so steep, I was zig zagging going up . . . while walking! I had to push about a quarter of a mile up this monster before I could finally remount and ride the last 100 yards to the top.
Somehow, I then managed to find the main road up to here and took it back down. By my return to our apartment, I had put in 13 miles. It was a fun ride, even considering my little detour down the mountainside and the resulting hike back up.
My next opportunity to ride came in Dubrovnik, Croatia, a tourist destination on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Here, our apartment overlooked the bay and Lapad peninsula to the north of Dubrovnik’s “Old Town”, the well-preserved and maintained walled old city. Our first morning here, I again rose early to ride. I descended to and pedaled along the bay and out to the tip of the Lapad peninsula. I then worked my way back by another route, arriving back at the apartment after a good ride.
Our next destination was Korčula, an island further up the Croatian coast. The morning after our arrival, I rode up the coast to Račišče, a small town that stole my heart. It is the quintessential sleepy little harbor town. Picture postcard stuff. Homes and buildings interspersed with a few restaurants and small churches sat on a harbor ringing the end of a bay. Small fishing and sailing boats were anchored in the water and a few people were out strolling in the early morning sea breeze softly blowing in off the bay. The whole ambiance of this ride and the arrival at Račišče was something out of the best travel guides
The previous evening, while strolling through the town of Korčula, we came upon two bike tourists speaking English. They were Mathieu and Valerie and were from Montreal. We visited with them for about half an hour and later had dinner with them at a nearby restaurant. We spent two hours eating and visiting during which they shared many of their interesting experiences from their trip which had started in Venice and would be finishing in Dubrovnik.
Our last destination on this trip, Plitvice National Park, is stunningly beautiful. It consists of a series of lakes ascending up a canyon. The lakes have been formed as a result of the build up of travertine walls in the river, forming hundreds of spillways and waterfalls. The lakes and waterfalls are set in a lush forested canyon. The day after our visit to this park I took my final ride of our road trip, the one I referenced in opening this column. The falls, the top of which were my goal on this ride, are one of the first sites you see when entering the Plitvice National Park.
It was overcast but dry as I dressed for my ride, but started to drizzle slightly as I walked to the car to get my bike. By the time I had my bike out and ready to go, it become a very light rain but the clouds looked ominous. I was beginning to wonder if I should pack it in. But the opportunity to ride here would probably never come again, so I hopped on my bike and took off. As I rode, it started to rain a little more and by the time I had covered the first 3-4 kilometers, it had become a steady rain. I was getting wet and I still had another 7-8 kilometers to reach my destination.
After a few more kilometers, the side road to my destination veered off from the main road and started to climb. It was now raining quite hard, and I was again wondering if I should turn around. But I was not cold, and I found that by staying far to the right the trees gave me some protection from the rain. So on I climbed.
Near the point which I thought should be close to my goal, there was a stream with a small, unmarked path alongside it. I dismounted, followed the path for about 50 yards, and came to the top of the falls. Goal accomplished.
By this time, it had stopped raining and, though overcast, it did not rain my entire ride back to the hotel. So, I was really glad I had pushed on. It had turned out to be a wet yet refreshing ride, one of the best of my entire trip.
After my ride, we made the long drive back to Belgrade. We had a few days left in Serbia, so the Friday before returning home, I went on an early morning ride with Andrew, a friend and fellow employee of Jessica. From his home we rode to Ada Island which sits in the middle of the Danube River. This area is a popular place for locals and tourists with a lot of restaurants, and walking and bike paths. We made the loop around the island, chatting about cycling in Belgrade, Balkan politics and the Bosnian war, and his migration from a classical guitarist to the foreign service.
On Saturday, we took a side trip to a scenic stretch of the Danube. While Karma and Jessica visited a very intriguing archeological site at Lepenski Vir, I spent time cycling along the Danube. In addition to finding a quaint little town tucked up in a side canyon, I saw signs for designated bike routes along the eastern part of Serbia. I also rode through 6 of 22 tunnels cut through the steep banks of the Danube.
It was a fun ride, but one made at the sacrifice of visiting this fascinating archeological site and museum. But that is part of the deal when bicycling on a vacation such as this. You have to make sacrifices to ride, and sometimes you question whether your ride is worth what you are passing up.
On Sunday, I took my final ride as we were flying out early the next morning. I wound through the Belgrade streets from Jessica’s apartment to Ada Island, taking an hour to find my way there. After looping around the island, I found a much better and more direct route to Jessica’s apartment. Later, I learned there is a bike path all the way from Ada Island to near Jessica’s apartment, knowledge of which would have saved me some time and made my ride easier.
But part of the challenge, and frankly part of the excitement, of biking in a city such as Belgrade is trying to find your way around. Most older European cities have narrow, winding streets that can lead you far astray from your destination. The more direct routes have way too much traffic, with no discernible effort made to enforce speed limits. But I have discovered a couple of things about riding in Europe. First, drivers have no issue with cyclists, and accept them on the road. Second, they are good drivers. Roads, garages and parking spaces are almost always very narrow, and Europeans become very adept at navigating narrow spaces. AASHTO standards? Forget it. A 3 foot berth between you and a passing car? In your dreams. But I have come to trust these drivers, a sentiment echoed by Andrew when I asked him about cycling in Belgrade.
So it was that our trip, and my cycling in Serbia and Croatia ended. It was a great vacation, one much enhanced by my rides. It is a wonderful and exciting world, and it is great to be able to enjoy these diverse corners of the earth on my bike.