Crna Gora i Crni Oblaci

It was Monika’s birthday while we were still in Zaton. It would have been difficult to find a nicer spot in which to stay to celebrate. Our apartment was overlooking a quiet little bay, the sun was shining, the views of the surrounding mountains were quite spectacular.

There was a water supply outage for the entire day, so Monika had to wait until the evening to get her birthday cake. The lack of any sort of cooking utensils, an oven and even ingredients made the birthday cake quite a challenge, so in the end I went for a ‘pancake cake’. I am led to believe it was worth the wait…

We spent our last night in Croatia with a host from warmshowers. His name was Marko and to say that Marko was an interesting chap is an understatement to say the least! He was born in Dubrovnik, left home at seventeen to make his own way in the world, moved to Canada where he lived for 48 years, before coming back to Croatia to try and promote tourism in a tiny little village where his mother was brought up. He told us about a huge number of business ventures he was involved in – everything from building housing for the workers of the Alberta oil sands project to collecting money on behalf of Che Guevara. He is the sort of guy who sees ideas, opportunities and ways to improve things everywhere, but more importantly does something about them, rather than sitting and waiting for someone else to come along and do something about it. He was a very inspirational guy and it’s a shame that we didn’t have the chance to spend more time with him. If you are a backpacker or a cyclist travelling from Croatia to Montenegro or vice versa, do not miss Marko in Mikulici!

The following day we packed up our tent, said our farewells to Marko and freewheeled (almost all the way) to the Montenegrin border. The border is perched on top of a hill next to the sea with quite spectacular views of the sea. Even if you have no desire to cross from one country to the other, it’s worth going to the border just for the views.

We were a little sad to be leaving Croatia. We felt like we had gotten to know the country over the last three and a half weeks. It had far exceeded our expectations. We had fabulous weather, met some great people and cycled through amazing scenery. We would definitely recommend it to anyone – please just don’t come in a cruise liner or a bus!

The road from the border crossing takes you into Kotor Bay, which is lined with quaint historic towns, one of which is Herceg Novi, where we met a fellow cyclist called Ian.

He is South African and set out on his latest bike journey from England in March. He is living on a tiny budget of around €6 per day, doesn’t eat much hot food and spends virtually every night in a tent regardless of weather. Seems like an extreme way to travel, if you ask me, but he seems to enjoy it. He was in Albania previously and wasn’t even planning on heading northwards, but someone recommended Dubrovnik to him, so he took a detour to go and see the place. His plan is to head south for the winter months – similar to ours – so I’m sure we will meet up with him again in the future.

After lunch with Ian, we continued on our path around Kotor Bay and we decided to stop in Orahovac and ask if we could camp in someone’s garden. Initially we were allowed, then we were to be charged €20 for the pleasure! She was an old lady obviously looking for the chance to fleece a couple of ‘rich’ travellers. We agreed on a price of €6, but in all honesty we should have said ‘no thanks’ and continued on our way. Another lesson learned.

The next day we passed through Kotor – which is supposed to be huge attraction in Montenegro, but again, cruise ships, thousands of tourists wearing neatly pressed knee length beige shorts with socks and sandals ruined the experience. We weren’t allowed to take the bikes into the old town (probably in fear of us knocking down the tourists), so I stayed outside while Monika went in to take the necessary pictures.

I was quite happy to be leaving Kotor Bay and the tourist trail. Our destination? – The mountains. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. All day it was up, up, up. There wasn’t a single section of flat or freewheeling all day. The views from up above were quite spectacular – made all the better by the fact that we had pedalled all the way.

This was a tiny mountain road with cows walking up the middle of the road, so you can imagine our surprise when a couple of tour buses squeezed past us! Is there anywhere those things don’t go?

After camping behind a mountain restaurant and shaking the ice off the tent in the morning, we set off to get over the mountain pass. We started off in freezing temperatures, but soon after the sun came out, making the last 300m climb, to the pass, warm and pleasant.

After a bone chilling two hour descent we were back at sea level right in the heart of the mountains. Life was very different in this part of the world. The villages are almost cut off from the rest of the country, with only tiny mountain roads as a means to get in and out. Buildings and houses are very few and far between and the ones that are there seem to have an abandoned look about them – even though there are people living their lives behind the walls and in the surrounding land.

We came to the village of Virpazar, right on the edge of Lake Skadar. It looked, from the start of the village, big enough to occupy us for a couple of days, so we decided to stay. Unfortunately we ended up staying for four nights, as thunderstorms rolled in one after the other. One of the storms knocked out the power and water supplies for eighteen hours or so. The rain was constant and torrential. There just didn’t seem any point in attempting to cycle in that sort of weather. As I said the village looked big enough to entertain us, but it wasn’t. It’s absolutely the smallest place you can imagine with an ATM! It has a shop, a bakery and two cafes and the previously mentioned ATM. I think I have been suffering from cabin fever. We have been out a few times, but as the village can be roughly navigated in a five minute period (we have done that at least four times), it doesn’t occupy us for long. Most of the time it’s been lashing, so venturing outside isn’t even an option. The tv has about three channels all of which are filled with stuff I can’t even imagine Montenegrins watching!

The weather looks better for Tuesday, so we plan to be off again on our bikes, heading towards the great unknown – Albania. We have received my conflicting reports about Albania. Some love it and wouldn’t miss it, others are so afraid of the reports that they cycle 180km a day just to get through it as fast as possible. I wonder which column we will put our names under…

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The Islands and the Skinny Bit of Croatia

We spent a day last week wandering around Split and seeing what it has to offer. Even though the old town is the main draw for tourists, it’s apparent that the whole economy of the town does not depend on tourism. Yachting and boating is a big industry here, although how people afford to buy, park and run these boats is beyond me.

Yes, there are souvenir stalls and the usual ice cream stands around town, but there is plenty of normal life going on, which is always nice to see. Having said that, today an enormous cruise ship plonked itself a kilometre or so off the coast and delivered thousands of elderly American tourists to town, which gave the place an odd vibe. No destination is particularly enjoyable to walk around when everyone in the town is a visitor!

Split has loads of history behind it and you could spend hours walking around all the old buildings and reading about how they came to be and what trauma they have suffered through the following centuries.

Or if you aren’t so inclined you can simply get an ice cream, go down to the sea front and look out to sea in the shade of a palm tree. Life is slow paced here, so you don’t feel the need to spend your day rushing around to the point of exhaustion.

Before we arrived in Split, we were pretty sure we were going to do some island hopping to move onto to Dubrovnik. Having frightened ourselves silly on our cycle on the motorway on the way in, neither of us wished to attempt trying to cycle out of Split and along the main road to Dubrovnik, so we planned to get the ferry from Split to Brac and onto to Hvar. We had been reliably informed that these islands are beautiful and since we are expecting another period of good weather, we thought why not go have a look. However, when we had a look at the ferry timetable – this was not possible, so we had to change our plans slightly. We would end up getting a ferry from Split to Vela Luka, on the island of Korcula and then another ferry from Korcula to the peninsula of Peljesac.

I hope jumping on some ferries is not regarded as cheating…?

The ferry to Vela Luka on Korcula Island took about three hours, during which time the temperature reached a brain sizzling height of 37 degrees.

The 45km cycle from the western port (Vela Luka) to the eastern port (Korcula) was much tougher than expected, due to the hills. Loads and loads of hills!

The following morning, the ferry was due to leave Korcula for Orebic on Peljesac peninsula at 0910, so we arrived at 0810, only to be told that the ferry was leaving in three minutes.

Who knows how these ferry schedules work, but at least we were there in time. Peljesac proved to be even more hilly than Korcula. It was up down, up down all day long.

After 60km of this nonsense we gave up and found a campsite to bed down for the night. The only problem was – the campsite was closed. We had cycled too far to let a closed campsite stop us! We weren’t going anywhere, so we decided we would camp there anyway. There were a lot of German tourists in campervans parked in the car park outside the campsite – clearly with the same idea as us (except they stayed outside the camp as we were pitching our tent inside the deserted campsite).

After dark, we went off with our water bottles to try and find some water for cooking and the following day – no luck. Unknown to us, some of the German campervan people must have been watching our comings and goings from the campsite with our water bottles, as a few minutes after we got back – now picture this, myself and Monika alone in this deserted camp ground in the pitch dark with only trees, spooky rustling of leaves and animals scurrying around in the undergrowth for company – out of the corner of my eye I noticed a silhouette about 15 feet away marching straight at us. My heart almost stopped beating and I made a squeak-like sound that I have never heard before, all before freezing in sheer terror! “Wasser” he called out, before pointing something at me. It took me what felt like forever to figure out what ‘wasser’ was. Water! He isn’t going to kill us – he’s giving us water! He obviously saw us return to the campsite with empty water bottles and thought he would be super helpful and give us some of his. In my still shocked state, all I could say was “Dankeschon” a couple of times, even though I should have appeared more grateful. But really, Mr Very Helpful German Campervan Man, in future, call out a good solid “Hello”, “Ola” or “Hallo” fifty feet away, instead of sneaking up on people in the dark!

Needless to say, sleep did not come easily after that.

The day we entered Croatia, we had Dubrovnik as a target destination. Back then it was over 750km away (by the most direct route) so it seemed like it would take forever to get there, but today we made it to within a handful of kilometres of Dubrovnik.

Another fun 50km of coastal road (and some lorries) we made it to the tiny little village of Zaton. We found some accommodation, hopped off our bikes and jumped into the crystal clear water to cool off from the heat. Absolute bliss.

After three weeks in Croatia it was finally time to visit Dubrovnik. It wasn’t that we were racing through Croatia to get to Dubrovnik, but Dubrovnik signals the end of our Croatian adventure. The old town of Dubrovnik is beautifully built and situated right on the very edge of the Adriatic Sea. The town is completely surrounded by massive defensive walls and from high above, the terracotta roofs completes the idyllic setting.

However, for me, that’s where the positive and the good stops. Dubrovnik is now a town that is geared 100% for tourists – mainly from cruise ships and tour coaches. There are thousands of people – all tourists – milling around this tiny little place. There is no character or atmosphere in the town. Everywhere you turn, someone is trying to sell you something whether it be, sea kayaking trips, excursions, food, souvenirs, tablecloths or other bits and pieces. There is not one single piece of information available that will tell you about the history of the town or any of the particular buildings.

I was in Dubrovnik for a whole day and I couldn’t tell you anything about it. I guess will have to go onto Wikipedia to find out more. It seems that the town is happy for all cruise ship/couch tour gangs to charge into town, take their pictures, buy lots of stuff and leave again, without getting to know anything about the place they are visiting. The prices of everything here were way out of our price range. We only bought an expensive ice cream, as all the real food would have cost us a night accommodation or about a weeks worth of our usual food.

You could buy tickets to walk the city walls, which I’m sure would have yielded some amazing views, but again, the prices were insane. We did see people up on those walls, but it appeared to be one long snake of people circling the city, so we are pretty glad that we didn’t bother with that.

Monika has a little bit of a soft spot for Dubrovnik, because she was here eleven years ago and have a good experience at that time, but I was very disappointed by Dubrovnik. From now on we will be trying our best to stay away from places that attract tourists in tour buses and cruise ships, as the tourists that come off these buses and ships tend to take over the place and ruin the experience for us.

Having said all this, Im sure if you can get into the old town of Dubrovnik on a day where there is no mass tourism, then I’m sure you will have a pleasant enough day – as long as you bring your own ham and cheese sandwiches – or a bank loan.

 

The Croatian Coastal Road

We spent a day relaxing in the old coastal town of Zadar which dates back to the 9th century BC. As with all towns of this age, it has had a chequered past. Most recently it was completely destroyed (only three buildings were salvageable) by the Allies in World War II, after it had been taken over by the Italians and then the Germans. The town was rebuilt by 1990, just in time for it to be become one of the many targets of Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavs Peoples Army in 1991. The town again sustained damage to buildings and its UNESCO sites. All of this is in the past now. The town has been fully restored to its previous state and looks fabulous.

There are hundreds of tiny cobbled stoned alleys in which to get lost, the sea front is completely free of tourism propaganda resulting in a great space to relax and watch the boats come and go.

After our day of sitting in the sun watching the world pass us by, it was time to get on the bikes again. As soon as we started it began to rain. And boy oh boy did it rain! Within half an hour the streets were completely flooded so we pulled off to the side of the road and sat under a motorway bridge for an hour or so. It looked like it was easing off a little, but this was just to tease us out of our hiding place.

The rain continued to come down in sheets and after 30km we gave up and decided to seek accommodation for the day in the town of Biograd. We found our accommodation, but after a while we wished we had continued cycling. The owner and proprietor of the guest house we were staying at was a little old lady and would not leave us alone. She kept talking to us in an odd mix of German and Croatian. For over an hour she hovered around while we were standing there soaking wet and cold desperate to take a shower and get some dry clothes on. We virtually had to push her out the door and close the door in her face to get some peace!

The rain continued unabated for a couple more hours. At one point it was so heavy that I was able to fill a litre bottle of water in about twenty seconds. But that’s what happens here, when it rains, it rains hard for a long time. When it eventually stopped, we sneaked out of the guest house – without being spotted by the crazy lady – and went into town to have a look around. There wasn’t much to look at to be honest. It wasn’t the sort of place we would have stopped if it hadn’t been for the rain.

The next morning, despite our best efforts to pack up and leave without being harassed, we failed. I have the feeling you have to get up really early in the morning to get anything past this woman! After another half an hour of listening to her jabber away (she still didn’t get the idea that I didn’t understand one word she said) we escaped. I can now understand how Frank Morris and his two compatriots felt when they managed to get off Alcatraz Island!

Our next stop was another historic town called Sibenik. This place seemed to be devoid of accommodation. We cycled around town for over an hour trying to find something, getting a bit desperate, when, finally, we were approached by someone in the street asking if we were looking for accommodation. After getting the price down to something reasonable, we were able to unpack and see what this new little town had to offer. Again the old part of the town is a nice little place with all sorts of nooks and crannies to wonder around in with plenty of stone cathedrals and ancient fortifications to admire.

The following day we cycled 60km to Trogir, yet another historical town. The road followed the coast the whole way and the sights were absolutely fantastic. The picturesque views of the blue/green water and hundreds of little tranquil bays sometimes made it difficult to cycle in a straight line!

It would have been very easy to stop and stare out to sea for the rest of the day. With the temperature just sneaking into the thirties all we wanted to do was to get off the bikes and go jump into the sea. Just outside Trogir, we found a cheap campsite, right on the Adriatic coast. We pitched our tent and then ran off to go for a refreshing swim in the sea. After our cool down, we managed to get into town, have a look around and watch the sunset behind the islands. All in all it was a great day and a route that we would highly recommend (at least on a hot sunny Sunday in October)!

Heading to Split from Trogir was every bit as bad as the previous day was good. It was a nasty narrow, fast road into the city. We managed to end up on the motorway (with no hard shoulder) for about 10km. Every pedal stroke was torture. I guess there is a very good reason why cyclists prefer the scenic route and avoid the major cities. It took about two mental hours to cover the 30km into Split and it felt like an entire day had been spent on those roads. When we managed to escape death on the motorway and found our way to the old town, we couldn’t find accommodation anywhere! People were quoting us prices for a night that we would normally spend in a week. I was just about to sit down again and let someone take pity on me and fix our problems, when a lady approached us and asked us if we needed accommodation. We were very happy to accept, as her guest house was right in the middle of the old town about a thirty second walk to the palm tree fronted sea front. Couldn’t have worked out any better in the end…

Our Thoughts on Hungary (Magyarország)

I have finally managed to get round to writing a little bit about what we experienced in Hungary. After a few changes to our initial plan, we are glad that we started in Hungary. The weather was fantastic and it was different enough from Ireland to feel like you are actually travelling but not so different for it to feel like we had landed on a different planet. Budapest was as expected. It had lots of culture, period architecture and buildings, mixed with some communist style calamities. The Parliament, the Castle, the Danube and the bridges across the river stole the show, especially at night.

If you are visiting Hungary – you will get away with English in Budapest, the but moment you move away from Budapest, no-one will speak English. German is spoken to some degree by everyone.

In most towns we visited there are ample cycle lanes and in the more touristy areas like Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, there are hundreds of kilometers of cycle lanes that take you pretty much everywhere you wish to go in the area.

The drivers are very considerate towards cyclists. In some circumstances, it appeared to us that, they would rather have an accident with another car than injure a cyclist! We felt safe at all time – not just on the roads – but in towns and villages. Crime doesn’t seem to be a major issue, public drunkenness and general loutish behaviour was non-existent where we visited. In general, everyone we had dealings with were very friendly.

Most importantly, for cyclists at the start of their tour, the countryside is flat – hardly a hill of note to be found anywhere. The scenery is mostly flat farmland – which was very pleasant for us to cycle through.

The Hungarian people seem very proud of their country. The streets were clean, the grass verges were largely free of litter. We would frequently see teams of people (both paid and volunteers) cleaning up any stray litter and pulling up weeds in the footpaths and verges.

The infrastructure is excellent. There are plenty of motorways and A roads for cars and trucks to get from A to B as fast as possible, but also plenty of small roads for us cyclists who want to enjoy remoteness and the scenery.

Prices for accommodation and food is reasonable (even for us) if you don’t mind hunting around a bit for the cheaper places, rather than going to the first place that you see. Prices for accommodation can always be negotiated – off peak season at least!

All in all, we had a great experience in our first country on our trip and would definitely recommend it to other travellers.

Lakes, Mountains and The Coast

After our day off in Sisak, we headed west to meet up with Jasmina – who kindly offered to take us in for the night – in Karlovac. The cycle there was fairly unremarkable apart from the fact that halfway along the road, the road builders forgot to turn up to work and didn’t bother to lay any tarmac for around 5km of severe uphill terrain.

Upon our arrival in Karlovac, we dumped our stuff off at Jasmina’s house and ended up back on the bikes again for a night time tour of the old town.

Karlovac was on the front line of the Croatian/Serbian war in the early 1990’s. Much of the southern part of the town was damaged and the smaller outlying towns totally destroyed. As you cycle through Croatia you can still see the remnants of the war – whether it be destroyed houses or occupied buildings still with the bullet holes in the walls. I have to remind myself sometimes that this was a very recent war. I remember seeing news reports, at the time, about the war and here I am cycling through the very same areas that were on the news during that time.

The next morning, we got an early start to head to Plitvice National Park. This is Croatia’s jewel in the crown as far as a popular tourist destination is concerned.

Unfortunately for us, the only route there is along a main road (which we normally do all we can to avoid). Again unfortunately for us, we were going along this road on a Saturday and not just any Saturday – the Saturday at the start of a long weekend as the Croatians celebrated their independence day. This was a horrible cycle – 75km along a fast main road, with lots of hills and fast moving cars/trucks/buses/camper vans whizzing past every few seconds. We definitely do not recommend this route for a pleasant day out on the bike.

We got to our campground in the early evening and finally got our stove working. Before we came out on this trip, we already had a gas canister stove that we had always used on our previous expeditions. For this trip we decided to go for a petrol stove – mainly because gas canisters won’t be available everywhere on our route – whereas petrol should be. Then about a month before our departure date, a friend of Monikas discovered a new type of stove – one that ran on twigs and small bits of wood. Having read up about it, we thought this was a good idea, especially as it negated the need to carry petrol bottles. We had read that travellers often complained about everything smelling of petrol, after a while, when using a petrol stove. Since petrol is such a dirty fuel, the burners and jets require a lot of maintenance and various bits and pieces need regular replacement. So anyways, we got this new stove shipped in from America.

Of course we didnt test it before coming on the trip (much like ninety percent of our stuff!), so we tried it out for the first time in Lake Velence. That was a spectacular failure. It kept going out and so we had no fire. In Plitvice National Park, we tried it again and it worked perfectly – like anything else, you just have to get the hang of it. Getting it started is the trickiest bit, but it turns out that dried pine needles is the very best thing to use to get the baby fire started. Even after a heavy night rain, we were still able to find dry needles and wood.

When we have used it a few more times, we will write a proper review on it, but for now, you can read all about it here.

The next day was spent at the Lakes in Plitvice National Park. It is a beautiful place. The lakes, waterfalls and scenery is amazing. The only problem is the bus tour groups! They come in their thousands, follow each other around like lemmings for a few hours (or seconds/minutes depending on the location) and get back on their buses again and move onto the next tourist attraction.  What a horrible way to travel. Apparently in July/August, the board walks and paths that allow people to move around the park is just one solid line of people all the way round the park – so if you plan to go – go out of season.

After the insanity of the crowds of people at the lakes, it was nice to get back on the bikes again and head through the mountains towards the coast. We decided to stop over in Gospic on the way to the coast to stay with Mile. We met him through www.couchsurfing.org. He actually works at the lakes and offered to take some of our luggage off us, so we could tackle the mountains without so much burden, but we politely refused, telling him that we thought it would be cheating.

This cycle to Gospic turned out to be my favourite day up until that point. The hills were brutal and the downhills were sickening (as you knew you were wasting all that altitude and were going to have to get it back later). The pace was painfully slow at times as the hills were so steep, but each time we made it to the top, we felt like we had accomplished something. We climbed well over 1,000m that day, but net altitude gain was just about 100m, so you can see how much wasted climbing there was. The scenery was amazing though.

Mountains covered in green/golden trees made the climbs totally worth it. When were still about 20km from Gospic, Mile caught up with us in his car and told us that he wasn’t actually going to be at home when we got there, but told us to go ahead and let ourselves in, cook dinner, get a shower and generally relax. We couldn’t believe it when we got to his house. The place was unlocked – key in the door – food in the fridge. It was such an odd feeling to walk into someone else’s house, take a shower, cook our dinner with their food and basically make ourselves at home. Mile had never met us before and yet he had opened up his home to us like he had known us all of his life. It was a real big eye opener to how differently strangers are treated in this part of the world, than they are where I come from. They are treated like a friend, rather than ignored. Everyday we come across examples of kindness and generosity that neither of us had never experienced anywhere else before.

Mile was an amazing guy with loads dreams and aspirations and a real zest to enjoy life. We can’t thank him enough for his hospitality and it’s meeting and interacting with people like him is one of the reasons why we wanted to travel – not just to see different places, but get to know the places through the people who live there.

Yesterday we set off from Gospic and headed toward the coast – to Karlobag. It was another climb up through the Velebit Mountains.

When we reached the Ostarijska pass the clouds had rolled in and it had started to rain – but that didn’t spoil the views across the Adriatic Sea and of the many islands off the coast.

Mile had told us that it was one of the most spectacular views in Croatia and he was not wrong! After leaving the summit, we descended the 928m to get back to sea level at the small fishing town of Karlobag.

It had taken us two days to climb to a height of around 1,000m and about 40minutes to lose it all. We did not turn the pedals or let go of the brakes once in the 20km descent. Everything was numb with wet and cold by the time we got to the bottom, but we had conquered the mountains, so it was all very much worth it! A very enjoyable two days in the Croatian mountains.

Today turned out to be one of those days. It was supposed to be 90km along a flat road to Zadar, but it turned out to be almost 100km along a very hilly road. At times it felt like we were never going to get there!

We did meet our first other cycling tourer today. His name was Jo from New Zealand. He has spent the last five years, working in New Zealand during their summer and then cycling around the Northern Hemisphere in our summer. He has been on the road since April and has been through South East Asia, China and now through Europe, making his way to Germany before flying back to New Zealand at the end of the month. As we were talking at the side of the road, another guy pulled up. He was from Brazil, but unfortunately, we didn’t find out too much about him as he was in a big rush. As we later found out – he was a bit crazy!

He was going in the same direction as us and we caught up with him about twenty kilometres later – just in time for him to give us dodgy directions, which resulted in all of us heading uphill in the wrong direction for half an hour – despite the fact that I knew the right way to go! It was great to meet fellow cyclists on the road though – it sort of reminds us that myself and Monika aren’t the only ones out there.

After what seemed like an utterly endless road, we arrived in Zadar just before dark, thoroughly exhausted and very much looking forward to our day off tomorrow.

Welcome to Croatia!

After a quick breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Phil and departed for Croatia. We crossed the border, got our passports stamped and were in a different country. Does this mean we are international cycling tourers now?

The weather is the same as Hungary – surprisingly – a hot 30+ degrees. After some 30km of cycling through nice flat farmlands and countryside, we reached the town of Koprivnica where we met up with our new couchsurfing host, Janja.

She was a super host. Very welcoming and friendly. We were given lots of home cooked food and made to feel very much at home. One of the big advantages of staying with members of couchsurfers is the local knowledge that they can provide. Janja went through our route and showed us great places that we should visit, which we will certainly do. She has similar interests to us, in terms of how travelling should be done and she will be very welcome on our couch should the need arise for her. Thank you, Janja, for everything.

In the morning – which followed another night time thunderstorm – we set off to Bjelovar. It was a cold damp morning and it was to be a day that the sun did not come out at all. The cycle to Bjelovar was largely uneventful, although it was our first experience of some of the hills that Croatia has to offer.

The route was very undulating – a 10% climb followed by a 10% descent. The descents were fun and after a while the ascents became fun too in a strange kind of way. It felt like we were being challenged.

As we approached Bjelovar, to meet up with our newest couchsurfer, Kris, it began to rain. This was the first time it had rained on us while we were cycling, but I managed to find a waterproof chestnut tree in the main town square to hide under. We eventually found Kris’ house and he immediately told us to make ourselves at home, take a shower if we wished and even use the washing machine, then he went off back to work and left us in his house alone after meeting us for only five minutes. Very trusting! He obviously knows what the power of a hot shower and clean clothes can do to a persons spirits. He too was a great host, he took us out into the town, told us a bit about the history of the town, bought us a beer and we chatted away about anything and everything. He then took us back to his apartment and cooked us dinner and then played a bit of his own music on the guitar. All in all it was a great evening and he is a fantastic guy. If any couchsurfer is in the northern part of Croatia, I would suggest stopping off with Kris on your way to Zagreb or further south.

In the morning Kris made us some Turkish coffee (I have never had Turkish coffee before in my life, but now I have had it twice in two days) – it’s very popular here, due to the Turkish influence on Croatian history. Once again we said our goodbyes to our host and we headed off on our bikes – to Sisak this time.

The early morning fog soon lifted and gave way to brilliant blue skies and bright sunshine.  The cycling was pleasant and relatively easy. As ever the heat was…well…hot! Just after one o’clock we found a nice quiet spot by a canal. It was very quiet. It was off the road, there were swans in the water and horses on the bank.

We got all of our food out, got the knives, plates and other lunch time items out of the panniers, laid them all out on grass ready to go. Next thing, a television camera crew turned up in a van, tripods came out, cameras came out and here we were surrounded by our jam, cheese and bread rolls. We felt a bit silly, but also a bit annoyed that the quiet spot we found now appeared to the centre of some breaking news event. As it turned out, they were just taking some shots of the swans and the water – probably for a slow news day – and we were once again left in peace to enjoy our lunch.

As usual the chaos really started when we arrived at the town. We had no couchsurfer organised for today, but we had noted the address of a hostel in Sisak so we could go straight there instead of having to hunt around the town for somewhere to stay. At least that was the plan! We arrived in the town, cycled round in circles for a while looking for the street, then decided to ask some people. No-one we asked (and we asked eight different people who lived in town) had even heard of the street or the hostel. It was like we were in the twilight zone! It turns out that between ten and fifteen years ago, towns and cities all over Croatia decided to get rid of any trace of the communist era and so preceded to change all the street names. Unfortunately nobody bothered to learn the new names of the streets and they are still referred to as their old name on a day to day basis. After a trip to the tourist information office (which was closed) we figured out the location of the street that this hostel was on. Hurray! So off we went. Before we got there though, I was stopped by a Croatian guy and his wife – who wanted me to give a short interview on camera giving my opinion on the cycle lanes in Sisak. It was a bit of an odd experience, especially because Monika arrived in the middle of it and had no idea what was going on!

An hour and half after we arrived in Sisak, we located the hostel! Only one problem…it was closed! Surprise surprise! It was half five, darkness would be descending soon, we had already cycled 90km and we had no more options. There are a couple of hotels in town, but they would have been ridiculously expensive. Monika wanted to try wild camping, but I was more inclined to start knocking on peoples doors and asking them if we could camp in their back gardens. It was around this time where I decided to sit down on the ground outside the closed hostel. Monika was not very impressed with my lack of activity, but I wasn’t going to move. I said to her “If I sit here long enough looking miserable, maybe someone will take pity on me and come over and sort me out”. Sure enough about two minutes later, there was some activity on the street with the hostel owners neighbours. There were walking backwards and forwards across the street to each others houses, some were pointing at us and it was clear that they were talking about us. One nice lady came over and spoke to us in Croatian. Apparently the owner of the hostel was at work in Zagreb, since she wasn’t expecting any guests today – since we hadn’t booked ahead. The neighbours had seen two tired, fed up cyclists outside her hostel and had given her a call, so she was leaving Zagreb now and would be here shortly to let us in. In the mean time, the neighbour had a key to let us into the back yard, so we could at least go in and relax. How do I know all this if the lady was talking to us in Croatian? Well it turns out that Monika can speak and understand Croatian! I did not know this! I knew about all the other languages, but Croatian was not one that I was aware of. I am constantly amazed that somebody can talk to us and Monika understands everything perfectly and is able to talk back, where I just stand there looking rather quite dim. It happened in Hungary, with Monika talking to everyone in German and now again in Croatia. Just wait until we get to Australia and I will be able to show off my Australian language skills!

In the end, it all worked out nicely. We are in our nice little apartment in Sisak and are planning on a rest day tomorrow, since we haven’t really had one for over a week now.

Our First CouchSurfing Experience

A few days ago we had a relaxing day at the thermal spa at Hevis. We spent three hours swimming around a naturally heated lake. Even though the air temperature was around 30C it was still much warmer in the lake than out of it, so you can imagine how hot the lake was. Apparently they have to add cold water to the lake to prevent their customers turning into human lobsters.

Feeling fully revitalised and refreshed, we headed off from Lake Balaton the next day, toward Nagykanizsa. There wasn’t anything particularly special about this town it was just a good distance for us to cycle to and to get a bed for the night.

Well that was the plan anyway! We arrived at the town and spent a full two hours hunting for accommodation. All the ‘Pansio’ seemed to be closed or massively expensive for us, so we eventually gave up on the town and followed some road signs for a campsite. As with most road signs in Hungary, the signs start a few kilometres before the actual service itself but then never reappear no matter how many junctions and roundabouts you come to. So despite loads of cycling and asking questions, the campsite did not materialise. And so back to town it was. We recruited the help of two young boys, who spoke zero English – to help us find somewhere to stay for the night, but unfortunately after following them around town they kept bringing us to places that we had already tried. Despite being unsuccessful, they were extremely kind, eager to help and funny too!

After cycling around a bit more ourselves, we were about to give up and splash out on one of the more expensive places – then we spotted somewhere that was open and reasonably priced, especially after getting the price knocked down a bit.

Our food hunt in Nagykanzsia, similar to that of our accommodation hunt, took a long time but was ultimately successful.

We virtually had a day off the next day. We had arranged to stay at a couchsurfers home in a nearby hamlet of Belezna about 25km away. Phil is an English guy who moved to Hungary just over a year ago. He was a good host and had plenty of interesting stories to tell. The village in which he lives is way off the beaten track, but if you are a either going to Hungary or coming from the opposite direction and are a member of the couchsurfing fraternity, he is definitely worth getting in touch with.