The following is a reposted version of an article from Perceptive Travel by Tim Leffel.
Story and photos by Tim Leffel
Cycling through three formerly war-torn Balkan countries over six days means beautiful scenery pockmarked by sad reminders of the past.
t feels like we’re the only people left on Earth. There are no sounds, no people, and the buildings all look bombed out or long abandoned. As we park the bikes next to an old stone train station to stretch our legs, we hear a rustling sound coming from inside. It’s not a zombie though. A big cow lumbers out the front door, glances at us, then starts chewing on some weeds.
We’ve gotten here by bike, so it’s hard to believe that the night before we were in a different country, at the seaside, sipping a glass of wine with laughter around us in full cafes. In the former war zone of the Balkans, the countries are squeezed close together but a few miles can bring stark contrasts.
I’m on a tour called “Cycling the West Balkans Triangle” from BikeTours.com and Biking Croatia. In just a week it zig-zags through three countries and more than twice as many border crossings. From the Adriatic Sea of Croatia, around the Bay of Kotor, and through farmland of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it’s a challenging tour that rewards riders with some spectacular scenery and some history lessons.
I start out cranky, however, since our first night in Dubrovnik is not what I had imagined. The Serbs never conquered this city in the Balkan conflict, but they tried shelling it from positions above. Now there are invaders of a different sort: thousands of cruise ship passengers from around the world. Unlike the Serbs, they always make it through the old city walls, lumbering through the fortified city streets in huge clumps.
Up and Down on Two Wheels to Kotor
When we hop on our bikes just outside the city the next morning, as soon as we cross the border to Bosnia-Herzegovina we start climbing. And climbing some more. And then some more. On the first morning of our first day, the local tour operator decided four kilometers at an 8-10% grade was a fine way to loosen up our legs. I try to concentrate on the pavement right in front of me so I don’t have to see how far I must go. Every time I see a rare shady spot beside the road, I pull over for a rest.
One guy in our group flags down a support van that’s following us to the first hotel, but I make it to the top of the mountain without a ride and mentally pat myself on the back. After a picnic lunch of burek and another border crossing into Montenegro, we’re soon rewarded with panoramic views while gliding downhill to the Bay of Kotor. Over the next two days we are to circle the entire bay, seeing it all at a human pace instead of from a careening tour bus.
From a viewpoint we see Sveti Dorde Island, where there’s a monastery and a small graveyard. The other small island with a church on top wasn’t always there. Fishermen threw rocks into the water and then later sank boats to build an artificial island. The current church dates back to 1722.
Eventually we stop for coffee in Perast, the lesser-known UNESCO World Heritage city in this area, and collectively give thanks that we’re on a bike tour. We pass hundreds of tourists who must literally feel like a number: their cruise ship has made them put a number sticker onto their shirts so the guides can gather them up in an hour like cattle. As we sit at a seaside café while they hear the call to return to their bus, I think I see a little longing in a few eyes.
I’ve been looking forward to visiting Kotor for years after seeing photos. With its dramatic fortress on a steep mountainside and walls that are more than 1,000 years old, it makes a dramatic site with the jagged mountains behind it and the water in front. High season reality hits us in the face quickly though when we get caught in a traffic jam entering the city, breathing in bus and car fumes. There are two cruise ships in the harbor, but the passengers of many others are in for the day on tour buses from Dubrovnik. I walk through the 15th-century streets looking for quiet spots I can photograph with no people in them. I finally find one after taking some random turns and have snapped just one photo when a man with a megaphone rounds the corner holding up a sign. More than 50 people are following him through a narrow cobblestone alley like the Pied Piper of Hamlet.
“When do the ships stop coming?” I ask a woman who is hanging laundry, hoping she speaks English. “This place is lovely in November,” she says with barely an accent. She reaches into her apron and hands me a card for her guesthouse.
Around the Bay in Montenegro
Once we cycle a few miles down the road to Hotel Splendido though, it’s a different story. The view out my window matches the lovely photos I’ve seen for years, a blue swimming pool against the bay and the mountains, with ancient stone buildings on the shore. After a swim, I take a walk down the road and visit a church that’s a few hundred years old, beside buildings with walls thick enough to withstand invading armies. With five euros I buy a half kilo of cherries, two local dark beers, cheese, and some bread to watch the sun go down by the water.
We circle the rest of the bay and take a one-euro ferry to the other side to get to bustling Herceg Novi. We ride slowly along a pedestrian and bike path there, past gelato stands, seafront fish restaurants, and at least a hundred places to get a cup of coffee. The “beaches” here are really concrete platforms or collections of rocks, but the water is clear and beautiful.
This ends up being our longest day of cycling and the one with the most countries. We start in Montenegro, ride through Bosnia’s Konavle countryside, then after lunch head to the coast of Croatia. This trip has not been good for conserving blank pages in my passport that expires four years from now. Every crossing means two more stamps and I’m losing count of how many of these we’ve done. This despite the fact these places are biking distance from each other and we’re moving through an area smaller than the average U.S. state.
As we leave the bay, we climb a 10% grade for what feels like an hour to get over the surrounding ridge we came down from a few days earlier. Three of us groan, three just pump harder and conquer it.
There’s been a clear split in our group along the way. The guide loves to haul ass out front and there are two people in our group who love to join him. One of them is a female cyclist who has legs twice as muscular as mine. This is an easy trip for her. She and husband are on their own road bikes they brought along. They are wearing cycling jerseys commemorating a ride they did across the Alps in Switzerland, with all the elevation that entails.
I, on the other hand, am wearing one of two off-the-rack cycling shirts I own that don’t commemorate any great feat. My shorts have some padding, but they look just like regular shorts you could wear into a bar. I bike a lot, but in Florida, where the only hills are overpasses. While I’m huffing and puffing in the lowest gear, half the group is gliding up to the top like it’s a beach boardwalk ride on a cruiser bike.
As we ride through the countryside, we go by a few farm country buildings that still show bullet and mortar holes. It’s so serene around here that it’s hard to imagine that this was a battle zone during the Bosnian conflict. We hear a popping sound beside the road, but it’s not man-made. It’s an ongoing mystery that we finally identify when we make a stop: seeds popping out of pods amidst the wildflowers.
We spend the night in the postcard-perfect town of Cavtat, with yachts bobbing on the water in front of buildings going back to the 14th century. People have been living here since the Greeks founded it in the 4th century B.C. though and then the Romans and Slavs came after. It’s a great walking town, with a path around the peninsula leading to a bar perched on the side of a rock cliff, pine trees swaying overhead and the deep blue sea below. On both sides of the peninsula, restaurants face the water and some offer divine sunsets with the Croatian wine we all order up to celebrate our all-day workout.
"A little climbing today" in the morning starts with a half hour of pure uphill, but then we’re on that Ciro rail trail back in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Austrian empire built the railroad here originally when they ruled these lands, then abandoned it in the 1970s. Soon after that the war came, which hastened the decline and exodus.
Now the bees and butterflies rule, with an occasional squashed snake making me think I should be careful where I stop to pee. A sign outlining the work the UN is still doing to clear land mines gives me even more reason to stay on the trail.
Monks and Cold Caves
The end of the trail for us is the town of Zavala. We passed many abandoned train stations during the day, but we get to sleep in one here: the Zavala station has been restored and turned into a B&B. The town feels dramatic as we sit and rest: a Serbian film crew is making a historic TV show episode at the monastery from the 1500s, complete with men in armor riding horses
I take a walk up there later as the film crew is packing up and the only person around is a monk sitting quietly outside. (Is there any other way for a monk to sit?) We nod at each other and I check out the ancient paintings inside. As a group we go explore the famous Vjetrenica Cave, a long cavern complex that feels air conditioned at 11 degrees Celsius. Apparently it’s just right for the blind salamander species living in the pools.
When the film crew is all gone, the only sound in the small town is the music coming from the restaurant. After getting cleaned up we enjoy an epic saç dinner that has been cooking under hot coals in a fireplace for hours. As the waiter lifts off the lid, an aromatic wave of sizzling meat, potatoes, and spices makes us eager to dive in.
To the Long Wall and Oysters
“We will have some rolling hills today,” says our guide, so of course we start the day climbing up, up, up out of the valley to a border crossing atop a mountain back to Croatia. We roll through a mellow countryside with almost no traffic. There are so many butterflies that I start feeling guilty: some of them bash into my bike helmet when I’m rolling downhill. I’m starting to think we won’t see another soul not in a car when we come across a fruit stand where everything in it looks picture perfect. We stick with the seasonal theme and plow through a big bag of succulent cherries.
After a leisurely stop at a stone church surrounded by grape vines and olive trees, we roll into Mali Ston in the early afternoon. This duo of towns with the 15th century “Walls of Ston” between them actually make up the longest fortress system in Europe, at 5.5 kilometers. The thing to do here is to walk the whole wall from one town to another, but my usual exploratory impulses are drowned out when I approach the entrance gate high above town. “Are you F-ing crazy?” my legs ask me. “You want to give me even more pain, after all I’ve done for you this week?” In my mind my legs have the voice of Chris Rock and they get my attention. I forget that idea and go for a swim instead. I find out at dinner that the rest of my group made the hike, but after a nice seafood dinner with items from the local shellfish farms I’ve gotten over any feelings of missing out.
Blue Water and Wine on the Peljesac Peninsula
Our guide announces that the last day will consist of “rolling hills,” which means we’re going up and down mountains rising hundreds of meters along the Peljesac Peninsula coast of Croatia. Each climb up means heart-racing downhills after though, with gorgeous sea views and grapevines. We can see the mineral-rich wines get their flavor here, growing on the steep and rocky sides of hills. “There’s no irrigation here,” our guide at Grgich Vina winery tells us when we stop for a break and a tasting, “So the roots go very deep.” This winery was founded by Miljenko Grgić, the man behind Grgich Hills Estate in California, the vintner who beat the French in the famous blind tasting competition of 1976. In many ways, that was when the tables turned for Napa Valley .
It’s hard to get back on the bikes after tasting wines from this legendary figure, back on his ancestral soil. Sure, my legs are rock hard with muscle now and my lungs are used to the workout, but after six days of this, I’m feeling spent. I’m glad I’ve been able to shed some pounds while eating whatever the heck I want, but it’s clear I’m not in my 20s anymore.
We descend into the seaside town of Orebic and just like that, we’re done. This deserves a celebration, so the driver of the company van pulls out a cooler full of ice cold Orozco beers. I suck the first one down in five minutes flat and go for another, mentally congratulating myself for never having to get into that support van along the way. I think back on the beginning a week earlier when I said out loud, “I love this bike! It’s so fast!” Now I look at it like a regretted fling and say, “I am glad I never have to sit on that bike again.”
Dubrovnik in the Morning Calm
We spend the night back in Dubrovnik and I go to be thinking it would be nice to see the old city again, but can’t bear the thought of fighting cruise ship hordes again. So I set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and walk across the hill from my hotel on the port side to the historic section as the sun is coming up. I can count the number of other people I see on two hands as I get photos without any of them in it and enjoy the fortress in the glowing morning sun, with no sounds except waves lapping against the shore.
By the time I climb the hill up to my hotel and go up one flight of steps, I hear the Chris Rock voice of my legs screaming at me, “What, again? Really? You couldn’t figure out something better to do after finishing than walk up and down hills after six days on a bike?”
“Don’t worry boys,” I reassure them. “After breakfast, we’re getting on a bus.”