We cycle toured and explored the Balkans en route to Istanbul for the first time and we were blown away by the variety of scenery, the friendliness of people and in summer the fresh figs to eat along the way!
So having vowed to visit the countries we had missed out along the way we booked flights to Croatia, while also continuing our quest to leisurely tick off every country in Europe. As with all the best laid plans the trip didn’t quite work out las we intended…….
Dubrovnik has a brand new airport with an unexpected number of American tourists, the bumpy turbulent approach resulted in a bumpy landing and the traditional American round of applause as we pulled off the runway.
I didn’t realise that Game of Thrones was filmed here and new Game of Thrones tours had started up hence why American tourists are flocking here! We built the bikes and ditched the cardboard bike boxes while nervously hoping they didn’t cause a bomb scare as we rode off from the airport:
We rode the opposite way to the crowds, along gravel tracks hugging the isolated southern coastline of Croatia. No Germans in Speedos here just cliffs and azure blue ocean.
As we left the coastal singletrack we dodged sun bathing brown snakes and large green lizards darting off into the undergrowth. It was hot, much hotter than Scotland. Factor 50 was slapped on and fluids topped up to keep moving towards the Croatia and Montenegro border.
Located on a quiet coastal road we rolled up to the border point and waited in queue next to two smart AMG Mercedes in the line. Finally we had a stamp and were allowed past. After 6 years of travelling I had filled up my old passport and was excited to get that first stamp in this my brand new, expensive and probably final EU passport.
We had ridden around the Bay of Kotor in 2013 and while familiar the buzz of foreign tourists and smarter hotel developments were new from last time. The coastline had tidied itself up, but still there were reliable bakeries selling Burek (cheese pastry sausage) and marmalade pastries!
The large decaying ship was still there too as per the piture above, but this time around we would leave the coast and veer into the mountains behind it. We were going to explore just a small corner of the stunning Dolomite style limestone mountains here.
This is a small chapel on the peninsula and the Island behind it houses a similar sized church, it really is a stunning place to visit. Just out of shot is a gigantic cruise ship that destroys the illusion of quiet fishing villages.
After a ferry ride across the narrow bay entrance we rode towards the UNESCO listed medieval town of Kotor. The place where the cruise ships dock for tourists to explore the twisting narrow alleyways.
We camped beside the lake eating fresh Figs from the trees. There was even time for a dip in the sea before the sun set:
Day two and the climbing started. It went on most of the day. We left sea level and zig zagged up hairpins what felt like into the sky.
Did I mention it was hot? So very hot but the gradient was steady and progress was made with the help of sweets and water.
Ample amounts of graffiti were on each corner’s wall, some better than others. A good view was guaranteed at each corner.
At this point we were 26 hairpins in to the 1700m climb. Pretty smilar in size to Alpe d’huez. Like all gentle but long climbs we just went slowly and felt fine, hoping eventually we’d reach an ice cream shop at the top and guess what we did!
This was near the entrance to the Lovcen National park, there were a few gravel road options here but we kept on the quiet singletrack paved road and climbed higher – headed for the top of Vidikovac; a peak with a restaurant and a staircase up through a tunnel in the mountain, on the top is the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, a slightly surreal concrete structure. Not a bad stop to rest.
Below is the Mausoleum with outstanding 360 degree panoramic views of the Mediterranean to the Accursed Mountains and Albania.
From the descent we would have loved to wild camp in the peaceful grassland of the alpine meadows in the National park, but we had to make progress today as the climb had taken quite a large part of the day! We rode through the pleasant town of Cetinje then on towards Podogorica the capital of Montenegro. We managed to detour off the main highway along an old road. It was a great traffic free route, slowly decomposing from tarmac to gravel and with the safety barriers gone it meant you didn’t want to go wide on the corners.
Podgorica lacks much of an old architecture having been heavily bombed in world war two. The city is fine and was a good place to get food and sleep. Our host in the tucked away hostel we finally found,was really informative telling us that it was an incredibly young city, something evident on the streets. All the rural youngsters migrate here and seek work, the countryside has been abandoned with only the elderly left in parts of the north. It was better in the soviet days under communism apparently. We refrained from delving into political debate about the merits of Soviet Russia and socialism…..
We went to Kristals or dinner, not a seedy club but a bit of a Podgorica institution with good cheap food and cheap beer from Nikšić brewery, the only one in Montenegro. I also had a local dish of pork steak wrapped around local white cheese then battered and fried or baked. It was hearty and washed down with fresh salad for balance. It was a dish the Scots would be proud of. The beer was good and at €1.30 not a bad price.
We particularly liked the cycle lanes and how at each traffic light there was this novel cyclist stand to rest on:
After further research in we had realised that our original route across Kosovo to Serbia wouldn’t work. Kosovo isn’t recognized by Serbia therefore you can’t cross from Kosovo into Serbia still. Therefore we would need to detour south out of Kosovo into Macedonia to then get to Serbia or Bulgaria. This detour and the added miles was the reason we had missed a planned detour into Bosnia and the stunning mountain scenery there. However 6 countries in a week was still on…
To compensate for heading further south we decided to head into Albania and cross the Albanian alps. The obvious pass to climb on the map was from Thethi to Valbone however it didn’t have a road marked so we gambled we could hike-a-bike up to 1000m to take this short cut through these wild mountains. It was a risk that we wouldn’t make Sofia in time with this hiking detour , still unsure of the final route we set off for the Albania border to explore a country that had left a lasting impression on us last time. We had mostly a very positive ecxperience but the presence of organised crime was very evident in 2013. However it turned out to be pretty helpful when a textbook looking ‘gangster’ helped us lose the attention of a stone throwing shepherd – by simply stopping his car and looking menacing and the goat herder fled. We didn’t know what to expect this time around….