Did you know that I’m a Slav? I’ve just learnt it in Croatia. When I say that I’m from Poland, people immediately say: ‘Aaa, we are Slavs’. I was surprised that a random Croat feels fraternity with a random Polish girl because we share origin and we in Poland eagerly build walls and barricades between each other. But let’s not talk about politics.
1. Croatia started with the arrival of Aga. Aga is a friend who joined me for two weeks last year when I was cycling around Poland. She liked cycling as much as I did so now we’ll be travelling together for a while.
2. The plan was to cycle along the coast and visit all those beautiful ex-Venetian cities and towns. It was changed immediately when I realized that it’s August and the peak of tourist season and hordes of holidaymakers isn’t exactly what I like.
3. It results that Croatia is quite a big country. Or at least long. Long enough to learn some weired mixture of Polish-Croatian and start to like burek.
So let’s put it in some order:
Istria – Little Italy
Istria is that peninsula that hangs in the North of the country and not such a long time ago belonged to Italy. Olive groves, houses with green shutters, towns on top of the hills, Venetian belfries and locals commonly speaking Italian. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But Istria is also lines of cars from different countries on one, narrow seaside road and the town of Porec so packed with people that it’s impossible to walk its streets. Literally.
Unbelievable crowds on the coast is the first traumatic experience of Istria. The second: a ride through a Croatian camp site. Have you ever been there? I’ve seen something like that for the first time. A town of tents and camper vans for 15000 people. Shops, bakeries, bars, tennis courts, swimming pools, activity parks, beaches. Sounds like science-fiction. Everything in one place so those 15000 people mill around and most of them don’t even go beyond the gates. You can easily find nice, little San Lorenzo just next to it with a handful of tourists. Including Anna and Artur who will tell you about life in Scandinavia and give you some fruit.
Yes, I know that in Istria and on the rest of the coast there are a lot of beautiful places worth visiting. I will visit them some really cold winter when there’s nobody. Exhaust fumes and no fun from sightseeing make me change my mind immediately. We go inland.
Here life slows down, crickets sing and at night million stars shine. Here you can see elders in bars drinking neverending coffees. Here you can walk lazily the streets of Visjnan or Motovun and meet David who will invite you in for a glass of wine or tour cyclists from Holland. Maria will come out of her house when we are breathless pushing our bikes and offer coffee or Bozydar will give a handful of nuts. Here it’s good to have time and not to rush.
Northern Croatia – From Rijeka to Plitvice
OK, let’s face the truth: Croatia is mountainous. And the mountains are high. For me, anyway. When I say high I mean that it’s too steep, too hot and to hard to cycle so you push the bike. For 25 km uphill. That’s how we left Istria. That is the time when you imagine that beyond a bend of the road there will be a moving sidewalk, a special tunnel just for cyclists or at least a bar with a sweet prize. Unfortunately usually it’s banal and there’s yet another uphill. Pushing the bikes through the steep hills of Gorski Kotar for two days makes us appreciate cycling. And when we can cycle on high gear again life simply becomes wonderful. But the best thing is that after some time, maybe at night or in secret, condition comes and stays for good. It turn out that we can cycle next hills and even 10% ascent doesn’t scare us. The force is with us.
What is it like inland? Hmm, mountainous for sure. There’s Croatian St. Moritz. It’s called Fuzine and they make good lasagne here. It’s hospitable. Croatian cordiality is probably the nicest surprise for me here. It’s really easy to find a place for the night and even if you bump into a lady who lives alone and is afraid, she’ll still invite you in for a coffee, nut liquor and will give a bag of home grown cucumbers. There’s also a chance that you’ll meet a lady who will give you a glass of fresh milk and homemade cheese or a marriage from Rijeka will offer you lunch or Santa Claus will leave you breakfast by the tent. And there are Plitvice too. The visit in the National Park of Plitvice Lakes taught me two things. First: if you get up early, you’ll only queue for 45 minutes. Second: Decathlon rules. Seriously. I was there for a while and had a chance to see people from different countries.
Central Croatia – From Plitvice to Knin
Cycling this part of Croatia was like a short visit to the Moon and back. They call this region here Srbska Kraina – the land of the Serbs. Once it was inhabited predominantly by them but complicated Balkan fate changed it into an almost deserted area. The war made people flee their homes, the front line left houses burnt or with holes in the roofs. You’ll find here war graveyards, mine fields, empty villages, towns with broken windows and fences falling to pieces. Nature took its reign here. The trees made their way through collapsed roofs, pines grew in former backyards, still neatly divided by stone walls, ferns flourish on unploughed fields. There are long villages with only a handful of inhabitants. You can cycle 50 km and won’t find a shop, a bar, well, it’s difficult to find people. Those who live here are the elderly. They always tell the same story: war, fleeing and leaving everything behind, life on the coast (Croats) or in Serbia (Serbs), returning to their home land in their old age. They tell their difficult stories and impress with endurance. But don’t be afraid. They are kind to strangers. It’s here that Mara will give you some fresh goat milk, Milica will teach you to bake bread and show her village around and you’ll be woken up in the morning by animals’ bells or braying of donkeys.
Southern Croatia – From Knin to Imotski
Here it’s different again. First, it’s more densely populated so there are more places to drop by for a prize. Although generally Croatia won’t spoil you with some wide variety of snacks. Pancakes with Nutella are the most common option but apart from that you won’t find any fancy desserts or cakes. Secondly, the views are probably the most beautiful here. Sometimes the surroundings resemble more an African savanna. It’s just that instead of giraffes, you’ll see sheep. Thirdly, Croatia becomes narrower, so absolutely everybody will ask you whether you’re going to Zadar or Split because somehow nobody can imagine that you’re not going to the coast. Finally, Spanish League kicks off so if you can’t watch the matches, it’s good to know the results at least. And when there’s no wi-fi, you can always step to a bar on a rainy day and ask Tom in Hajduk Split T-shirt for the news. And learn that Arda Turan scored two goals and Messi one and get a free coffee. So one day I’ll definitely come back here to Croatia.