Watching the wheels

Two-wheeled explorations in the Balkan countryside

Two-wheeled explorations in the Balkan countryside

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Like many people I suppose, one of my earliest childhood memories was learning to ride a bike. I can picture it now, hurtling down the hills of the Scottish Highlands on a brand-new navy blue Raleigh, sans stabilisers and full of trepidation.

During the months that followed, me and that slick blue machine were inseparable. Twenty years on I no longer own a push-bike. In fact I rarely exercise and generally prefer the pub to the park on a Saturday afternoon. I was therefore perturbed to say the least, when a group of my fitness fanatic friends suggested we traverse the Croatian countryside on two wheels for a whole week last summer.

From the Bar to the Road

After a couple of anxious hours (and a few more beers), I eventually put my apprehensions to one side and agreed to tag along. With hindsight, I can’t believe it took me so long to sign up.

I booked my flight and spent the next few weeks perusing the internet for suitable equipment and the most garish pair of latex cycling shorts I could find. Lime green. Paisley. Jackpot. August finally arrived and I met my backpack-laden buddies at the airport. We proceeded to make like a banana and boarded our flight to the Croatian coastal city of Split.

High before the Ride

Upon arrival in the early evening, our charismatic cycling guide Matej greeted us with a great smile and whisked the group off for a quick tour of the ancient Roman city before pointing us in the direction of our villa, and the nearest bar. Several bottles of Karlovačko beer later, we staggered in high spirits, back to our private pad and prepared for the day ahead.

We groggily awoke the next morning, some earlier than others, and attempted to fill up on an array of baked pastries, cold cuts and coffee before Matej eventually introduced us to our 21 speed hybrid behemoths. With the sun creeping above the banks of the Cetina River, we embarked upon our inaugural ride, pedalling deep into the valley along narrow paths trodden by traders for thousands of years.

Flanked by steep cliff faces that occasionally gave way to glimpses of the emerald river flowing alongside, we arrived a few hours and 43 kilometres later at our destination, the port town of Omis, where we boarded a boat and tucked into a beef broth. The remainder of the day was spent lounging on the Adriatic island of Brac, recovering from the day’s cycling and applying dollops of aftersun between more food and drinks.

No Pain, No Gain

The following morning, much like the last, I awoke with a heavy head, only this time with the addition of inevitable aches permeating through my thighs and calves. If only I’d worked out occasionally in the weeks running up to the trip, I thought.

Regardless, I bravely dragged my jelly legs over the frame and strapped in for the second day on the trail. Upon being informed that the day’s journey would only be 22 kilometres I exhaled with relief, only to inhale with despair seconds later when told it was an uphill excursion.

The sea breeze, carrying the faint fragrance of lavender, helped slightly, as did the bucolic scenes of fig trees, olive groves and vineyards, but the ride remained a serious challenge. We were rewarded, however, by spectacular panoramas of the Adriatic ocean and nearby islands on our descent. By midday, the sun dominated the clear sky and appetites were running high. Fortunately, the delightful Croatian cuisine once again served its purpose and we set off for Korcula, the supposed birthplace of Marco Polo, bellies brimming with homemade pies and Pipi – a locally made orange juice.

The Last Leg

After an overnight stay on Korcula and an hour of early morning sightseeing, we set out on our longest trip of the tour, a 48 kilometre journey through the serene hills and dense woods of the island. We arrived in the historic town of Blato about mid-afternoon and decided to call it a day, collapsing around a table at a cliffside bar to watch the sunset with a glass of herbal rakia – the national drink and Matej’s favourite topic of conversation – accompanied by several servings of dried figs.

The following day, rejuvenated after retiring at a respectable hour, the group arose early to explore the almost traffic-free Hvar Island and its picture postcard villages on our final bike ride of the trip. Lunch was served in a rustic restaurant in the heart of Stari Grad which, legend has it, is one of the oldest towns in Europe (the name literally means Old Town).

The ancient settlement is home to a diverse community of artists and we spent the evening, at Matej’s request, attempting to indulge in local culture at the famous Theatre “Petar Hektorovic”. We had absolutely no idea what the amateur comedy troop were saying (which may not have been a bad thing), but the convivial atmosphere made for a memorable night and it was the ideal event to cap off an action-packed, jovial journey around one of Southern Europe’s most attractive and multifarious countries.

Croatian Culinary Delights

It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, but fabulous food is very much part of the appeal on a trip to Croatia. Here are five delicious local dishes to try while visiting the islands and villages.

  • Pasticada: Marinated overnight in red wine, sage and garlic, this delectable beef dish from Dalmatia is cooked in a pot of dried plums, onions, cloves and nutmeg before being served on a bed of homemade potato gnocchi.
  • Brudet: A traditional stew which includes various types of fish, brudet is the epitome of simplicity. Cooked in a single pot with only tomato sauce, the trick with this dish is to shake, rather than stir the stew.
  • Paski sir: A hard cheese made exclusively from the milk from sheep which graze freely on local herbs and aromatic spices, its reputation has grown considerably in recent years and it is now well-known to cheese lovers the world over.
  • Tartufi: Although this highly valued mushroom, which has the look of a truffle, is not common nationwide, the supposed aphrodisiac can usually be found in dishes such as omelettes and pastas in the Istria region.
  • Prsut: No Croatian celebration is complete without pršut, a dry-cured ham that is found on almost every menu throughout the country. Cut thin and long and usually served with paski sir, the best time to try it is during the winter months when it’s traditionally cured outdoors courtesy of the salty Adriatic winds.
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