Croatia has some incredible coastal scenery, but in my experience, it was not the most enjoyable place to travel by bike. After spending more than a month in the country, I tried to collect a few retrospective thoughts and tips about bike touring in Croatia. As I mostly cycled on the Adriatic coast and islands, they may not apply to the more quiet and slightly cooler inland areas.
It certainly did not help that I visited the country during the peak tourist season in August. I can well imagine that Croatia becomes more enjoyable for bicycle touring in the mid-season in spring or autumn. It was 2020 though, and I can not picture what previous summers looked like. But in case you still decide to go in summer, here are a few tips on how to survive the Mediterranean heat, heavy motorized traffic and mass tourism.
Cycling in the summer’s heat
When arriving in Croatia in early August, I was surprised by the heat. I failed to cycle up minor hills and got dehydration headaches, culminating the day I got food poisoned on Krk Island. After a few days though, I caught up habits that made cycling in the sun a lot more enjoyable. I try to list them out here.
- My top advice to resist the heat is to always cycle a little slower than you normally would. In this way you will sweat less and save a lot of water.
- Always carry a lot of water. Along the coast, fountains are rare and springs virtually absent. I often stopped in bars and restaurants to refill my bottles.
- Cycle in the morning. Temperatures typically rise until noon, and stay high for the rest of the day. But in late afternoon, the sun gets lower and there is often a slight breeze.
- Get wet as often as you can. I bathed every 10 km at least, and did not wait to dry to start cycling again. Some even say that seawater is good for your skin.
- Wear long sleeves and trousers. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but again, the clothes will help you keep moisture on your body instead of sweating up your water reserves.
- Plan smaller distances. I often had a long break in mid-day, or cycled very slowly. Besides, you may discover that going slowly is also good for the mind.
Surviving motorized traffic
I thought the worst part of cycling in Croatia was motorized traffic. Croatia is not bike friendly at all. Bike lanes are a rarity and bike roads inexistent. Except for some gangs of old men ringing their bicycle bells at pedestrians on city sidewalks, cyclists are very few, be it bike tourists, road cyclists or city commuters.
In my experience, traffic was worst along the coastline between Rijeka and Zadar (including the busy islands of Krk and Pag) and between Split and Dubrovnik (airport), and on. Traffic was still intense between Zadar and Split but I felt that drivers were more careful there. I have never driven a car, but I believe the following rules helped me to survive the heavy traffic:
- Cycle minor roads wherever possible. These are often incredibly empty, and the earned peace of mind will be well worth the hills and detours.
- Go slowly and take breaks. Croatian traffic and dehydration or tiredness do not go well along. Be sure to keep enough energy to handle incoming cars.
- Get a rearview mirror. It can be mentally tiring to keep an eye on it, but the mirror will let you watch for cars approaching too fast or too close.
- Take space on the road. Paradoxically, this yields most cars to instinctively slow down and overtake more securely. On the opposite, cycling along the shoulder always resulted in motor vehicles overtaking dangerously close and fast, as if I was just a lifeless obstacle.
- If you use drop handlebars, avoid putting your hands on the top bar while in busy traffic, as this position will make you more vulnerable to being blown off the road.
- When vehicle shows no intention to slow down or keep distance, grab the handlebar firmly and bend down. This will give you more resistance to the blow and more force to handle the bike swinging in the eddies.
- Of course, wear a helmet and proper lightning at night.
Avoiding mass tourism
Croatia felt a lot like the Southeast Asia of Europe. Since the country’s independence from Yougoslavia and the end of the communist rule, many industries have closed, and the economy of Croatia has almost entirely relied on tourism. Between the oil refineries of Rijeka and the port of Polče, I saw very little agriculture and not a single factory. Unfortunately bicycle tourism does not appear to be part of this grand plan, the country instead promoting a more destructive form of tourism involving camping-cars, boat tours, capitalized natural sites and a lot of grilled meat.
Prices of cafes and restaurants are widely variable. For coffees I paid anything between 7 and 25 kunas (1 and 3.5 euros). I first pictured Croatia as a rich country, before understanding that prices are aimed at foreign customers and often unaffordable to the locals. Most people I met worked in the tourism industry, and I could not believe how most of them complained how few tourists there were, while my feeling was that beaches, roads, and cities were overwhelmed with tourists. It seemed that people worked very long hours in summer in order to make up for the rest of the year. Most everybody I met were professional in their jobs, but I had a hard time having deeper conversations with the locals.
- Certainly the best advice to avoid the crowds is to visit Croatia anytime but during summer, which will also spare you of the heat and, I expect, much of the coastal car traffic.
- Avoid large-scale camp sites. They are often soulless, totally impersonal, designed as camping-car parking space rather than camping space, and very largely overpriced (prices comparable or above Switzerland).
- On the other hand, there exist smaller, often older campsites, pricing around 50 kn per person. I often found those in the suburbs of secondary coastal towns, never far from the beaches.
- Wild camping is punishable by law but generally practised, including by locals who are less likely to get fined for it. If you do wild camp in Croatia though, please carry your trash and bury human waste. The country is enough of a thrash dump as it is.