The culture shock between Slovenia and Croatia was much stronger than that between Austria and Slovenia. While sipping a last morning cappuccino in the quiet campsite campsite among the hills in Pivka, I did not imagine that I was headed to a completely different universe. After a few kilometres on the bike, there was a last little pass, and the road plunged into Adriatic Slovenia, and soon after, Croatia.
Busy roads and five-star parking lots
The border between Slovenia and Croatia was my first staffed checkpoint since leaving France. My face mask was very useful to queue in the middle of exhaust gases until the identity control. Nearly half of the cars waiting to cross the border had German plates. I did not really understand whether the online form I had filled in Lubljana had any use. After the border, the vegetation became more Mediterranean. I thought of having lunch in the pine forests but I wanted to see the sea, so I cycled down the last 400 metres of elevation on the increasingly busy road, until abruptedly it stopped, and the landscape was all blue. I had reached the Adriatic Coast, something I had looked forwards over the last 2000 km. The sea below was deep blue, the sky was completely cloud-free, and there were distant blue mountains on the horizon.
I picked-nicked on a busy beach where I took one of the last little shady spots. Around me though, most others seemed to have opted to expose as many square centimetres of skin as possible to the scorching sun. I thought they were mad, but they probably thought the same of me, cycling around with my 40 kg bicycle in the Mediterranean heat. A little later, I was entering Rijeka on a busy construction site. The place was not really photogenic, and traffic was queuing behind my bike, but I found a little spot by the workers’ toilets to immortalise the fact I was now 2000 km from my starting point.
Within a few kilometres of cycling along the coastline, I quickly understood that the next 2000 km of the tour would be nothing like the first part. The landscape had new colours, the light was different, and it was really, really hot. For every slight uphill, my face became a fountain of salty sweat running into my eyes. I was running out of water. At the same time, I tried to keep my attention focused on the motorised traffic, of which I wondered where it all came from. I had been warned by other cycle tourists about traffic along the Croatian Coast and indeed, to drive around your car looking for a beach appeared to be a rather common summer activity in Croatia. The alternative was to drive around your bike watching for cars.
I’m often asked whether I am not scared while bike touring. There are a couple of things that scare me, but the one thing that clearly makes the top of the list is motorised traffic. In Croatia, cars and trucks seemed in a rush to get somewhere, and often overtook me dangerously fast and close. A few kilometres after crossing the impressive double-bridge to the island of Krk, I was riding at 25 or 30 km/h in a downhill. I have no idea what went into the truck driver’s mind. There were a few horn blows which sounded like friendly cheers, and then the double-trailer passed so closed I was blown off the side of the road. Adrenaline rushed in. My bicycle started swinging in all directions on the gravel, and I called on all my strength to try to keep the handlebar straight. Suddenly there was a large rock a few meters ahead. At this moment a picture came back very clear into my mind. There was water spilling of the mountain side in a blind turn. A cyclist had pushed the breaks at the wrong moment and gone flying over the handlebars, landing unconscious on the asphalt. It was a couple of days ago at the Fusine Lakes. The woman in her sixties had been unconscious for a while and apparently woke to a broken jaw, splitting blood on the pavement. I am not sure what happened but my bike did not hit the rock. Not this time. The truck driver went on like nothing happened. From then on I swore to myself I would never take my eyes off the rear-view mirror on Croatian busy roads again.
I had promised on the country internet entry form to sleep in Omišalj. I had a temperature shock when entering the campsite’s reception, a tall, air-conditioned glassy building which I thought must be one of the coldest places in Croatia. After asking whether there remained space for a small tent I was invited to choose between Gold, Silver and some other precious-metal parcels, the cheapest option of which costed something like 60 euros. I looked at the receptionist again, and again at the price list, then the name of the place, camping, and again at the receptionist. “Really?”, I asked. “Well, we have five stars”, she replied. I tried to picture grassy green pitches and top-soft soothing flowerbeds that would shape around my sore muscles better than a veteran Brooks saddle. But according to photos I had seen, the ground looked rather rocky. “Well, no thanks”. I was too tired to ask what this was all about. I left the place accepting that five-star camping places were another mystery of life I would perhaps never elucidate.
I was exhausted and dehydrated, but I cycled another 10 km to the next campsite in Njivice. This campsite had only four stars, and the receptionist told me that I would pay only about 20 euros (saving an extra 30) if I accepted to sleep in the tent zone. Not only was this still one of the most expensive places I had slept at, but tent zone turned out to be a small parking lot in the middle of the camping complex so big, that even after going thrice to the toilet I still struggled to find my way there. As if to ensure that guests would have the worst possible experience, the entire place had been covered with little white rocks that leave sharp marks in your tent mat. Actually I could not even pitch my tent, so I had to sleep without the roof. The place had been clearly designed as a holiday parking lot for camping cars, and the primarily spoken language was German.
The only thing this parking had for itself was the Adriatic Sea, and I must admit this was a huge plus. The water was about as warm and salty as the liquid that had run down my body the whole afternoon, so it was easy to get in, and the bath made me so much good I almost forgot my anger. I went for dinner in the village, and ordered the saltiest dish I could think of. The four-star parking also had a lounge with live music. The musicians appeared to be talented, but bored to the core by what they were playing. When I went back to my tent, I was suddenly glad it wasn’t pitched, for there was a bright street lamp right above it. Another very strange design idea to which I had not paid attention. But then I could just move my tent to a different parking place.
Learning the beach cycling life
The next morning, I was apparently the only parking guest to enjoy an early sea bath. In order to survive the Croatian heat, I decided, I would need to change my daily routine. So far I used to have a slow start in the morning, take a good break around lunch, and settle somewhere in the early evening. I would try to set off earlier, avoid cycling in the heat of the day, and aim for a quiet spot to camp at night. Camping in the wild would not only allow me to avoid crowds but also save me money to enjoy the local foods. This was settled matters, and the morning’s decision felt as crisp and sharp as the first light of day hitting the rocky beach. What followed was an all different story.
I still wanted to do a day tour of the island. So I packed all my gear, had a chat with the receptionist about camping prices in Switzerland and tenting on grass versus sharp rocks. “But we have four stars”, she argued. I kept it a secret for myself that I saw many more through the open roof of my tent.
I cycled to the island’s main, picturesque city of Krk. The primarily spoken language was German, and they were restaurants at every corner. I normally don’t eat much meat but decided it was time to try Balkan grill meat, which had teased my nose for a few days now. I ordered a grills mix with chips. When the plate arrived I directly understood that my afternoon’s plan to bike and hike the island’s highest point would at least need to be postponed. The mountain was only 500 m high but with this heat, its arid top seemed more distant than any Alpine pass. Besides, the plate I had in front of my eyes contained more meat than I typically ate in a month. But since I hate to waste meat, I ate all I could, and then sweating like a steak, did the only thing I could think of, which was to head for the nearest north-facing beach to cool down.
So I took a shaky forest road and ended up on a rocky shore with pine trees, turquoise waters, and a view on the island’s highest point. The kind of place that probably fill the German tourist magazines, I thought. Now I have to confess, the sea shore is a new environment to me. Through work and holidays, I had been lucky to travel much around the northern hemisphere, but mostly to mountains or cold regions, and typically swam in lakes only when I could no longer bear my own smell. In full daylight, the Adriatic Sea seemed live with hordes of little things hiding in the sand. Now expert beach-holidayers would probably have been the ones laughing at me if seen me so carefully entering the water while looking at my feet.
I sat in the shade to let a few hours go by, swam again, and by 17:30 I was beginning to cycle up the mountain. At 50 metres elevation I became a shower of meaty sweat. At 100 metres my remaining drinking water had nearly ran out. Since I did not want to finish as a dried piece of tourist meat roasting around my steel frame like a cycle-kebab on top of Krk’s highest mountain, I took a left and cycled towards the town of Vrbnik, which apparently hosts the world’s narrowest street, and stopped in the first bar where I ordered a full litre of sparkling water.
I filled up my bottles and headed for a quiet inlet to set up camp. The skies turned dark and the temperature dropped from hot to pleasantly warm (in the downhills). I took a wrong turn on the way and ended up again cycling up steep hills. Finally there was a very steep, 150 m downhill to the sea, which I knew would be hard to cycle back, I was too tired to look for another place. The site I had spotted was dirty, but the view gorgeous. Night had fallen, but I had the little inlet for me alone, and the rising moon was shining seawards. In place for dinner I took a moonlight bath. There, swimming naked in the Adriatic waters, I decided that beach cycling was cool afterwards. I would just need to continue adjust my rhythm. Again, things did not go exactly as planned.
No more grilled meat
Around midnight I woke up with a really bad stomach. I had time to get out of the tent, dress up, shaky, and dig a little hole. The mixed grilled had to come out either way. No, both. I woke up again two hours later for vomiting the little water I had drunk in between. I spotted a few shooting stars and began to worry how I would feel the day after. When morning came I was very weak, and beginning to feel headache. I wanted to take sunrise shots but had absolutely no energy for it. After vomiting a third time, I managed to take a very careful bath which gave me a bit of energy. Still, packing the tent and all took at least twice the normal time. I felt miserable. I no longer trusted my water, so I cycled to the bar 2 km from my camp, which was of course still closed, since it was 8 am. So I used for the first time my water filter, to filter the content of my bottles. After drinking a few tiny sips, I did the only thing I could think of, which was to pick a shady spot and sleep.
I woke up about two hours later surrounded by families enjoying the cool hours of the day, which were basically over. Then I attempted to cycling up the 150 m slope, where the morning shadows had already disappeared, taking the slowest pace the bike allowed. I surprised myself when reaching the top. I sat ten minutes in front of the supermarket before deciding I was not in shape to show up inside, then cycled out of the village, vomited a trickle of yellow water, slept some more on the road side. This is when I decided to aim for the nearest affordable rental room, which was in Pulat. There was another hill though. I was getting seriously dehydrated and cycled as slow as I could. My body heated more and sweated less than usual. There was one more cycle of vomiting and napping, and the long downhill to Pulat. On this day I cycled only 17 km, but it was by far the most difficult 17 km of the tour. I was incredibly grateful for being able to check in at 1 pm. I showered and went to bed, woke once in the afternoon to drink, and slept again until 10 pm, when for the first time in 24 h I felt like eating a few spoons of muesli.
The next day I woke up with a dried-up face and a slight remaining headache, but I knew that the food poisoning had passed. I decided two things: it was time for me to leave Krk, and then to take another break. So I headed to the port of Valbinska, and took the car-ferry to the Island of Rab. Since this was my first motorised transit on the tour, I felt a bit of regret breaking the continuous, 2000 km long land line I had cycled along all the way from Lille. But I was not ready to give up on the Dalmatian Islands yet.
The route (4 days, 203 km)
- 28/07/20 Pivka – Njivice 97.1 km
- 29/07/20 Njivice – Risika 48.6 km
- 30/07/20 Risika – Punat 17.7 km
- 31/07/20 Punat – Valbiska & Lopar – Rab 39.3 km