AUSTRIA, ITALY, SLOVENIA
Well we have survived week 1 of cycling the Balkan States starting from Salzburg. Scenery has been outstanding, following river banks and on the first night reaching the resort town of Lake Zell at 500m. The next day was the 2000m climb over the Grossglockner High Alpine road. We passed through a few mountain villages and pasture was soon replaced by views of ski fields, rugged mountains and glaciers. There were many sports cyclists out training and plenty of motorbikes travelling in convoy. By 2000m we were doing quite a lot of bike pushing but fortunately the sun broke out and we got some great views. Near the summit there was a mean downhill for a couple of kms followed by another climb with two tunnels to pass through. The sun disappeared, the temperatures dropped and suddenly I realised I was running on empty. The last 200m seemed to take an eternity but we were saved by a restaurant at the summit. Brian, who had plans of catching a train that day surprised coming through like a trooper. Winter weight is definitely an advantage in the cold.
Since the climb there have been some wonderful downhill rides through the Austrian Alps but also a few smaller passes to climb. We have camped by the River Drau, passed through the beautiful Millstatter Lake with a 15th century Abbey, the area packed with holiday makers. We were invited to camp at Martin’s (our organiser) friends family summer house over-looking a lake (Egg/Faaker Sea). They served all 36 of us breakfast on the terrace.
The next day when we were leaving Austria for Slovenia the route had an 18% gradient. Brian led a revolt and planned a much more gentle route through Italy and into Slovenia. It turned out to be very picturesque and with much downhill which probably half the contingent followed. The mountains in Slovenia are high and rugged. Very small villages, a little pasture with a few cows and huge orchards of apple & pear trees.
We have arrived in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia and have taken a hotel for two days. Have spent a few hours with a tour guide wandering the inner city. Since 2010 the streets of the inner city are only for pedestrians and bikes. I think supplies must get dropped off in the morning but you scarcely see a vehicle. Many of the streets are cobble-stoned, a canal runs through the city and there are many pedestrian bridges.
Tomorrow we cycle two days to Zagreb where we will get another break.
We think wistfully of the cruisy days spent cycling the Loire Valley in June with wine tasting in the evenings.
I can’t believe it’s three weeks since we left Ljubljana in Slovenia; so many passes, so many borders, so much has happened that it’s hard to know where to start.
When Yugoslavia split up it seems they tried to divide the debt equally between the five states but Serbia retained most of the arms. Ljubljana was only under attack for four days so damage was minimal. Crossing into Croatia was a different story – every village with its mass grave yards of white crosses and remains of shelled out houses, many deserted but others turned to use for animals or storage.
As we neared Zagreb the roads deteriorated – large pot holes, crazy erratic traffic so that by the time we reached the city I was feeling somewhat shell-shocked. The clouds had been building up and when we reached the centre of the city the skies opened. So we found ourselves sitting in an outdoor cafe at the Railway Station drinking a beer & still a long way from our camp site. This was actually a Back Packers with wall to wall Baltic Cycle tents. In the evening most of us caught the tram into town to visit a bar & listen to some local musicians play. We traipsed around the Old Town built on a hill, narrow cobbled stone streets, a lovely Cathedral, many well restored buildings and quite a few bombed out buildings. The next day we took one of the City Tours & more or less retraced our tracks of the previous night. St Marks Church and Square was the original town centre and dates back to 15th century. Zagreb has a wealth of interesting old buildings but a history of wars and earthquakes. In Zagreb we had a farewell party for Martin who has organised most of the route.
A young Croatian guided us out of Zagreb by cycle path which was a very different and more pleasant experience than our arrival in the city. He arranged for a young Bosnian man to meet us later in the day and cycle with us to a riverside camp site. It was a very hot day but to our delight most of us enjoyed an exhilarating wash swimming in the fast flowing river. Most of the young people we have met are well educated, speak several languages fluently and have University qualifications. However there seems to be no job future in their own country. Despite this they seem to have quite a positive outlook on life.
Our next stop was near the Plitvice Lakes. These are a huge tourist attraction in Croatia so we spent the day on a busy road hugging the road edge and arrived too late to enter the park that day. As it was a 4km uphill return ride the next day our group made a committee decision to ride on. Back into Bosnia we cycled through a National Park down-hill for miles to a small village surrounded by mountains. Here an Italian woman married to a Bosnian is trying to develop an Eco-tourism business for the local people. The village has some impressive waterfalls but it is so isolated I can’t imagine many people other than masochists like ourselves venturing here. Five of us had been billeted out with a local family as part of this tourist venture. The only drawback was it was across the valley from where our group were having dinner with the locals. You don’t really need an hours’s walk in the evening when you’ve cycled 90km during the day. At 6:30am the next day our hostess picked us up to do an hour’s walk to her village waterfalls before breakfast. It was well worth the visit and not a single coach load of tourists was to be seen. Once again a long climb up and over the Pass.
Along the way Bosnians often apologised about the dreadful summer they were having , cool temperatures and a lot of rain. We however were revelling in the cool days for hill climbing and camping. Until the rain really arrived. After 24 hours of rain and a night when most of us crowded into three bungalows Maria, Herman, Brian & I decided on Plan B. Off we went down to the main road where we found the Service Station Cafe and put out the word we were wanting a van to take us to Sarajevo. This meant we missed a night wild camping on a mountain top and had an extra day sight-seeing in Sarajevo.
If the past week’s travel through Croatia & Bosnia had given us some insight into the peoples’ lives we were not prepared for the sights of Sarajevo. The city is built mainly on three hills with the Commerce area and Old Town built alongside the river. As usual our guest house was a km above Old town with amazing night views of the city.
We toured the city with a young man who was extremely passionate about his city and its history. He was a young boy during the civil War and had his schooling for four years two hours per day in a basement bunker. It’s hard to imagine how people dealt with the risk of being shot at on a daily basis for nearly four years and still kept their sanity.
Sarajevo was first established as a city by the Ottaman Empire around 1450. This Turkish influence remains today especially in buildings and Mosques.
The Austrian-Hungarian empire occupied the city from 1878 for just fourty years. During this time architects were sent to build streets of European style Renaissance buildings. In 1914 the Austrian Crown Prince & his wife were assassinated in a street in Sarajevo by a Bosnian man, an event which led to the start of World War I. Along with a number of earthquakes over the centuries it is surprising how intact the Old Town is. Mosques, Orthodox Churches and a Synagogue are all part of the city.
One of the reasons Sarajevo was such a target during the Civil War 1991-95 was that the Bosnians were able to shell the city from the ridges of the hills. During the four year siege 14,000 people were killed.
It was a thrill reaching the Adriatic Coast, stony beaches with crystal clear water. We were usually able to find secluded beaches to swim in but the coastal villages were packed with holiday makers. They did however offer a better selection of food especially seafood.
Although we rode the main road into Dubrovnik we were surprised the traffic was not too heavy and trucks and buses gave us space. Dubrovnik is a lovely city built on the coast with an impressive gateway bridge.
At this stage of the trip Brian & I were feeling fit as fiddles and a little smug when bingo! The game changed. We were on a day boat trip to three islands off Dubrovnik when Brian bent to put his shoes on and pulled a groin muscle. While we explored the islands and swam he clutched a bag of ice to his nether regions and was confined to the boat for the next six hours. A sleepless night was spent in the tent where the air-conditioning let us down completely. By noon the next day I was stricken with a viral Gastro bug so we booked into a seaside apartment in a small Montenegro apartment for a few days. By the time we caught a bus over a couple of passes to Kosovo I was feeling stronger and Brian was going down with the bug.
While we have had this respite from cycling the rest of our group has cycled over some of the toughest passes of the trip. Massive rock walls, dramatic scenery, remote villages and poor roads. Kosovo is a country fought for in 1998 and made independent from Serbia. It is mainly occupied by Albanians. The people are very friendly. The car seems to be a very important status symbol and Car Washes are a dime a dozen. In contrast the roadsides are littered with rubbish. We are staying in Prizren where a Film Documentary Festival is on. At night the streets are abuzz with people promenading. 90% of the restaurants serve only drinks and you seldom see people eating anything other than dessert. Food prices are ridiculously cheap 60c for a hamburger, €3 for a large salad, €6 for a main with all the trimmings.
Our final week through Albania will be interesting. Perhaps we will be encouraged by our imminent arrival in Greece.
The Last of the Balkan States. Albania has a history of Wars and political unrest. In 1912 Albania became an independent State when it broke from 500 years of rule by the Ottoman Empire. At this time two thirds of the population was Moslem. For the rest of that century and until recently it was to experience a history of wars, political unrest and corrupt politicians. Since WW2 thousands of Albanians have emigrated to different parts of Europe particularly Italy.
We crossed the border into Albania expecting rough pot-holed roads and sped down a new motorway devoid of traffic. Of course downhill rides are great but you know it has to end and by evening we were camped at the base of a mountain range. The next day our 2000m climb over 17 kms took 4 hours. These high mountain roads have little traffic, donkey-drawn carts, men on horse-back, lone people leading a couple of cows and the occasional car or truck. Of course there were a number of BMWs cruising through, usually Albanians living and working abroad. The small villages are high in the hills on neatly terraced plots with orchards, vegetable gardens and a few cattle.
Wherever we went outside of the cities there was great excitement from young boys who ran out to hi five and call hello. Throughout the countryside and villages we met with friendly greetings – a hotel which offered us an adjacent meadow and their courtyard to pitch our tents; several impromptu Police escorts through the streets of Tirana and Birati. We were amazed as we reached the busy streets of the capital Tirana to notice an overhead luminated sign saying, “Respect cyclists. Give them room on the road”. Sigitas had a Lithuanian friend working in Tirana who must have organised it.
The day before we reached Tirana a few of the intrepid cyclists, Wojtek, Sigitas, Vaidas and 13 year old Alex rode through a National Park up over a gravel Pass to reach Kruja, a medieval town with a Castle which houses the Scandebeg National Museum. Others cycled a tarmac road 125km ending with a 10km climb. Seven of us rode 40km and hired a van for €70 to drive us and our bikes to the Panorama Hotel. Plenty of time left for sight-seeing & enjoying a rare luxury.
The only misadventure was an opportunist attack by two young men on two of our German cyclists Monica and Eric. Monica was pulled from her bike and a gold chain ripped from her neck. Eric on going to her defence had a similar chain ripped off. For a few days we were more wary but it was an incident that can happen anywhere in the world.
Food in Albania is quite similar to many traditional Greek and Turkish dishes. Pizzas were on almost every menu and in some small restaurants they were the only dish on offer. Good far for a cyclist. In addition this year Gintus our expedition driver and skilled Chef offered breakfast and dinner for a very reasonable charge. What a treat that was – no shopping, no cooking, more beer drinking time!
There has been huge unemployment in Albania for years. In 2014 they are proud that it has dropped to 13%. A large segment of the population depends on subsistence farming to survive. The large emigrant population also contribute a large amount to the economy.
One of the highlights of Albania was our visit to the ruins of the ancient Roman City of Butrinti. Few tourists and a site rivalling some like Ephesus. This is close to the city of Saranda where we took a boat to Corfu. In 1997 Saranda was taken by rioters. A national state of emergency was declared and the southern half of Albania fell to rebels & criminal gangs. Ten thousand people fled to Italy. In New Zealand we don’t know we’re alive.
In Corfu Greece we had our farewell party. It’s been a tough trip at times on account of the terrain but we certainly covered a lot of new territory. It was great travelling with old friends like Maria & Hermann from Germany and Giulia from Italy whom we hadn’t seen since 2007 Brussels to Istanbul.