Cycling into the Velabit Mountains in 1989

Cycling into the Velabit Mountains in 1989

The four of us settle on Yugoslavia a week before we leave, basing our decision as usual on Nick Crane’s excellent book, Cycling in Europe, published in paperback by Pan.

He describes this journey as “an exciting, in places arduous, tour of great scenic variety […]; the first part of the tour crosses some of Yugoslavia’s rugged interior, passing the Plitvice Lakes and crossing the steep Velabit mountains to reach the coast. Beyond the grand Paklenica national park you turn seaward and begin a ride past some of Yugoslavia’s most outstanding Adriatic towns and islands”.

We know almost nothing about the country, but we have ten days of holiday and an unlimited faith in our single Rough Guide guidebook. We decide to aim for Dubrovnik after touching down in Zagreb. I assure the others that if we run into problems, we can always take the train back to the starting point. I don’t yet know that bicycles are banned from trains as well as from many main roads. We do appreciate however that wild camping is illegal, which is going to make life difficult because a quick check on availability of hotels inland is not too promising. We are sure we’ll find the odd barn or cave along the route to sleep in.

The route Nick Crane suggests is :

  • Zagreb (0 Km)
  • Jastrebarsko (30 km)
  • Starigrad Paklenica (46 km)
  • Karlovac (24 km)
  • Posedarje (25 km)
  • Slunj (50 km)
  • Zadar (26 km)
  • Radovika (20 km)
  • Sibenik (73 km)
  • Plitvice (13 km)
  • Trogdir (61 km)
  • Babin Potok (15 km)
  • Split (22 km)
  • Lesce (25 km)
  • Ferry to Hvar, ferry to Vela Luka
  • Gospic (35 km)
  • Korcula (40 km)
  • Karlobag (40 km)
  • Dubrovnic (126 km)

Day One - Monday 17th July

MXS 32 ODO 47.3 DST 47.25

The flight takes three hours from Heathrow. My first impression of Yugoslavia as we come into land is of forests, dusty tracks, and little parcels of rocky soil planted for harvesting by hand. The aiport at Zagreb is very small. No problems with retrieving the bicycles, which are waiting in the small arrivals hall. We reassemble them rapidly outside the arrivals building. Anna’s Killi Flyer MTB has a bent brake hanger, apart from that things look ok. Around us, men are sitting at tables playing chess in the warm late afternoon sun.

The road from the airport to the centre of the city is an empty dual carriageway with fields on either side. Thirty minutes riding takes us to the outskirts of Zagreb, a very grey collection of high-rise flats and dusty treets. We stop at a shop for essential supplies. This is our first encounter with the mental gymnastics required to convert pounds Sterling to Yugoslav dinar. The 20,000 Dinar note looks like a big note to me, but when Anna tries to pay for the flour, sugar and bottle of beer she wants, the bill comes to 209,000 Dinar, more money than she has in her moneybelt! A hasty whip-round sees us through. They don’t sell fruit and vegetables in the supermarket, and everyone except us has a string bag for putting their shopping into… no plastic carrier bags in Communist Yugoslavia.

Going down ... the Dinar in 1989

Going down ... the Dinar in 1989

Zagreb is a worrying city for a cyclist. Trams run along rails on each side of the street, and soon we find ourselves cycling along in single file with swaying trams overtaking us on the inside, pushing us into the path of lorries and cars on the outside. It grows dark and we put on our lights. After a while we notice that Janet is not keeping up with us. Turning back, we find her stopped by the side of the road, waving a pedal in the air. Somehow it must have got cross-threaded at the airport, and the thread on the crank had been almost completely stripped on the ride into the city. We are able to tighten it a quarter of a turn and Janet continues as best she can, while our collective hearts sink at the thought of trying to find a replacement for the Japanese crank inside the Eastern bloc. Nick brings us out of our pondering a few minutes later when he suddenly leaps off his bike in the middle of the road - in his case, holding his handlebars, which have come adrift as he jumped a kerb! Fortunately the problem in this case isn’t so serious - the Allen bolt in the stem needs tightening.

We are aiming for a campsite at Sesvete, which we eventually find in the indeterminate hinterland between the suburbs and the countryside at 9pm after sending long-suffering Nick into a succession of tiny bars for directions. He is followed out of the last of these by a boisterous bloke who immediately jumps into his tiny car to lead us to the campsite in style, driving along at 20 mph with his hazard warning lights flashing while we pedal after him for dear life. The owner throws open the bar on our arrival; people crowd in to see the crazy British cyclists and to ply us with beer and questions about Arsenal football club and Madonna (currently at the top of the charts). At 12:45 we make our excuses and stagger off to pitch our tents after a very eventful first day in Yugoslavia.

Day Two - Tuesday 18th July

MXS 39 ODO 125.4 DST 72.43 AVS 8.8 TM 08.07.18

Tough day today. Left the campsite at 11:30 to look for a cycle shop in Zagreb; had a lucky break when a garage mechanic took us to a small, dark, hole in the wall at Vlaska 77. This turned out to be a bicycle repair shop with a cheap steel chainset that could be fitted onto Janet’s bike (100 DM). We got talking to a Canadian cyclist who had been run off the Adriatic highway - his bike had fallen further than him down the cliff beside the road and was now being patched up. The man running the bike shop looked pretty grave and shook his head when we explained that we’d be riding to Dubrovnik. After repairs were complete, we walked the bikes up to the Cathedral, where a big market had taken over the square. This provided food for lunch in the park for the four of us. Finding the route out of the centre of Zagreb proved to be very difficult; we found the E65/71 but traffic police shooed us off it - the solution was to retrace our route nearly to the top of this busy dual carriageway until about 500m after it crossed the river; a railway bridge is on the left, and here you’ll find a footpath. Following this to its end, you climb a set of iron steps to a busy cobbled road - turn right along this, and it’ll take you towards Stupnik. It runs parallel to the motorway for a while, then forks right to follow a drainage canal.

Apart from stopping to mend a puncture at Stupnik, we pedalled purposefully until nightfall. The countryside was fairly green and well tended - mostly small fields, pantiled farm buildings, and carefully tended fields with woods on the hills behind. We were in good spirits, the sun was shining, and the road we were on was very quiet - occasionally we’d be passed by a battered Yugo car but most of the people we saw were working in the fields - we were soon practising our limited Serbo-Croat from the guidebook on them, which mostly consisted of choruses of Dobra dan when they looked up and waved.

The evening was pleasantly cool, the road was quiet, and the possible indoor accommodation at the Hotel Jaska at Jastrebarsko was either fully booked or unwilling to take four cyclists. The owner told us that we could only try the official campsite at Karlovac, which we reached at about 11 pm by torchlight. Unfortunately when we were fairly close to the campsite, we were warned by two men that it had been bulldozed to the ground … they knew a bridge we could sleep under and led us to it for a while, then changed their minds, so that we ended up at the campsite after all. Although it was late, it seemed sensible to cook something - so we ended up pitching our tents near the river on the edge of the former site and cooking Knorr vegetable soup with pasta in it. Wild dogs near the campsite were a problem - drifted off to sleep to barks and howls sometime in the early hours.

Day Three - Wednesday 19th July

MXS 46 ODO 204.7 DST 76.81 AVS 10.4 TM 7.16.07

Woke to thunder and heavy rain at 4 AM. By 5.30 the cotton tent was dripping onto my sleeping bag, so I got up and peered outside; already the rain was starting to tail off, so I set to work on getting Nick’s troublesome Coleman stove to light for coffee. Bread and cheese for breakfast in bright sunshine. We had little or no privacy where we were, there was a bus stop with twenty or so people standing at it within a few yards of the bulldozed site by eight, so we upped and packed fairly rapidly and headed off for Rijeka on the coast. 8 km after leaving Carlovac we turned left onto the road to Josipdol. This road was just gorgeous - we happily followed it all the way to Plitvice.

Hayrick and wild flowers

Hayrick and wild flowers

Lunch was a relaxed affair - our first proper meal for a couple of days - hamburgers with chips, raw onions and a large oily salad. We ate at a pleasantly shaded roadside restaurant just before Josipdol with reed matting screening its outdoor seating area.Found a small hardware shop nearby selling batteries for my rear light. At Josipdol we took the left-hand fork in the road and started climbing again - the real high of the afternoon’s glorious cycling turning into a more laboured evening of alternately riding and pushing the bikes. The last ten minutes of riding had a somewhat surreal quality, because the road was carpeted with tiny frogs - too many to ride around, so we were accompanied by the sound of them popping under our tyres tyres, much to our distress.

We settled on free camping in valley with a view of a little lake at dusk, somewhere near Plavca; supper was pasta and goulash with a bottle of red wine, cooked covetly since we dived behind bushes every time we heard a car coming (we had been warned that camping away from official campsites would land us in trouble!). The sleeping bags didn’t get a chance to dry out today, so not at all pleasant to climb back into tonight.

Day Four - Thursday 20th July

MXS 46 ODO 277.8 DST 70.44 AVS 7.1 TM 9.49.30

The sun barely has a chance to peep over the mountain behind our camping spot before we were up and packing away the dew-soaked tents. Janet and I are sleeping in our 1960’s blue cotton ridge tent, which sags in the middle and is just about showerproof. Anna and Nick have borrowed a climbing tent from Paul - too low to sit up in and best for single occupancy. Still, we all slept fairly well and it is going to be another gloriously hot day, although it is pretty chilly up here now. However we get a fright when we start to wheel the bikes back down onto the quiet road below our secluded camping spot - there’s a police car pulled up about ten yards away with two men in it. We crouch behind a thick juniper bush, envisioning a fine and lengthy questioning, but after a few moments they drive away. Phew!

Janet and I ride somewhat slower than Anna and Nick while we warm up, but a welcome sight meets us around a bend because Anna has got the stove going and is brewing up and spreading the remaining rolls with jam for breakfast.

Breakfast by the roadside

Breakfast by the roadside

The target for today is the Plitvice national park, which lies about 20 km south-east of our overnight camping place on Route 42. We are very lucky with our choice of road, because it is very scenic and again we have it all to ourselves for most of the day. The countryside is heavily wooded but surprisingly lush given the climate.

Plitvice park

Plitvice park

The entrance to the park comes after 7km of downhill to a viaduct over the Korana river, which was crystal clear. We could probably have cycled through the park itself without a ticket but we paid our 250,000 dinars each (about £7.00) - although Anna and Nick got discounts using Nick’s student card twice (the second time Anna’s photograph stuck over his!). We ate a slap-up meal of trout and ghoulash at the restaurant at the gate whilst letting the tents and sleeping bags dry on the grass in front of us, then pedalled slowly to the lake in front of the Hotel Bellevue for a long swim.

The sixteen lakes of the park have formed as water has eaten away the limestone landscape, but what is different here is that rather than forming underground caverns and potholes, the water remains on the surface. The rich mineral deposits in the water coat the branches and stones at the bottom of the lakes, so it looks as though one is looking down onto a other-worldly coral reef in the depths. Their beauty is famed throughout the region, but what we hadn’t anticipated was how unspoilt the area would be. We were very lucky to have chosen to reach them by bike, as we discovered when we stopped for lunch at the park entrance, because the park area is quite large but the vast majority of visitors have to do the organised coach tour with a choice of only one or two lakes where they can get out and walk around, whereas we had the freedom of the park to ourselves once we were on the scenic bus route (reserved for the bus!).

Anna and Janet at Plitvice

Anna and Janet at Plitvice

Boardwalks around the edge of some of the lakes were the only sign that we weren’t in pristine wilderness. The lakes themselves were crystal clear - I could see straight to the bottom fifteen or twenty metres down. We swam across one of the larger ones to a waterfall and marvelled at the tranquility of park.

Janet at Lake Jezero

Janet at Lake Jezero

Eventually at dusk we reluctantly moved on. Our map showed that we could join a larger road about ten kilometres below the lakes, so we continued on the park road we were on, past a huge boulder that blocked the road to other traffic at the point where the tour bus returned to the park entrance - here the ride became even more enchanting, because this area obviously had very few visitors and dusk was bringing the wildlife out in force; we watched mice scampering between holes in the bank at the side of the road, saw a large bird of prey float by, and were half expecting a bear to come lumbering out of the trees.</p>

Leaving the park at dusk

Leaving the park at dusk

The road led us past more farms, many of them offering rooms, and a dark tree-lined valley which the road wound up before depositing us on a downhill section to a vast plain bisected by the main road. Signs forbidding camping were everywhere, so we decided to press on to Vrelo even though it was getting dark quite rapidly.

For a while we zipped along in a bunch, slipstreaming at 24 kph, but broke up at the hill at the end of the valley when Janet ran out of puff. Anna and Nick waited for us in the pitch darkness ahead - I could see their headtorches in the distance as we approached. From the summit of this climb the descent was easy riding - we dropped about 1500’ down a series of hairpin bends to the entrance of a large luxury motorcamp at Vrelo. It wasn’t ideal, being full of rowdy drunken Germans. The fast food outlet at the camp sold us a couple of ham rolls and a bottle of beer each before we crawled into our tents and fell asleep.

Day Five - Friday 21st July

MXS 62 ODO 325.9 DST 46.41 AVS 11.2 TM 4.05.41

The grandeur of the setting for the motor camp was not apparent when we arrived last night. The valley we are in is ringed by tall mountains, incredibly scenic. We had a quiet morning this morning after shopping at the campsite office for more bread, sardines and salami. I took the spoke key to Janet’s rear wheel to fix a kink in it and tune the rear derailleur a little better to stop the chain shifting into the wheel, which has been happening frequently over the last day or two. We set off at around 11 AM, not very sensible since we were riding into the hottest part of the day across the plain to Udbina. We all stopped for an impromptu lunch after a hard climb 16 km from Vrelo.

After lunch we dropped into another plain - less scenic this time, and dotted with signs saying no access to foreigners. Anna and Nick got ahead of us, but we met up at the bottom of a steep hill just before Udbina. At the bottom of the descent we took a right turn down a small road towards Ploca after a cooling late afternoon beer at a bar. The minor road was delightful. We didn’t have a clear destination in mind, so we rode on for some distance as night fell. In the end Nick once again went scouting ahead and found us a good spot at the end of the valley where the road wound its way up into the next range of hills. At the top of the climb, with stupendous views of the valley below, there is a leaning concrete monument to Tito’s partisans in the form of a large Yugoslav red star on a wide viewing platform built on the rocky outcrop.

We pitched our tents at the base of a cliff behind the monument, well screened from the road by a natural rock wall. It was pitch black by this point, and we moved in with well practised efficiency, ferrying our bags from the bikes hidden in the scrub by the road - however we got the fright of our lives in the darkness as we tangled with the dark form of a local on a bicycle who happened to be riding by just as we crossed the road! He gave a grunt and pedalled unsteadily on - we had the mountain we were on pretty much to ourselves for the rest of the evening, so we cooked a meal by headtorch on the platform of the monument before turning in. We had a beautiful panorama spread out below us by starlight, with just the odd light on the scattered farms below between us and the horizon.

Day Six - Saturday 22nd July

MXS 54 ODO 420.5 DST 83.52 AVS 15.2TM 5.26.48

I was up at dawn, leaving Janet sleeping in the tent to climb up to the platform on the monument to brew coffee and watch the mist clearing from the valley. At this point I made the diary entry for yesterday, the last of the trip. Today we cycled to Knin, and found a room fairly rapidly on arrival in what we thought was a holiday flat until the ancient woman who had showed us around at 3pm turned up again at bedtime and put herself up on the sofa..

Day Seven - Sunday 23rd July

MXS 63 ODO 489.9 DST 65.71 AVS 10.8 TM 5.58.25

To an orchard by the side of the road near Muc. Amazing downhill today as we drop to the coast - long, sweeping freewheeling sections. Took the photograph below somewhere hereabouts.</p>

Water bottle fight

Water bottle fight

Day Eight- Monday 24th July

No diary entry - joined the coast at Split, took a ferry to Hvar and then on to Vela Luca, before riding across the island in the roasting heat, no shade, not enough water. Very pleasant evening though exploring the Venetian town of Korcula. Luxury rooms (by our standards) at the Hotel Jadran.

Day Nine - Tuesday 25th July

No diary entry - we crossed by ferry to Dubrovnik and took up residence in the campsite just outside the city walls. Couldn’t fail to be impressed by the walled city and spent the whole day exploring its battlements and marble streets before settling down at a table on the seashore for a feast of oven-baked fish washed down with Big Nik Gold Beer, product of Yugoslavia…

Day Ten - Wednesday 26th July

No diary entry - the final day was spent exploring Dubrovnik and moving our stuff to a rented room on a farm on the way to the airport so that we’d have plenty of time to get there the next day for our mid-morning flight back to England. I do recall our riotous end-of-holiday meal in the piazza in Dubrovnik where the waiter flawlessly memorised our choices and side-dishes, and the farmer who we jointly toasted with fine home distilled slivovice before we left for the airport and the flight home.