Sunday, 4 October 2009

Former Yugosalvia; Existing Wonder

After meeting up with ‘Random Andy’; a new cycle companion in Rijeka, northern Croatia and Eve in Split – the next few weeks were primed for some shared adventure, mis-adventure and chuckles. Croatia proved a fascinating host and Montenegro… lets just say we got a little upgrade from the tent, before a final test; cycling up a vertical mile to conquer Mount Lovćen.

After a Tour-de-France style stage – racing 130km from Ljubljana – I met ‘Random Andy’ in Rijeka just in time to catch an overnight boat to Split.

Andy contacted me through Facebook after hearing me interviewed on the George Lamb radio show. Having been sketching out a cycle tour of his own; he was keen to join me on the road to Istanbul. It seemed to me anyone who’s keen enough to cycle and camp their way through the world, in search of adventure, is likely to be an interesting companion; ‘Nice! See you at the docks at five o’clock’.

We were soon in a rain-kissed yet nevertheless picturesque Split. I pedalled off to meet Eve, a good friend and avid cyclist from home, at the airport. After rebuilding her bike we cruised back into town & checked into a cosy little hostel right in the centre of town.

Split has great charm; a relaxed ambience and great deal to appreciate, without being overrun by tourists. Pauline, a friendly fellow guest joined our posse & we spent a few days moseying around the mazy marble streets. Going up the Deoclician Palace tower at sunset and visiting the house of master sculptor Ivan Meštrović were real highlights.

Andy headed south to meet some friends, so Eve & I boarded a boat to the elongated island of Hvar. The journey was pickled with views of the islands, whetting our appetite to explore. On arrival we paused to adjust Eve’s bike, I discovered I’d lost my Leatherman somewhere – Shucks! – first item of the trip & a darn useful one. The ride to our campsite quickly atoned for the slight pang and before long we were pitching the tent in an idyllic sea-front spot.

We stayed three days, mostly accompanied by a wonderful German couple; Hannah and Jan. We cycled several sizable hills, snorkled amid the clearest water in isolated bays and loved every mintue. The island feels like a rocky Roman throw-back, covered with Olive, Fig and Pomegranate trees.

Dubrovnik was 200km, one ferry ride and a few more considerable climbs away. Eve and I covered the distance in two days, with an overnight stay on the sliver of coastline Bosnia clamed during the Balkan war. It was a classic ride - one that my imagination had convinced me was worth crossing the Alps and Dolomites instead of simply following the Danube, on my way to Turkey – the reality repaid in spades.

Dubrovnik is a tourist mega-magnet par excellence and with due cause. The old town is like Split on steroids – more marble, bolder buildings and tourist troupes to match. Had it not been for our early morning meander around the city walls almost every view would have been obscured, ancient ambiance made unappreciable, and appeal lost. By 9.30 the cruise ship crews had arrived and the previously tranquil main street, became a hive of twitching lenses, gaping mouths and muted argy-bargy.

Lesson: Its always worth getting up early to get the best of a spot, be you a tourist or surfer the average tourist won’t make the dawn patrol.

The two standout moments of Dubrovnik were not to be found on a postcard however. We were first welcomed into the home and terrace of a local lady, Emma who had lived in same home in the old city for 50+ years. She made beautiful traditional shawls and shared some of the her history, kindness and wisdom with us. Eve and I both felt like adoptive children in her presence.

The other more sombre moment was the sign showing the damage and devastation caused during the shelling of the city by the Serbian-Montenegrin forces. The extent of the was shuddering but more astounding the recovery the city has made.

Montenegro now beckoned and a stay at Mrshe Palace in Perast. Some years ago I had put together the website for this gorgeous holiday home and thanks to the generosity of Liliana and Malcolm Glyn, we could stay for free for a few days. Quite an upgrade from the tent!

Rejoined by Andy, Jan and Hannah – the five of us spent a blissful few days, recharging the batteries with barbequed food, swims out to the islands and general frivolity amid our plush surrounds. Fish, meat and beer were incredibly cheap and I finally got a chance to finish a few of the books from small library I’d hauled the last 2000km virtually untouched.

After waving of the others Andy and I planned our ascent of Mount Lovćen; a climb to over 1,700m from sea-level. The ‘Black Mountain’ is the wonder after which the country of Montenegro finds its name. Atop was the tempting prospect of a mausoleum carved by my new favourite sculptor Ivan Meštrović.

After prolonging our departure one extra day - easy to find excuses to stay in a palace over a tent - we set off early on our climb. Passing through the old town of Kotor we began what Lonely Planet described as ‘one of the world’s great drives’ up the mountain. On a bike with 50kgs in tow it’s a smidge more difficult but on rounding the last of 25 hairpins later the sense of achievement was a match for the view.

The self-congratulation quickly diminished when we realised quite how far there still was to go. The 25 take you the first 1,000m or so the rest is straight uphill. Had we seen this from the start we might have taken the coast road. Cue much sweating, puffing of cheeks and leg pumping – we were determined to make it. My adrenaline received a much needed boost after finding and climbing through a treacherous yet alluring fissure inside a massive cave.

After about 5 hours we made it! The view didn’t disappoint we were insanely high. We both agreed that had we seen where we were in the morning we wouldn’t have thought it possible, yet there we were, with Montenegro before us. The Meštrović mausoleum also provided an unexpected moment of wonder; the most sonically harmonious room I’ve ever been in. If ever you go, wait til its empty and just hummmmmm…

Lesson: Sometimes its better not to know the scale of the challenge, keep focussed on what lies right in front of you and keep going; when you reach an end the result can surpass what you’d thought you were capable off.

We camped in the national park, despite the other proclaimed residents; bears and wolves and the following day made for the border with Albania. The countries of former Yugoslavia were a delight to travel through. Recent times have been a dark stain in their history but the future, from what I can see, looks stunningly bright – like Arnie, I’ll be back.