Last summer I spent four weeks living out of pannier bags strapped to the back of a bicycle while pedaling around Croatia + Montenegro. This was not on my agenda when I kicked off the year nor when I booked my flights to Europe. I hadn’t even been on a bicycle in years, having given my mountain bike away after many bouts of ‘I hate this’ attempts at mastering life atop a saddle. But alas, I needed a reason to get outside the Schengen Region due to my visitor visa regulations. The catch was, I wasn’t about to spend weeks on a Croatian beach…or any beach for that matter.
This is precisely how my bike tour through Croatia came to be — a legal requirement to leave Switzerland + not nearly enough patience for a beach vacation. Well, that + a lot of encouragement + enabling from a handful of newfound friends!
We’ll break all the details of logistics, packing + planning into their own posts for those interested. For now let’s focus on the experience + the story…the exciting parts, if you will!
Once it was decided that I would venture away from the mountains of Switzerland for a few weeks of playing along the beaches of Croatia, it was time to get my bike together. We should preface this with the fact that I have not been atop a bike in…oh…five years? It is also important to point out that back when I had a mountain bike it was often tossed down the trail ahead of me out of sheer frustration. Needless to say, I do not have a very positive relationship with two-wheeled contraptions. I was not smart enough to let this stop me.
The first bike we came up with really a franken-bike. Merlin had spent years hording used + abused bicycles at Chalet Martin. This made for a lot of [questionable] options when it came to building a bike. By the end of the week we had our franken-bike all set up. It was a combination of about four bikes, it usually shifted gears + its brakes were only mildly terrifying on the steep mountain roads. At this point the plan was to ride the bike until it fell apart, then come up with Plan B while on the road in Croatia.
Lucky for me, Jack + Sophie showed up with their fancy e-bikes in the middle of this entire process. Jack jumped right on board with the endless encouragement while Sophie was pretty convinced I had a death wish. My bike beat me up while their e-bike made cruising along look so simple…until the battery in Jack’s bike went ka-put. Now he had a modified hybrid bike with a heavy motor on it. He wanted to take the motor home to build a new bike + I needed a slightly-less-likely-to-murder-me bike. Enter Jackalope! After some negotiating I bought Jack’s bike, sans motor + battery. We cobbled it together with a bottom bracket [read: gears] from another Chalet Martin bike + named it Jackalope. I had a bike!
Side Note: Jackalope now has his original bottom bracket back! That was the original intention as Jack had all the bits + pieces back in the UK. His mom was kind enough to mail it all to us, but Swiss customs had other plans — they wanted a receipt for the purchase so they could charge taxes. A whole pile of paperwork later the part arrived the day after I left. Figures…
The Game Plan
With a fully functional bike in hand it was time to create a game plan for my trip. Since this all started out with a ‘bike until you can’t then think of something new’ way of thinking my planning was far from fool-proof or remotely detailed. My options to get from Switzerland to Croatia included flying, multiple trains or two buses. I opted for the buses, simply because it was a much smaller logistical headache than the other two options offered up.
I booked a FlixBus from Lausanne, Switzerland to Rovinj, Croatia via Munich, Germany + Venice, Italy. It was a 27+ hour bus ride + I ended up traveling through six countries. It was definitely not the most direct route. Once I arrived in Rovinj my plan was to bike south…literally, that was the only thing I had planned.
A few days after our plans went south [so far south!] I got up early for a solo hike…this is me getting my adventure mojo back after adjusting to a new game plan. It took some time, but the trails worked their magic.
My only timeline requirement involved getting to Montenegro [across the southern border of Croatia] in roughly two weeks. That meant I needed to cover roughly 400 miles on a bike in 14 days…or 30 miles a day. That seemed feasible. Probably?
I was going to get to Rovinj, Croatia via bus then hop onto my bike + take on the world. I used my phone with Google Fi service* [yay, international coverage!] to GPS my route, staying away from the big interstate highways. My days would involve cycling in the AM + PM to avoid the heat of the day. I’d settle in for lunch near a beach + hop in the chilly sea whenever the sun got to be too much. My nights would be spent camping in established campgrounds along the coast, where I’d cook up dinner + crash into my makeshift pillow. A glamorous plan, no?
Sophie, reconsidering her decision to cycle around the world with me…before it even started!
Once I got my hands on a legitimate bike [Jackalope] Sophie decided my adventure sounded like fun, rather than just a death wish. A few days before I headed for Croatia she found a cheap bus ticket to the UK [where she lived + her touring bike resided] + a cheap flight down to Croatia [where she met me in Pula]. Yup, she decided the crazy game plan of mine sounded like just enough fun to join in.
At the end of the trip through Croatia I would cycle into Montenegro + spend about ten days volunteering at a naturist/nudist campground. That actually did happen + was an awesome experience! More on that later…
As usual, the reality of an adventure never quite lines up with the game plan put in place. Without any delay the excitement started on my first full day in Croatia. Having spent very little time [ie: maybe an hour?!] on any bike with fully loaded pannier bags it was a LOT of work to keep my bike upright. On the first day of riding, which was only about 20km/13mi, I spent so much time focused on staying on my bike + out of traffic that I completely forgot to eat or drink. When I rolled into my first campsite near Pula that afternoon I was completely trashed. It was an easy ride, but it was in direct sunlight + I hadn’t consumed any water or calories.
I immediately knew what my problem was — dehydration + jacked up electrolytes. I forced myself to inhale a huge sno-cone alongside a massive order of extra salty French fries. That at least curtailed my urge to vomit everywhere. The next day was spent chugging water, eating all the salty things [with ice cream on the side, obviously] + sleeping in the shade. Yup, I had already wasted an entire day because I forgot how to eat + drink like the endurance athlete I claim to be. Kicking it off with a bang…
Doing laundry + hoping it dries in the crazy humidity. It’s strung up on a handy-dandy Nite Ize CamJam, which was absolutely amazing for things like this!
I knew it would be hot + humid going in — we would be on the coast of a country known for toasty summers + it was July. Mark this up as my fifth or sixth ‘well, that could have been better’ moment in this entire planning process. Hot + humid is an understatement. Within the first 48 hours on the road it became obvious we needed to add some adjectives. It was hellishly hot + sticky humid, always. Even the nights were sweaty.
In the coming days the heat + our differing sleep schedules [I’m always raring to go at 6am, very few people align with that] got the best of us. We struggled to keep pace while cycling in the heat of the day. We were far too distracted by roadside ice cream breaks to maintain the mileage we needed. About six days into the trip we gave into the heat + gave up on the bikes. I went on a six-mile run to the airport in Rijeka, Croatia to pick up a rental car.
Running around atop the mountains east of Makarska, a hike only made possible by the car.
Yup, we legit gave up. I struggled with this, a lot. I was upset that I wasn’t pushing us harder, or that I wasn’t better at encouraging us forward. I was frustrated that we weren’t on the same suffer scale. It felt like failure to throw money at a rental car in the middle of a cycling trip. I did a lot of angry self-talk on the very sweaty run to the rental car pick up location. It was not a good day for me. I tried to handle the let down with grace, but there’s not denying there were sobbing tears on my run from the campground to the rental car company. I felt like I failed…at a plan that was so haphazardly thrown together it was basically unattainable from the get go.
Even though I was very resistant to getting the car I will admit it gave us access to a lot more of the country. We drove inland to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park + Krka National Park. Plitvice alone would have been worth the extra money spent on the car. I also got to spend half a day hiking around Makarska to get my mountain fix [see that smile in the mountain top photos…totally worth it!]. The air conditioning in the car was also glorious.
All alone in Plitvice Lakes NP — so early a long sleeve was still needed. The parking lots had long waiting lines when we finished up around 1pm. Get there early!
At the end of the day, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I do still struggle with the fact I essentially gave up on a pretty badass trip. We returned the rental car when we arrived in Dubrovnik. After a few days in the city made famous by Game of Thrones we went separate ways — I got back on my bike + headed south to Montenegro + the Full Monte Campground volunteer gig I set up. Sophie hopped on a bus to Zagreb, Croatia + then went on to meet me for our final bus ride from Munich, Germany to Lausanne, Switzerland.
I also spent some time in Zagreb on my way back to Switzerland — an awesome city + probably my favorite in Croatia [just keep in mind, I prefer the cities that cater to the locals before the tourists!].
When it’s all said + done, this trip wasn’t exactly what I’d planned it to be. I expected to spend more time physically suffering atop my bicycle. I was prepared for nights of restless legs + mornings of ravenous hunger. I didn’t get that. For some reason I am sad about that. But I did get a lot…
The views of Plitvice Lakes NP on our way out — if you look closely you can see the line of tourist going up/down the trail to the base of those waterfalls. It was crazy busy when we left!
…I got to hike through Plitvice Lakes NP before the crowds arrived, I saw the Adriatic Sea from the top of a mountain of white stone + I swam around in clear blue water below a waterfall in Krka NP.
…I learned a thing or two about bike touring, although I’m not sure I would have changed much? I’m sure I’ll fine tune things as I go, but overall I had a pretty solid set up courtesy of Nite Ize [they supported my trip + hooked me up with some great gear ties, carabiners, a bike HandleBand for my phone/GPS + all the bike lights a girl could ask for!].
…I figured out what is actually important to me while traveling + how to align that with the reality of what’s happening in the moment. People are always more important than an ego-driven checklist!
…I discovered that I strongly prefer to beaches + beauty of northern Croatia over southern Croatia. The water is different, the beaches are different + the terrain is different. For whatever reason, I liked the north more + if I returned I’d spend more time there.
At the edge of the pools you can swim in at Krka National Park — you bet I jumped in + frolicked!
Overall, the entire trip was well worth the prep time, the money spent + the chaotic rush of emotions it threw at me. If you’re at all curious about the logistics + details of this trip, please comment or reach out to me [firstname.lastname@example.org]. I’d love to offer up whatever information I have + help get you out there to experience the same crazy I did! Croatia is a beautiful country…even through the haze of sweat rolling into your eyes!
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