Thursday, 31 May 2007

Serbia: Novi Sad

There were absolutely no road signs from Croatia to Serbia but over a few more hills we found the border crossing where Roger learnt not to take photos of the border guards.

We thought we'd test our fitness by venturing into the hills of Fruška Gora National Park, 500m up, to an area of hills, forests, orchards and monasteries. We took a steep detour and found our first Orthodox monastery in the middle of nowhere. We were greeted by about 10 barking dogs and some friendly monks who showed us around. We then missed our route down off the hills and continued along the hilly road for many more kilometres than planned.

Fruska Gora monastery

The Turks were in Serbia for 500 years, compared with only 150 years in Croatia, and the difference is apparent in the music especially; droning arabic-sounding guitar tunes are popular here.

In Novi Sad we happily discovered an abundance of street food and the first really hot peppers in Europe. The town centre is attractive with wide pedestrian boulevardes but travel a few hundred metres from the centre and you're suddenly in drab suburbia.

Croatia: Vukovar and Ilok

Life goes on after the war

The curator of the Vukovar Museum, Ruža Marić, kindly let us stay in her home and showed us around town, then took us out for dinner! She spent 7 years in exile during the Serbian occupation, during which time the old museum was destroyed completely but for the shell. Even though only a small portion of the museum has been restored, it is here that we attended the annual celebrations of Vukovar and it's heritage, spending the night listening to Strauss on the banks of the Danube, a novel experience.

Museum entrance

Piano and tree on the banks of the Danube in Vukovar

The Vukovar Museum before the storm

Continuing east to Croatia's most eastern inland point, Ilok, we were again met with generous hospitality: after a personalised 2 hour tour of the town we were allowed to camp on private land on a hill overlooking the Danube. We were then shown to the cherry trees where we proceeded to feast all evening before collecting some more for breakfast!

Cherries, mmm

Ilok was less badly damaged during the war and an old fortress, castle, franciscan monastery and wine cellars remain.

The wine cellar at the base of the castle in Ilok - over 100m long!

Croatia: Zagreb to Vukovar

Armed with a list of contacts for cheap places to stay around Croatia and a newly learned technique of riding along tram tracks to avoid the traffic, we left Zagreb, thankful to be heading for the countryside again.

It was a hot day, and by lunchtime we were so exhausted that we stopped in the shade of a large wine barrel, not realising there were picnic tables about 10 metres away. 85km later we rolled into Kutina, a nondescript town, where we camped in a half built guesthouse on a property with a few horses and other animals. The owner welcomed us kindly and refused any payment - something that would happen many times in Croatia.

Choosing to cycle across continental Croatia was perhaps a strange choice, considering the beauty of the coast (so we hear). There were very few facilities for tourists across the whole area east of Zagreb. Recovering from the "Homeland War" in 1991, much of the infrastructure is still being rebuilt and tourist promotion is still in the early stages. As a result, we received personalised treatment wherever we went, from man on a motorbike who stopped in the middle of a busy road to offer us some home picked cherries, to the popcorn seller who insisted we have some for free just because we were on bikes. On the downside, a lot of the time there were no "attractions" to see, or they would be difficult to access.

Rickety bridge on the way to Krapje

We did detour to Krapje, a village composed of traditional wooden houses, and a nearby wetland reserve. Stork nests on chimneys were a particular attraction.

Krapje in peak hour


Sava River at Krapje

The area between here and Novska had been mined during the "Homeland War" (1991) and not yet cleared.

Mine warning
(note to parents, it was all very safe)

A tank near the Croatia-Bosnia border

Many buildings still bore evidence of heavy damage, especially as we neared Vukovar.

Building near Vukovar

Arriving in Vukovar we met the Danube River. The town of Vukovar suffered particularly heavy casualties, being under seige for 3 months in 1991. Most of the buildings were completely destroyed and the reconstruction process is still in its early stages. As a result the scenery here is shocking and paints a macabre picture.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Croatia: Zagreb

Our first hour in Croatia started with hectic ride on through the outer suburbs of Zagreb into the city. We'd been accustomed to bike lanes and gracious drivers so far but Zagreb was different. The drivers were aggressive and we used mirrors to keep ourselves safe. Worse still, we couldn't even cycle on the footpaths because that's where cars park. Arriving in the city a little frazzled, we ran into the cycling angel of Zagreb, namely Darinka from the Croatian cycling club and advocacy organisation, She took us under her wing, fed us drinks and cakes, gave us a heap of maps and contact numbers for the rest of the trip, and then invited us to a BBQ at her place the next day!

At the BBQ we met Darinka's husband Damir, their daughter, and friend Maja. Damir is the only full time employee of and returned that morning from a cycling conference in Switzerland. The afternoon was spent feasting and chatting about cycling, economics, politics, and various other topics.

BBQ at Damir and Darinka's

That night we met Roger's friend Clare at the bus station and stayed for the next two nights in a good hostel. We did a few touristy things and tried to outdo each other cooking vegetarian feasts.

Clare preparing gourmet dinner

We also found this curious display of patriotism in a square in Zagreb:

Are these Croatia's football colours?

Monday, 21 May 2007

Map of our route

Click here for the map of where we have been so far.

Oh, and here's another flower photo:

Ljubljana to Zagreb

Rain clearing as we stop for the evening in Pajčna

From Ljubljana we headed east, in the rain again, climbing then descending into the Krka River valley. This is a river that springs from an underground cave and is full of dissolved limestone. We entered country known for its hot springs and looked forward to long soaks after days of riding. We didn't go searching for the source of the Krka because of the rain but instead tried to find somewhere to stay for the night.

Fly fishing on the Krka

We followed the river through green farmland, stopping at the occasional castle.

Zužemberk Castle

At the first hot springs, Dolenskja Toplice, we tried out the saunas and baths for a hefty sum at the "wellness centre". There was a strange atmosphere that was something like an invalid's retreat. People hobbling around on crutches and wheelchairs flock to the hot springs for their supposed healing properties and stay in nearby hotels. So at the next opportunity in Otočec we gave the hot springs a miss.

Arriving at Otočec

Camping at Otočec, on the Krka

Continuing along the Krka we had still more intermittent rain that was becoming tiresome. We stopped at Čatež springs, 5km from the Slovenian - Croatian border and found a collection of huge thermal swimming pool complexes (indoor and outdoor) that we played in for a day. These hot springs had a much more jovial atmosphere with water slides, loud music and families on holiday.

Camping at Čatež

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Škofja Loka and Ljubljana


From Bled it was an easy cycle through the hills down the Sava River towards Ljubljana. We loved Slovenia so far and wanted to see more, so we detoured to Škofija Loka, a charming little town with another old town and a castle. Here we had some of the best Italian-style ravioli we've ever eaten, for the princely sum of around A$10.

Farming equipment and hay-drying rack

We lined up accommodation at a local "tourist farm" - a mix between a farm and a B&B. These seem to be popular in Italy and Slovenia. They sell local produce and also provide accommodation and cater for functions. Wineries in Australia seem to be following a similar trend. in the morning we were greeted with a rather challenging breakfast of homemade salami, fresh cow's milk, cheese, homemade jam and, strangely, a scoop of pig fat.

Scenery on the way to the "tourist farm"

15th century church at Crngrob, the town we stayed in

We were pleasantly surprised by the cycling culture in Slovenia. We rode into the capital Ljubljana on a Sunday and it seemed that the whole country was out on their bikes that day. Ljubljana has cycle lanes on most streets and bikes generally have right of way over cars. Drivers are also quite considerate and aware.

A cycle lane on the way into Ljubljana

To top it off, they even produce a cycling beer! Roger discovered soon after this photo was taken that it was actually a shandy :(

Roger with cycling beer

Ljubljana is a great little city. It's small and this has helped it retain a lively but relaxed culture. The charming city centre has markets, cafes and old architecture that has been well maintained.

Ljubljana - church door

Entering the City Museum

Lakes Bohinj and Bled

From the Soča Valley we caught a train through a 100 year old tunnel through the alps. There is no direct road following the same route so the train was a good option. This delivered us to a region of farming and outdoor tourism. In winter, the area becomes a downhill and cross-country skiing destination. In summer there's canyoning, rafting, fly fishing, mountain biking, and climbing. We camped right next to Lake Bohinj:

Camping on Lake Bohinj

We explored the area for a couple of days and found out about the old alpine dairy farming and cheesemaking techniques from a little museum. As usual, Roger found a freezing canyon to swim in. This canyon is formed from snow melt coming down from the alps.

Roger swimming in canyon

Our next destination was Lake Bled, designed for photography. Someone years ago decided to build a church on the island in the middle of the lake. Our photos aren't as good as the postcards but you get the idea:

Lake Bled Church

If that's not enough, there's also another church and a castle on the shore:

Bled Castle

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Karst Region

Having never intended to see the coast at all, we reverted to the original plan of heading north to the alps. This took us through a region of limestone, caves and underground rivers called the "Karst". We chose a rainy day to "cheat" and take a train into the hills to Divaca. Finding the info centre closed we enquired at the local pub for a place to stay. It turns out that the publican also owns a picturesque guesthouse in a hamlet near the caves. It was a cold and wet 4km ride there, but we were welcomed with a few shots of plum brandy to warm us up. It was also offered again the next morning at 9am!

Roger cooking in the guesthouse kitchen

We joined a 2 hour walking tour of the underground cave and river system that ended in a 140m high chasm. We came out of the cave in the hole under the church:

Caves below church in Škocjan

Underground river flowing from cave

Delayed at the tourist centre by yet more rain, we encountered an Italian wedding party on their photo shoot.

As the rain beat down we caught a 10 minute train to Sežana, then rode across the countryside to a wonderful town called Pliskovica, with not much more than a church and a few houses, where we had heard there was a hostel. The hostel is a renovated old farmhouse now run by a roster of young people from the village.

Bicycle in Pliskovica

The next day, the hardest so far, saw us riding over a pass, down a river valley to Nova Gorica and up the Soca River in the rain to Kanal. The Soca is a vivid blue-green.

Bridge over the Soča River

We arrived thankfully at our campsite, only to find it "closed". We were about to set up anyway, when we were approached by an old man who spoke no English. He made some calls on his phone and his son-in-law arrived some minutes later to open the campsite for us. This was the view:

The town of Kanal where we camped

And this is the hot chocolate available at a local cafe:

Local hot chocolate

The Slovenian Coast

First glimpse of Slovenia & more vineyards!

From our campsite south of Trieste we were only 500m from the border with Slovenia. Despite initial plans to head straight for the alps, we couldn't resist detouring further south along the coast first. In Slovenia we suddenly entered a much less familiar environment. Until now, we had muddled through with our basic knowledge of Italian language, customs and food. But nothing in Slovenia was familiar. This made for some interesting supermarket purchases.

Koper, the largest Slovenian city on the coast

We based ourselves in the seaside city of Koper, a lively student city with many architectural highlights: A medieval "old town", cute windows and many narrow and steep cobblestone streets that were challenging on bikes and in wet weather!

A captivating face

Typical Venetian style window

Medieval Man overlooks an archway

Despite a rainy morning we made a day trip further down the coast to Izola and Piran, both ancient fishing villages and areas of salt mining. Like Koper, both have charming old towns. Piran also has the benefit of a castle and town wall.

Piran - note the town wall at the top of the hill

Riding along the coast

On this trip we also experienced our first hills, albeit small ones, after the soft start along the Venetian plains:

A small hill