By Tim Walker
Sometimes, manna really does fall from the sky, at least figuratively. It happed to me last June, when a business trip to Zagreb, Croatia, fell into my lap. So of course I immediately began charting out how far I could roam on a rented motorcycle in the five vacation days I tacked on to my trip.
Croatia is in the heart of the Balkans, the handful of small countries in southeast Europe hugging the Adriatic Sea on the west and stretching from Greece in the south to Austria in the north. The region is overflowing with natural beauty and geographical features that make it especially appealing to motorcyclists.
The Balkans are home to the southern portion of the Alps, so there are plenty of challenging twisties to get the adrenaline pumping. And when those mountains collide with the Adriatic Sea, the result is fantastic coastal roads with cliffs on one side and wide open blue skies and water on the other. And just offshore, there are scores of barren, rocky islands that positively shimmer silver as they reflect the rays of the sun.
Rounding off my list of the wonderful features of the Balkans are the lush, forested interior mountains and valleys, dotted with rivers and lakes – and plenty of well-paved roads curving alongside and around them.
I know all this because I have visited the Balkans before, albeit in a car, on a honeymoon trip I took with my new bride Gretchen back in 1990. We both agreed that this region was the favorite part of our five-week trip. In fact, we had recently started plans to return to the Balkans in two years to mark our 25th wedding anniversary.
I Have A Plan, Really
I ultimately decide upon a very aggressive route that would take me from Zagreb to the Adriatic coast, where I would take three days to ride south all the way into Albania. After an overnight at a resort in the Albanian Alps, I would turn around and take just two days to return to Zagreb through the interior mountains of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I estimate that this counter-clockwise loop is about 1,100 miles, or 220 miles per day. On superslabs, 220 miles a day is nothing, but I worried that such distances would be too much to handle on the curvy mountainous and coastal roads that I would spend most of my time on. But I decided to give it a shot, and if it turned out to be too difficult (or if I run into rainy weather), I’d just not go as far south as I planned.
I was also eager to see how the region had changed since our honeymoon trip, when Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro were republics within Yugoslavia. That communist country started to break up just a year after our visit in a series of extremely violent civil wars. I was curious to find out how these former republics – now separate countries – have recovered. And how well (or not) they were getting along.
Day 1 & 2: Croatia
With my business concluding the day before, I take a taxi on a Friday morning from my downtown hotel to the motorcycle rental shop on the outskirts of Zagreb. I’m expecting a storefront with a row of motorcycles out front. Instead, I’m facing a café-bar with a row of tables outside.
A waitress comes out and sees me wearing my protective gear, a backpack, and a confused look on my face. She assures me in pretty good English that I’m in the right place and that my motorcycle will show up soon.
It does indeed arrive, ridden by Kristijan, who I’ve been exchanging e-mails with for the previous two weeks arranging the rental of a Suzuki GSF1200 Bandit. I now realize that this is a one-man operation, and that any support I might need in the next five days, for, say, engine trouble, would be minimal.
The paperwork for the Suzuki and outfitting it with saddlebags takes about an hour and a half, much longer than I expected. I also get a very old helmet with a worn-out liner, minimal padding, and a face shield full of scratches. I’m not pleased, but I don’t let it bother me. Instead, I say to myself, nema problema, a Croatian phrase I decided I would use as often as needed to adjust my attitude whenever I felt stressed out.
Also helping me overcome my disappointment was the fact that the Bandit is one sweet ride, which is instantly apparent to me as soon as I pull onto the city streets and head toward the main road that takes me south to the coast.
The first day’s highlight is my 130-mile ride south on the road along the Adriatic coast, ending at the ancient Roman city of Split. This route is dubbed the absolute best riding road in Croatia, and it lives up to all my expectations.
A lowlight for me is being passed by other riders on much smaller motorcycles – even one guy on a scooter! But I don’t let that bruise my ego. They are locals, after all, and know the curves well. I don’t, so I ride conservatively. After all, a lowside (or worse) resulting from a misjudged curve would instantly end my vacation.
Another lowlight is arriving in Split way behind schedule, which means that I don’t have a chance to tour the massive palace that Roman Emperor Diocletian built for himself there. But, nema problema, I say to myself.
Because I’m on the late evening ferry, my two-hour trip is mostly in the dark and I can’t take in the scenery as the ferry navigates through the narrow straight between the islands of Štolta and Brač. On the other hand, the cost of transporting me and my motorcycle to Hvar is only 125 Croatian Kuna, or about $22. I am pleasantly reminded that Croatia and its neighbor countries are very inexpensive travel destinations.
The ferry arrives as scheduled at 10 p.m. at the town of Stari Grad, near the western end of Hvar. I find my lodging with just a little bit of trouble and collapse on my bed exhausted, but with the satisfaction that I have successfully navigated a pretty complicated route to get here.
Up early on Saturday to explore Hvar, which is a sun-soaked island with the perfect climate to grow grapes, olives and lavender. The first two crops make for especially scenic landscapes, which are dotted by ancient Greek walls, irrigation channels, and cisterns that are still in use today.
I traverse the full length of this narrow, 40-mile-long island, taking just one break to take a swim in the Adriatic at an unofficial beach along the side of the road. My ferry ride late in the afternoon back to the Croatian mainland takes only 15 minutes, as the eastern tip of Hvar is just four miles or so from shore.
Once back on the mainland, I head south and visit another highlight, the fortified city of Dubrovnik, which is rightly called the “Pearl of the Adriatic.” This medieval city juts out offshore, and I arrive there just as the setting sun bathes the outside walls of the city in a warm, red glow. The walls enveloping Dubrovnik are truly immense: up to 20 feet thick and 80 feet high.
In late 1991, these walls withstood a two-month siege of mortar rounds from the Yugoslav army. My wife and I both cried when we read news accounts of the time chronicling the senseless bombardment of this cultural treasure, which had no military or strategic value. The attack was done out of pure ethnic hatred and a bloody retaliation for Croatia’s declaration of independence from the Yugoslav federation.
In contrast to the walls, the city’s interior did not withstand the attacks nearly as well. And so as I wander the cobblestone streets, I am acutely aware that many of the ornate palaces, churches, monasteries, and mosques I am admiring had been painstakingly reconstructed.
Day 3: Montenegro & Albania
After an overnight in Dubrovnik, I again head south along the coast and enter Montenegro, which I immediately observe has not benefitted from the influx of tourist dollars that Croatia has. The border city, Herceg Novi, still has the feel of communist Yugoslavia. Every aspect of the town looks dingier and more worn out than anything I had seen in Croatia. The Soviet-style buildings were dirtier, the graffiti worse, the roads rougher, and the cars looked to be about 10 years older on average.
By mid-day, I reach my main destination in the country, the Bay of Kotor. The ride around the bay is sweet, with a curvy road that hugs the mountains jutting up from the shore. All around me are scores of centuries-old monasteries built into the mountainsides..
I have my second swim in the Adriatic, in the town of Tivat, and then press on, because I really want to make it all the way into Albania tonight and to my mountain resort.
On our 1990 honeymoon, when Gretchen and I were driving north from Greece, we had to go around Albania. The country then was, in effect, the North Korea of Europe: a secretive and underdeveloped country ruled by communist dictators. So getting there now, to see some of what we couldn’t see then, is a top priority for me.
My Albanian highlight is riding a steep alpine road with one hairpin turn after another. There are very few guardrails, and so I again ride conservatively, because a misjudgment would mean falling to death, I’m sure. The lowlight is the animals also using the road. I encounter (but successfully avoid hitting) untended sheep, cows, horses, mules, pigs, chickens, and dogs.
I regret is that my stay in the tiny alpine village of Razëm is for just one night. But I have to leave early the next morning so I’d have a fighting chance of making the nearly 400-mile stretch of the trip.
Day 4: Three Countries, 400 Miles
My ride from Albania back to Croatia heads away from the coast, into the forested interior mountains and valleys of Montenegro, and then into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
My main reason for choosing this route is to visit the city of Mostar, and its famous Stari Most (old bridge) over the Neretva River. The 16th-century bridge, with a fortified tower on each end, is an exemplary example of Islamic architecture,
built when the region was a part of the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, precisely because it was a symbol of Islam, the bridge was destroyed by mortar shells in 1993 during the Bosnian civil war. I get to see the rebuilt version, completed in 2004.
I am behind schedule again, and so I get onto the superhighway that parallels the coast about 20 miles inland. My day ends with three hours of 100+ mph of superslab riding, and the total distance I travel this day is 395 miles. I arrive after dark in the coastal city of Zadar, exhausted and with a very sore butt.
Day 5: Plitvice Lakes
My last day of riding is relatively short, only 260 miles or so. The main attraction of this day is Plitvice Lakes National Park, about halfway between Zadar and Zagreb. This day of riding is in two parts, separated by a three-hour afternoon rest at the park.
Plitvice Lakes features more than a dozen interconnected lakes situated on a terraced landscape. As a result, water cascades from one lake into the other through waterfalls flowing over lush, green vegetation. The lakes sit on the dolomite and limestone rocks of the region. As a result, the water is crystal clear, but tinted green or blue depending on the mixture of the minerals leeching from the rocks. It is beautiful, and unlike any water landscape I have ever seen.
From there, I straddle the seat of my motorcycle for the last time and ride the last 90 miles or so back to Zagreb, returning my motorcycle about 30 minutes before the rental agency/café closes.
I am exhausted, but also exhilarated, because I have successfully completed a very ambitious itinerary. I have a well-deserved beer and briefly recount my experiences with Kristijan, who is impressed by how far I have roamed in just five days.
He’s not only impressed by my adventures, but he’s also a bit richer because of them. That’s because I exceeded the 300 kilometer daily limit on all but one of those five days, and so I’m obligated to pay him an extra 550 Croatian Kuna, or about $100. Nema problema, I say to myself, because I’ve just experienced the trip of a lifetime. Who cares about money when it buys you that?
But now I’ve got to start saving up money for my next trip of a lifetime – the one with my life partner that’s scheduled to begin in the summer of 2016.