17 May – a big climb and a number of repairs

Today we traveled a total of 68km from Bovec in Slovenia to Villach in Austria, including a lightning detour into Italy.

The morning started with an ascent along a shaded valley (part of a nature reserve) with the sun peaking through the alpine trees. We slowly worked our way up the valley. On both sides the huge granite mountains rise vertically from the valley floor, like giant jagged teeth. Strips of snow started appearing.

Our ascent gradually steepened and we passed through the first alpine village advertising rooms for hire – “zimmer frei”.

After that our ascent steepened and we did a bit of bicycle pushing.

We were on wooded roads, but could see the mountains peaking through to us all the time. We couldn’t really take good photos as the sun was shining from behind the mountain.

We paused at a small village near the top to refill our water bottles from a public water trough. Kris checked with a little old lady in a headscarf that the water was safe to drink. From here there were clear views to the south over the valley. We could see how far we had climbed, we ended climbing over 700m.

The road continued to rise, taking us over a bridge, past an old fort that straddled both sides of the road, and soon after that the Italian border. We were a little worried that they may not let us over this small border post (after our experience on the Slovenian border on 14 May), however they didn’t even stop us to look at our passports. There were a few Italian border police standing around but they just watched us ride through.

After the border, we had a steep downhill run – down towards a large lake.

We rode through a little tunnel with little s-bends making it dark and portholes on side – at least letting some light in through greenery on the outside of the portholes. We also passed lots of motorbikes with trailers and sidecars just after this tunnel – the motorbike with trailer having to slowly navigate a sharp bend, then we rode past the lake.

We passed through some strange derelict towns with old mining infrastructure and ruined houses (Cave del Predil), and no one about.


From there on we had a gradual descent into Tarvisio – a busy little town and the place where we planned to join the Alpine Adriatic cycle route. We stopped at the small supermarket and ate an entire kilogram of yogurt ice cream outside (maybe too much??).

From there we found the Alpine Adriatic cycle route – a very popular and well publicised route. Suddenly we were cycling together with many others, many people out on day trips and some on longer tours like us. The road was wide and well surfaced and easy – at this point Kris’s bike suddenly broke a spoke. When we stopped we found that there were actually three spokes – unusually all on the left side of the rear wheel. Kris deftly undertook the first major roadside repairs of the trip.

Note the wide, two lane bicycle path!

Then we continued on the Alpine Adriatic cycle route – we realised we had crossed the border into Austria with just a sign on the cycle route.


Once again the whole cycling experience changed again as the infrastructure improved – with mostly off road cycle paths available.

We made our way through a combination of tarred and gravel off road cycle paths, and village roads into Villach (a larger town and our destination for the day).

We saw a large cycle shop and Jenny urged Kris to replace his front wheel that has developed a turning resistance before we got much further into the alps. After consulting the bicycle technician we decided to change the wheel to one without a generator. Kris replaced the wheel outside the shop, using the same tire. We also swapped Jenny’s broken front light for Kris’s good one (now without power), so the whole procedure took a long time.

We found the Tourist Information in the middle of the town and got some maps on the cycle routes before going into the attractive pedestrian shopping street for some food. Jenny was feeling exhausted and light headed after a very long day and badly in need of something to eat. Then we made our way to the accommodation which was a youth hostel. A very friendly woman greeted us. This was one of the best youth hostels we have stayed in – everything was very clean and new looking. Except for the wifi, which was which was not really working, we had to sit in the common area near the entrance for sporadic data.

16 May – Stunning ride to Bovec

Today we did a breathtakingly beautiful route in our tour, from Idrija to Bovac (82km), at the start of the Julian Alps.

The road was mostly flat or downhill, especially for the first part of the ride that followed the Idrija river (route 102) to Tomlin.

Road and river scene

The river is crystal clear and obviously a popular fly fishing attraction, as we saw a number of fishermen with ostentatious gear on the side of the road and some in the river.

fly fisherman

fisherman in river

The green vistas across the river were so pretty I kept on stopping to take photos.

The weather started out overcast and pleasantly cool, though after lunch (when we hit the hills), we did begin to suffer a bit from the heat again. It is good we are not trying to do this in mid-summer! We had a few more uphills working our way up to Bovec.

We got our first views of the Alps.

first glimpse of the Alps
On coming around a corner, we came across lake Isonzo and paused to admire it’s unusual blue colour. There were a number of children in kayaks on the lake, making a very idyllic picture.

Lake Isonzo – note kayak in background

From here on the river also had this unearthly blue colour – we saw more kayaks tackling rapids with an instructor.

Unfortunately Kris’s front wheel began to play up, making his cycling harder. We believe that the generator (that powers the bicycle lights) on the front wheel is faulty and this is causing more friction on the wheel.

Interesting castle on the hill here – Kris’s wheel already playing up

Bovec is a lovely little town, but the bicycle shop was a disappointment. We thought we may replace the wheel, but they only service bicycles on the weekend and they had no spare parts.

Our accommodation is on the bottom floor of the house, but none the less has a small balcony where we can sit and look at the mountain.

Our accommodation – Apartments Skok

Mountain view from our balcony

We enjoyed some beer and our usual bread/cheese/tomato combination while watching a glider circle around the mountain peak. Later on we went for another walk into town to eat an ice cream.

15 May – Easy day to Idrija

Today was essentially a half day ride and afternoon rest. We traveled from Pivka to Idrija – only about 55km, arriving around 1pm. The weather was overcast and cool the entire morning, adding to the ease of the ride. There was only one hill climb, the rest of the time the route was pleasantly undulating.

We left Pivka on a fairly busy road with lots of trucks heading for the highway. Once we were past the highway we stopped at a Lidl to buy some juice and from then on we were on roads with less traffic. Most of the time the highway was on our left, and we passed through small little towns nestled into the green landscape.

Towards the end of the journey we were traveling through forests, with the sounds of a chainsaws every now and then and some logs lying at the side of the road.

We had a huge downhill run through a gorge just before the town – it was about 4km long and we were applying our brakes on the many many switchbacks – which we suspect we will pay for later.

On entering the town we stopped to admire the Idrijca river, known for the clarity of its waters.

We found our accommodation early (Guest House Barbara) and went for a leisurely walk around town.

Walking up to castle

View of town from castle window

Idrija sits on top of the second largest deposit of mercury in the world and mercury was discovered here in 1490. It is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list for its mining activity.

However we declined the opportunity to go on a tourist tour down the old mine, opting instead to sit outside the guest house restaurant and enjoy some beer and an excellent pizza. Happily, they stock beer from a nearby craft brewery (crazy duck), the IPA was good. We also had more of the Union unfiltered beer. The hotel owner is very friendly and provided helpful suggestions for our upcoming route.

In the afternoon we rested our sore legs and caught up on the blog. For dinner we tried the Idrija specialty dish that they have been making for more than 400 years – žlikrofi – it is a dumpling made of dough and stuffed with potato and served with a special sauce, very tasty, with a larger range of flavour than ravioli.

After dinner we walked down to the river again, buying an ice cream cone along the way, and were delighted to see a large number of trout feeding in the shallows under the bridge.

14 May – Slovenia

Today was an easier day – still a lot of hills but manageable at 68.5km. It also got a lot easier once we entered Slovenia.

Kris navigated us quickly out of the urban areas on small suburban roads running north. We did a lot of hill climbing.  The sun was very hot from early in the morning. Eventually we entered a forested area that was pleasant to ride in, but still hard work with constant hills.

Kris had found a small road that crossed the border in the middle of the forest. We were very surprised when the border police would not let us cross! Just before we had been wondering if the border would even be manned. Evidently only Euro passport holders can cross at this small border, all others need to go to the big border (to get a stamp!). This was frustrating as it added 6km to the ride, as well as forcing us onto a busier road for a while and adding another hill climb. Anyway, there was no choice involved so we turned back down the hill to go through the big border crossing.


It seems that EU borders are tightening up now after the refugee crisis, In 2015 we crossed unmanned borders all along between Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Holland. This is the first land border we have crossed on this trip (the other was coming off the ferry), we will see what the next ones are like.

As soon as we had crossed the border, we noticed a marked difference in both the quality of the roads and the behavior of the drivers. The drivers are fantastic, they wait behind you until it is safe to pass, and then give you enough room! Enough to make a cyclists heart happy. Later on we were told that this is a result of public education campaigns, driver training and laws introduced about ten years ago and before that the driving was not so good around cyclists – maybe we can do something similar in New Zealand to change behavior?

The first part of today’s Slovenia ride was a hill climb through forests, but joining a river and riding on a small road (632) along the river valley, passing through small towns.


The heat was building as we rode along and we were both suffering a bit from the intensity of the sun. It was a relief when it began to cloud over and we felt a few drops of rain. There were a few claps of thunder, and it was also okay when the rain increased a bit – nice and cool – we were just on a nice hill decent as it started. However suddenly the heavens burst open and there was a torrential downpour, with the water beginning to flow in rivers over the road. Luckily we entered a small town half a minute later and quickly ducked in under someone’s car port. We only had to wait fifteen minutes or so for the rain to recede – enough time to look at the map and eat our chocolate chip cookies. The rain had come on so quickly that only the tops and fronts of our clothes and shoes were wet. For a little while we were riding in both sun and rain, and eventually just hot sun again. We were dry again in no time.

We paused at the town of Ilirska Bistrica – the supermarkets were closed being a Sunday afternoon, so we got some water and a bun at a bakery. We had a debate as to whether we very should take the smaller or larger road on our final stretch to Pivka, eventually opting for the smaller (the 404). Another hill climb awaited us either way. It turns out we made the right choice. The hill climb was not too bad, as the road was very good (and the drivers so considerate), we just cruised along in our lowest gears. We had some lovely long gentle downhill runs on the other side, and then a nice meandering ride through idyllic hill country with small towns an their red church steeples.


We did book our accommodation today to make sure that we found somewhere nice, we are staying on top of a pizzeria and pub in Pivka (Rooms Herman). The restaurant is very nice and was buzzing with families eating a late Sunday lunch when we arrived at about 3pm.
We went down to have pizza and beer once we had washed ourselves and our clothes. We tried our first Slovenian beer – there are evidently only two main breweries in Slovenia. The one brewery (Union) has just begun to market unfiltered beer, which is evidently proving to be very popular. We tried both the light and dark versions and found them to be very drinkable. The pizzas we ate were huge and utterly delicious. Then we just walked back up the steps to our room.

Heading for the Alps

We spent some time in Eastern Europe (Poland etc) on our previous cycle tour and I wonder if Eastern Europe has a Russian sub-culture. This time we went through Croatia. The cost for accommodation is normally cheap in East European countries, and a lot of Croatians do not value life very highly as we experienced by driving on the roads, particularly in relation to cyclists. Some Croatians seem less friendly than Western Europeans. All in all this makes Eastern European countries a cheaper, but unpleasant tourist experience. As per usual I was dreaming a lot as cycle touring provides intense days. After a while in Croatia I was battling a lot of demons in my dreams.

Instead of following the Croatian coast into Italy, we decided to head through Slovenia towards the Alps. We found a marked difference when we crossed over into Slovenia. Slovenians generally tend to give cyclists room and do not take chances with the lives of cyclists.

We are not going past the Declathons that we planned as we are now planning to bypass some big centers. I’m hoping we can nurse our cheap bicycles over the Alps without doing a maintenance stop. (it is no use doing maintenance checks if you can’t buy spare parts).
Our crossing route over the Alps is not that much different, as we approach our target entry point (Bovec, Slovenia) from Slovenia instead of Italy.

13 May – Krk

We made the ferry this morning after waking up a few times in the early morning hours and a very early start. It was raining for hours in the night and I had visions of us pushing the bikes down to the ferry in the rain and dark. However by the time we went out it was just about cleared up, with magical dawn light that made everything look fresh and new.

The ferry was so empty I can list the passengers- one car with two elderly German women passengers, one male foot passenger, us and three mountain bikers with their bikes. For once, bicycles outnumbered cars. I can see why they only run two a day out of season. We were told that in season you struggle to get a seat.

We got talking with the mountain bikers immediately – they are a group of male friends from Slovenia out on a weekend break. They were going to another island (not Krk, but taking a second ferry) to ride their bikes for the day. We sat and had coffee together and chatted for the entire trip (about an hour and a half). They were very friendly people, who could speak good English.

Once in the Valbiska port, we decided to circle the island – first visiting the town of Krk, and then taking an anti-clockwise route around Krk, past Vrbnik and then along the small roads on the east of the island to Čižići, heading north.

Krk

Many of the town that we traveled through seem to be missing a vowel or two!

Krk is quite different to Pag and Rab, it is much lusher and greener, with thick bush. We have been told that the soil has been blown off Pag and Rag by the wind, but Krk is more sheltered. We could see that there was fertile soil here, with some vegetables growing and a number of vineyards. The road around the island was hilly (lots of up and down) and pleasant, never far from the sea.

We stopped and ate an ice cream at Cizici next to a little bay.

Today was the second time we saw other cycle tourists – and the fist time we passed by a husband and wife couple (they greeted us in German).

We joined the big 102 road out of the island as late as possible so we only rode along it for a couple of kilometers before the bridge leaving the island. It was pretty unpleasant in terms of amount of traffic – this is the only road that enters and leaves the island over a huge bridge.
Going over the bridge was amazing. We stopped at a view point half way across and did the rest of the bridge on the footpath on the side. The traffic on the bridge was fast, but the footpath was also too narrow to cycle on, with a railing not high enough to catch you if you toppled. It was a long long way down. So we pushed our bikes along with our feet – tiring!

The other side was also tricky in terms of navigating the road. The traffic was so scary we walked our bicycles for a bit before we could get on a quieter road.

We then traversed the coast on secondary roads, going past Kraljevika – there are oil refineries on the other side of the bay and the whole place smells of oil. Then along a mountainous coastal road past Bakar down below (looks very pretty). We had quite a climb up into the outskirts of Rijeka, and then made our way into the city center. This was not a pleasant drive because of the roads and traffic and we were getting tired and overheated.

Rijeka struck us as an ugly and dirty city. It was Saturday afternoon and there was quite a lot of noise in the main promenade. We hadn’t booked our accommodation, but found a hostel that had been listed on booking.com. It looked terrible from the outside (tatty hand lettered sign, dingy entrance, noisy environment), so we moved on. We began to move westward on the coastal road out of the city, heading to the next town (after stopping at a bakery for some carbs).

Jenny saw a sign for a hostel accommodation on the side of the road about half way there and we stopped to investigate. This was just on the outskirts of the city and the environs were a little quieter. However our judgment may have been clouded by how tired we were at this stage (we did a hard 79km with lots of hills and heat). I guess the foyer was the best looking part of the whole place with a nice receptionist. It turned out to be the (second/third?) worst place we have stayed on our cycling travels. A working mans hostel, filled with men smoking outside. The only working lift was full of graffiti. The lift moved grindingly and slowly up and the lift door couldn’t open on our floor (had to go to level 6 and walk up a level past some potbellied men without shirts smoking in the stairwells. Everything was very worn and tatty and who knows how clean. The wifi connection kept dropping off. Two single beds in a row. It wasn’t even that cheap – only $5 less than the clean and spacious apartment we had the night before!

At least there was a Lidl supermarket nearby so we could get some good food and wine. After consuming these we dropped off very early. Kris woke up in the night to find he was sleeping on a slope (head down) – his bed was collapsing! He climbed in with me and we had a very snug sleep for the rest of the night.

12 May – Island Hopping – Pag to Rab

We were a little worried about the logistics of our day today when we set off as we had two ferry rides scheduled, but it all worked out remarkably smoothly in the end.

To travel from the island of Pag to Rab, we had to first take a ferry from Zigljen to Prizna on the mainland, travel around 15km along the main coastal road, and then catch another ferry from Stinica to the island of Rab.

We set off before 7am, to ride the 10km from our accommodation to the ferry terminal. We started off with some steady inclines to wake us up. We rode alongside stone walled kraals and spied a few sheep in them. There is not much for the sheep to eat on this rocky ground, they must be a hardy breed. We had a wonderful downhill run to the ferry – with white granite cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. Even better – we made it onto the 7.30am ferry! Off to a good start.
Each ferry was quite cheap – equivalent to around NZ$12 for the two of us and our bicycles – it only took about half an hour to get to the other side.

We had a quick coffee at a roadside stall on the other side and then tackled the steep climb up to the main route E65.

ferry leaving again – view from up on hill

Kris has been calling this the “road of death” as all the coastal traffic has to go on it and there are no alternative small roads for bicycles. We were pleasantly surprised by the low traffic on the road – we were most likely lucky with our timing.

It was beautiful riding along this road and seeing the sea and the islands on the other side. We stopped a few times at viewpoints. There were some steady uphill climbs again, luckily with the wind at our back, and then a good downhills.

The turnoff to Stinica took us down a steep switchbacking road back to the coast. As we pulled up the 9.30am ferry was almost all loaded and ready to leave, amazingly we caught it – Kris was the last person on the ferry after buying our tickets. This ferry was a little bigger than the first one with a few more cars and a bus on board.

Once on Rab our pace slowed, as we now had the whole day to cycle the length of the island to our accommodation on the other side.


We stopped at a supermarket for some warm fresh pastry (flaky pastry filled with cheese), a belated breakfast.
When we got to the town of Rab, we spent some time circling around it. There is a yacht harbor and an old town. These old coastal towns all look a bit similar. We ate and ice cream in the old town.

Our route out of Rab was incredibly steep and Jenny’s calves were burning from pushing the bicycle up the steep hill.

Our first impression of Rab is that it was just as rocky and desolate as Pag, however it began to get a little greener towards the north western side. We rode along the coast most of the way, with the wind to our backs, it was a lovely ride.

We are staying overnight at Lopar, to the north of the island. The next ferry leaves from here to Krk. Unfortunately because it is still out of season, there are only two a day and the morning one leaves at 6am, and we were hoping we don’t miss it.

We bought some food and wine from the supermarket, had a coffee, and then rode around to look at the Lopar beach. It is pretty desolate at this time of year as all the tourist kiosks, and many restaurants and bars are still closed up.

We got to our accommodation, right by the ferry terminal, early at around 2pm. Luckily the owner was here and let us in. We have a huge apartment, with views overlooking the harbour and the ferry. We enjoyed sitting in the sun drinking wine on our big balcony and then had a sleep.

view of ferry coming in from balcony

 

11 May – Pag

Today we rode most of the length of the island of Pag, from Nin to Novalja in the north. It is a long skinny island with only one possible route for most of the way. Kris enjoyed a day without much navigation required.

This is one of the most astonishing landscapes I have ever traveled through. It becomes progressively more barren, and at the middle it is like a desert with white granite rock all around and the azure blue sea ever present in the distance.

There is not much (if any) soil here for plants to take hold on. There is also not much agriculture – evidently there are a few goats somewhere. They build these little stone walls around their “fields” to try to keep what soil there is from blowing away in the strong prevailing coastal winds.

We stopped at a roadside store and bought some local goats cheese – it must be the most expensive cheese we have bought in Europe so far. It tastes a bit like the common and cheap Italian Parmesan cheese blocks.

We had a good tail wind for most of the day and the cycling was very enjoyable.
We paused in Pag to have a quick look at the town.

Then over a bridge and a big slow climb up the white granite mountain on the other side. The view over Pag from up there was amazing and we stopped a few times to admire it (and rest).

We saw some other cycle tourists for the first time on Pag – three lone male cyclists on separate occasions – each carrying a huge load – they looked as though they were camping – carrying too much baggage.

Our final destination was Novalja, a tourist town at the north of the island. A very still, dead tourist town with no tourists and everything on hold, waiting for the tourist season to start in a few weeks time. Apparently it gets extremely crowded and chaotic – bizarre.

Our apartment is nice and clean and modern – in a block of tourist apartments, with a beautiful swimming pool out front. The price was heavily discounted. The hosts who greeted us were extremely friendly and helpful.

10 May – Zadar and Nin

Today we set out early to ride 37km to Decathlon in Zadar where we wanted to replace Kris’s rear tire that was starting to deform. As usual we had excellent customer service at Decathlon – the bicycle mechanic there, Bruno, helped us immediately and was very friendly.
The road there was fairly easy with a few nice long gentle downhills, meandering through the dry scrubby flats. However there was too much traffic for it to be pleasant.

Then we rode around Zadar for a while, it has a nice waterfront and some very old fortified walls.

We had some snacks and a (Belgian) beer at a waterside cafe before setting off on our last 20km to Nin where we had booked accommodation. There was an off road bicycle route alongside the main road that came and went for parts of this ride, but otherwise it was fairly unexceptional.

Nin is lovely, you cross a bridge onto an island to get to it. It is a tourist place but very quiet as it is out of season.

There is a cute old town and some Roman ruins.

A lady (tourist) was singing in German in this church – it sounded wonderful and reverberated right around the outside of the church into the little town – it has amazing acoustics.

Here is Gregory of Nin again – a smaller but similar statue to the one we saw in Split. His toe is all shiny from people rubbing it (for luck).

Our accommodation is great – large, light and airy apartment with a balcony. The couple renting it were super friendly – they looked very relieved when they realised that we could speak German as their English is not good. They lived and worked in Germany for 12 years. They gave us some wine, sparking water and cake as welcome gifts!

We went out again after a quick unpack to ride around the other side of the island – there was not much going on there with some of the houses looking closed up.

We put our feet into the water (it was not too cold and beautifully clear) and eventually circled back to the old town for a beer at a pub near the bridge.

This time we drank Belgium beer (Leffe Blonde and Dunkel) as the only Croatian beer they had was the one we know we don’t like. Kris ventured to try the dark version of the Croatian beer (too malty and sweet but better then the other one), I stuck with the Belgian.

9 May – an easier day – Vodice to Pridraga

Our sore muscles complained when we set off again today, however we soon warmed up. Luckily our route was was shorter too, only 64km.
We cut inland straight away to keep off the busy coastal road, heading straight north. When we hit route 27 we went parallel to the coast for a long time. The road meandered up and down, the countryside was green but dry, with more olive trees and scruby vegetation growing in the rocky ground.

The water from our apartment didn’t taste very good, so we stopped and bought some water at a small store in the small town of Stanvokovci.

We passed by the Google car (a few 100m south of Pristeg) – we will have to look on Google Maps streetview to see if we can find ourselves later.

We paused again at Bencovak, and went up the hill to look at their 15th century castle – we could climb up inside for good views of the town and countryside.

After a supermarket stop for some snacks and evening food, we headed north again.

This turned out to be a long slog against a heavy head wind and very slight uphill. We rode right past some wind turbines – so evidently the wind should not have been unexpected. Croatia is not the easiest place for bike touring, as we found that where there are few hills, you encounter wind!

Finally we had a good downhill run with lovely views, to lake Karin.

We didn’t go all the way down to the lake though, as it was a few hundred meter drop and we felt we wouldn’t have the energy to come back up.

Our accommodation was in the nearby village of Pridraga. This is really off the beaten track in a local village. The apartment is off a stone courtyard and is large and beautifully furnished. A bottle of local sherry was waiting for us as a welcome gift.


We headed back into the small village to buy some more food at the small shop and drink a beer sitting on the porch of the local pub. We had a local beer (Karlovačko) but it was terrible, it cost only about $5 for two. This is evidently what they drink here, one of the men sitting there was also drinking it.