Dalmatia is a region of Croatia. The title,
however, is a shorthand
way of referring to a tour of four Balkan States: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and
Herzegovina, and Montenegro – all previously component parts of the former
Yugoslavia; as well as a few days in the Dolomites of North Italy.
The tour started in Ljubljana, the capital of
Slovenia. The tour was organised and undertaken in partnership with a Slovenian
operator, Adriatic MotoTours.
This page is an edited version of the daily
blogs I did during the trip. Some pre-trip blogs have been saved in a PDF
document: Early Blog Postings.
I also prepared a rough guide to the tour – all
simply copied and pasted from Internet sites. It hopefully offers an easy guide
to places on the tour, which, of course, are spread through several countries:
Dalmatia – A Rough Guide to the Tour
I arrived in Ljubljana by bus from Italy,
following visits to Rome and Venice. Not that crossing the border was obvious. The
only indicator was the scattered clump of old border buildings of a look that
was reminiscent of the former Soviet-style world. But there was no stopping.
Just straight through on the motorway. The terrain didn’t change. The towns
from a distance looked the same. The only obvious difference was the snow
capped mountains that came into view as we pushed further into Slovenia.
Slovenia had never been a comfortable
fit in the old Yugoslavia, although you might say that about most of its former
component parts. Its culture and history had been closer to Austria, so it
would feel that it had regained its heritage by being part of the European
Union rather than the old Soviet bloc.
Our first full day in Slovenia was
sight-seeing in Ljubljana. This is not so big a country or city. Slovenia’s
population is only around 2 million; and Ljubljana’s less than 300,000.
However, Ljubljana seems larger than its population would suggest, possibly
because you don’t get the enormous land-occupying spread we tend to get in
Australia. The city has a buzz of activity, traffic and people that belies its
size in population terms. The old town is the centre of its history and life;
and its big attraction. There’s a river running through the middle of the old
town making its many bridges a key feature. Folklore has it that Jason of
Argonaut fame sailed down the river to Ljubljana with his golden fleece.
In older times the city was secured
by walls – both in the Roman era and in medieval times; but none of either
exists today, apart from a medieval watch tower or two incorporated into new
buildings. A castle sits on top of a
hill overlooking the city. It was once the city’s guardian against the many invading
tribes over the ages.
It’s a very relaxing city in the old
quarter. Nothing like the bustle of the new section of the city. We ambled
about, visited the key attractions, scaled the castle hill (in the funicular),
and enjoyed lunch and some local wine along a cobbled street.
The next day, we headed out to meet
our local operator and collect the bikes. Mine was BMW’s R1200GS. There’s
always some apprehension attached to riding a bike that’s new to you on roads
that are new to you and, not least, having to ride on the right hand side. With
a car, the driver’s seat on the left is a constant reminder of the need to stay
right, but with a bike you have no such aide.
Thanks to one of my Wednesday ride
group, I had had an opportunity to ride the BMW R1200GS before. Bill had
invited me to take his 1200GS down the Clyde escarpment one day. At least, that
now took the fear factor out and left only the general apprehension of new
roads and the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
Map of Route
This map indicates the route taken,
but with some inevitable straight lines. Not all roads are indicated
accurately; and there will likely be changes for each tour.
View Dalmatia: Route in a larger map
National Park, Croatia
It was satisfying to get the bike and
get the feel of it during a gentle run through the light green forests and
rolling hills as we passed from Slovenia through border control to Croatia. As
in most of the Northern Hemisphere, the forests are a blended mix of light
greens, all the starker with the fresh growth of Spring. It’s striking when
you’re more accustomed to the much deeper and blue-tinted greens of the
Our destination was the Plitvička
National Park (plit-vich-ka), a UNESCO-listed World Natural Heritage Site. Its
central attraction is a network of interlocking lakes cascading through forests
and ravines until they join at the top end of a large lake, only to flow out in
another set of falls and cascades. The water is sparkling clear. The paths of
the cascades change with conditions as the underlying porous carbonate rock
(tufa or travertine) takes on varying shapes and formations. It’s all quite
stunning. So stuning, in fact, that I have created a short slide show dedicated
to the park.
It wasn’t long after we set out from
Plitvička that we passed border control into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because
Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are not in the European Union, they maintain
border controls and their own currencies. Border controls, however, were no
more than looking at your passport and stamping it.
It was a long day. Only 400km, but
with time taken to refuel the group (twice) and have coffee, lunch, photo stops
and a bit of sight-seeing, we didn’t get to Sarajevo until after 6.00pm. But
what a day it was: great riding through constantly changing topography but with
sobering reminders of the horrors and atrocities of the Bosnian war from 1992
By then, I felt thoroughly
comfortable with the big 1200GS. It got a decent work-out with lots of winding
roads through lush green forests, around the steep edges of hills as we
followed their sides in and out to the tops and down again, sweeping over
expansive green fields (without much sign of agriculture) and across sections
of rocky semi-barren plateaus obviously above snow-lines in winter judging from the signs indicating the need
Littered along the way were many
destroyed and abandoned villages, vestiges of the senseless destruction and
cruelty exposed during the Bosnian War – with guilt spread across more than one
protagonist. You could hardly imagine the long-lasting impact made on
communities and families as one side sought to project its prejudices and
ambitions over the other. Some villages had started to rebuild as new houses,
perhaps a few repaired, were dotted amongst the rubble of the crumbling ones.
Others were totally deserted. I was struck by the absence of people, even in
the occupied villages. There were no comings or goings, no people sitting around
having coffee and chatting; just a few isolated folk attending to a garden or
burning some rubbish. It seemed eerie. It was with some relief that he arrived
at a sizable town, Livno, to find a town square, with newly planned features,
albeit surrounded by dilapidated buildings – but, at least, with lots of people
dining and drinking. We had lunch their enjoying watching the young people
passing by, talking, laughing, and flirting with one another – pretty much
behaving as young people anywhere.
After Livno we found a way around a
huge and spectacular lake, across and through mountains via several long,
leaking tunnels, ascending, descending and winding for miles, before
dropping down into the Sarajevo Valley.
Sarajevo is sometimes described as
the Jerusalem of Europe, meaning it’s a place where the three great religions
of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have long lived side by side. The city has
more than ninety mosques dating from the Ottoman Turkish control of the city
for over 500 years. It had several Synagogues prior to World War II and a few
still exist today. There are basilicas of both Catholic and Orthodox
Christianity. It’s the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina and has a population
of about 500,000.
The old town has a very Ottoman or
Turkish look and feel about it, with its mosques, its typical Turkish
caravanserai and inn, both dating from the 1500s, its coffee houses, and other
architectural features. The population of Sarajevo is predominantly Muslim but
the people are distinctly European – one of the anomalies of history reaching
back to the Ottoman Turkish occupation of centuries ago.
Sarajevo sits at the centre of a
unique ethnic, religious and political complexity that is Bosnia and
Herzegovina; and that still defies permanent resolution. Invasions, wars and
uneasy tolerance have been part of life in this part of the world for over a
thousand years as early Slavic settlers evolved into different political and
religious entities. The undercurrents of prejudice, intolerance and ambitions
of political dominance were no more starkly and tragically evident than in the Bosnian war of 1992-1995.
What started as a Yugoslavian
Government/military response to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of
independence from the Yugoslavian Federation soon became a blatant and savage
onslaught by Serbian forces to destroy the entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and
expand the territory and control of a new Greater Serbia. The centrepiece of
the plan was the siege and capture of Sarajevo, thus, in effect, eliminating
the Bosniaks – the Muslim component of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosniaks
defended their city through a three year savage siege that ended with the
Serbian forces finally relenting under international pressure. The city was all
but destroyed; and tens of thousands were killed or wounded. One of the places
we visited was ‘the tunnel’. The 800m tunnel was hand-dug in the early days of
the siege to allow essentials, both arms and food, into the city and allow
troops to transit from the city to defend supply lines. The city had been
surrounded by Serbian forces. However, once prevailed upon by the UN to
relinquish control of the airport to the UN, a small potential gap opened up to
the Bosniaks. A mountain range on the outside of the airport was controlled by
Bosniak forces so a tunnel under the airport became the lifeline of Sarajevo
for the remainder of the siege.
Sarajevo was also the site of the
event that triggered the First World War, namely the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand and his wife. He was the heir to the
Austro-Hungarian throne. I recall learning at school that this was the cause of
World War I, but that was a simplistic view no doubt tailored for a 14 year
old. However, it’s still considered the catalyst that brought the war on. There’s a plaque by the Latin Bridge where it
You might recall that Sarajevo was
the site of the Winter Olympics in 1984 – a first for a Socialist State (Bosnia
and Herzegovina was part of the Yugoslav federation in those days).
All in all, Sarajevo is a unique
city: one of glory and devastation; one of three ethnic and religious groups;
but predominantly a Muslim enclave in a European and Christian surround.
Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
are essentially two ways to get from Sarajevo to Mostar: the direct way that
the road signs indicate and the ‘long way round’ through more mountain passes,
ranges and twisting roads. We opted for the latter. I think I recall a few
short straight stretches possibly totally a few kilometres.
wound and twisted along the river canyons, through tunnels into neighbouring
valleys, up and over several ranges and across lush green countryside before
encountering increased challenges when
one of the back roads narrowed as its deteriorating condition ate away
at its edges and left the rest mightily pot-holed. But that was a relatively
short stretch. The rest was motorcycle Nirvana.
was our destination. It was the most heavily bombarded city during the Bosnian
War as, this time, the Croatian forces – seemingly equally brutal as the
Serbians – tried to destroy everything Bosnian, including the Muslim Bosniaks.
The old town of Mostar is more spectacular and charming than some travel
information suggested, dismissing Mostar as only worth looking at the bridge.
They had sold the town very short. However, there’s no doubt the bridge is the
centrepiece. And what a story that is!
is one of the centres occupied and ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire for over
500 years around the sixteenth century. The old Ottoman town spread across both
sides of the Naretva River and was linked by a beautiful, Ottoman-style bridge
built in 1566. It was considered the architectural and cultural heart of the
city. Sadly it was destroyed by Croatian bombardments in 1994 during the
Bosnian War, as was so much of the old Ottoman town and the rest of Mostar.
Today an identical bridge spans the river, re-built in 2004 in the same style
and with the same building design as the original.
has obviously not done so well with re-building, except for the old town. Many
bombed–out buildings still provide vivid pictures of the war days. Here is a
short slide show that seeks to capture the constant reminders of its war-torn
was heartening, in the midst of so much destruction and ethnic animosity, to
return to the hotel after a pleasant dinner in the old town to find a high
school formal in full swing in the hotel’s ballroom (cum dining room, bar and
extended foyer). The school, Turistic School (TUSC), I was told, has about a
70/30 mix of Croatian and Bosniak students. The formal resounded with all the
thump and fun of any high school formal anywhere. Here, hopefully, was a
generation that would break through the ignorance and prejudice of their
parents and forebears; and provide a more enlightened future for their country.
less heartening was a message painted on a large rock at the Mostar bridge:
“DON’T FORGET 1994”.
As the name Montenegro suggests
(Black Mountain), we’re in very mountainous territory. In fact, getting to the
border was a steep climb up a mountain side, with two tight switchback turns to
bring you to the border control gates.
Getting to Zabljak involved a long
climb on the narrowest of roads so far (and, we’re assured, the narrowest of
the trip!), with a generous dollop of tight switchbacks. There were sufficient
on-coming cars, vans and trucks to make sure you kept to your line on the
corners and timed the switchbacks to avoid the trucks, which simply can’t do
them staying on one side of the road. Eventually we emerged onto an expansive
lush green plateau surrounded by rocky peaks with the last of the winter snow
draped over them. The plateau, mostly treeless, ran for miles, with scattered
small settlements and summer-grazing sheep. On the far side from our approach
the forests resumed and we seemed to start the run down when the sizable ski
resort town of Zabljak appeared.
A feature of a lot of the mountain
roads all around here are the tunnels. They vary enormously in length, some
with turns in the middle and none with internal lighting. Your headlight
doesn’t seem to do much, especially when you’re wearing sunglasses. A few
longer ones involved a quick flick of the visor and a drag of sunglasses down
your nose to open a narrow crack of unhindered vision into the dark.
Then there’s the speed traps. One
tunnel that quickly become part of our trip’s folklore had a 40kph limit as you
approached it – with a police radar trap at the exit. Four of us had been
riding together at that stage (small groups often form spontaneously and just
as quickly dissolve as riders stop for photos or decide to slow down). The
hapless lead rider duly sacrificed himself as wood duck on emerging from the
tunnel at a little over the posted limit. As number 3, I took the only
practicable course and rode on, as did number 4 – eventually followed by number
2, who obviously had had a fleeting moment of camaraderie which he quickly
suppressed. Laurie’s plight wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the
faster speeds of following bikes, all duly recorded on the radar and each
successive increase further deepening the ire of the police officers, who
wanted to hold Laurie responsible for
each and every breach. He was very
reluctantly freed to continue his journey.
From the heights of the Montenegro
mountains, we headed for the Adriatic Sea. That meant a lot of descending, but,
inevitably, not without a lot of climbing, as mountains had to be traversed,
skirted and dissected.
The initial run down from Zabljak was
on a much better road than the way up, but no less winding and with its share
of switchbacks. We then reached a fast running river that the road clung to for
several miles through deep, rugged gorges. Apart from the spectacular scenery,
a road that hugs a river along its course through the mountain passes and
gorges has the added benefit, usually, of winding in a consistently predictable
manner, making for brisker and enjoyable riding. Without warning, the road
would change course, leave the river and head up the mountain side though more
twists, turns and switchbacks.
I counted more than 30 tunnels that
took us through craggy outcrops and whole mountain sides. Some were short –
30-50m; others long enough not to display any ‘light at the end’ until well
into it; and some very long and curvy. All very dark with no lights except your
Eventually the dead-flat (at least on
the day we arrived) Adriatic Sea comes into view by way of a small bay with
high coastal walls around it. The road
winds its way down the rest of the mountain and delivers you at the delightful
sea-side town of Petrovac.
Our hotel fronted a 600m beach that
arcs around the light blue waters, with the town buildings and promenade
following it. The water, even so early in the summer season, was a very
pleasant temperature. Having arrived early afternoon, there was time for the
interested and willing to swim, sit around on the beach or retreat to a
charming bar on the water’s edge at one end of the beach. A few of us swam to
the bar and arrived by skirting the initial rocky protrusions and entering via
a break in the rocks.
The coastal run from Petrovac in
Montenegro to Dubrovnik in Croatia is quite short. So, not to be outdone by brevity, we headed
back up the mountains for what, I’m sure, turned out to be the most “technical”
ride so far – “technical” being the popular euphemism for very tight turns and
even tighter switchbacks.
High in the Lovćen National Park, the
mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, Montenegro’s most revered poet, is
perched on the top of a mountain peak at 1660 metres (not much short of the height
of Mt Kosciuszko at 2228 metres). Reaching the mausoleum necessitated a climb
of over 400 steps from the parking area at about 1500 metres!
Arriving at the mausoleum at 11°C, it
was hard to imagine we had been swimming in Petrovac the day before surrounded
by a warm 28°. We descended the 1500 metres to sea level on the Adriatic in
about 40 minutes to a welcoming temperature of 25°.
A different road down was, contrary
to expectations, even narrower than
encountered before – so narrow that passing on-coming vehicles necessitated
stopping to negotiate avoidance of side mirror contact. Slow and careful around
every increasingly tighter turn was the governing process. Even when the road
widened on leaving the park, it had no choice but to inch its way down the
steep mountain side in a series of switchbacks that defied passing anything on
them. Not that they were any deterrence to the tourist coaches. Passing them
even on the more gentle curves required a double shuffle as the coach first
locked you in a small triangle of space and then moved forward to let you
The views of the bays winding their
way from the Adriatic between high mountain walls was spectacular from dizzy
vantage points as we steadily made the descent to the small bay side town of
Kotor for lunch.
From there it was a pleasant run
along the coast back into Croatia – another border crossing – and onto the
fortress town of Dubrovnik for a two night stay.
Dubrovnik was built on maritime trade in the
Middle Ages and was said to be the only city state in the Adriatic to rival
Venice. Its fortress walls and strategic location provided an effective defence
against would-be invaders, such as the Ottoman Empire, for many centuries. Now
it’s an attractive and popular tourist destination.
It’s not often you find one of these
old walled cities that has the complete wall intact. Dubrovnik’s city walls
stand proudly surrounding the entire old town as they have done for centuries,
although one presumes with considerable restoration along the way. In fact,
Dubrovnik wore some damage during the Balkan wars of the 1990s but mostly this
has been repaired.
We started the day there with a boat
trip from the marina around the point from the old town (the centre of the new
town is a few kilometres away and out of sight of the old fortress town – the
two parts being on different sides of a small peninsula). The boat took us, in
effect, down an estuary off the Adriatic before turning into the sea and
heading up the coast to the old walled city of Dubrovnik and its harbour.
Approaching the old city from the sea provided a special aspect that replicated
the views of the traders, sailors and probably a few pirates over centuries
Lunch in the sunshine of the harbour
side, with a sampling of some fine local white wine, was a perfect culmination
of our introduction to Dubrovnik. I later found a couple of history museums
that were interesting enough. Then the main attraction: a 2km walk around the
top of the walls, up several sets of stairs as the wall changed height to fit
the terrain, climbing to the top of corner towers, walking along the edge of
tall walls that dropped perpendicular into the sea. All with spectacular views
of sea and city.
The old town is jam-packed with
narrow laneways, churches, monuments and other distinctive architecture. It
wasn’t hard to spend a day taking in such a unique place.
The walk back to the hotel was about
3km through the new town, which has spread up the mountain side from the old
town and along the peninsula and over the point. The new town also has its
attractions and provided a convenient and enjoyable place for an al fresco
There was a restaurant in Dubrovnik
called Mea Culpa. A curious name, I thought at the time, little realising it
would become an appropriate frame of mind for the next day’s short ride along
the coast from Dubrovnik to Korčula (č = ch). It should have been entirely
uneventful, apart from a coffee stop at the old town of Ston at the beginning
of a long narrow peninsula running almost parallel to the coast. Ston has, at
about 5km, the longest uninterrupted wall of any old town in Europe.
However, just before we got to Ston,
I was too slow in reacting to the flashing headlight of an on-coming car and
got pinged by radar at 102kph coming into a 70kph zone (no town in sight – just
a bend coming into a long downhill stretch). They have the practice, curious to
us, of posting speed limits where we would normally have only advisory speed
The young Croatian police office was
very polite. He wanted to see my driver’s licence. He asked if this was my
first time in Croatia. He took me to his car parked discretely well off the
road. He showed me his booklet with speeds over the posted limit and fines. At
32kph over the limit, the fine was 2000 kuna (about 270 euros or $400AUS). He
said it was the law that I pay immediately.
I asked could he simply give me a warning. He
solemnly shook his head in a troubled, pensive manner and said softly,
“No, no, not for that amount over the
I said plaintively that I did not have 2000
kuna. He replied that I could pay in euros and it would be 200 euros. I wasn’t arithmetically astute enough to
realise that his 200 Euros wasn’t that accurate. In hindsight, I think it was a
prelude to an anticipated negotiation.
For quite a while an uncomfortable
silence prevailed. Then his ‘bad cop’ routine of dismissing the possibility of
a warning transformed into a ‘good cop’ routine as he eased the agonising
silence to an end by looking at me and, as though thinking aloud, offered an
alternative way out.
“Well, Mr Robert, my boss checks all
the recorded speeds so I have to fine you. However, since this is your first
visit to Croatia, I can do something for you. I can punish you by fining you
only half the amount, at 100 euros, and erase the speed from the radar; but if
I do that I can’t give you a receipt.”
I had initially thought, as he
started the ‘good cop’ routine, that he was going to let me off after all, but
that obviously wasn’t going to happen.
It was now my turn to let the
pregnant pause gestate a while longer as we both stayed silently pondering. I
finally broached a gentle question.
“How about you punish me with a 50
euro fine and wipe the speed off the radar?”
He was a bit too quick in responding,
“But you realise I can’t give you a receipt?”
“Yes. I understand that.”
I then fumbled with various notes,
being very careful to ensure the couple of 100 euro notes I had remained
tightly concealed in my wallet. I pulled out a 20 and a 10 euro note and some
other note, which he quickly dismissed as a Bosnian mark. I prevaricated with a
bit more fumbling before putting the 20 and 10 euro notes forward.
“How about 30 euros?”
He obviously appreciated the delicacy
of the negotiation and chose not to push his luck too far. He nodded agreement,
took the 30 euros , and looked me in the eye with a flicker of a grin as he
ended the procedure.
“Goodbye , Mr Robert.”
And that was the end of that.
Never belittle the benefits of
bartering in Bali!
From the tip of the Pelješas
Peninsula, we crossed by ferry to the island and town of Korčula in time for
lunch. Korčula is reputedly the birthplace of Marco Polo who features so
prominently around town that you might assume the family moved house quite a
The idea had been to spend the
afternoon exploring the island at will on the bikes, but a rainy arrival and
some wine at lunch dictated settling for walking around the town and exploring
its marina, streets and towers. In the evening we returned to the old town and
dined in one of its cosy restaurants.
The next day, we were on our way in
time to catch the 9.00am ferry from Korčula to the mainland for a ride back
along the Pelješas Peninsula; then up along the coastal roads heading north
We had an easy run up the Croatian
coast, through a few kilometres of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a narrow
strip of its territory providing it with a sea port on the Adriatic. Border
control – twice in about 10km – was somewhat perfunctory compared to previous
crossings. Coming into Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was a young, attractive
policewoman, who simply looked you in the eye, gave a great smile and waved you
on without the need to even stop. After I turned back and came through the
border for the third time, I sensed she was getting suspicious so I kept going
The sheep mentality got the better of
most of us once back into Croatia. Someone – who must remain unnamed for his
protection – took a wrong turn and had most of us follow him. Confusion took
control for 30 minutes or so before we satisfied ourselves as to quo vadis?
We dribbled into the small ferry town
of Drvenik sufficiently spread out to ensure missing a ferry to the Island of
Hvar; and having to wait a couple of hours for the next one. A picnic lunch on
the pebbly beach under the shade of Cyprus trees easily filled in the time.
It was only a half-hour hop across to
Hvar, followed by an 80km winding and twisting (oh no, not again!) ride along
the entire length of the island to Hvar town at its northern tip. There are
several small villages on the island, lots of wineries and an abundance of
Having dodged rain a couple of times
on the way from Korčula to Hvar, we had a gloriously sunny day in this little
Adriatic haven. No riding – just enjoying the old harbour side town of Hvar
(both the island and main town are called Hvar), its several attractions and
The old town of Hvar – dating back to
the 15th century – whose wide promenade encircles the small harbour decked with
luxury boats and charter craft, has a huge town square dominated by the
cathedral of St Stjepan. Overlooking the town, spread across a hill at the back
of the town centre, is a massive fortress dating back to the 13th century. It
provided protection for the town folk against invading Ottoman Turks who
ransacked and burnt the town during their empire building days in the 1500s.
A particular treat for dinner in Hvar
was a boat trip from our hotel along the shore from the town, past the harbour
and around a few points to a tiny village tucked away – almost hidden – in a
small cove. It was a dinner excursion, so, as we approached by boat, we
obviously wondered which of the three or four water side restaurants we were
destined to dine in. None! A kilometre
or so walk along a rough track led us to a very rustic-looking stone building
in a large olive grove, in which our tables were set. We were treated to a
feast of home-made everything: olive-based
grappa ( lozje in Croatian) as a welcoming aperitif, octopus (large!) in
a fabulous red wine sauce, cigar-sized prawns, whole grilled fish,
calamari...and anchovy bread: much of this prepared in a massive stone oven
driven solely by the carefully tended wood fire.
It was quite a memorable two-night
stop in Hvar.
Departure time from Hvar was
constrained by the ferry timetable. It was an 11.30am departure by ferry from
near the neighbouring village of Stari Grad – just 20km from the town of Hvar –
and a two hour ferry trip, squeezing through a narrow strait between two
islands on the mainland side of Hvar and into the large city of Split.
A few of us headed out early and
found our way by a narrow back road to Stari Grad, the oldest settlement
on the island (Stari Grad means old
town). As we wound around the green hills to Stari Grad, we were fascinated by
the intersecting network of stone fences all over the sides of the hills. Turns
out they came about as part of the process of simply clearing the stones to
make way for planting lavender.
Stari Grad was a quaint old town,
with its town square at the peak of a protected waterway coming in from the
Adriatic. It was certainly worth an hour’s walk and coffee at the centre of
Once off the ferry and around the
outskirts of Split, we continued along the rugged Croatian coast, with the road
carved into the steep cliffs dropping into the sea. Somewhere past the small
off-shore town of Primošten (š = sh)and the larger town of Šibenik, we headed
inland to enjoy the more hilly countryside and some minor roads that would take
us pretty much straight north-west onto a narrow peninsula and the island of
Pag. That was the plan. A few misunderstandings with our corner marking system
had a few riders going off in various directions. A few of us ended up in a
significant south-west deviation before resorting to our trusty maps to set a
new course. It made for an extra 80km and final got us to the hotel at the
northern end of Pag Island about 8.30pm. Our diversion didn’t deter us from
stopping here and there to enjoy the looming Velebit Mountains that run along
the Croatian coast and help create the Bora wind.
The island of Pag, along with many
other islands along this more northerly part of the Croatian coast adjacent to
the Velebit Mountains, has a windward side that is starkly barren from the
force of the Bora; and a leeward side that has a lush salt-laden green cover
from the Bora’s picking up sea water and depositing it over the peaks.
The hotel was a very welcome sight in
the final minutes of the setting sun which seemed to delay its departure until
we got in.
From our location at the far northern
end of Pag Island, we could hop a ferry across to the mainland and avoid the
need for a long back-tracking across the Pag Bridge and down the peninsula. It
was a short ferry ride to the small village of Prizna, with its winding road up
the hill side to meet the main coastal road. Cars and motorbikes competed for
improved positioning in the row of trucks, busses and motor homes disgorged from
the ferry that sluggishly made their way along the mostly single lane road with
an unbroken centre line. The duty policeman gave up in despair and disgust at
the continual line of motorbikes drifting over the centre line as they slipped
around the slower vehicles; and contented himself to a few negotiated
settlements with car drivers and at least one minibus driver!
It was another good mix of coastal
and inland riding. First, we trekked along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia; then
headed into the hills and rolling farm lands of the hinterland. While the
switchbacks were fewer than in the mountains, there was no end to the ups and
downs and arounds. The coastal riding has its own set of attractions as the
road usually winds around the steep hill sides, providing stunning views of the
maze of islands spread across the Adriatic.
At the coastal town of Crikvenica
(easy to remember), we turned inland to enjoy a few minor roads, including a
veritable goat track, as the lead rider coped with his sometimes errant GPS!
All part of the discovery process. It wasn’t long before we crossed from
Croatia into Slovenia headed for the World Heritage Škocjan (pron.
This was Sunday. We were introduced
to Sunday riding Slovenian style. Winding our way through some great twisties
in the Goteniška Mountains in the south of Slovenia, soon after crossing the
border, we encountered hundreds of boy
(and probably some girl) racers who milled around in large groups enjoying the
spectacle of their fellow riders competing in spontaneous time trials around
the turns. It was just a little startling at times to have a screeching sports
bike go flying past you in a tight turn.
As we passed through the last of Croatia towards Slovenia, we probably
should have guessed at something like this from spotting a number of
tight-fitting leather-clad riders, some with velcoed on, even tighter-clad
pillions (one with matching stiletto ‘riding boots!’) – and some with treadless
racing tyres on their sports bikes!
We managed to get to the Caves with
less than a minute to spare before they closed off the final guided tour of the
day. The Škocjan Caves have some large limestone caverns, but their main
attraction is their enormous underground canyon. The fast-flowing Reka River
charges through a nearby gorge and disappears underground into the cavernous
underground chambers of the cave system, tumbling down underground waterfalls
and racing through narrow chasms. There is a walking track hewn into the side
of >40 metre high canyon walls. Everything is wet as a fine mist fills the
canyon. A great spectacle!
A short ride after emerging from the
caves around 7.00pm had us in Sežana for the night.
It was a relatively short ride
through rolling countryside and small villages to reach the Italian border.
Because Slovenia is now part of the European Union, there was no border
control: just some unattended buildings and a sign welcoming you to Italia.
Corner marking came into its own as
we made our way through more complicated routes and busier towns in Italy to
weave our way closer to the Dolomites – a large section of the Italian Alps and
one of Northern Italy’s popular ski areas; not to mention popular cycling and
The first part of our Italian
experience was across fairly flat country before seeing the distant Dolomites
rising ahead of us. Then it was a long climb into the mountains and up over a
couple of passes to the town of Corvara, tucked away in a valley high up in the
It was a two night stay here, so we
had the opportunity to do some exploring around the area.
An advertised feature our day in
Corvara was an optional ride to conquer Italy’s highest pass – the Passo di
Stelvio, which I wrote about (with a photo of its switchbacks) on the pre-trip Dalmatia
page. However, it turns out to be a very long trip time-wise, given the
distance and travel conditions to get even to the bottom of the roads that take
you up to the top of the pass. That wasn’t going to deter four diehards who set
out early to earn their bragging rights and T shirt - successfully.
Some of us had a lazy day; some went
into town for some shopping; some ventured out for rides across closer mountain
Five of us headed out about 9.00am to
tackle some of the neighbouring passes. We did a circuit of about 60km that
crossed the tops of five passes, each one requiring a long, winding ascent to
and descent from the top of the pass, with lots of end-to-end switchbacks. I
couldn’t boast having done them all as smoothly as I would have liked,
especially when meeting oncoming vehicles on the right-handers (think
left-handers in an Australian context); you don’t have any margin at all to
expand an already tight turning circle. But just a great riding experience.
Even so early in the summer and on a
mid-week day, there were motorbikes everywhere: in towns, going up to the
passes, coming down, and having coffee at the tops of the passes. I was told
that in the height of the summer and especially at weekends, there is virtually
one continuous line of motorbikes in each direction on every road. Little
wonder so many places have “Motorcyclist Welcome” signs displayed!
The road out of Corvara taking up
back into Slovenia and to the Julian Alps climbed its way along new valleys and
up over several passes. All good mountain riding. Once across the border and
into the Julian Alps, the running seemed much tamer than the Dolomites.
However, after a pleasant night on the outskirts of the small Slovenian town of
Bovec, we started the day by heading north east (not quite in the direction of
Ljubljana) across Slovenia’s highest mountain pass. The switchbacks were
numbered – all 50 of them, which did not include the turns between switchbacks.
Once at the top, we encountered a novel experience on the way down: the
switchbacks were cobble-stoned! The cobble stones started about 12-15 metres
before the turn, continued around the turn and lead you out of the turn for
another 12-15 metres. We were assured that the tyre grip on them is the same as
on the road. I wouldn’t have been so confident of that if they had been wet.
Back “Home” in Ljubljana,
Once out of the Julian Alps, it was
mostly a motorway run back to Ljubljana, with a lunch stop at the attractive
lake that provides a centrepiece of the picturesque town of Bled.
Soon, we were back at our starting
point: Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.
As with past meanders abroad, you
invariably feel despondent when you realise there’s only two or three days to
go. But by the time you arrive, the despondency transforms itself into a sense
of triumph and relief: triumph because of the accomplishment and satisfaction
of a great trip; and relief because you’re back with no damage to you or your
bike. In fact, while you want to extend
the trip when you’re a few days out, by the time you’re back you feel that
enough is enough.
Cobble-stoned switchbacks must rate
with curves, including switchbacks in pitch dark tunnels, as amongst the more
interesting motorcycle experiences of the trip.
So, it’s now over. A great trip, with
some of the best riding roads and challenges you could find anywhere.
Here is a slide show of the
highlights of the Dalmatia tour:
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