As I write this, I am still glowing from what turned out to be one of the best cycling adventures I have enjoyed in a long time. It seemed like the days flew by, and perhaps this enjoyment was helped along by the fact that every day was different, and seemingly better than the last.
Our journey started in the Istrian peninsula, a land of wines, family and medieval hamlets, the latter was usually fortified and built in strategic locations like hilltops or coastal areas. Admittedly it was harder to get to the start than I had expected, despite, or perhaps even because there are so many possible arrival points. From airports in Trieste, across the border in Italy, and Pula in the southern part of the peninsular, to Venice, a ferry ride across the Mediterranean, our fellow riders arrived from every direction. Due to timings I was limited in my inbound options, and ended up flying to Zagreb to take a bus south to Trieste, to meet the group transfer.
Initial impressions of Croatia were good, but nothing surprising yet. Our first hotel was very luxurious and boasted several pools, a craft brewery and even a beer spa. After introductions over dinner, we enjoyed one of the local wine varietals Malvasia, which would become a go-to favourite. Our first day of riding is typically a shakeout ride, in this case a simple loop to the coast and back. The weather report didn't look good, but the rain held off for the most part, and the ride was enjoyable and safe, a perfect introduction to riding in Croatia and with the group, many of whom were alumni of previous WeAdventure trips. In the evening we headed to a local vineyard to sample more varietals, Muscat and Teran, while we learned about the clay jar production methods and sampled local produce around the family farmhouse table. This part of Croatia unsurprisingly has a distinctly Italian vibe.
The next 3 days were spent exploring the backroads, farmland and architecture of Istria, as we began to build up a picture of the rural region, through Grožnjan the city of artists and Motovun, a fortified town built high on a hill. The beautiful town of Poreč was a glimpse at the architectural treasures to come, and Rovinj, The Pearl of The Adriatic an even greater treat, with every inch of the promontory built up with Venetian style buildings and it's white stone streets worn to a glaze over hundreds of years. I must admit I found the warm welcoming people to be the most surprising part of the first section, although everywhere we went the welcome was equal, perhaps I saw something of the Irish in the Istrian people. I found that I missed this part of the country the most when we left.
Our journey through Croatia then headed south by road over two days. First stopping in Plitvice, an area famed for its National Park with Sixteen lakes cascading from one to another in a series of waterfalls surrounded by dense forest. The region is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, and despite a slightly damp day, it was nonetheless breathtaking to walk the 8km route punctuated by a ferry and "train" ride, past waterfalls and alongside crystal clear limestone filtered waters.
Heading further south we arrived at Split, and our first larger town. The weather which had been mixed but generally warm and dry now turned up a notch, and we began a streak of great weather that would see the rest of the trip in full sun throughout. Our hotel in the heart of the old city was truly like something from a movie set, and the Diocletian Palace which surrounded us was both majestic and well preserved. It was easy to get lost in the ancient streets and alleyways, and just walking around was enjoyable enough that I spent many hours wandering the white stone cobbles and finding tiny carvings and artisan details about every doorway and stone wall.
From Split, we took the Ferry to Brač, for a circular exploration of the Island, famous for its white stone, which the Palace and a certain building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC is adorned with. Our lunch stop included an Olive Oil tasting at a traditional mill, and I am sure that the whole group learned something from the fantastic host. Returning to Split, we enjoyed an evening at leisure among the ancient stone walled city, I took the opportunity to sample some world class seafood and of course to get some laundry done (always a bonus when you stay two nights!) Many times during the trip, I said that I would like to return to various places and spend longer exploring, Split was certainly high up on that list!
Our next Island stop was Hvar, and once again we continued the streak of 'every day being more impressive than the last'. With fantastic views of azure Mediterranean waters, perfect villages surrounding idyllic bays and pristine farms of olive groves and vineyards. As is always the way, the group had gelled completely by now, and everyone was riding smoothly and enjoying the experience of seeing this fabulous country one pedal stroke at a time. Today's biking route finished at the Town of Hvar, known locally as the Queen of the Dalmatian Coast. The town surrounds a bay, overlooked by the ubiquitous fort and complete with rows of yachts along the seafront flanked by bars and trendy restaurants. The buzz around town was palpable as our group stepped out and took dinner and a wine tasting on the rooftop of a family run place with excellent food, including Hvarska Gregada (Croatian Fish & Potato Stew) the traditional Fisherman's dish of the region.
From Hvar we took a private speedboat across the water to our next Island, Korčula. This ride became for most of us, the best of the trip, with a pristine route through forests and farmland along the coast with often magnificent high vistas. The island was clearly a favourite for Cycling groups, as we passed many along the way. Our final destination, the town of Korčula again did not disappoint, and the old city offered more delightful treasures as we explored on foot in the evening, culminating in sundowners on a fortified turret overlooking the bay with boats passing by in the golden hour.
Our last riding day, and we crossed by ferry with our bikes to the Pelješac peninsula, a spit of land which connects Croatia to its Southernmost section by bridge, where Bosnia extends to the coast for a short section. Again this ride was a contender for the best of the trip, despite warmer temperatures which caused a self supported cyclist we came across to ask for help, (which we duly gave and transported them to the nearest town.) Our final ride completed, hugs exchanged and high fives all round, we sat down to lunch and sampled fresh oysters, a specialty of the region.
For our farewell dinner, I don't think anyone had quite anticipated the majestic awesomeness of old Dubrovnich. The mighty walled town which was the set of Game of Thrones and many other epics, including its own real life battles, has to be seen to be believed. Lit up as it was at night, the group gave audible gasps of amazement as we pulled up at the Pile Gate entrance, before walking through white stone streets to our last happy hour and farewell dinner. Presentations were given, tributes and stories shared over Croatian wines and cuisine under the stars. Although we have said goodbye, the next trips for many of the riders are already plans in the making and I, for one, look forward to returning to Croatia very soon.