I was up and out at sun rise, leaving the rented apartment in Dubrovnik (Croatia) and the relaxed holiday atmosphere for a slightly ambitious adventure. My wife had flow out to the start of my bike tour and rented an apartment, making this first day of cycling luggage free, before setting off for real (and fully loaded) tomorrow. We’d made dinner reservations for the evening to make the most of us both being in Croatia, all I had to do was make it back in time.
I was glad of no luggage today, as I wanted to loop south into Montenegro, though Bosnia and back to Dubrovnik and it had some serious climbing involved. I’d set a route in my Garmin, and it was looking like a big day out with a planned 107 miles (173km) and approx 3400m of climbing with three border crossings. I was hoping that my UK passport and bicycle would make the border crossings quick as long delays would make getting back to Dubrovnik before sunset quite a challenge in mid-September.
The main road heading south towards the airport is the only main road in this part of Croatia. There are no motorways or dual carriageways and in summer it’s not uncommon for the cars to queue for 7 or more hours to cross the border into Montenegro. For cyclists though, it’s not a problem of queuing, it’s just quite a busy road to be on. Lorries, buses and every car is going to squeeze past on this narrow main road. It’s not the most relaxing stretch of road, but I had no problems. I was glad to head onto the smaller roads to skirt around the airport, only re-joining again by the border.
“Where are you from?”
“OK, you go”
Out of Croatia, in minutes, no problems. After a short stretch of no-man’s land my passport was stamped into Montenegro, one crossing done. The landscape of Montenegro could in places be compared to say the French alps. With mountains dropping right down to the water. Except here it was the sea not an alpine lake. Then a quick glimpse at the architecture and suddenly you’re back in Montenegro. Beautiful natural views dotted with concrete structures; rusting railings flaking paint and some completely abandoned old hotels.
I followed the main road along the coast, heading in the direction of Kotor. I followed the road to Risan, where I took the tiny switchback road over the mountains to head north toward Bosnia.
“is good for drinking” said the local man, filling up water tanks in his car from a hose pipe at the side of the road.
“I’m local dentist, I stay here in my grandfather’s house. No water or electric.” He said.
“My English not so good, I speak Italian. I moved to Italy during the war.”
Traveling by bike is always enriched by the people met along the way, the conversations seem to just happen. I guess a cyclist is easily approachable, non-threatening, and perhaps a little intriguing.
At the top of the climb away from the bay of Kotor bullet ridden buildings and signposts overlook the main road, sights that will become familiar throughout the next week of cycling as I head north from here.
The main road is quiet as it heads across the higher plains. There are no fences at the side of the road as cattle and horses wander freely around the plains. I turn off the main road at Grahovo, taking the small road over a short climb and long winding descent. I loose 500m of altitude as I descend a few switchbacks to the valley floor to the second border crossing that’ll take me into Bosnia.
“You must go back. You can not cross here. This is locals only crossing”
I look back at the big descend I’ve just come down. I’m not going back up that, that’s a huge climb. And I’ve already got 76 miles in my legs. It’s not an option to go back.
I pull my map out which doesn’t even show this road and ask the border police to show me where I need to go. They can’t even show me where we are on the map. They look confused. I zoom out on my Garmin map and they can’t show me the route I have to take either. After about 20 minutes they make a phone call and get permission to let me pass.
I thank them , I’m so grateful that I don’t have to cycle back up that huge pass and take a really very big detour to a different border crossing on the main roads.
I’m so happy they let me though, I pedal on with great enthusiasm, for about 30 seconds, when I see the Bosnian entry boarder. I’d forgotten there were two sides to the crossing.
“No. Not possible. You go back.” Was all he said, he just walked off and lit a cigarette. Conversation over! Can I just duck under the barrier and ride off? Or would he pull a gun on me? Would I get arrested?
It’s not just the big pass I’m worried about. The detour will add on nearly 30 miles to an already big day. If I can make it past this one man it’ll save me hours. But he wasn’t being helpful like the others, also he probably didn’t see the huge hill everyday from this side of the border. He didn’t want to help or want to know. If I was going to make it back before sunset I needed to just get moving, so back I went.
Pretty annoyed but satisfied there was no alternative I headed back up the 500m switchback ascent and onwards to the main roads. The main road continued climbing as I summited a second pass at just a few meters under 1000m and a third just over 1000m before finally crossing into Bosnia. A full three hours of cycling unexpected mountain passes I would finally get back onto my original route. An extra 1000m of climbing and nearly 30 miles to come out just 3km from the failed border crossing.
I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket as I passed back into Croatia for the flat out decent into Dubrovnik. I was running late, the sun was just dipping below the horizon, but we could still make our dinner reservation if I really dug deep and jumped straight into the shower. What an adventure!
With 924 miles and 21000m of climbing over the full trip through Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Slovenia, Austria and Italy I could have done to start gently. With 135miles (217km) and 4400m of climbing for a first day of a cycle tour, I was very thankful for a luggage free first day. Tomorrow would be more relaxed, I hope!