Friday, January 02, 2015

The Swans of the Adriatic

Pedaling below zero can be fun. Our hands are still warm inside poguis, covered only with thin wool fingerless gloves. Our feet do what they can with three pairs of socks on, and our thermal pants and winter coat are still waiting to be used in the saddlebags. At night, the solution to our warmth is to put a summer sleeping bag within a spring one. The tent also isolates us from the outside. Under our fabric covered roof the temperature is always above zero. Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to take off layers of clothing. So far so good, but there is a name that is always repeated in the mouths of those that we meet along the way; when a wind has a name (like our old friends, the Boreas and the Mistral) it is worthy of being taken into consideration, but in the case of the Bura, it should also have surnames. A native of Russia, it extends its icy breath throughout Europe, covering the continent with a white blanket. When you reach the Croatian coast, the cold air mass collides with the Velebit, and runs downhill and when it is exceeded, it rides the coast with fury. Frane told us that a few years ago the Bura, with hurricane force, came with gusts of over 200 km per hour, and on that occasion he had seen a woman flying through the streets of Split. Inland, the Siberian cold makes the Croatian valleys a continuation of the steppe. When we go through Gospić we will be lucky to see the mercury above zero, but Danka told us that a few winters ago, in the same place, the temperature reached 29 degrees below zero in the same season.


When we were back in Hungary we decided to head towards the coast, yet we had considered the idea of going inland through the Balkans, and maybe going to the big mountain Durmitor National Park after passing through Sarajevo and Mostar. Although it hurt to have lost the opportunity (for now) to see Romania and Bulgaria, we thought that the interior would be more authentic than the touristy coast of the Adriatic, where the Jadranska Magistrala is one of the best known roads for cyclists who visit Croatia. It was cold, but not so much that our survival instinct, stunted by mild winters in Spain, increased the urgency of our decision. What we did not expect was to find swans on the Adriatic.

With Frane, enjoying December weather.
Rastoke, the Small Plitive.
But we still had to make another stop before heading towards the sea; we could not leave without visiting the famous Croatia Plitvice Lakes, possibly one of the most beautiful places in Europe. During the rest of the year hordes of tourists pay an expensive entrance fee to the take photos over the heads of the masses of backpackers who crowd the park. In winter the entrance fee is not as expensive, and cheaper still had we known in advance that shortly after entering the park we could have left our bikes in the forest and entered through the paths that open from the right hand side of the road. We pay the entrance fee to the most unfriendly staff that could be found in a national park.  When we are locking our bikes a couple of Slovaks come to greet us. Coincidently they are friends of Jan and Evit’s, the couple who welcomed us in Banska Bystrica. They are also enjoying an alternative honeymoon, traveling around Europe with their old car full of gear, food, camping supplies and bicycles. I would show you their photo, but someone far from here has the pictures and I do not think they intend to share them. After an hour's chat exchanging advice on travel and other topics, we say goodbye and go down to the lakes. From the road we have already sensed the majesty of the falls and the turquoise Koruna River that feeds water mills in Rastoke (Little Plitvice). But to walk beside these lakes, being splashed by the waterfalls, in absolute solitude, is a marvelous experience. Still captivated by the beauty of this place, we stop at a small harbor on the shores of a large lake, to wait for the boat that will take us toward the exit. Together we wait with a father and his son, three Japanese people, and a couple who, along with the waiter and the captain, are the only people there. I leave our camera on a table with the intention of looking at the photos of the day later while we snack on an apple. In the excitement of seeing the boat arrive we accidently leave the camera on the table. Two minutes after being on the boat I remember the camera and I run back to the table, but the camera isn’t there. I ask each of the people I mentioned above if they have seen it, but one of them does not tell me the truth. So this year it will be a present for Three Kings Day.  Over the next few days I will not stop mulling over that moment of stupidity, and for many nights I will have the same recurring dream about that situation. We settle for drawing pictures and taking photos with our cell phone until we find a solution.

Rastoke. Plitive was like this, but no houses, bigger, bluer, more Asian and more water.

That night we camp in a special place, a particularly beautiful forest in the national park, surrounded by white stones covered with moss. The landscape begins to change slightly, forests of beech and oak are not as dense, and the earth shows its stony skeleton. On road to Gospic, capital of the least populated region of Croatia, we are surprised by its emptiness: no people, no cars, no trees, just prairie and stone.  Yet the mountain is omnipresent; it does not abandon us along the coast. When we arrive in town we stop to look for an open Pekarna (bakery), to have a cheese burek. We lean our bikes against a wall, and while we are checking to see if we have enough money, a woman looks out of her window of the building on which we have leaned our bikes and shouts something. At first I do not understand her, believing she is angry at us for leaning our bikes there. But then she smiles and invites us up to her house to eat and drink something warm. So that is how we meet Danka.

Our "madresita" Danka. In first term, Turkish coffee!

Having met in Gospić is pure coincidence, since Danka has been living in Serbia for more than twenty years, but she had to go back to the house for a family problem. The proximity of the Christmas season made it even more difficult to overcome the distance from her children, and since she misses us so much she adopts us for the night. She treats us to a burek, and then gives us lunch and dinner and things for the winter. The best present is having met her and feeling that we now have family in the Balkans. Gospic is now added to the map with a special mark.

Velebit. This giant between us and the coast.

Now only a wall separates us from the coast: Velebit, a mountain range that rises and folds following the Adriatic along nearly 150 kilometers, and whose lowest mountain pass is a thousand meters high. We begin a slow descent, already accustomed to the gentle Croatian slopes, very much different from the criminally steep Slovenian inclines. We get excited when we see the deserted island of Pag from above; the sea, the heat, a new stage of this journey. We coast our bikes for sixteen kilometers downhill on a road so well made we do not even have to touch our pedals or brakes. A new change in the landscape: hardwood forests are over - we reach the realm of herbs, olive and orange trees, forests of pine and oak. How different from our first night on the coast! How warm we are with our two pairs of sleeping bags! And how difficult it is to find a flat place without rocks to camp out!


Once again, we are surprised by the people on the touristy coast of the Adriatic, where there are countless signs saying “sobe” (accommodation) and campsites awaiting better times. No more than five minutes go by between cars that greet, honk, and wish us a Merry Christmas. In one of the tiny villages encasing the coast we stop at the supermarket to buy some fresh vegetables, but all it has is pre-made meals, canned food or sweets. However, we do not leave empty-handed, because while we are unlocking our bikes a man comes and gives us a couple of chocolate bars. It comes in handy to recharge our batteries and rush to get to the city of Zadar before the shops close for Christmas so we can buy another camera. However, for the following days we will feel the effects of the excessive kilometers. Cities may not be as friendly as small coastal towns, but their old towns are special: Zadar, Trogir, Sibenik, Kastela are the places where we enjoy spending all the time we need. We make up for our recent lack of cultural tourism due to having been mainly focused on natural tourism.


In one of those small towns we stop to eat something on Christmas Day. They are special days, and we have celebrated Christmas Eve in an abandoned quarry, treating ourselves to the small luxury of some gnocchi and parmesan cheese gnocchi, as a feast. We are sitting on a bench in Pirovac, eating peanuts and drinking tea from a thermos that morning, watching a pair of swans that are swimming near the boats in the harbor. Impossible not to think, nor remember the past, not to recall those who are no longer with us. Impossible not to pour a little salt water into the sea.

Christmas Eve in a quarry.

When we are about to leave, a bartender from the bar on the other side of the road, comes up to us and says that somebody wants to buy us a drink, so we accompany him happily. Zeljko lives between the United States and Croatia. A motorcycle traveler, an entrepreneur and a great person, what began as an invitation to a cup of coffee ends up being a proposition to spend Christmas Day with his family, enjoy good food, a hot shower and a bed. The next day, while giving us  breakfast, he tells us that when passing through Šibenik we have to go to the Maron Cafe, just opposite the train station, where with a little luck we could see each other again. Although we just missed each other, his friends were waiting for us. They are excited about our story, and they even interview us for the local newspaper. We continue along our way, still amazed by the generosity of these Slavs with an Italian accent, eating sandwiches that have been prepared for us by Robert (one of Zeljko’s friends). A man comes up to ask us if it is true that we are going around the world by bicycle and gives us a hundred kunas (fifteen euros) saying it’s for beers!

Zeljko's little boys!

We obey, at least in part, our last benefactor buying some Karlovacko in Kastel Luksic, where Frane has a house that is empty at Christmas. He tells us where we can find the keys and here we take refuge from the fury of the Bura, which brings the coldest weather in the last ten years. Slunj, where we were only a couple of weeks ago, having coffee on the terrace, enjoying the sun in short sleeves, is -20ºC, and  Gospic, -17ºC. From the coast we see the snowy mountains.

Kastel Luksic.

So, almost without realizing it, the year ends. We feel that our time is of the same quality as that of Macondo, when Ursula realized that was not what it was... the calendar pages seem to fall faster and faster, and it´s been eight months since we left home. On December 31st, Frane comes home on a quick visit and we celebrate New Year´s Eve enjoying a new recipe. What a discovery to find out that we can make pizzas with our stove and set of pans! This is perhaps the most austere Christmas, accompanied by a plastic two liter bottle of wine, playing  Carcassonne made from a deck of cards, walking a mile to use a free internet connection... but we are immensely rich.

Homemade Carcassonne!

Great dinner, 31st December. Pizzas made with our travelling stove.
Is it possible that only a few days ago we were worried about a camera? Can anyone feel unfortunate to have lost something material when receiving so many intangible good things, so much love, so much encouragement, so much selfless help? We thought we would go to the touristy coast, where money has replaced humanity. We did not expect to find many people willing to help, to offer us shelter, give us a burek or a smile, so many beautiful people. We didn´t expect to have swans on the Adriatic.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice story and great pictures... thank you for sharing...