by Marcus Leach
As Max and Emily make their way through Croatia and Bosnia they begin to meet a wonderful array of characters who add to the excitement of their trip. Join us as we enjoy the latest instalment of their Cycling to China blog.
Croatia to Bosnia - Over the Hills and Far Away
In a Dark Dark Wood (David A. Carter)
“In a dark dark wood
There was a dark dark path,
And down that dark dark path,
There was a dark dark house,
And in that dark dark house,
There was a dark dark door,
Behind that dark dark door,
There was a dark dark room,
And in that dark dark room,
There was a……”
….bunch of totally wasted Bosnians listening to Iron Maiden!
No, we didn’t expect that either, considering that the house in question was listed in the Lonely Planet as a secluded artist hangout / Eco-camp, which we had cycled 135km through torrential rain, dirt roads, and mountains in order to reach. But, by this point we were too wet and exhausted to do anything but join them, which was just as well. They turned out to be the first of a growing number of wonderful characters that we’ve met since arriving in Bosnia, where we are now, enjoying the elegant cafe culture of ex-wartorn Sarajevo, before heading up yet another mountain toward Montenegro.
Despite meeting our fair share of locals, we have shamefully only managed to learn five words in Bosnian. Even more shamefully, those words are: hello (dobrodan), beer (pivo), kebab (cevapi), cheers (zivjeli), goodbye (ciao). I should point out that this says more about us than the people we’ve met, and also that Bosnian is an extremely difficult language to learn. Anyway, we’ve actually had an eventful week, spending relatively little time in bars and kebab shops.
Firstly, since leaving Zagreb, we have a new addition to the team! Monty, our friend from home and erstwhile travelling companion, has joined the trip for 7 weeks. With a formidable track record of adventurous antics, he was sure to hit the ground rolling. But, having spent the last few months in Africa doing no exercise, it was bound to be a tough first week cycling into one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Before that though, we still had a few days in Croatia, and they providing the perfect introduction to cycle touring: A couple of nights wild camping, a few light dog chases to get the blood pumping (welcome to Eastern Europe!), and a constant supply of strength-giving borek (Balkan answer to the Cornish pasty).
As we left the city limits, Zagreb’s urban sprawl dissolved immediately into a bright green patchwork of deciduous woodland and overgrown farmland, which we picked our way through on quiet minor roads. The sunny humidity and enormous mosquitos made the countryside almost tropical, and there was plenty of interesting wildlife to be seen. Unfortunately, much of it was squashed and festering by the roadside (snakes, lizards, toads, hedgehogs), but not all.
After crossing into Bosnia, everything changed very fast. The landscape became compressed into rugged tracts of tall forested hills and mountains, interspersed by a network of deep, steep sided river valleys. This remained the case all the way across central Bosnia to Sarajevo, and presented us with a choice of two extremes: Follow the twists and turns of valley floors, or go cross county through the hills? Both are spectacular, both have pros and cons. The hills are mercilessly hilly, and often involve steep dirt tracks, but they take you to the heart of the country, and away from the bustle of the main roads. The narrow valleys often have a river, busy road and railway squeezed into them, so they can become a bit congested. But they are easy to cycle (no hills) and hard to get lost in.
On the first day, we went for a valley. It rained hard and we had to stop early in a small town and find a room for the night. The second day was also rainy but we chose hills this time. It was sparsely populated, with no shops for 50km at one point, but we saw many abandoned and destroyed houses left over from the civil war. I normally hate cycling in rain and mist but it felt appropriate in this landscape, and heightened the sinister aura that hung about the old buildings.
As the day wore on, the weather improved and we decided to push on beyond what was sensible, in order to reach Zelenkovac, the eco-camp mentioned in our guidebook. We’d been going for 105km, with little energy left, and the when we started up a hill that didn’t look too bad on our map, but just kept on going up for almost 20km. Emily as usual was unfazed and took it slow and steady, but Monty and I ran out of steam. Monty had sped ahead on his road bike, but we found him at the top, a bit shaky, having downed two cans of coke to get some sugar into his blood. I made it about three quarters of the way up before collapsing by the side of the road and fumbling open my medical pannier, to access my emergency rations: a pack of Hob-Nobs, which I like to think of as the cycling equivalent as an intravenous shot of adrenalin. Emily caught up as I was eating my way through the whole pack in silence, so I gave her the last two.
When we finally found the ‘Eco-retreat’, it nestled in some stunning woodland, a few kilometres from the nearest village, and we were expecting to be greeted by ageing hippies and perhaps some other travellers. As mentioned above, what we found was a group of very fun but very un-hippy like Bosnian Serbs, hilariously drunk, in a haze of cigarette smoke and heavy metal music. And there were no other guests. The first person to greet us enthusiastically insisted on dragging us into the woods to try the water from the stream, which we dutifully did. Next up was a man in a tracksuit (who shall remain nameless). After giving us a beer and a shot of home brewed plum rakija, which was much appreciated, he showed us to our cabin, before enacting the most dangerous and inept attempt to chop wood and light a wood burning stove I have ever seen in my life. Needless to say he didn’t light the stove, although he did come perilously close to burning down our cabin, and killing me with an axe. It’s probably fair to say that we’ve been to better run hotels, but I don’t think we’ve ever been to any with more character. It was very hard not to love Zelenkovac with it’s motley band of staff and hangers on, and we ended up spending a couple of super-chilled days there, drinking beer, drinking rakijah, and drinking the stream water, before cycling back out into the real world.
From here, it was three days to Sarajevo, over some quite long stretches of mountainous unsurfaced road, but it didn’t rain, and we were feeling refreshed after our time in the woods, so we made it without too much hardship.
On the last night, we found the most beautiful wild camping spot of the trip so far, at the top of a 1000 metre pass. When we reached it, the woods opened out into a small grassy plateau and on one side, was a small hut, which acted as a field station for the forestry commission. The forester staying there at the time was a particularly friendly Bosnian muslim called Ekram, who was very welcoming and let us camp next to his hut, and even made us some coffee.
He didn’t speak English and with our limited Bosnian vocabulary, there wasn’t much scope for conversation, but, Monty and I both speak the universal language of ‘football’ and fortunately so did Ekram. This might not sound especially useful but the language of football really does come in handy when travelling and it follows consistent rules of etiquette, wherever you are in the world. In case you’d ever like to learn ‘football’, the standard conversation goes like this: The foreign person as an opening gambit mentions a top English club – e.g. Manchester United – to find out whether or not you speak ‘football’. ‘Mmm yes, Manchester good’ you say, ‘but I….support Tottenham’. The foreign person politely acknowledges that Tottenham is a good team, and goes on to name some footballers from his country, who are well known internationally or play in the Premier League. You must immediately recognise them as being of high quality (eg. ‘aaah, Edin Džeko, yes…very good, very good, Man City!!’). Having shown the customary respect for each others footballing heritage, you may then attempt to show off by recalling obscure historical football matches between English and Bosnian clubs (e.g. ‘Newcastle vs Željezničar Sarajevo…Champions League…Newcastle one-zero…ooooh’). When no one can think of any more common ground, the ritual is complete and you may return to your business of eating, tent pitching, and fiddling with equipment.
Anyway, we’re now about to leave Sarajevo, where we’ve been for a couple days, talking and trying to learn a little about the complicated recent history of the city and its inhabitants. Although reminders of the war are never far away, the parts of the city we’ve seen have been vibrant, and clearly people have moved on and started afresh. It’s somewhere I want to come back to, but for now, the clouds are clearing outside our hostel window, and Montenegro beckons.
Days on the road: 48 (34 cycling, 14 rest days)
Total kilometres: 2903km
Average distance per day: 60km including rest days (85km excluding rest days)
Percentage of total distance done: 16%
Fastest speed: 52kmph
Countries cycled: 7