The sun is shining and the weather is fine!

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Leap of Faith
The road to Mostar was really good it followed a river for most of the way and weaved down a narrow gorge. It also introduced my first experiences of long tunnels. The road passed through so many i lost count but some of them were reasonably long (not to mention unlit). Riding a bike through a tunnel is (even for a crazy cyclist like myself) a terrifying experience. Every sound is magnified 10 times and even if a car is a few hundred meters away it sounds like its right on you back wheel. The noise you get when being passed by cars is very much how i image it would sound just before getting hit by a bus, its is definitely not riding for the faint hearted. The hills were mostly forested however on the decent down the final hill before Mostar the scenery changed, the steep wooded hills gave way to dusty ridges covered in scrub and the narrow valley opened out into a large plain. The weather also changed at it was sunny and warm (it had been about 5 degrees in Sarajevo and here it was well into the teens). I was amazed at how quickly it changed and all of a sudden it was just how i had imagined Southern Europe to be. I arrived at my chosen hostel (one which multiple people had recommended) but no one was answering the door. You get used to these kind of upsets to your plans when you cycle so I set about rummaging though the pages in my travel guide to find an alternative. I found one that was more of guesthouse than a hostel and thought it might be worth a try. I was greeted by a lovely old woman who spoke reasonable English but with a really strong accent. I soon found myself being given a private room for the price of a dorm which I thought was pretty nice. I had barely sat down before I was asked "would you like a coffee and some chocolates" of course I replied "yes" so soon sat coffee in hand tucking into some local choccies. A few minutes later she was back with the same beaming smile "um I wonder, would you like some traditional Bosnian food, gratis (free), I have cooked" well once again i couldn't refuse so a few minutes later a really tasty Bosnian meal was sitting in front of me I thought to myself as i munched away, I wish all "hostels" were like this. The next day I asked her if it was ok to use the kitchen to cook the ubiquitous pasta i have become so accustomed to. She gave me a confusing answer about cleaning but the consensus was i could. I was astonished however when she appeared 5 minutes later with another meal of chicken and pasta. By some coincidence they must have had pasta for lunch so she gave me the left overs. It was so nice of her and definitely the best value €10 dorm bed I have had in a while and is a great example of how hospitable people are in the Balkans.

My time in Mostar was spent wandering round the old town and taking photos of the towns biggest attraction the Stari Most which quite simply means old bridge. This bridge is not however so old any more, the original really old bridge was quite pointlessly and very deliberately shelled during the war. Luckily the bridge has been reconstructed using old fashioned techniques so it looks as good if not better than ever. It is 'just a bridge' however there is something about it, whether it is the fact it joins up the cobbled streets of the old town. Or that you can watch the torrents of ice cold water gushing underneath but you just cant help from taking far too many photos. I was also very much liking the fact that it was about 20 degrees and really sunny it made a very nice change from Sarajevo and meant most my afternoon was spent in a cafe over looking the bridge. I sipped tea as slowly as possible (because I'm tight and it was expensive) and wrote this very blog whist soaking in the rays and occasionally stopping to observe another spectacle for which Mostar is famous... bridge divers. These special (in every sense of the word) local men, make a living by falling (its not exactly what i would call a dive) the 30m into the ice cold torrent below whilst hordes of tourists (mostly coached potatoes, this is my new phrase to describe people on coach tours) snap away taking photos. Of course before this happens the guys go round extracting money from said tourists until they decide they have enough, there is far too much build up for my liking i guess to add extra tension to the situation. Unfortunately at low season there are so few tourists around that they only jump very occasionally when a few coach loads turn up at once and presumably give them lots of cash. I did watch them jump from the bottom of the bridge however i didn't appreciate the tour company draping their flag over the bridge so it (quite cleverly, i guess) gave them a nice little advert in everyone's holiday album. As i wandered home i suddenly started to hear annoying Bosnian music (i was already starting to get fed up of it). It is kind of traditional singing which involves lots of wavering or the voice and normally outstretch arms and odd hand gestures. Most of the music still incorporates accordion or fiddle tunes but much of it has been modernised by sticking in electronic drums and instruments in. I love most music but it is pretty terrible and is literally everywhere. There are whole channels on TV playing traditional music, normally there are very attractive young people dressed in traditional dress dancing whilst a band blatantly MIMES to a shitty backing track and some attractive woman or guy dressed in a suit mimes along doing annoying hand movements! The mainstream music channels are even funnier because there are people rapping in Bosnian but the best bit is the music videos which are usually filmed using a camcorder in a normal street and are so low tech its just funny. My favourite was a rap video where the Bosnian rapper was driving a.... Forklift truck down the street in a kind of bad gangster way like American rappers would drive a pimped car, it was just brilliant. Anyway this music got louder and as i turned the corner i witnessed one of these low budget videos being recorded. There was a guy who presumably could have been a famous Bosnian pop star wearing a suit standing on a back street overlooking Mostar miming to a song whilst a bloke with a camcorder filmed it. He was of course looking very serious, doing all the annoying hand movements and doing outrageously over exaggerated lip movements. All in all it was a nice relaxing day and i felt much better having soaked up some rays.

The perfect day
My first day back in Croatia after BiH has was an amazing one, one of those days where everything just seemed to go my way. The weather had been great for the last couple of days and I had really enjoyed the afternoon before sitting in a cafe in the sun. Having spent weeks in mist, clouds, rain and cold it had been a much needed change. I woke early the next day with the intention of doing the full 140km to Dubrovnik. Once again the weather was perfect and after taking a few last pictures in Mostar of the old front line where there is still incredibly battle scarred buildings, I set off. It started out sunny but cold however as the day progressed it got warmer and warmer up to at least 23 degrees so I was able to ride in shorts and a t-shirt again. I passed an old town perched on the side of the road, I didn't even have to leave my bike to snap some pictures allowing me to avoid mingling with the coach loads of tourist who had just turned up (this my kind of sight seeing). Shortly before the border I had a funny experience. There had been a Australian girl in Sarajevo who was going to be heading to Dubrovnik later in the week so I had jokingly said when i left "oh well I might see you there then". Three days later I was wandering round Mostar and virtually walked straight into her, so we had a laugh about it. She had come on a day trip from Sarajevo and was heading back there for the night, which was pretty mad as the next day she was travelling all the way back to Mostar (a good 2 hours in a coach) then on to Dubrovnik. I told her i was going to try and get to Dubrovnik in one go the next day and said I might see her there (there are only 2 hostels). So the next day i was busy riding along when I noticed that I had just been over taken by the Eurolines bus (this is the big European bus company). I remember thinking to myself I wonder if that's the bus she is taking. A kilometre further down the road the bus had happened to stop for a break, as I rode past i just happened to glance across and see her walking into a cafe. After laughing out loud i turned back and shouted "Strewth mate, anyone would think your following me", it's not the most unusual of coincidences but it is a 300km bus ride so pretty odd that i should pass as the bus was stopped and she was getting off, so once again we had a good laugh about it (but ironically i didn't see her in Dubrovnik even though we were both there for a few days).

When i got to the border I reached for my passport but before my hand was in my jacket the Bosnian border guard waved me through (laid back doesn't quite cover his attitude). I was so busy thinking about how easy it had been i totally forgot to ask for a passport stamp although he didn't even give me chance. The Croatian border crossing was a breeze and she obligingly gave me a stamp when I asked. Soon the scenery started to change, there were still the same barren hills but the low lands became covered in orange groves. It was obviously peak season for clementines as every other car seemed to be towing a trailer stacked precariously high with boxes of them. There were loads of roadside vendors with bags and bags of clementines hanging up changing their bare wooden sheds into little orange abodes. The scenery continued to get better and the road began a gentle twisting climb giving amazing panoramas over the orange groves. The top of the climb brought the sea in to view and even more breath taking views. Virtually from the moment I started riding I had a big beaming grin on my face. This is exactly what I had imagined when I set off on my trip. Don't get me wrong I have had fun and enjoyed every country I have been to but it's so nice when the weather is good and your effortlessly pedalling along a perfect winding road hugging the coast being amazed by the view round every corner. Then, when it gets too hot you can stop at a beach and go for a swim in lovely warm water. Everything was perfect, the sea was crystal clear and had the perfect light bluey green colour. The traffic was light and the few hills barely noticeable. BiH has a small stretch of the coast which you must pass through to get to Dubrovnik and once again at the very sight of my passport I was waved through, quite strange considering all the locals were having their ID thoroughly examined. I continued my ride still beaming ear to ear and stopping far to often to snap away. I had already made my mind up that it was so nice I was going to find a good spot and camp, not only would it be way more magical than a hostel but also much cheaper, the hostels in Dubrovnik are pretty bloody expensive. I kept searching and was a bit annoyed to find that every promising spot I found had an auto camp right next-door. Camping was suddenly not looking like such an easy option, the barren landscape was really rocky and steep as it jutted up away from the road. I stopped to get some supplies and in the process came across a huge praying mantis trying (unsuccessfully) to either climb a window or fight with it's reflection, it's was nice little sights like this throughout the day that kept it interesting and exciting. I set off back towards the main road round what was an amazing bay. It had a narrow road right against the sea running all the way round and beautifully shallow clear water, with lots of fish swimming around. I realised I had taken a wrong turn (it did look slightly too amazing to be one of the main roads) and was just turning round when I spotted an auto camp. I was in two minds and cycled past a few times then decided that the spot was too nice and I would begrudgingly pay to camp so I could catch the last of the sun. Luckily there was one other camper so I knew the place was open (most close for the winter because for most local tourists this time of year is too cold!!). I managed to get someones attention in the house and a cheeky looking old man came out with his chin covered in shaving foam. I think he spoke in a mixture of at least 3 languages but got his point across. Because today was my day, when I asked how much it was  he obviously replied "it's ok you no pay".  It's was a perfect spot and i was still smiling as i sat in my tent just meters from the sea listening to it lapping against the shore and hearing the small fishing boat chugging back from a days fishing. I even contemplated having a swim in the morning, the water was pretty warm, well for us Brits anyway, the locals would probably think i was mad (i was speaking to one who, when i asked how warm the water was said, "the water now is about 18 degrees, we don't go near it unless its over 20 degrees!"). There was also the unusual (but pleasant) sound of a violin being played (abused) while the seemingly drunk men of the house had a good old sing song (shout) and laugh (not the best Saturday night entertainment i have heard but nice to experience local people doing their thing). Of course the evening continued to be great, shower was nice and hot my beer was cold and I was actually looking forwards to eating pasta again (which of course was great). To top it off I was wandering along the road watching the lights from the other side of the bay twinkling in the water when I looked up to see a beautiful starry sky and of course a full moon, the perfect end to a perfect day!

Dubrovnik the cycle touring Mecca
I had been looking forward to getting into Dubrovnik, although i knew it would be very touristy i had seen pictures and it looked like a really interesting place. As i approached the weather had clouded over and it was quite typically looking pretty stormy. This rather ruined the image i had in my head of the red roofs and turquoise sea with a backdrop of blue sky. I arrived at the rather dull looking youth hostel after an hour of trying to get to a hostel in the old town only to realise that it was impossibly to get there without going up at least 10 flights of stairs. To my surprise there were two shiny touring bikes parked outside. It was not very busy so i soon met a young German couple who were the owners of said bikes. They had set off about a month earlier and worked their way down the Croatian coast, however they had quit their jobs and were planning on continuing for a couple of years across to Asia, despite having cycled about 8000km, i was feeling a tad jealous. It was great to have a good old natter and share dinner, you guessed it pasta and sauce (they hadn't been going so long so i don't think they were sick of it yet).

The next day i woke to torrential rain which got heavier and heavier throughout the morning. I was pretty keen to have a hostel day however i was low on camping gas and knew i would have to set of in search of some. Luckily i was loaned some of the German guys waterproofs to help me on my mission. The coast of Croatia is literally littered with campsites (every village has one) so in the summer there must be tens of thousands of people camping. For this reason i had imagined it would be a short dash to a petrol station where i would find the gas and return triumphant and glad that i would not have to venture out into the rain for the rest of the day. Well I tried three petrol stations with no luck, then got sent to a hypermarket where of course i had no luck either. I then headed to a hardware shop where the woman said they didn't sell gas despite the fact that they had a whole self full by the door unfortunately the wrong type but it just goes to show how "helpful" Croatian shop assistants are (this was not the first time i had dealt with arsey shop staff). I tried another hypermarket and then decided maybe a power tool shop would know as they use gas cartridges for blow torches. He sent me to another shop but still no luck, after about 2 hours and 8 shops i finally hit on a cunning idea and set out in search of a fishing shop. Fishermen back home use gas stoves and lights and because they usually come from British and American companies they use the same screw fitting gas cartridges i was after. My hunch had been right and soon i was stood in front of an attractive young female shop assistant (quite a strange for a fishing shop) fondling her two large shiny canisters of gas. I returned triumphant to the hostel looking like a drowned rat but very happy indeed. No one left the hostel that day, and everyone sat around reading or chatting to pass the time. Later that afternoon i was walking past reception with the German guy when we noticed a very soggy bloke dressed in a large yellow rain cape wearing a bike helmet who it turned out was from Switzerland. We said "hello" and congratulated him on his effort due to the crazy weather. It was quite strange that there were now 4 cycle tourers in the hostel. It got even more crazy when that evening a long haired (very stereotypical) French guy arrived also on a bike and soaked to the bone. It was not such a coincidence as the coast of Croatia is pretty much the only warm place in Europe at this time of year so acts as a magnet for cycle tourers, many of whom are heading on to Istanbul. It was good to sit down and have a natter with all the other cyclists. There were another few French people staying in the hostel so soon the usual English conversations heard in hostel were replaced by French nattering occasionally punctuated by a bit of German, it was nice to be in a minority for a change (hostels are usually full of bits, Aussies, etc and generally causes all the other travellers to have to speak English as well).

I did finally get to do some sightseeing and it wasn't as busy with tourists as i had expected. This didn't however make up for the fact that there were still grey clouds looming overhead occasionally dropping showers of rain over town. Dubrovnik is unusual as the old town is entirely surrounded by a wall which itself is surrounded by water on three sides stopping the old town from becoming engulfed in the rest of the modern urban sprawl. It is very pristine and they are obviously more strict about what people can and can't do to their shop fronts to avoid having the usual things which look vastly out of place in old towns. I was quite annoyed that you had to pay 10 Euro to walk on the wall, however determined to see some of the view i made my own tour up. In the end i actually managed to walk round quite a lot of the wall by waving my camera about and acting like tourist to make the people checking the ticket think that i had already paid (a top travel tip there, its amazing what you can get away with if you look like you should be there). The best view i got of Dubrovnik was actually as i was leaving, the road goes up the hillside giving great views back over the old town and you can really appreciate how it is almost a little island. The weather was improving and i was looking forward to my ride down the Croatian coast and into Montenegro, a country about which i had only been told good things!
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