4 Londoners 3 Bikes

We arrived early into Ljublana and luckily were allowed into the apartment we had rented for the night at 11 in the morning. This was good as Annie had some job applications to do (hence some slackness on the blogging recently!) and we got to unpack and shower in preparation for the arrival of our good friends Andy and Rachel from London who would spend a week cycling with us.

With Annie tucked up in the appartment I went to explore Ljublana. I took a walk up to the old castle and looped around by the river which was packed with people drinking and eating icecreams in the sun. It is a small but very pleasant city and I found an interesting free photography exhibition in the old town hall. That night we had dinner in the appartment and waited up until 11pm for the guys to arrive.

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All set to tour!

The next morning Andy n Rach went and got their bikes and panniers and we loaded up. It was very exciting to have our friends along on the tour! We set off northwards out of town using the extensive and excellent cycle lane system that is prevelant throughout Slovenia. Usually we spurn cycle lanes: they tend to have a poor surface, pedestrians, parked cars and almost always end abruptly leaving you up on a curb somewhere. But these were excellent and made the cycle out of town very easy.

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Winding up a valley on day one. Lovely to have some friends along.

Our planned route was to head north to Skofja Loka, then hit Tolmin and loop aoround to Kranjska Gora ending up in Bled. We were extremely lucky with the weather as the guys seem to have brought the start of summer with them, we have cloudy mornings typically but the sun is now so strong it burns these off in the afternoons.

First stop was for a big shop in Hofer, (Aldi under a different brand). We load up on provisions and resume cycling which becomes very pleasant as we weave down country lanes, past pristene gardens and huge piles of wood. We get to chat to Andy n Rach and they seem to enjoy the cycling so far! We stop for lunch in a field and roll out our standard spread for the guys… all going very well until a farmer pulls up with a lorry load of slurry to dump right where we are sitting… lots of smiles and we decide to move on.

We got to Skofjka Loka in the afternoon and did a bit of back and forward cycling deciding which fork in the road would be quiter. We ended up going the northern road which was NOT a two lane motorway. This gave us a look around the medieval old town which was worth a visit.

In the late afternoon we stop to introduce the guys to our ‘well deserved beers’ tradition. It goes well and we decide to wild camp that night in a meadow off the road.


The following morning we pack up slowly in order to dry out the tents from a heavy dew, a pattern for the week. We cover a much shorter distance this day with many photo stops, particularly past Tolmin where we link up with the Socca river. During a downhill section we do some bike swapping with some interesting results…I spend some time on the back on the tandem with Andy driving which is terrifying! Annie loves the single bike but needs a fatherly push start to get it going. Maybe we will do some single bike touring in the future but we are all happier back in our chosen steeds for now.
That night we head to a campsite right on the river, I go for a paddle and discover the water is icy cold: not good for swimming but good for chilling beer.

After another slow morning and a good breakfast and we find ourselve cycling up the Socca valley and the scenery just gets better and better as the day goes on. The river is busy with canoes and fly fishermen. We stop at the Kozjak waterfall along the way which is pretty impressive.

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Beautiful Socca valley

We enjoy cycling with two single bikes, but like other time we have done this we find some differences in speeds. Uphill Rach n Andy glide past the lumbering tandem, but on the flat and downhill we can power through. This means some stopping and waiting for people and during one stop we meet some very unfriendly policemen. Apparently we weren’t off the road enough and we got the full death stare and oir detail written in a little book. We have met a lot of police and military people on the road and these two were easily the most unfriendly, maybe they were having a bad day or missed the class in manners at the police academy.

After our minor altercation I decide we should navigate off the main road and over a little bridge on my map which will take us to a camp site for the evening… Annie calls this a typical ‘Paddy navigation’ expedition as we end up pushing the bikes though narrow forest paths and over two extremely wobbly suspension bridges. We make it to the campsite and that night the guys generously buy us a hearty dinner of Schnitzel and chips! We are close to austria now and German tourists are common here and we ofter are greeted in Deutch.


We know the following day we have our big climb over the Vrisik pass so we get and early night. An early start the next day and we pedal up the Socca valley the scenery really is stunning, as good as anything we have seen on the trip and a nice smooth road to cycle on. The valley starts to kick up and the cycling is slower, we find the last shop before the climb and stock up food including our staples of fruit and chocolate spread but not the local cheese despite the hard sell from the friendly shopkeeper.

At this stop I casually check what the incline for the climb to Vrisik pass will be. I am shocked and need to double check… the incline is 9% average over 9km. Translated to: extremely, extremely steep! Oops! I secretly worry that we all might struggle to get up since we typically consider anything over 6% very hard and we are fully loaded up! After a quick lunch we approach the climb and I tell Annie about the challenge ahead. ‘Lets just see how we go’. ‘OK’.

As we start the ascent we all settle into some kind of rythem in order to deal with the challenge. Andy ‘Chris Froome’ Bailey has no problems zipping up as fast as he likes, he is lightly loaded on a good touring bike. The real hero is Rachel ‘Nairo Quintana’ Jones who is on a ‘womens tourer’ style bike which is heavey and lacks anything like suitable gears for a climb like this. Rach does 3-4 minute bursts pumping the pedals around out of the saddle, then stopping to catch her breath. She is still a lot faster than the lumbering tandem as we grind it out doing about 4.5km/hr and stopping every 20 minutes. This all continues on and off for aboit 3 hours – the joys of cycle touring!

Andy and Rach get a taste for what we have experienced for the past year as half way up we meet a group of american tourists shocked at our ‘madness’ of climbing such a pass. It is not madness, just one km at a time! But the rewards of such big climbs are evident in the spectacular views and sense of achievement. We are all on a big high at the top and enjoy a stunning decent into Kranjska Gora.

We attempt a wild camping spot that night, but eventually decide a fine from the police is not worth the risk (we are still in the national park), so we proceed down the valley to ‘Camp Spik’. The next day is a slow start since it is just 30km to Bled from here. After a long slow morning we follow a gorgeois route down to Bled (except for one punishing and unexpect climb). We go straight to camp Bled and Andy heads off to buy beers and wine for a celebratory eveing with sausage casserole. The next morning we dine on pancakes which might become a new staple for us on the camping stove.

For our final day in Bled we have a B&B booked which we go straight to after the guys drop off their bikes. We go for a weaving hike up above the lake and that evening feel very sleepy and decide to go get some pizza and beer in Bled. On a little walk down to a cash machine Annie and I spot a big stage by the lake a band doing a sound check….hmmm. This turns out to be a top notch Beatles tribute band which we sing along to all night against the stunning lakeside setting. A perfect ending to a great week with the guys.

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The fab four(s)

 

Slovenia – Country Number 21!! 

We now had a week to kill before meeting up with our good friends from London, Andy and Rach, who were coming out to join us for a bit of cycling in the north around lake Bled. So we hatched a plan to wind our way up through the east of the country for a bit and meet them in the capital Ljubljana on Sunday.

We were in dire need of re-charging all our electronics and neither of us had had a hot shower since Sarajevo (2 weeks) so we had a look to see what warm showers hosts there might be on our route. There was one who instantly caught our eye – Noel Fitzpatrick. ‘He has to be Irish’ Paddy said, so we got in contact. 

Noel was indeed originally from Ireland and him and his lovely wife Gilly (who is originally from the north of England), got back straight away and told us we were very welcome but they’d be away skiing until late. We were welcome to find their house, let ourselves in and help ourselves to a shower and the washing machine though. They also invited us to eat as many eggs from their chickens as we could and were told there were beers cooling in the fridge. Although we’ve become accustomed to this kind of unquestionable hospitality and trust, we still never take it for granted – here was a couple who were willing to leave a key for two complete strangers. 

Gilly and Noel live in a very picturesque village called Drasici which is famous for it’s wine making. The village sits on a hilltop right on the Slovenia-Croatian border and the whole area is covered in grapevines. What’s interesting about Drasici is that the wine is made through a collective effort, with lots of families and farmers contributing their harvests to the central wine press which is situated in an old cellar near the village church. We had been instructed by Noel to find this church from where he’d given us directions to the house.

We parked up and started our search but we were soon accosted by a group of locals who were sitting outside the aforementioned wine cellar. They waved us down, offered us a seat and placed a glass of crisp, chilled white wine in each of our hands. A huge plate of local cheese and cured meats soon followed. It was a nice welcome!

We spent a lovely hour with this group of locals who were celebrating St Florian day – the patron saint of fire fighters. It’s customary for the women to take a day off on and let the men cook instead! The wine and the platter of cheese and meat were the fruits of their efforts! 

Here are the group signing the traditional Drasici wine song. 

This encounter meant we were settled at the house for less than half an hour before Gilly and Noel returned home themselves from skiing with their two kids. We couldnt have felt more welcomed and when we met they made us feel as if we were being greeted by longstanding friends. 

The next few days were spent being part of the Fitzpatrick household. We had such a lovely time with the four of them, bashing out classic 90s rock songs and playing SuperMario cart with the kids, going for long rambling walks in the evenings and talking politics over dinner that we kept delaying our departure. It wasn’t until Thursday that we set off again. 

May is an important celebratory month for Slovenia and for the duration of the month every village and town erects a huge May pole. These are different from the May poles we know. These are enormous pine trees, stripped of their bark and pine needles apart from a decorated Christmas tree-like bush at the top. As far as we know they don’t dance around them either. 

The countryside has been lovely but I think we have the best of Slovenia still to come. We’ve heard the north is supposed to be beautiful. We easily find wild camping spots including a lovely one in this wooded area near a reservoir. 

We easily reach Ljubljana and find the apartment we have booked with Andy and Rach. 

Briefly Back into Country No.19

Now we were out of Bosnia it was time to re-enter Croatia again. It wouldn’t be for long – just a few days cycle before crossing into country number 21 – Slovenia.

Croatia, I think it’s fair to say, is a country which has become the next big destination for the established western (and eastern) tourist scene. About 15 years ago it might have featured on the intrepid travellers’ ‘eastern block’ list – safe but still developing – but since joining the EU in 2013 the country’s tourist industry has exploded and Croatia’s hidden charms are now eagerly being rediscovered. It’s easy to understand why, Croatia has a lot to offer, with beautiful coastline, sandy island beaches, picturesque inland lakes and impressive Austro-Hungarian 19th century castles. We had a nice cycle through the middle following a route which saw us cross at Bihac and wind up through Slunj and Generalski Stol.

The biggest thing we have noticed here is that it’s really the first country where most people have had gardens as we know them – nice lawns with flower beds surrounded by fences or trees; well kept gardens with animal figurines and matching furniture. All the houses are very neat and well kept too. This seems like a strange thing to comment on but we think its probably quite telling; people seem to have more disposable income here.

Although it’s in the EU, like the UK, Croatia has retained its original currency – the Kuna. There is roughly 7 kuna to each £1 – it will be our last unfamiliar foreign currency of the trip! As we move further west, each country is becoming more and more expensive. We have found it relatively easy to keep to our budget up to now but Croatia is likely to be be the first big test.

We take a nice half day off to visit Plitvicka National Park – an amazing wildlife sanctuary made up of a series of forest-clad Jazeras (or lakes) which flow into each other via hundreds of waterfalls.

It’s very touristy and pricy with set routes to follow through the waterways. We were looking forward to an afternoon where we didn’t have to think too much, where we could just enjoy being off the bike.

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The many tiers of lakes
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Tourists waiting for snap at one of the prime spots
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Large waterfall at the end

We thoroughly enjoyed the 3 hour walk, the park is beautiful and really nicely done – the pathways actually allow you to twist and turn through the lakes and even down the waterfalls. We also had great weather for the walk which was fortunate as rain was due that afternoon.

We followed a great group of Chinese tourists round for the first section – their excitement was infectious and we enjoyed being featured in their selfies and home-video footage – we enjoyed people watching and this was often more interesting than the waterfalls themselves. 🙂

We didn’t stray far from the park and found a great hidden camp-spot in the woods off the road. We get set up and see another big deer casually walk past us as we’re eating our curry. Heavy rain falls overnight but the surrounding beech trees provide plenty of cover.

The next day the weather feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to do with sunny spells one minute and torrential downpours the next. Paddy navigates a nice cycle through the quieter roads up to and we manage to find an undercover picnic area to hide from the overnight downpours.

We’ve done well not to lose any items thus far in 2017 but in Croatia this all broke down; firstly with some git taking my winter cycling gloves from where I had left them momentarily in a carpark to then us managing to leave my sunglasses one day and our thermos the next on the roadside after a quick stop. These last two things we managed to retrieve but only after retracing our route 40km back… Doh!

We left the rain behind us on the last day and had sunshine to the border this will be our last passport control crossing as Slovenia, Italy and France are all Schengen countries.

Rain, Snow and Shine – the extreme weather changes in Bosnia! 

We stayed in a campsite outside the city before heading towards the town of Travnik. With thunderstorms and rain due that night we took cover off the road in an abandoned semi built house which looked as if it was going to keep us dry. It was a bit early to stop but at least we would be safe from the weather when it decided to lash down later that evening. 

We waited… and waited… all night for the rain to hit but it didn’t start until 4:30am when it dutifully came teeming down. Unfortunately for us the building wasn’t as waterproof as we though and we woke the next morning to the tent sitting in a pool, water seeping into the tent and all our gear waterlogged… Frustrated and grumpy we climb out and try and dry everything off as well best we can. The rain continues all morning and at 11am turns to thick snow which eventually starts to stick. 

Freezing!


We cower in our shelter and watch all the tv programmes we’ve downloaded from BBC iplayer hoping it’ll stop. It doesn’t, and at 2pm we admit defeat and decide to find a restaurant for dinner. We weren’t going to get anywhere today… The best place we find is a pizza joint in a big shopping centre where we hide for the rest of the evening. The snow melts quickly but it’s still pretty cold and we simply head back to the same shelter for a second night. 
Selim our Sarajevo host had suggested a route to Banja Luka but the road was really busy with traffic so we reconsulted the map to see if there was an alternative route. 

We spotted a smaller road – the R440 – which would take us up over a 1000m pass instead. The climb initially was very manageable and thankfully, the weather dry and sunny. We passed through some nice villages. Communities outside of Sarajevo, feel more segregated between the three ethnic groups. Further down the valley we had seen lots of Croatian flags and Croatian beers for sale but up here we suddenly find ourselves cycling past Mosques with the house doorways and vegetable patches are full of women wearing colourful Turkish trousers and head scarfs. 
After this final village the Tarmac ends and turns into a dirt track winding its way up the valley next to a river. No snow on the ground yet but we still had 500m to climb… We pass an old army checkpoint and we assume that we are now about to cross into official Republika Srpska territory. No one is manning the post and none of the villagers stop us as we cycle through – we do wonder if we will encounter a difficult road ahead though…

In short we do. The road gets gradually worse and worse and patches of melting snow start to appear. We’re able to cycle through most of these and we are cheered by some fresh boot-prints on the track too. Then we encounter our first major hurdles: first a dug out trench which covers the whole road apart from a thin slice at the side where we precariously push the bike across, the back wheel sliding slowly into the ditch as we go. Then, around the corner, a man made mound which we have to lift tandem over. Overcoming these obstacles the track starts to snake upwards and disappear under icy water… Melting snow. Up we scramble – at times pushing the bike through inches of fast flowing water. Paddy’s shoes do not hold up well to this treatment!

1km from the top we’re faced with this.

The boot tracks are still visible which tells us that a person has definitely used the road as a thoroughfare quite recently – this is encouraging. As we’re struggling up the last section a deer walks out onto the snow and turns his to look at us. We realise the remoteness of our surroundings and then get back to heaving tandem to the top. Here we are able to get back on board and fortunately it’s not as steep on this side so we’re able to wheel slowly down and we only skid and fall over once – me, unusually, taking the brunt of the fall this time.

After a short while we find ourselves on a dirt track, the countryside opening up in front of us. We stop outside a house where a friendly family come out to say hello. When we point in the direction we’ve just come they look at us as if we are slightly insane! We meet back up with a proper road soon enough and we enjoy eating up some easy miles freewheeling down through the valley where at the bottom we dip into an open field and set up camp for the night.

The next day was very hot! Quite a change from the snow, sleet and freezing temperatures we had the previous days! We reach Banja Luka which is the capital of the Republika Srpska state. We sit and enjoy basking in the sunshine next to the old castle ruins and the river with no desire to do too much more cycling. 


We decide we can’t set the tent up here though, however tempting, so we head out of town and swing west through some lovely rolling green countryside which reminds us both of the U.K. We pass a sign for a waterfall and decide we have time to investigate especially as it might provide a good opportunity to wash ourselves and our clothes. It’s a good waterfall and although the water is freezing we both brave a bath and feel very refreshed after.


It happens to be a public holiday that day so lots of families and neighbours are sitting out in their gardens together as we pass. At 6:30 we approach a red faced farmer who is busy fixing his tractor outside his house and ask if we can pitch our tent in the field over the road. There’s an amazing sunset. 

Our final day and night in Bosnia saw us make good headway through some very beautiful remote countryside towards the border with Croatia. Lots of rolling hills and quiet lanes lined with green hedgerows full of familiar flowers and plants. A nice few final days in Bosnia which has been really enjoyable despite the extreme changes in weather. 


Sarajevo

We had arranged a warm showers host in Sarajevo which was a real treat. Selim and his wife Yasmin and two lovely daughters hosted us for two nights and we really enjoyed talking to them both. Naturally they both remember the war vividly. Hearing their personal stories about what it was like to live in a sieged city for nearly four years was chilling but important to hear. Tales of living in an apartment where your front room was crumbling onto the pavement below after being bombed, and the whole block only having one working toilet between 60 people. Having to run from building to building to avoid the shots from the snipers and living in constant fear with only UN peace troops to rely on for basic provisions. 

The Siege of Sarajevo lasted nearly four years and was the longest in modern warfare. The city sits on the small Miljacka river and is surrounded by hills. This is where the Serbian backed troops stationed themselves; able to completely surround the city and its inhabitants. We enjoyed listening to their accounts of how individuals carried out small acts of defiance against the siege. People carrying on going to work despite no paycheck, and of course the famous Miss Sarajevo beauty competition. 

Sarajevo wasn’t the only city to be sieged. When the war ended in 1995 the city was unrecognisable with most of its architectural heritage (a wonderful mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian design) and cultural sites lost. The traces of the war have now almost disappeared although a number of the building’s walls have bullet holes.

We also enjoyed talking to Selim about lots of other things too, everything from philosophy to politics – it’s nice for our travels through Bosnia not to be completely dominated by the War… Selim is an interesting guy who is one of those people who is always learning new things. He’s got a degree in contemporary art and sculpture, another in Arabic and is currently in the midst of a part-time degree in Philosophy. He has a full time job working for the train company as well as two kids… and he likes to host cycle travellers in his house!! An inspiration to us all! 


On our first day in Sarajevo we signed up to a free walking tour in the morning. These are tours run by individuals and they work on a tip based system. What’s good about free walking tours is that you tend to get a really personal perspective of a city. Our guide was great and the tour was titled ‘East meets West’. 

It explored the mix between the Ottoman heritage and the later Austro-Hungarian influences. Sarajevo is predominantly Muslim and has over 200 mosques. But it also has lots of Churches, both orthodox and Catholic. Sarajevo has always been home to a diverse mix of people, a tolerant city where different ethnicities and religions have lived harmoniously. It’s probably one of the reasons why the city’s inhabitants where some of the most confused victims of the war – they don’t understand how the country fell into such hatred. 

The Austrian-Hungarian renovated town hall – once the biggest library before the war


The tour also touched on the years of Tito, and our guide gave a great personal account of how he was so idolised by his people. Religion was frowned upon in the communist state, but she said people didn’t mind giving up their religious icons because they had Tito to idolise instead. 
As well as its more recent history, Sarajevo has one other claim to fame in history – it happens to be home to the bridge where Franz Ferdinand was shot, kicking off the First World War.

The ‘Latin’ bridge – it’s worth looking up the story of the assassination!

We had great weather while we were here – it had been minus degrees with snow just a few days before – and one afternoon we walked up one of the hills to overlook the city. We also treated ourselves to a date night Indian meal at the only Indian restaurant in the city. Oh and I almost forgot, we both got haircuts! 

On our last afternoon we visited the War museum and took a few hours to learn about Srebrenica and the mass genocide, where 8732 Muslims boys and men (count so far) was carried out by the Army of Rupublika Srpska (backed by Belgrade) during the war in July 1995. It’s horrendous that this was ever allowed to happen and you can’t help but blame the UN peace effort (or lack of). This massacre and accompanying displacement of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks are the worst crimes which have happened on European soil since WW2.

A message painted on a roadside barrier which we passed at the border

What happened here has naturally inflamed ethnic tensions, especially as many Serbs, both in Serbia and the Republika Srpska state of Bosnia and Herzegovnia, refuse to accept what happened, The army generals and leaders who were responsible for this systematic ethnic cleansing are still seen as national heroes by many – despite them being committed for war crimes in The Hague. 

From here we’ll cycle north towards Banja Luka, the defacto capital of the Autonomous region of Republika Srpska. Another cold snap is due to roll in, the weather has been extreme here so we’ll see how we get on with that. Hopefully it won’t slow our progress too much!

Mostar to Sarajevo 

It’s an easy days cycle to Sarajevo from Mostar but we were both keen to get off the main road again as there was no hard shoulder and rain forecast for the next day. Instead we opted for a much more difficult route involving 2 climbs but hoped it would be a scenic climb. Still being wary of the land mines we asked a young lad if it would be OK to camp in the orchard behind his house. After running off to ask his dad and grandad we’re waved in, shown a great spot for the tent and offered a peppermint tea. The house is a new build situated right next to a beautiful old stone house who’s roof has gone. The lad – Mark – speaks perfect English and explains that this house was once the family home for generations but it was destroyed during the war. 

We fall asleep to the sound of an excellent singer performing the call to prayer – Mostar is predominantly Muslim. Paddy and I have got quite good at discerning the good singers from the bad by now and we are sad that Bosnia will probably be the last country where we are likely to hear it regularly. We find it very comforting and quite beautiful. We have found the standard in Bosnia to be excellent and they seem to have a slightly different style from others we’ve heard in places such as Turkey and Iran. 

We sleep well but wake up to lots of rain – a bit of a nightmare when trying to put everything away under the tent. We find cover in our guests old porch and manage to pack the bike up before starting the climb in what is now persistent drizzle. The climb ends up being a humdinger and we grind along at 4.5km for nearly 2 hours up a valley. 

A cold, miserable morning
Nice view though!

Mist rises up like puffs of smoke to join the low lying cloud as we struggle up sweating in our rain jackets. One minute I’m in shorts and t-shirt despite the cold the next fully thermal. Near the top the road turns to switch backs and with these an easier incline. The clouds part for a quick snap of the valley, Mostar in the distance, before the next weather front comes in and the rain turns to thick snow. 

Fortunately we find a very cosy lunch spot in a swanky pub on the other side of the pass and decide we’ve earned a bit of luxury. It’s a great spot with an open fire and lot of locals enjoying a warming Sunday lunch. Bosnian food doesn’t really divert from what Paddy and I now call the Ottoman diet. I.e a version of some cooked meat with bread. The national dish is Cepavi – a plate of small kebab sausages in a flat, pancake-like bread with raw onions. It’s no cunelry masterpiece but it’s good for a hungry cyclist. This flirtation with meat and bread has continued throughout all of the Balkan states and it’s definitely a custom which comes from Turkey – as is the coffee which is essentially prepared the same way as Turkish coffee. 

A happy Irish man with his plate of meat and spuds
Our Turkish coffees in the mornings…

After lunch we have another steeper but shorter climb and the asphalt disappears and we have 20km of bumpy, stony track and there’s quite a bit of snow at the top. As we descend into the next valley the track overlooks an amazing gorge with a crystal blue lake and a picturesque town called Jezero at the bottom. 

Snow and more abandoned houses


We finally meet back up with the asphalt and freewheel down to a town called Konjic where we begin to look for a camp spot. We meet Philip a motorcyclist from Germany who coincidentally happens to be searching for somewhere to pitch his tent too! We end up choosing a nice grassy field at the top of the town next to a ploughed field and empty house. I go off to knock on a few of the nearby houses to check its all ok before we get set up.

It’s a cold night and our tents are stiff with frost and water half bottles frozen the next morning. We lie in bed waiting for the sun to pierce through the thick mist hanging in the valley. Fortunately a nice lady invites us in for coffee in her cosy sitting room and by the time we leave it’s warming up with plenty of sunshine. 

Over dinner the evening before, Phillip had told us about a sight of interest nearby which had been the secret location of Tito’s nuclear bunker. Naturally we were interested so we made plans to all head up together to check it out. Philip didn’t know much about it so it was a bit of an unknown and it wasn’t until we finally found the site that we realised the awesomeness of what we had stumbled across! 

During the height of the Cold War the leader of Yugoslavia Tito – like all the leaders at that time – believed that a nuclear war was teetering on the edge of becoming reality. And being a communist state who was not part of the Warsaw Pack Yugoslavia was in rather a precarious position! 

So Tito ordered for a state of the art top-secret bunker complex to be built deep underground. The site chosen was just outside this small quiet village of Konjic, set on the banks of a river from where the bunker was tunnelled deep into the mountainside. These two ordinary, very unassuming houses mark the entrance to the crazy military world within. It’s so well hidden that it took Paddy and I an hour to find the entrance! 

Leafy houses hiding the entrance
The tunnel to the bunker

The deepest rooms are 280m underground and could house 300 military personnel and a handful of Tito’s closest advisors and family members for up to 6 months. The extent of the complex just shows how real the threat must have felt and it makes you wander what kind of military complexes our current political leaders have incase amgeddon strikes! 

The tour of the bunker takes around 90 minutes. The whole area makes up 15,000 square meters and is complete with everything that 400 people might need to survive a nuclear attack. Fresh water, 2 huge oil tanks, a huge air conditioning system, a secret helipad and access tunnel and state of the art communication devices. The whole place feels like the interior of a large ship. 

Communication block
Controls
Oil tanks with fire hose system above
The bunker took 26 years to build and the engineers working on it were blind folded on their way in and out and sworn to total secrecy regarding their work. What is perhaps so surreal about this place is that it is totally unused – it was completed a year before Tito’s death in 1980 and has been left untouched until a few years ago. Everything is pristine and even some of the furniture still has its plastic wrapping on it. A perfectly preserved time capsule of the 60s and 70s. It is very very cool! 

Security poster
Tito’s bed!
Snooper control centre so Tito could track all internal conversations in the bunker too
To make the place feel even more surreal, the complex is also a curated exhibition space so as well as large portraits of Tito on the walls, there are over 100 art installations which you encounter along your way. They are all commentating on aspects of the Cold War and are works by artists from across Europe. 

Wall art

Me and Tito
We both had difficulty interpreting this

After the bunker we said our goodbyes to Phillip and cycled towards Sarajevo where we will stay for a few days before heading northwest into the Republika Srpska territory. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina – Country No.20!!!!! 

More Croatia to come but first we had a week or so to spend cycling across Bosnia and Herzegovnia. We were both keen to visit Sarajevo the capital before heading north to Banja Luka the capital of the separate mini state ‘Republika Srpska’ – more to come on that!

While my memories from the early 90s belong to the hazy past of my childhood I still remember news bulletins about Bosnia. Anyone a little older might just associate the country with two terrible things: War and Genocide. Since our travels through the Balkan states my understanding of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars which followed are much clearer than they ever were. What happened in Bosnia however is hard to comprehend due to the conflict being fuelled by longstanding ethnic tensions between the Croats (Catholic), Bosniaks (Muslim) and Serb (Orthodox) populations – there is no doubt about it though, the war which only ended in 1995 was brutal, and despite buildings having been rebuilt, towns re-established and peace celebrated for over 20 years now, the scars that this turbulent conflict have left are still there to see. 

We left our campspot near Dubrovnik and headed for one of the border crossings with Bosnia marked on our map. The harsh headwind that we had battled through the day persisted and we were keen to get away from the coastal road with its busy traffic and fast moving tour busses who always overtake too close! 

There were a few border crossings marked on the map and we chose the closest, Slano. It was a steep 15km climb up but we were both happy to be away from the main road. However, near the top we’re stopped by a nice Spanish family who tell us they were told it was closed to internationals. With only 3km left we decided we’d try anyway – we hope it was because they were in a car and walkers and cyclists were OK to cross here. Otherwise we would be forced to get back on the busy coastal road and cycle the 60km detour to . To our dismay the lone guard on duty at the top tells us we have to turn back. Paddy pleads but he doesn’t budge. There was one last thing we could try – for me to turn on the waterworks. I’m not proud of employing this tactic but sometimes it’s needed… It was time to put all those acting lessons to good use. 

As it turned out, I didn’t even have to cry, all it took was a wail of disbelief and a burying of my head in my hands for the guard’s eyes to soften and tell us we could cross… Trying to hide our glee and with lots of hurried thanks we jump quickly on the bike and whizz off down the hill before he can change his mind. Then we stop at the bottom to celebrate the rather overwhelming achievement of reaching our 20th country. Only 6 left! 

Our first glimpses of Bosnia – Paddy enjoyed this well kept football pitch in the mountains…

There was still a strong, cold headwind here but for now we were going downhill with the promise of some hilly terain through a big valley to come. As we get to this valley however we see signs for the Ciro bicycle trail which runs all the way from Mostar to Dubrovnik along an old railway line. The trail has recently opened with help from the EU and a cyclist had told us about it in Macedonia. We hadn’t been able to see it on our map though so we had given up hope of finding it. It was a stroke of luck that we had stumbled across it here. 

Because it runs along the old train track it would cut out the majority of those small climbs as well as promise to offer great views across the landscape from its elevated position. What’s more, the route has information points dotted along it which gives the rider snippets of information about the old stations and other points of interests. Bravo EU! 

Once a front line but now just beautiful countryside

A little further along we see the first tell tails of the recent war. Whole villages of beautiful old stone houses abandoned with their wooden and terracotta roofs caved in or gone completely. Similar hamlets can be seen across the valley on the other side. We also cycle past our first land mine sign – literally on the side of the road… 

The red sign which we would become very familiar with


As we had cycled across the border with Bosnia we had seen warning signs about the potential land mines. We had also seen warning signs for large snakes; a danger that wouldn’t have resonated quite as much as the land mines except that I had crouched down and nearly weed on a huge black one just a few days before in Montenegro… Both would mean being extra sensible about where we camped with no straying from the road in remote areas! 
The next day we reached Mostar which isn’t much to write home about until you get to the centre which is home to the old town boasting some more lovely Ottoman architecture and the famous Stari Most bridge with its single high-reaching arch over the river. We don’t stay long – just enough time to wander about the cobbled streets with an ice cream and watch a member of the diving club jump off the bridge for tips!

We’ll cycle out of town to find a camp spot from here before making our way to Sarajevo. 

Quick hair wash in the crystal waters of the river next to the cycle trail. Freezing from the melting snow on the mountains!