A Balkans Cycling Trip: Great Scenery! Ice-Cold Beer! And Bats and Land Mines?


My 4 associates and I rolled our bikes to a bar one sunny afternoon close to the city of Zitomislici on the banks of the emerald inexperienced Neretva River in rural Bosnia. We stopped at Neretvansky Gusar, because the bar is named, to restock our water provide. There was just one downside: “I only have ice-cold beer,” apologized the longhaired proprietor, Nikola Bevanda, who prefers the nickname “Svabo,” slang for “The German.”

We checked out one another, and concurrently dropped our bikes. A jiffy later, cans of chilly beer in entrance of us on the out of doors picnic desk, Svabo appeared, a half-empty bottle of off-brand Canadian whisky in hand, and the impromptu celebration was formally on. “It’s all rock ‘n’ roll,” he stated. “That’s my life’s motto.”

Little did we all know on the time that “rock ‘n’ roll” could be our motto, too — solely far more actually — for this bike experience. It was the start of a three-day, two-wheeled journey by way of Bosnia. My 4 associates and I had been pedaling the Ciro Trail, a two-year-old bike path that follows an previous railway line from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Dubrovnik in Croatia. When I’d heard the 100-mile path is flanked by fields nonetheless suffering from land mines, previous deserted villages, lifeless for the reason that Balkan battle of the early 1990s, and previous railway stations, a few of which have been transformed to resorts and eating places, I knew I needed to do it.

The mixture of current historical past and Bosnia’s gorgeous pure magnificence was interesting. As I advised folks concerning the upcoming journey, some associates had been so intrigued they invited themselves alongside: Kim Barker, a reporter for The New York Times; Caroline Trefler, a guidebook editor; and the brothers Vedran and Darko Perojevic, homeowners and cooks of the Dubrovnik restaurant Azur. Ms. Barker and Ms. Trefler arrived totally ready for the experience with correct gear. The brothers Perojevic, having lugged fold-up electrical bikes to Mostar for the experience, had been decidedly much less so. And I, the organizer of the journey, might have packed various T-shirts, a baseball cap and swimming trunks. One facet that helped, although, is that Ms. Barker, Ms. Trefler and I rented bikes from the Dubrovnik-based tour operator, Epic Croatia, which gives fairly priced mountain bike leases and a switch (with the bikes) to Mostar so we might do the path only one means.

And so right here we had been, one hour into the experience, and already off the bikes, imbibing Svabo’s ice-cold beer and taking turns wading into the chilly Neretva River. It might have appeared counterproductive, however not racing by way of the path was the purpose of it: We’d hop off the bikes when the spirit, or a beer-selling bar proprietor, impressed us to take action.

After a tour of the inside of the bar — the partitions had been full of a seemingly incongruent set of photos of everybody from Jimi Hendrix to Marilyn Monroe to the Virgin Mary to the famously mustachioed Croatian crooner Miso Kovac — we had been able to recommence the bike experience. As we rode off, Svabo yelled, “Remember: it’s all rock ‘n’ roll.”

We had been cruising by way of the city of Surmanci once we hit the brakes for an out of doors market. We had been about 4 miles from the city of Medjugorje, the place in 1981 six kids claimed to have had a imaginative and prescient of the Virgin Mary, and the city has since been a significant cease on the pilgrimage route. Surmanci was shut sufficient to the holy village to get into the act of promoting pilgrimage souvenirs. Women referred to as to us to half with our cash for beaded bracelets, photos of the Virgin, and picket crosses. “Lady!” they yelled repeatedly at our feminine companions. “Lady!” Kim purchased a number of knickknacks to offer to associates again house. And she additionally acquired the nickname “Lady” for the remainder of the journey.

After sleeping within the snug however no-frills Motel Jelcic within the unremarkable city of Capljina that night time, we started day two by pedaling previous sleepy villages and throughout rusty iron-lattice prepare bridges. The path would usually gently curve alongside a mountainside, revealing its former self as a prepare line.

The first prepare chugged out of Dubrovnik towards Mostar on July 15, 1901 to nice fanfare. Dignitaries from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rulers of this area on the time, in addition to officers from Dubrovnik, Mostar and different cities, had been seated in carriages because the prepare was met with cheering crowds in every small city and village. For the primary time, components of the inside of Bosnia and Herzegovina had been not remoted. But in 1976, the rail line was deemed not financially possible by the then-ruling Yugoslavian authorities and shut down.

These days it’s largely foot-powered automobiles that chug alongside the path, due to an effort by native bicycling golf equipment on either side of the border to do one thing with this unused stretch of path, and to assist convey vacationers to part of Europe few outsiders see. About 5 miles into the day’s experience, we got here to a fork. The signposts indicated we might take the better paved route or energy by way of the uphill gravel path that immediately follows the previous rail line. We opted for the latter and had been rewarded with views of Hutovo Blato, a 29-square-mile nature reserve that’s largely made up of marshland and tall, darkish inexperienced, pyramid-shaped mountains, a part of the Dinaric Alps. Pedaling largely uphill and on tennis-ball-size chunks of white limestone was the “rock” portion to the day gone by’s “roll.” It wasn’t straightforward however we stopped incessantly to admire the environment.

At one level, we encountered 20-foot-tall partitions of white limestone. Someone with a humorousness had spray-painted on the stone “Beware of bloody vampires” in Bosnian. Vedran translated it and all of us chuckled and shrugged. But then a number of miles later, we obtained the “joke.” As we turned a nook, an ominous black passageway awaited us. Vedran and Darko led the way in which, pushing their bikes into the erstwhile prepare tunnel earlier than fully disappearing into the blackness.

About midway by way of the tunnel, nonetheless fully black save for Caroline’s flashlight, we started listening to a cacophony of high-pitched, squeaky, chirping noises. And it wasn’t our bicycles. We all paused. I might really feel my heartbeat rushing up. What type of military of creatures had been awaiting us? Caroline pointed her flashlight as much as the ceiling and all of us screamed on the sight: a whole lot of bats swirling simply over our heads. We’d roused them from their sleep and they didn’t appear glad. Vedran was attempting to play it cool, as we pushed our bikes sooner by way of comfortable bat guano. My tire inadvertently rubbed towards his calf and he set free a loud, panicked scream. We all laughed, lightening the temper. After we trudged by way of the 400-foot tunnel, we took a breather, relieved that none of us had been transformed to vampires. Or so we hoped. Back on the bikes, we crossed the iron Stangerova Cuprija bridge.

There had been 9 extra bat-filled prepare tunnels to go, however a minimum of they supplied a reduction from the overwhelming warmth. Any time clouds eclipsed the solar, providing a short respite from its rays, it felt like an occasion. We encountered a German bicycle owner, totally decked out like he was on the Tour de France, going the alternative means, and our ragtag group peppered him with questions: How many extra tunnels are there? When does the path grow to be paved once more? And from Vedran: “When is the next place we can get beer?” The German checked out us a bit derisively and stated, “About 25 more miles, I guess.”

A couple of hours (and these 25 miles) later, we cruised into Ravno and checked into our resort, Stanica Ravno, a former railway station that opened as a resort final yr. The very first thing we did, naturally, was plunk down on the out of doors restaurant and order a spherical of beers.

That night time, our final in Bosnia earlier than crossing the border, we feasted on grilled meat and sipped native wine on the resort restaurant, glad our journey with the bats was over. The following day we started by having espresso at Gostinica Zavala, a former prepare station that’s now a restaurant. Inside was a black-and-white photograph of the day the Ciro Train first pulled by way of the village of Zavala in 1901. The railway was flanked with a whole lot of individuals cheering because the prepare chugged by. We cheered that the trail in entrance of us was largely paved and comparatively flat.

Darko would sometimes cease to choose issues off timber and crops on the facet of the path — bitter cherries, hibiscus, mulberries, oregano — and provide it to us. A perk of touring with a chef. We adopted the lengthy, light curve that stretched alongside the facet of Popova Polje, one of many largest valleys in Bosnia. Here the street indicators started to alter from the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic. We had been now getting into Republika Srpska, a quasi-autonomous strip of Bosnian-Serb land that was the results of a compromise that ended the Bosnian War on the Dayton Accords in 1995.

Just after passing by way of the village of Hum, a haunting hodgepodge of grazing cows and deserted 19th-century buildings, lots of which had been in a state of disrepair (and the place apparently about 10 folks nonetheless reside), we started seeing ominous indicators on the facet of the path brandished with a cranium and crossbones and the phrase “MINE” written in Cyrillic. Then we stumbled on a gaggle of men, some sporting what regarded like bulletproof jackets, standing round smoking and chatting. It seems they had been a part of a Bosnian workforce from Norwegian People’s Aid, an N.G.O .that locates and defuses land mines.

The group’s chief, Nerven Stonic, stated, “We’re trying to rid this area of land mines with the hope to open it up to tourism — making it better for people like you to ride through.” That’s when Vedran requested if they’d any water. “If we did,” Mr. Stonic stated, “we’d certainly offer it to you.” Vedran responded, “How about an ice-cold beer?” Mr. Stonic laughed and stated, “That would be great, but in our line of work, it would be seriously questionable if we drank alcohol on the job.”

The guys picked up their steel detectors and went again to work and we picked up our bikes and pedaled the final 5 or so miles earlier than reaching the Bosnian-Croatian border. In the now-abandoned city of Uskopje, we glided by the previous railway station, now populated by cows. They watched us bike by, seemingly unfazed by our presence, and then, within the city of Ivanica, we reached the border, experiencing that odd feeling of being on a motorbike sandwiched between revving vehicles.

After a fast stamp of our passports, we coasted down a steep paved path that delivered us proper into Gruz Harbor in Dubrovnik. We sailed previous the previous railway station, the place the Ciro Train first made its inaugural journey, and proper into the bar on the new craft brewery, The Dubrovnik Beer Company, the place we had one final celebratory ice-cold beer. “It’s all rock ‘n’ roll,” we stated, and clinked our pint glasses.



Source link Nytimes.com

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