Making Friends in the Balkans: Letters from Croatia to Bosnia and Back

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These three stories were first shared with friends and family via email, reprinted here as a vignette of touring life in Croatia and Bosnia. For the record, I don’t normally run into the police more than once in a week.

///Split, Croatia

“Don’t drink the water”, he says in English. “The fires,” he pauses, pointing to the nearby mountainsides which have burned in recent months, looking for the words. “The fires make the water bad”. His English is less accented than our own, speaking in a precise manner, pausing only to find the best words to describe his thoughts. It charms me to see young people speaking English so proficiently.

Abe and I are paused at a fountain in a small neighborhood at the edge of Split, Croatia. We’re drawn to a fig tree with ripe fruits which stands next to a gurgling public fountain next to which there is a picnic table and three boys on bikes. The boys are filling their bottles from a large portable plastic water tank, presumably provided to local residents by the city as the groundwater has been contaminated by the fires. I pull into the small public space and lean my bike up against a fence, unloading the edible contents of my framebag onto the table as the boys watch us. I am well aware that three young boys on mountain bikes will be curious about what we are doing, just as I am curious to learn more about them. As I slice dried sausage, cheese, and cucumber the most outgoing of the three boys circles the space attempting wheelies and riding onto the raised base around the fountain, not more than the height of an average step. After each maneuver he looks to his friends, he looks to me, and he looks at his next move. Another boy halfheartedly throws figs at him, not intending any harm. That’s what boys do. I spent much of my youth doing similar things to impress people older than myself. In lieu of anything I would revert to being a bother by throwing fruits or providing some such similar nuisance like punching an older cousin in the stomach with my little fists. That’s what boys do.

Split had been our destination for over a week since departing Zagreb. The city stands proudly on the edge of the Adriatic Sea, harboring a busy touristic port backed by dramatic rocky mountains. Our effort to depart the city is met with the usual reluctance to leave and the excitement of riding into new terrain. In only two days, we’d become accustomed to the conveniences of burek around the corner and the nearby beaches and abundant wifi and beer. What more could a traveling cyclist want? But something pushes and pulls you out of town and you go.

Packed and rolling not a moment sooner than 12 noon, which is the checkout time at our rented apartman, we begin along our planned outbound trajectory. Abe has charted a route using the Komoot mapping program, which we have used to develop a route suitable for mountain bikes. We select a fitness level of “pro” in the program, which means the route might just happen to include a massive hike-a-bike at any time. At present, we don’t have any idea what the route will be like.  That’s how the program works, you select you activity (road bike, mountain bike, hike), and your fitness level. In the past two weeks we’ve ridden Joe Cruz’ Adriatic Crest Route. Pushing off toward Bosnia puts us in new territory with a new route. I love riding established routes. I love riding untested routes. It turns out I love traveling by bike. I don’t ever want to stop.

“Where are you from?”, the boys ask. I make them guess.

“Germany?”

No.

“Netherlands?”

No.

“England?”

No.

I smile, “Alaska!” Their eyes light up, but I see that coming. This happens anytime you tell someone you are from Alaska.

“We watch Alaska on the TV!”, they all race to tell us. I’ve since forgotten which version of Alaska they were most interested in, perhaps is was the ice road truckers or the state police or the crazy homesteaders. One of the boys was most interested in the bears.

“Do you want to ride with us to the river? It is very beautiful.”, offers the most talkative boy. He speaks about the river’s beauty as if it was a woman with whom he was in love. “It is very beautiful.”

I tell the boys we are going to Bosnia. Again, their eyes light up. “And then Crne Gora, Albania, and Greece”. Now, this is the thing that makes me most happy to know these boys. For the first time in their lives someone has told them that they can ride their bikes anywhere, and everywhere. We ask where they normally ride, and they gesture to the nearby streets, naturally. Abe is quick to tell them that they have mountain bikes. Even though I haven’t offered yet, I think I’ve already made the sale. “Do you want to ride to Bosnia with us?”, I ask the group. The decision to ride out of town together is unanimous. We now have a Croatian bike gang.

We pedal up steep paved neighborhood streets. Two of the boys gesture to their homes as we pass. We continue, onto a larger road and then an immediate right up a dirt road covered in a layer of loose crushed limestone. The boys pause to confer. They have never traveled this way. Perhaps, they have never seen the reason or the need to ride uphill to nowhere on a road which does not provide good traction. The conference dissolves and they proceed, although the boy on the white Kilimanjaro fails to gain adequate traction with his rear tire. Abe stops to coach him. A little less air, a little more weight on the seat, a lower gear. The leader, the boy in the the red shirt who acts as the voice of the group is forced off his bike due to the steep grade yet makes no hesitation to push his bike up the hill to keep up with the group. The tallest boy, with blond hair, maintains a low gear and a constant cadence, remaining on the bike for the duration of our uphill ride. Abe continues ahead. I wait to photograph the three boys riding and walking up the hill. Once again they congregate in front of me. Mutiny is imminent. “We must go home’,  they confess. Their greater concern is how they will descend this road. Their tires, they have learned, will likely slide over the loose surface. I gesture downward and exclaim that this is the reward in cycling. “Going down is the fun part!” They laugh, nervously.

I organize the group for a photograph which they willingly and politely oblige. And then, as I have come to expect, the blond boy removes his backpack and digs deeply, unearthing a Huawei smartphone. “Do you have Instagram?”, he asks, passing me the phone. I type my name into the search bar and they all crowd around to see. We shake hands, sharing our real names, which I repeat until I’m provided the affirmation that I am pronouncing their names correctly.

———-

///Rasno, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Last night, we rolled through rural Bosnia after crossing the border a few hours before. The sun was dropping and we sought a campsite.

The area is thickly wooded with scrub oak and limestone, dotted with stone houses, so no open space appears and the few fields we passed didn’t appeal as they are planted or gated. We finally rolled into a small town with a church and a football field and a basketball court, and quickly planted ourselves beside the basketball court to eat dinner at sunset. We saw a few people in town and nobody seemed to think much of us. I waved at everyone (of course!) One of these people is an old man who drove up in his white Mercedes. He parked the vehicle and disappeared into the thicket to return with two cows. He drove behind them up the road, honking at them to move along. That is the state of herding animals in Bosnia! The white Mercedes returned a few hours later in the dark, now with another man. The driver remained in the car, the other man got out, I greeted him and worked hard to impress upon him that we were jolly tourists on bicycles. He was telling me something about a “problem”, not sure if we were a problem or if someone else would give us a problem and we should beware. They left, we set up camp in a small field behind the courts to be a little more discreet. It is not uncommon for people to attempt to dissuade me from sleeping outside, sighting all kind of “dangers”. We lay down looking at the stars.

A few hours later a police car rolls by slowly, flashing blue lights. It passes, and returns a few minutes later to drive onto the ball court. This time, the officer gets out of the vehicle and looks around with a flashlight. He approaches us. A young man is with him, tall and slender and handsome. He speaks near perfect English. The officer requests my passport. In no time the young man, not much more than a boy, admits to me in English that there isn’t really a problem. But, we must walk over to the ball court and present our passports to the police officer, who has his trunk open so he can fill out paperwork. Typical European bureaucratic style requires the officer know what city I live in and my profession and my parents names and where they were born. We oblige, the boy is most helpful. The police officer is obviously a small town guy, because the procedure excites him and he takes is very seriously. The officer is impressed that I speak some Hrvatske (Croatian), although I admit that I really don’t. I tell him that I know some Ukrainian and that my mother is “Ykrainka”. At which point— this has happened twice in a week— they refer to a recent football game between Ukraine and Croatia, which I know nothing about. I pretend to follow the conversation.

A man lurks in the shadows, who I recognize as the man I spoke with earlier, who I now consider an active informant in the affair. Another man remains at the far end of the court, deeper in the shadows, who I assume to be the Mercedes cowboy, seemingly too cowardly to confront us on any level.

The police officer is satisfied with our papers, which is good because I think we illegally crossed the border through a farm field earlier in the afternoon. The man who is the active informant comes closer as the proceedings come to a close. He is the one who makes reference to the Croatia-Ukraine soccer game. I laugh as if I know what the hell he is talking about but I don’t follow sports and know nothing of the match. He likes that.

I ask Ante, our 18 year old translator about his life, where he grew up; “Oh, you go to university in Mostar? How is it?”. He informs us that Mostar is a nice city and there is a Red Bull cliff diving event in progress right now. The active informant, who has moved out of the shadows and into our inner circle pulls out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and offers one to me, Abe looks over and is offered a cigarette as well. The police officer pulls out his own pack of cigarettes and we stand around in the bright lights of the basketball court of a small Bosnian town for a few minutes as friends, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Ante clarifies that the reason we were questioned was because they don’t normally have people in their village like this, and someone called the police to check on us. Furthermore, they are concerned for our safety, because there might be wolves and it will be cold at night. Had we had wanted we could have slept near the church and would have been provided with water and possibly food.

Before we part ways I joke that these are our first friends in Bosnia. Everyone seems satisfied to hear that. Ante recommends a nearby cave which we might like to visit in the morning, because Abe is a geologist. We all shake hands and say goodbye, “Dobre večer”. Welcome to Bosnia.

———-

///Bosnia-Croatia border

I’m listening to Deer Tick on my headphones, over and over and over. The song is “Twenty Miles”. When I find a good thing, I just want to hit the repeat button, over and over. I fall asleep to the song, I wake up to the song. I listen to it for an hour at a time during the day while riding. I’m in a melancholic euphoria— it is a sunny day and Abe and I are riding back to Split from Mostar, Bosnia, but ’ve just learned a few days ago that there is a family emergency back in New York and I feel responsible to be there as soon as possible. From Mostar, I’ve found a $400 plane ticket from Split back to New York City, so we’re pedaling back to Split along the same route we used to get to Mostar.

Abe is riding ahead and we’ve just navigated a segment of grassy doubletrack farm roads in a broad agricultural valley. As our tires pass onto a well-used gravel surface Abe pulls a Laško beer out of his Feed Bag and opens it, riding one handed. This is the exact moment when I sense a vehicle behind me. I look back to find a small white sedan with flashing lights, clearly marked Policija. I shout at Abe. No response, he also has headphones in his ears. I shout again, louder. He cranes this neck backward, apparently stunned by the scene but as certain as ever he slides his beer back into the bag on his handlebar. We pause about 20 yards from each other as the vehicle pulls up next to me.

The passenger window drops. I greet the two men in Croatian, but that’s about as far as I can go. The driver transitions to English with ease and informs me that we have just crossed the border into Croatia, illegally. I am ignorant, mostly, and I play the part. I inquire about the nearby paved roads and checkpoints, and act surprised to learn that there are border checkpoints there. Interesting.

Here’s the truth: we passed these exact same roads in the opposite direction less than a week ago without issue. At the time we wondered whether this border was manned by border agents. If traveling on a main road, would there be an actual border crossing? Most EU countries have open borders and we’ve become accustomed to passing borders without showing passports or without seeing border police. But we both know with 99% certainty that Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the EU. Perhaps they are slated to join the EU and are in the Schengen Area? On our route into Bosnia last week I scoured my GPS maps for signs of an actual border station along the main roadways, but nothing appears. Most often the OSM maps on my Garmin will show these checkpoints. None appear. So on our route into Bosnia we pass a series of little used farm roads along unplanted fields into the country, illegally.

Yet on our way back into Croatia we follow the exact same path with a different result.

The younger police officer— the driver— exits the vehicle and asks for our passports. We provide them and they disappear into the vehicle. There is no sense of urgency or the feeling of actual transgression. The entire exchange is procedural. The officer returns to us and informs us that we will most likely need to visit the station in Imotski, and to be honest, he’d rather not see his boss either. I plead with him, “can’t we just go around to the road and pass through the border the right way?” He laughs, and declines to cooperate with my plan. There are cameras, he tells me. And since we’ve triggered the system we’re responsible to continue down this path. The system will decide what to do with us. The officer pulls out a silver case with loose tobacco and rolling papers. Abe does the same, and on both sides of me men focus on a small piece of paper in their hands as cigarettes are in progress. This is how you pass time and commune as friends in the Balkans. I inquire about the area, as I relight my poorly rolled cigarette. Where did you grow up?

The officer points up to the hillside. “You see that house, with the red roof? The one to the left is mine.”

I ask how old he is, figuring it more polite to do the math myself to see how old we was during the Bosnian War than to ask outright.

“I’m one year younger than you”, he replies with a smile. I blush, remembering that even though we are speaking as friends and sharing a cigarette, he is my captor and holds my passport hostage. We both laugh.

The phone rings. We are informed that we must go to Imotski to the station. A van will soon arrive to transport us. There may be a fine, there may not.

A van arrives, a Mercedes Sprinter or a similarly shaped vehicle with armor over the windshield and lights with the word Policija written all over. The two rear doors are opened and we are told to get in with our bikes. The back of the van only has one small window into the cab, and the space is finished with stainless steel from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. We are officially getting a ride in a Croatian paddy wagon. The van bumps over country roads, turning onto pavement and lurching up a steep hill to the police station. We leave the bikes inside the van and enter the station to meet the captain.

A man in plain clothes, well dressed and attractive, is apparently the person we didn’t want to see but at first meeting he seems polite and professional. Our captor relays the details of our situation, and I can understand just enough of what he is saying in Croatian to know that he is advocating for us. He isn’t making a hard sell, but he includes all the details which I intentionally inserted into our conversation to hopefully illicit some leniency. I hear him, “they had a map with some roads on it… going home to New York because someone is his family is sick…”

The small office party grows. Four men are now five and six as curiosity builds. We really aren’t criminals, I know that and everyone here knows that, but I also feel greatly out of place now that I am in a small room with fluorescent lighting. Abe and I are both tanned with sunburnt faces; bearded, dirty, and momentarily morose. It is times like this when I wish I had shaved and worn a nicer shirt, but I keep a smile as much as possible and answer all of the captain’s questions with care. I provide the same details which he has just heard from our captor. He is satisfied, then the room sets about to decide our fine. There is much chatter, there are occasional outbursts of laughter, and I keep hearing 300-something in the Croatian language. In Croatian currency, kuna, 300 would only be about $50 USD.

The captain returns to us and informs us that if we wish to accept the charge and pay the fine we will be free to go. We must only pay 2000 kuna, but if we pay now we are only responsible to pay 2/3 of the fine, or about 1300 kuna plus a few small processing fees. That’s $200 USD! I must have misheard their conversation, they were saying one-thousand and three hundred. Technically, I can afford it but I pretend to be outraged, politely. “That’s a lot of money”, I say out loud. I’m stalling, hoping that perhaps someone will sympathize and just crumple the papers into the trash. Abe is quick to tell them that we have the money and we would be happy to pay. I’m a serial negotiator thanks to my mom and I’d prefer to dig my heels in a minute before giving into the fine. I enjoy my moment of indignant bargaining and then I too am bored and want to get out of this place. We agree to pay the fine and sign on the dotted line.

Our captor escorts us outside to another vehicle, an unmarked car, and we drive further up the hill to the bank. There we are allowed to exchange and withdraw money to pay the fine. Official paperwork documents the details of our fine and we pay through the cashier at the bank, who notarizes the documents. The process take much too long. There are multiple forms and fees and I want to double-check ever piece of paper even though it looks official and the entire process is professional.

We are in a bank in the middle of the afternoon with two police officers. We are two dirty, bearded men standing at the counter paying their way out of something. The room can’t help but stare. Bank agents come out of their glass cubicles and hover at the edge of the room to spectate, whispering to one another. A young mother walks into the bank with her son, who is elated to see police officers and calls out to them. The younger officer replies with a smile and a wave. We collect our papers and drive back down the hill to the station. There, our bikes are released from the back of the van. I shake hands with our benevolent captor and ask to take a photo with him. Without hesitation, he agrees and we shake hands again. I thank him and he says, “next time you come to Croatia you come find me, so I don’t have to find you.”

———-

Split draws tourists from all over Europe and the world who explore the touristic old city and the nearby islands. The mountains in the background are calling.

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We spend a few days in a well-priced apartment in a neighborhood of Split, several kilometers from the bustle of the tourist center.

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Nationalistic imagery is still alive in urban Croatia.

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The city is growing with new development. The touristic economy is very important to Croatia.

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Abe mapped a route with Komoot from Split to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even before leaving town we find a few dirt roads.

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Olive and fig trees line our route out of the city.

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At a fountain near the edge of town, we assemble a short-lived Croatian bike gang these three young boys.

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Ah, a boy’s first hike-a-bike.

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These three boys really were inspiring. They were kind and open to meeting new people, and their curiosity brought them far up a hill out of town, where they’d never gone before. Mountain biking and cycling in general is a universal concept— a universal conveyance and a universal joy.

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Finally, we reach the steep rocky mountainsides visible from town.

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Where fires burned earlier in the summer.

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Everything is built from limestone around here.

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Cetina River, popular for rafting with its green waters and limestone canyons.

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Here, limestone has formed a large crater-like valley.

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With several karst lakes in the area. They are hundreds of feet deep.

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The emblem of the Hajduk Split football club joined by violent nationalistic imagery and an odd Confederate flag.

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Imotski, as seen from out first pass through this valley, immediately prior to our first illegal border crossing.

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The internet says there are roads here, and there were no signs to warn us of an illegal border crossing. Without incident we ride right into Bosnia.

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On our first evening, we exchange money and learn the lay of the land in a new country.

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Our route winds through a rocky landscape covered in scrub oaks and scattered farm plots.

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The village of Rasno is the site of our meeting with the local Bosnian police. At sundown we sit on this basketball court and enjoy dinner. By dark, we are camped behind the basketball court. A couple hours later, blue lights arrive.

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Leaving Rasno.

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En route to Mostar, we race from rainclouds.

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One final valley to cross, one final climb, and then a big descent to Mostar.

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The city unveils a different landscape— bigger mountains, bigger valleys. Bosnia is actually a very mountainous country.

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And we look forward to a 5000ft climb out of town.

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We burn up our brake pads on the steep descent into town on narrow lanes, stopping only to fill up on figs.

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Kiwis in the wild!

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Mostar was the site of prolonged conflict during the Bosnian War. Much of the city is rebuilt and is now a popular touristic destination. However. abandoned and damaged buildings still remain.

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This is the first time where we see a large number of mosques, and we begin to unravel the details of the country. About 50% of the population are Bosniaks, who are Muslim. while the remaining people are Croats and Serbs who share cultural elements and a similar language but strongly identify as different ethnic groups.

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Mostar is named for a famous Ottoman bridge build across the Neretva River, the mostari were the bridge keepers who managed the resource. Most is the local Serbo-Croatian word for bridge.

The bridge was destroyed in 1993 by Croat artillery fire.

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Bustling touristic markets surround the old town and the Stari Most.

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While graffiti colors newer parts of town.

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This large building is still abandoned and shows signs of war.

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Elsewhere, the city exhibits typical concrete-block apartment buildings. After decades of habitation, these austere buildings take on a colorful and organic character.

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Resupply.

While in Mostar I decide that I need to be back in New York with my family, and we both purchase plane tickets back to the US.

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Thus, we retrace our tracks backs to Split. If feels strange reversing our forward-looking trajectory, but Abe and I agree that it is fun to revisit the same places. Where know all the swimming holes, and the best cafes, and the best campsites. We’ll be back.

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Fields of these leafy plants topped with pink flowers are everywhere. I speculate, but am not quite sure.

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Until I meet this man and his son. His son was crouched in the grass wrenching on a bicycle which was much too tall for him. He leads me to his father.

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They are harvesting tobacco, locally called duhan.

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The yellow leaves are harvested and will be dried and cut before being sold. I shake the man’s hand, which is coated in a sticky residue from the tobacco leaves.

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It is a beautiful plant. The only other place I’ve seen tobacco growing was in Albania and there it was a much shorter plant. These plants are nearly as tall as me.

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Back through Rasno, back toward the Croatian border.

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We enjoy camping next to a tobacco field, and preparing Turkish coffee the right way with out newest souvenir. I purchased a cezve in Mostar to bring back to some friends in Alaska, but I feel I need to impart the terroir of the place onto the equipment before giving it as a gift. More reasons to sit around in the morning sun and drink lots of coffee.

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Ominous clouds roll in for our second illegal border crossing. At this point, we aren’t thinking anything about anything, just riding out bikes and listening to music and having a good time.

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Twenty minute later we are in the back of a police van. I’m not sure Abe is as amused as I am. I love meeting the local people!

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it was an expensive taxi ride and tour around Imotski, but I greatly enjoyed spending time with my captor, whom I now consider a friend. Next time, I’ll find him so he doesn’t have to find me.

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As we roll away from the police station the stories come rolling out about what I thought and what Abe thought and what they might do and all the possible scenarios. I’d rather not entangle myself with the law, but in this case it was a positive experience. The Croatian border police were ultimately professional and courteous.

We camp in the same crater-like valley.

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Ride the same postcard quality dirt roads.

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Visit the Cetina River again.

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Visit the same cafes, although this time we arrive just in time for the town to celebrate a wedding. The bartender is serving alcohol in the middle of the road as a car drives through with a flare. These people know how to party!

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We both want to keep up this lifestyle. We both love the sun and the coffee and the vigorous rides. But for now, I must return to New York. It has been two months.

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Abe has been such a great traveling partner. It is powerful to be able to travel with others who share the same sense of adventure, a similar carefree attitude, and a love for nature. he is also an excellent rider— i am not accustomed to chasing people on climbs! I’ve shared time with lots of people on bike tours, and it can be a gamble. Our partnership was a powerful and productive thing. I look forward to sharing the trails with you again soon Abe!

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Back in Split, we arrange bike boxes and stuff our faces with burek before we return to the land of uninspiring supermarkets and winter.

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Swimming, and some local microbrews. The beer is named Barba, which means beard.

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One last look at Croatia. I return to New York, Abe returns to Alaska. We’re both planning our next adventure already. Most recently, Abe has mentioned plans to ride in Arizona and Baja this winter. It will be hard not to join him as those are some of my favorite places to ride.

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The finer points of bikepacking, packing the bike and transporting a bike box!

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We carry the boxes across town to the bus terminal, pack our bikes across the street, and board the bus to the airport.

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Goodbye Croatia! I hope to be back soon. I’m already scheming to be back here next fall with a projected route and a group of friends. Linking existing routing in Croatia (the Adriatic Crest Route) and Greece (Greek Bike Odyssey) provides bookends to a possible Balkan Bikepacking Traverse, aka The Burek Tour. We’ll see what next year brings, but I would love to return. And at long last, I would love to get back to Albania!

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Croatia and the Adriatic Crest Route

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Abe rides a macadam road above the sea on the Adriatic Crest Route in Croatia, a route mapped and published by Joe Cruz on Bikepacking.com. 

The man uses both hands to carry the steel bucket out from his cramped home, which is half of the ground floor of some kind of outbuilding to the larger home on the property, which is shuttered for the season. We’ve asked him for water, but mostly we are just poking around a small community in the mountains in the rain to see what there is to see. The dirt road we were riding intersected a paved road from the coast, which appears to end here. My default topic of conversation when I don’t speak much of the language is to ask for water. The man obliges, but I hear him say malo which means little and I try to say that we don’t really need to take his water. He walks away toward the sink and lifts the bucket, walking it across the room and through the door to us. He leaves it on the table and offers a plastic mug to scoop the water to fill our bottles. I look into the bucket and laugh. He looks at me. I look at him, surely he is joking. There is a dead mouse in the bucket, floating peacefully in the water. I gesture to Abe, and look back at the man. It is clear that he hasn’t seen it yet, but when he does, he doesn’t laugh. He lifts the bucket and dumps it off the ledge into the grass. We walk over to a concrete cistern with a steel cover. We lower another bucket into the well and fill our bottles.

We have only been in this country for two days, and it feels like two weeks.

There comes a time when wearing a rain jacket is pointless. The rate of rainfall and the rate of perspiration are equal and you can choose to be hot and wet, or well-ventilated and wet. The conundrum, a topic of conversation more than a real problem, has us thinking on a long climb above the coast. We could see the Adriatic Sea, except we’re climbing in a thick cloud and can’t see anything. But I couldn’t be happier that our biggest challenge is trying to decide if we should wear rain jackets or not. Three days ago we were wrapped in our sleeping bags under a wooden pavilion outside Ustron, Poland wondering how we would ride through this kind of weather for the next two weeks. The now-obvious answer— in retrospect— is that we wouldn’t. I made mention to Przemek that I was looking at trains to the south. He and I think much the same way, and he quickly began searching train timetables and weather forecasts for us on his Polish smartphone. The next day we were in Zagreb, the next afternoon giving ourselves bellyaches from ripe plums found on the roadside, the next evening finishing a grueling accidental hike-a-bike through a limestone canyon. Poland was a distant memory in less than a day. I’ll be back to Poland, and I think Abe is even more curious than me about what lie across that border. I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about “The Red Trail”, as I call it.

We came to Croatia because it was a convenient connection by train from Czechia. We’re here to escape the rain. I rode in the Balkans first in 2014 and since that time, I have always wanted to return.

My friend Joe Cruz stitched together a route through Croatia this year called the Adriatic Crest Route, which he published to Bikepacking.com. Joe is a philosophy professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who seems to cash in every free moment in life to ride his bike. I’ve crossed paths with Joe in New Mexico, Alaska, and Czechia, most recently visiting him at his country home in Vermont. I enjoy following his digital lines through space almost as much as I have enjoyed riding and traveling with him. I know just enough about him to sense the process of route design when riding his routes.

The Adriatic Crest Route begins across the border in Slovenia, to the north, and passes south to ride two of the larger islands in the country before crawling back to the mainland for the remainder of its path. We connect with the route from Zagreb, and join Joe’s routing where it leaves the islands for mainland Croatia, continuing south along a spine of coastal mountains toward the end point in Split.

The route is a pleasant blend of forest roads, leading up to a high point of 5200ft; narrow paved farm roads and rural routes; and a few fragments of rough doubletrack and singletrack. As with any route you will follow from Joe, there are some short walks with the bike to make essential connections. 

Some of the prime features of the Adriatic Crest Route are a long summer season and pleasant late-summer days and nights, stunning scenery, and abundant fresh fruit. Yes, passing through populated areas and small towns results in an abundance of fresh fruits, especially plums, figs, apples, and pears. The riding is accessible, with some prolonged climbs. Several sections focus our attention to picking lines down the mountain, but mostly the riding is a consistent pace on roads of varying kinds.

While we missed the first part of the route which hopped across a number of islands up north, the southern part of the route reconnects with the coast and affords the opportunity to enjoy the rocky Croatian coastline and its mellow waters, an essential experience when visiting Croatia. After a week in the mountains, Abe and I were happy to finish the ride along the waterfront of Šibenik, Trogir, and Split. Deliberately slowing our pace afforded several lazy afternoons and an overnight beach camp before catching a boat into the busy touristic center of Split.

For more info on the Adriatic Crest visit Joe’s original post on Bikepacking.com.

Follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow.

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Boarding the train at 5:45 AM along the Czech-Polish border, we roll across the Slovenian border at sunset, pass border control into Croatia in the dark, and arrive in Zagreb at 11PM. The air is warm and dry, the city is calm. Our decision to come south is brought with great confidence the moment we step outside.

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In the morning, we awake to sun and clear skies.

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Within a few hours of being in Croatia, we enjoy burek and kefir and begin our ride out of the city.

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Burek is a pastry made of many thin layers of dough, filled with cheese or meat, and sometimes found with savory vegetable fillings or sweet fruit filings. A tart farmer’s cheese filling is the most common, and arguably the best. A greasy burek is best paired with a small jogurt or kefir.

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Abe an I plot a route out of the town for the afternoon. The plan is to get into the local mountains and learn the ways of Croatian roads and trails. In a couple days we will connect with the Adriatic Crest Route. For now, we soak up the sun and new surroundings.

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Learning the ways of Croatia. The mountains are steep. Not all trails are rideable, not all trails get regular use or maintenance. Abe and I descend an overgrown trail into a strenuous downhill hike-a-bike in a tidy little limestone drainage. Little do we know what is ahead. 

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Passing the point of no return. Of all the times we should have decided to turn around, we’d look at the GPS and declare, it is just another 0.41 miles. 

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Little do we know that it ends in a 100 ft waterfall. There is a trail around it, but it is so steep that we hike it all first without the bikes, then come back for our beasts of burden. There are steel cables along a portion of the descent, which help. The rest is a creative and physical endeavor. At least it finishes with a great place to swim.

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We exit the forest at sunset, to the minute exactly, and rip down a packed limestone road to the nearest town. We order a beer and laugh at the whole endeavour— barely a half day out of Zagreb and we’ve already given ourselves a week worth of adventure. We find an unoccupied building in the middle of town to bed down in, mostly to keep the dew off. It is always fun to interpret the former use of such buildings by analyzing the interior. Whenever I first enter an old building like this, i walk around and try to identify the different rooms. I imagine myself as the cook in the kitchen or the headmaster at a desk. Then I find a little piece of floor without any broken glass or tiles.

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Our first morning outdoors in Croatia, and the beginning of a long transport day to get closer to the coast to connect with Joe’s route. After yesterday’s experience, we agree to follow “mostly roads” today. Mostly we keep to cycling routes shown on the Open Cycle Map in Gaia. By the end of the day we’ve ridden 70 miles, which Abe informs me is the longest distance he has ridden on a bike in one day.

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It is good to see a variety of signed cycling routes and advertised touristic loops for bicycles.

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After a period of lowland riding, we pass back into the mountains and ride over a series of N-S trending ridges nearing the coast.

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Resupply.

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Finally, cresting a ridge at close to 3000 ft, we descend to connect with the Adriatic Crest Route. Our first few pedal strokes include a mellow descent above the sea.

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Some singletrack.

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Rocky abandoned doubletrack, or doublesingletrack as I’ve often called it.

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The command center has grown over the years, with a camera bag on the far left and a large insulated wine holster on the right (aka Revelate Feed Bag). The Sinewave Beacon headlamp simplifies things a little as the USB charging device is housed within the light’s head unit. I use both a Garmin eTrex 20 and an older iPhone 5 on the handlebars for navigation. The Garmin provides all weather function, best for existing routes and inclement weather. The iPhone is not in a waterproof case but helps when navigating cities and for some large-scale routing, as well as quick wifi missions in town. Abe and I are both running the Gaia program, and are beginning to dabble with Komoot for route planning as well.

Deer Tick plays on repeat for a couple of days.

A liter of graševina in the Feed Bag, with a bit of rosemary for dinner.

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We begin to see these fruits, which I recall are called thana in Albania. In English, they seem to be called Cornelian cherry, scientific name Cornus mas. They are bitter like a cranberry but eventually ripen to the point that you could eat them. In Albania they were being collected to be made into raki, a homemade liquor.

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With rain in the forecast, we enjoy a dry evening above the Adriatic Sea.

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Morning is warm and damp, but not uncomfortable in any way. Rain jackets come on and off throughout the day as we wind our way up to the high point on the route at 5200 ft.

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We are in a section of the route which is described as having no immediate resupply for over 100 miles. However, we encounter a vender on a mountain road selling smoked cheeses and honey. The cheese only comes in 1 kilogram rounds. A kilo of cheese is no match for two hungry riders and I pass over the cash in the rain. This powers us all the way to the end of the route.

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Nearing the top of the National Park Sjeverni Velebit, which would normally provide stunning views of the mountains and the islands below.

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At 5200 ft, we’re stuck in a cloud. The mountain hut provides respite from a damp day.

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The history inside the building is obvious the moment we enter with photos of the hut in winter and memories from mountain conquests in the Himalaya and other distant lands.

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We sign the guest log, purchase a beer from the caretaker, and enjoy a few moments in a wooden chair out of the rain.

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Descending from Zavižan, we look for a place to hide away for the night.

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This old forest cabin remains as a shelter. Incidentally, another 100 yards down the road is another cabin which is equipped with a wood stove and other amenities such as cots and jars of coffee and tea. Even so, this one is clean, and dry.

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The national park encompasses a broad mountain massif and protects several higher peaks and a large forest.

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Some of the shelters listed on our maps are closed for the season, although they would normally be staffed through the summer.

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Descending out of the clouds, we drop into a world of limestone crags.

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A popular climbing area, with routes shown on this map.

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Joe’s GPS track takes us from one valley to another via a “short hike-a-bike”. It was short, and totally pleasant. I laugh to myself, because I’ve been on some long hike-a-bike segments with Joe and know his great love for pushing his bike. I’ve been told I am the same way. It must be a matter of perspective.

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Most hiking trails in Croatia are signed with this bullseye pattern.

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Limestone and beech trees.

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The route drops us into the town of Gospić, where we quickly resupply at the supermarket with a stop at the bakery and are out of town just before dark to find camp in a farm field under the hum of high-voltage power lines. Rain returns overnight, and showers are forecast to come and go through the next few days. The plan is to ride when it is dry, and find cover when wet— if we can.

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A final climb should take us over a rocky pass to sea level for the first time.

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The jagged limestone mountains are different than what we’ve been seeing, and as soon as we cross the high point the climate changes. There are distinctly different climates between coastal Croatia and inland areas. The coast is mostly dry and rocky.

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Descending to sea level at Obravac, we encounter a group of boys in town. Rather, I immediately lean my bike against the bridge and slip off my shoes and shirt. I hoist myself onto the railing and dive into the river. The boys come running.

They speak some English, I toss a little of my Ukrainian at them for fun, which they mostly understand. I try my hardest to convince them to come swimming, but mostly they just want to get me to do a “backflip”. 

Unprompted antics for the camera.

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Serious faces.

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And our first fig tree, on the climb outside Obravac. Thus begins our obsession with figs.

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Thunderstorms brewing.

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Home for the night. This part of Croatia has tons of abandoned buildings, as well as old stone walls and other aging infrastructure. This area feels much older than the inland cities.

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Look at the size of that fig tree!

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While bathing in a local river, we discover an old limestone building with a well. There are actually a series of buildings which we interpret to be some kind of mill. Water is channeled into several different pathways.

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To drive these machines.

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The area between Obravac and Šibenik is interesting. Low hills, scrub oaks, lots of limestone walls and buildings. Lots of abandoned buildings, some old, some not that old.

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Soon enough, the river we expect to cross comes into view. The Krka River is locally famous for its travertine waterfalls, and the hydroelectric history that was pioneered in this area. We’re mostly just looking for figs and swimming holes.

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We also see the first of many signs celebrating the local HNK Hajduk Split football club. Split is our near destination, and the team’s patters show up all over the place. Abe photographs his Advocate Cycles Hayduke in front of the “Hajduk” graffiti. A hajduk was a peasant warrior, something between a robber and a hero, who famously opposed Ottoman forces in the Balkans.

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A series of pools and lakes are found along the path of the Krka River, making for some prime swimming opportunities, even on a humid and damp day. We manage to avoid most of the major deluges that day, until the evening.

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In the final miles, we pedal through a pounding rainstorm and rummage around an old factory until we find a building with a good roof. Setting up tents in the rain is no fun, rolling into a spacious two bedroom apartment with great ventilation and good views— priceless.

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Croatia provides palatable wines, although this is actually a Macedonian bottle. We don’t quite have the appropriate stemware, but these little 0.6L titanium pots suffice.

To my untrained palate, most Croatian wines taste like cooked sausage and onions, with notes of coffee and a touch of titanium. Or is that just my kitchenware telling me it hasn’t been washed properly in a month?

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The morning is hot and sunny, and everything except for our shoes are dry.  

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Šibenik.

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I love these old concrete block apartment buildings.

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The bike section at a supermarket. They sell dynamo lights at the Kaufland! Many urban bikes in Europe are equipped with rack, fenders, and a bottle dynamo.

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Grapes.

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Craft brew, from Zagreb.

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Figs. Everybody loves them!

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A large comercial vineyard leads us to a big rocky climb.

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Joe’s instructions: “overgrown, push through”. 

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And push up.

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If you think you’ve seen a lot of figs, imagine how many we have eaten. So, many, figs.

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Figs are rotting on the roadsides they are so plentiful. Many local people will harvest and dry them for the rest of the year. But nothing beats a ripe fig.It took Abe no more than one fig to became as rabid a fan of this fruit as I am.

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Trogir, our first real taste of high-density Croatian tourism. The city is beautiful and historic and worth a visit, but I’m glad our routing hasn’t been along the coast the entire time.

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We push out of Trogir in the afternoon and ride to the end of the road, until it turns into a trail. We hike our bike the final few minutes to a remote rocky camp.

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Croatia is everything the tourist office wants you to think. The craggy limestone mountains are just as you expect, the sea is as good as it looks, and the figs. Oh, the figs.

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The final few kilometers of the route include a ferry from the island into the center of Split. What a way to finish the route! I love when routes finish in a city or at the sea, or both, and I love putting my bike on a boat. 

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After a rest day in Split we’re off to Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania!

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Raining on the train: CZE, AUT, SVN, HRV

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Arriving at the Czech border town of Český Tĕšín, Abe and I cross the river to Poland. A series of produce stalls are selling bulk potatoes along the road parallel the river, massive dried sunflowers and dill stalks accompany the display. We climb a wet cobblestone street into the old city in search of cover. We spent our last Czech koruna at the Billa supermarket across the border. Now, we seek a Polish ATM to withdraw zloty for the next week. We’ve seen the forecast, and it calls for some days of rain. In the past week these forecasts have become increasingly grim, with two days of rain growing to a full week of rain. Going through the motions, we withdraw cash, eat pastries and kefir under cover of a bus stop and pedal to the start of the Main Beskid Trail in Ustron, about 20 km away. En route, we both realize that the GPX tracks we have loaded are incomplete. The files we loaded contain nearly 13,000 points and our Garmin eTrex devices will only display tracks with up to 10,000 points, so only 200 miles of the route are shown. At the top of the mountain we pass a turn which would connect us to the Beskid Trail but we decide to descend into town to modify the GPX track and reload it to our Garmin units. 

In Ustron, we stop into a local bike shop where Abe borrows a wrench to tension his leather B-17 saddle. He asks how many spare sets of brake pads I am carrying, expecting me to reply “None”, along with some secrets of lightweight travel.

“Four. Four pairs.”

Abe is impressed.

I contest, they are small and I don’t think it will be easy to find pads for my SRAM Guide brakes. He agrees.

Abe buys a pair of Shimano brake pads. The shop is a small room, clean and professional with a small inventory of bikes and some quality equipment, including Maxxis tires, disc brake pads, and carbon handlebars. A row of kids bikes are lined up out front of the shop, several models featuring a long handle with an ergonomic grip for a parent to follow behind. We ask to log into the wifi network at the shop to use an online program called GPS Visualizer which I know can modify our GPX track as needed. Instead, they suggest we use the free wifi in the city center about 300m away. We roll to the city center and link to the internet, where we discover that we must input a cell phone number to receive a login code. Neither of us has a phone. We manage to ask the woman at the tourist information office to use her mobile phone to receive the code. Once she understands our request she willingly agrees to help.

I begin work to condense our oversized GPX tracks through the GPS Visualizer program and limit them to 9999 points, enough that the entire track will load on our devices and the track resolution will be adequate. I connect my eTrex 20 and begin loading the file. I do the same with Abe’s eTrex 30, although my old USB cable ejects the drive several times before I successfully load the track. Right before we pack and roll out of town, I check the latest weather forecast. One site shows rain for every single day, for two weeks. My fingers are cold while typing next to an open window in the tourist office in Ustron at 1300ft. We plan to climb up to almost 5000ft over the next couple of days, topping out on Babia Gora along the Polish-Slovakian border. Memory serves the distinct sensation of soggy shoes, and sweaty rain jacket, and incompetent cold hands fumbling with zippers. Add to that poor visibility, wet roots, muddy trails. I inform Abe of the forecast. He doesn’t say anything, the sometimes necessary job of a first mate. But I can tell. I don’t want to be wet for two weeks either. I load the German rail site in English and run a few searches. A second Google Maps tab reminds me of the geography of Eastern Europe. Ostrava to Zagreb results in relatively few connections and a 15 hours trip with a layover in Vienna. Just something to think about. We pack our things and ride out of town to a public picnic area we passed on our way into town. I spotted a large wooden pavilion on the descent and figured we could come back for the night if needed. 

Przemek arrives around 9:30PM, his young dog waking me by licking my eyeball as I sit up from my sleeping bag. Abe and I have been asleep for over two hours. Przemek and I hug awkwardly from my seated position in my sleeping bag. His first question, “Do you want some wodka?” What do you say to a towering Polish man with a Husky mutt when he asks if you want wodka in the middle of the night. “Of course.”

I hear the van door slide open across the park, and then slam closed. Przemek arrives with a bag of oranges, a pouch of rolling tobacco, and a bottle of spirits, a Lithuanian vodka called Strumbas with two raspberries sunk to the bottom. This is a perfectly acceptable evening digestif in this part of the world, although it might be short a few cloves of garlic and some pickled fish, or pork. We talk under cover of the pavilion until midnight before disbanding to sleep. It rains all night.

Przemek and I have shared trails in Poland, Ukraine, Montenegro, Albania, and Colorado. He and his partner Saška were some of the first riders on the Baja Divide this past fall. This summer they married and are expecting a baby in the next few weeks. Przemek is working in Poland while Saška is with family in Slovenia. Once he receives the call, he will make haste to meet his daughter.

Lael and I first met Przemek in Zwardon on the Poland-Slovakia border in 2013. We met at the train station and immediately began climbing out of town on a steep walking trail. Thus began my love with Polish footpaths. The next few days we followed his lead along ridgelines between the two countries. We continued riding together for the next month in Poland, in the Ukrainian Carpathians, and in Crimea. In that time, we all got food poisoning, we enjoyed late evenings with Djorka and Yulia and their friends in Strij, and we were escorted off a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. In that time, Przemek curated an alter ego as a slippery Polish man working to illegally import wodka under the guise of operating an Italian pizzeria. He was alternately Mr. Polish and Tony the Pizza Man, and you’d never know who might crawl out of his tent in the morning. If he didn’t have a university degree that allows him to commission power plants in Europe I think Przemek might have found a career recording his shtick to budget comedy LPs.

I had said that I wished it to rain all night. I said, “I hope it is pouring in the morning”. Now that a seed had been planted and we might be able to escape the rain, all I needed was the affirmation to make that decision. I didn’t need much, and it would have taken a miracle of morning sun and a perfectly clear forecast to change my mind. Instead I was hoping for a deluge of reasons to escape the impending rainy season. It rained all night.

We are going south.

Abe and I confer. I suggest we take the train to Zagreb and I think it a good idea to avoid two weeks of rain. He quietly chuckles in agreement. We have both been wet and cold before. This time, we fold our hand and find another card table. We are going to the Balkans. Summer will be ours once again.

Missing the chance to visit Ukraine leaves a little hole in my summer. It is a special place that has provided so many positive and meaningful experiences. Visiting family in two consecutive summers, and celebrating two consecutive birthdays in Ukraine is part of it. The riding in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains is also a great adventure. I’ll be back. It will be there. Had I been traveling alone I might have pressed on in the rain and bought an old farmhouse with a good roof and a fireplace in the Ukrainian mountains and disappeared forever. Good thing Abe is here.

And so, with no plan other than a good weather forecast and a taste for burek, and figs, and rakija, we are going south. Our train will arrive in Zagreb just before midnight.

Follow our travels on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow, and check Abe’s blog akschidtshow.

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Mr. Polish, aka Tony the Pizza Man, aka Przemek. 

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