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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Into the Mountains on the 1000 Miles Adventure, Czechia

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Abe climbs a trail out of Špindlerův Mlýn, CZ crossing signed DH bike trails and chairlifts which won’t move for another couple months until the snow falls.

Following my first week on the 1000 Miles Adventure route where I traced the Czech-German border in alternating days of clouds and rain, I rested for several days in Liberec anticipating my friends Abe and Malcolm to arrive. Malcolm would only be in the country for a week, while Abe begins an open-ended journey. Together, we head east. East, always east!

Until it gets cold, and then we go south.

I meet Abe and Malcolm at the train station in Liberec. They are both coming from Alaska by plane via Frankfurt, and by train from Prague. My friend Spencer from the Baja Divide group start last winter arranged a host for the night in Prague. Abe and Malcolm built their bikes at the airport and rode into town, passing the busy old city of Prague just as the sun set and tourists were wandering dumbly at critical mass taking pictures of that one clock tower which does something every couple of hours but is currently concealed in scaffolding. Prague is a beautiful city, but the hordes of tourists make you want to run away to the countryside and go for a long hike or bike ride, which is what Czech people seem to do in the summer.

In Liberec, we efficiently resupply and begin riding out of town. Within a couple of hours we are atop our first pass, riding a forest road along the contours of a mountainside, and descending to our first village for celebratory beers. Riders in many European countries can do the same— traveling from major cities into the mountains via human power and public transport within a matter of hours is easy. The ride out of Liberec was along a signed cycling route, some of which was dedicated bike trail. In fact, there are so many routes and trails in this country that it helps to have the guidance of the 1000 Miles Adventure route. Rather than deliberating over maps all day and making hundreds of small decisions, we can pedal and spend more time thinking about what is for lunch and when we might find a place to splash around in a stream or a lake.

Our week on the 1000 Miles Adventure route would differ from my first week. We enjoyed warm sunny days all week, with cool late summer nights at elevation. We climbed and descended, and climbed, and descended, and climbed— the route right out of Liberec ascended into the Jizera Mountains and then Krkonoše National Park, along the Czech-Polish border. The route, as before, continues along a series of forest roads, minor paved lanes, and singletrack walking trails. While in the mountains of Krkonoše National Park, bikes are mostly only allowed on wide gravel roads and paved routes. As we pass east of the park boundary— still traveling in similar terrain with peaks over 4000ft— the route utilized more rustic corridors. The footpaths in Czech, as in many European counties, are used most often by local traffic, not long-distance users like us. The people we meet include families enjoying a weekend hike from a nearby city or locals collecting blueberries and mushrooms. Even so, the dense network of local walking, cycling, and ski trails in any one area connect in all directions. Since starting the 1000 Miles Adventure route in western Czechia about 600 miles ago, I have never left the signed recreation trails that make this route possible. I’ve pedaled plenty of pavement and passed through many towns, but at all times I can see colored paint blazes on trees and fenceposts and stone churches.

European walking and cycling routes do not fear the civilization through which they pass, in contrast to our obsession in North America with experiencing the wild, even if in a curated manner. Clearly the land use practices and population density differ greatly from Europe to North America, but for a place with such discontinuous wild spaces, European trail resources are extremely well connected. Why do American trails so often go nowhere? Why do we drive to mountain bike trails to ride in circles? I strongly appreciate the interconnectedness of the trails in Europe, and much of that is possible because there are fewer fences and fewer signs prohibiting access, some of which must technically be private land. Many walking routes pass very near to rural homes and farmhouses, some are even signed on the corner of a house or down a gravel driveway.

I first started saying this years ago when riding footpaths in Europe in 2013, but the result of such a network of trails is a massive opportunity to “choose your own adventure”. On the weekend, Czech families are out in great numbers riding bicycles, walking, collecting food, and eating outside. While there is plenty of vehicular traffic to access the national parks and the mountains, nobody drives a car around all day to “see” the nature. They get out and experience it under their own power. Eastern Europeans are a tough and self-reliant lot. We regularly see parent hauling kids in child seats and bike trailers up long gravel climbs, and once graduated to 12″ and 16” wheel bikes those same children are now descending those same routes.

Malcolm left us one morning to descend to the nearest town with a train station to return to Prague and Alaska, while Abe and I stayed on course. We departed the 1000 Miles Adventure route yesterday to link to the Main Beskid Trail in southern Poland, the longest walking trail in the country. Officially called the Kazimierz Sosnowski Main Beskid Trail (or Główny Szlak Beskidzki imienia Kazmierza Sosnowskiego, in Polish), the trail travels nearly 500km from the small city of Ustron in south-central Poland to the Ukrainian border in the east. By comparison, the Main Beskid Trail should be more constantly challenging than the 1000 Miles Adventure route, both physically and technically. Abe and I are looking forward to it, now that we’ve each got some miles under our legs.

Follow Abe’s stories from the trail on his blog AK Schmidtshow. For smaller morsels follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow.

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In other news, I ordered a new bike frame yesterday, although it won’t ship until late fall and I won’t likely see it in person until spring. My friend Cjell Monē has spent the past two years refining the designs of two bike models under the brand Monē Bikes. The La Roca is an adaptable short chainstay steel hardtail for 29″, 27.5+, or 29+ wheels with all modern bikepacking attachment points; the El Continente is a drop-bar 29+ steel touring bike.

Cjell and Corbin were two of the first riders down the Baja Divide this past fall, while Cjell is otherwise known for his exploits as a global bike adventurer, Tour Divide singlespeed veteran, ultralight thru-hiker, and all-around kook great human. Cjell has built bicycle frames under his own brand, sewn and tested his own bikepacking luggage and hiking packs, and established a legacy as a man who charts his own course and has fun doing it.  Pick up the La Roca and El Continente for special preorder pricing through this weekend, frames are $750 right now but will be sold for $1250 after the weekend. All frames will be handmade in Taiwan this fall. Check out how much brass is on show– these frames are gorgeous and I can’t wait to ride the La Roca!

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Rolling through Liberec in northern Czechia to meet Abe and Malcolm.

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Out of the city, over a small mountain, through a forest, and into another town. The pattern begins.

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Note, red circles indicate prohibited activities, such as possessing a phonograph or riding an elephant.

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Water runs from the mountain sides, moist forests harbor blueberries and mushrooms.

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Resupply is uncomplicated, until Abe and I forget to plan ahead for the weekend when most stores are closed. We decided to eat out all weekend at mountain huts and small beer gardens. It wasn’t terrible.

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Mountain bike trails! These were pleasant, although some of the walking trails are much more fun.

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Temperatures have been warm, but totally comfortable when off the bike. When climbing two thousand feet at a time up steep grades, it gets a little sweaty.

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Many mountains in Europe form natural boundaries between countries, and in the case of the 1000 Miles Adventure the route follows the German border until Poland appears to the north.

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These border trails, in virtue of being drawn through virtual space are all wonderfully wet, rocky, and rooty, unlike other trails which are selected for good drainage and mild grades.

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Dancing across the border, we end the day in Poland and make use of a small shelter for dinner.

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Blueberries are everywhere above about 2500 ft. Pine forests alternate with tall beech forests, all are new growth. Many old photos show logged landscapes, and even an ecosystem challenged by the early industrial era and a stifling atmosphere from local industries.

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Unable to procure alcohol for cooking in Liberec, our first coffee outside is made over a small fire of pine.

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To provide the best bikepacking hospitality I know how, my framebag is stuffed to the gills with treats. Over the course of our first three days of riding, I continue pulling out delicacies from Liberec.

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The Jizera Mountains northeast of Liberec are reforested with pine, mostly, with rounded peaks topping out around 3500ft.

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Once we go down, I tell Malcolm and Abe, we are going to climb that distant ridge. Day two included no less climbing than day one.

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An old mine is found along the CZ-PL border.

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Keeping to a strict diet of soup, beer, and sausages, we stop into a Polish eatery at one road crossing.

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One of my clever route innovations, resulting from taking a wrong turn and seeing another connection on the GPS. Note, it is better to go back and follow the route. My frame is still stained with blueberry.

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But as a reward, every time we hit the top of a mountain we find a mountain house serving hot food and cold beer.

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And every time we drop to town resources are plentiful and free wifi is common. This is what social media looks like. #optoutside

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Then begins the next big climb. Over the first couple of days the climbs seem to get bigger and bigger. The total elevation gain isn’t massive, but some roads and trails take relentlessly steep routes out of town.

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Climbing through a ski area, with signed DH mountain bike trails.

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This was one of our nicest evenings on the bike, climbing out of Špindlerův Mlýn to camp at 4200ft for the night.

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Once again we find a shelter to call home for the night.

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I don’t go anywhere without a bag of cabbage.

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While Abe and i are both carrying small pots, Malcolm selected not to bring a vessel for his short trip. The reasoning is sound, but we constantly had to find creative ways to serve three people with two dishes,without fighting over a pot of food like dogs.

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I made Malcolm an ultralight coffee mug.

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Our ride that morning was a little more of my creative routefinding. Once we topped out at 4400ft, I wanted to descend by some other means than a gravel road. We found a winter ski trail. It started off rideable, and turned into a wet hillside traverse before finally clearing toward the end.

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As Abe would say, it was a “spicy” descent.

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Yep, you guessed it. Another mountain house.

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Of course, another beer. This is the local Krkonoše beer from Trutnov.

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Our route continues to nudge the Polish border, passing through some of the highest mountains in Czechia. For this reason, the hills are alive with people walking, riding, and simply being outside. When not being active outdoors, people are eating and drinking beer en plein air. The mountain houses that we frequent are a mix of private guesthouses with beer gardens and restaurants, while a few on the mountaintops are operated or at least leased by the KČT, or the Czech Hiking Club. Many in Poland will be operated by the PTTK, or the equivalent hiking organization in that country.

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As we exit the national parks and the more popular touristic regions, we begin to see a less polished version of Czech and Polish life. It reminds me where we are going in rural Poland, and Ukraine.

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Finally, passing through small communities we find an abundance of plum trees. I’d been promising this to Abe and Malcolm and until now, I would have been lying. Then we happened upon more plums than we could eat. The best fruits are found on the ground, recently separated from the tree and ripened in the sun.

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These smaller varieties of yellow and red plums are some of the best. Many of the larger more typical plums are not quite as plump and sweet this year. I suspect a hot dry summer is to blame, despite recent moisture.

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Of all the signage we pass, this excites me greatly, The upper symbol is the radiant sun of the Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain. From all over Europe you can connect to routes leading to the same place. I was excited to see a sign indicating the terminus of the route over 3000km away.

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We pass the famed sandstone formations of Adršpach. So many of these towns and places are familiar to me, as our route in 2013 wound through some of the same country.

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The beauty of following a prescribed route is that you can release ourself of the responsibility of route design, and simply follow a concept through space. And then, just pedal and open your eyes. You’ll see what you see, you will meet people, you will eat things.

Then you might take a wrong turn and be too proud to turn around and the GPS says there is a way through and now three guys are carrying their bikes through a forest of sandstone towers.

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My fault. Glad you both enjoyed the scenery.

Some of the older trail signs appear to be hand painted. This one dates from 1993, the year that Czech Republic and Slovakia split.

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The lower yellow sign, which denote cycling routes, warns of a “dangerous downhill:. We never got the warning that it was a strenuous uphill.

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Border monuments are painted red and white, with survey markings or coordinates on two sides, and the first letter of each country listed on the other two faces. The other side has a large P, this side a prominent C, yet a faint ČS reminds us of the former Czechoslovakia.

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Polish cycling routes are signed with bicycles, and as you trend further east, cycling routes get more and more “rustic”.

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If you love maps, you’ll love traveling in this country as every major trail junction provides a map of some kind. Often, several maps are provided highlighting cycling routes, hiking routes, topography, national park boundaries and touristic features.

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If you are ever unsure of where you are, look for the point on the map without paint. Hundreds of fingers have worn away the color.

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Weekends can be very busy.

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A series of bunkers dating to around 1938 line the modern Czech-German and Czech-Polish borders. In either case, the enemy was the same— the Third Reich.

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While thousands of small bunkers form a line in the mountains, a series of larger bunkers served as logistical bases and as more substantial armaments against the enemy.

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A groundskeeper invites us in for a tour.

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This communication device is made in Czechoslovakia.

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This gun was made in Venezuela.

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This truck is Russian.

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I was intrigued to learn that there is a gauge to signal how much maslo, or butter is available. Does the word also mean oil, as in motor oil?

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More traffic on the trail.

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Bunkers, everywhere in these mountains.

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Eventually our route follows a small river and we find time to rinse our clothing after a sweaty week.

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Rolling into town on Saturday afternoon we are surprised to find the store closed at 3PM. We seem to have missed our chance to buy food for the weekend. Plan B is to eat at mountain guesthouses and small town eateries. On our first night we find an authentic Italian pizzeria in a small city.

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And roll out of town at dark.

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Plugging a battery into my new Sinewave Cycles Beacon dynamo light provides full light power even as slow speeds, or when stopped. This is perfect when searching for a campsite in the dark. On this warm, dry evening Abe and I lay out under the stars. Within a couple hours, heat lightning surrounds us. Enchanted with the feeling of a warm breeze and distant lightning, I go back to sleep. The next time I wake up it is pouring rain. We both scramble to erect our tents; I quickly insert my sleeping bag and other sensitive items into the tent body before installing the poles and stakes. I manage to keep things dry, mostly.

Buckets of rain fall for hours.

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By morning, the wet earth is steaming and calm. Since losing a few hours of sleep, we are both slow to get moving in the morning.

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The free laundry service is much appreciated. The scorpion underwear are courtesy of the Asian markets on the CZ-DE border.

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Abe packs up that morning, finding a place for all of his things. He is riding an Advocate Cycles Hayduke, which is only a few weeks old to him. After a couple days of riding he sent some equipment home with Malcolm, so he has established his kit for the season. Everything now has a place, packing becomes a ritual.

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Signs. So many signs.

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Another quick spin up to 4000 ft. Finally, after a week with a lot of climbing, our legs and lungs are catching up.

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Alas, there is food and beer at the top.

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Our recovery is due in great part to a healthy diet of potato knedliky, meat, cabbage, and beer. 

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Now out of the mountains, we pause for a moment in Opava before riding across the border to the Main Beskid Trail in Poland. I have about 600 miles of this route behind me, with around 300 miles of the Beskid trail to the edge of Ukraine. One way or another, the 1000 Miles Adventure continues. Ukraine is a whole other adventure.

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A Week on the 1000 Miles Adventure, Czechia

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In 2016, the Czech government released a more palatable English language name for their country, replacing the cumbersome [the] “Czech Republic” with Czechia. Modern sources such as Google Maps and The US Department of State now prefer the name Czechia.

I know I’m snoring when I wake up abruptly and don’t know what woke me. This was the case in a small hiking shelter on the Czech-German border. The day began with a battleship grey sky and even though it wasn’t raining, the previous night’s dew would not dry from either the inside or the outside of my tent as I prepared myself in the morning. I reluctantly packed up the wet parcel and stuffed it into my seatbag. I get an incomplete feeling when packing wet tents and soiled clothing and electronics with dead batteries. I knew the rain was coming that day. Crossing the Elbe River the day before dropped me into the largest city I’d seen since Prague— Dĕčín— where I was able to source a weather forecast for the coming days from the wifi network at the public library along the river. I check email, I check the weather, I buy pastries, I buy beer, and I’m riding north out of town along the Elbe River bike path. Some of my favorite bike touring days include these in-and-out of town resupply blitzes, bounded my dirt and mud on both sides. The cashier at the grocery store has no idea why I’m sweating and dirty, nor why I’m buying so much cheese and beer.

My tires track a damp, rooty trail along the border. In fact, the trail is the border and with exactness the signed trail follows a series of knee-high concrete structures painted red and white, with coordinates painted on two sides and the letters C and D on opposing sides, signaling Czechia and Deutschland. Unlike most of the forest access roads or forgotten doubletrack corridors of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, this is physical, technical riding. These roots would be tough in dry weather; in wet weather it is a game of Russian roulette. I say that because I know how quickly serious injuries happen. Lael fell off a narrow wooden bridge this summer while riding and cracked several ribs. My friend Sue, whom we solicited from the Baja Divide group start to work in Alaska with us at The Bicycle Shop this summer, stepped off a mountain bike trail to allow downhill traffic to pass, anchoring her foot in a mess of logs and toppling to one side. She broke her leg in three places. All I want to do is finish the day with all of my faculties, but all I want to do is to have fun.

I rest in a small wooden hiking shelter, enclosed on all sides save for an open window and doorway facing the trail. There, I prepare a meal of noodles and klobása, and finish with a poppyseed koláč and a cup of coffee before laying down on the wooden bench to rest.

Awake, I rub my eyes and peel away cobwebs. I slowly finish climbing the gentle grade to a high point, my heart beating not much more than resting rate, and point the bike downhill on these same wet, rooty trails. Now, with sugar and caffeine and twenty minutes of rest, my ride is one of complete concentration. Focus and passion are irreplaceable elements when riding. 

Following a busy summer of work, a busy week of travel to California for QBP’s Saddledrive event, and a couple days of riding and planning in Central California before two and a half days of plane travel via Oakland and Stockholm and Prague to the far western border of the Czech Republic by train, I am tired. I disembark the train in Cheb and ride straight out of town along a river, camping next to a dammed lake for the night. I set up my Tarptent Rainbow for the first time as men in olive green fishing tents line the far shores. Rainclouds make good on their promise and I slip into the lake to wash away the greasy feeling of two days of travel before putting on clean woolen clothes for the last time in a while.

That first night out of town is the first good night of sleep I remember since the end of March. But the next morning, I rise and pack and ride and eat and ride and don’t stop until sundown. For the next 7 days, I keep the same pattern along a small magenta line on my GPS. By the end of the week, I can sense the need to take some time. Reluctant, but operating on an informed autopilot, I descend to Liberec and peck around town until I find a technical college that rents dorm rooms for a good price. For less than $15 a night, I have a large room with windows, two beds, three desks, and a shared kitchen and bath (with the other unoccupied private room). For four days, this is my home. The freedom of walking around in my underwear while cooking knedlíky and klobása and kysané zelí; sitting down at the computer with a beer to write, and revise, and edit— these things remind me what it means to have my own space, they remind me what I have been missing for much of the last ten years while traveling. To most everyone else in America, having a kitchen and a desk and privacy is taken for granted.  

The first week of riding along the 1000 Miles Adventure route is much like I expected, and that’s why I traveled here. I’ve only ridden some of the route in the past, near the Nizké Tatry National Park in Slovakia, but after two summers of riding footpaths and old roads in Europe I had a strong sense of what to expect. Even so, the borderlands between Czechia and Germany are more consistently wooded than I realized. This land, most of it managed for public recreation as well as timber industries, is extremely well signed with walking routes, cycling routes, and ski routes in every direction. Large public maps and signposts, covered picnic tables, and winter shelters abound in these forests. Towns are often no more than several hours apart by bicycle. The result is a fun and civilized route through an historic land with abundant natural space and people who love being active outdoors. With just over a quarter of the route behind me, I look forward to seeing how the country and the culture changes toward the east. I’ve only just left the German border behind in trade for the Polish border. Eventually, the route enters Slovakia and finishes at the border of Ukraine. 

The way I most often describe European bikepacking holds true on the 1000 Miles Adventure. Ride out of town on a narrow lane past some homes with fruit trees overhanging the road, ride through a farm field, into a forest, over a small rounded mountain on doubletrack and singletrack, back down into a farm field, past some houses, and through the center of town past a church and a store and a public space. In the first 250 miles, that is the general pattern. A number of small ski resorts are found along the route, a region of peat bogs and ponds are found in the mountains feeding brown tannic streams, and an area of towering sandstone cliffs and rock spires define a part of the route bounded by the Bohemian Switzerland National Park (Národní Park České Švýcarsko). Amongst the familiar, there are daily surprises.

My friend Abe arrives from Anchorage tomorrow to join me. We hadn’t seen each other all summer until he contacted me looking for a bike to go on a trip. I managed to get my hands on an Advocate Cycles Hayduke for him, and offered my carbon 27.5+ Knight Composites dynamo wheelset since I wasn’t using it. He had loose plans to travel to Central Asia, but once I got talking about Eastern Europe, his ears perked up. It might just be my passion for sausage and sauerkraut and beer that did it, but a couple of weeks later he bought a ticket to Prague. Abe and his friend Malcolm land in Prague tonight and will take the train to Liberec in the morning. We’ll roll out of town on Tuesday afternoon and head straight for the hills, riding into the Jizera Mountains followed by Krkonoše National Park.

For smaller portions, follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman

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 My first few pedal strokes on the 1000 Miles Adventure route are promising. 

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The first few towns and classic European communities: stately city center, old world city structure, a few small stores, an amateur metal rock festival in progress…

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Some small towns in these mountains have small ski areas to match, operating one or two very old lifts, most often no more than 100-200 vertical feet. Cycling is also popular in these parts in the summer. Ortlieb is pushing the new sport of “bikepacking”! 

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Singletrack along railroad tracks.

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Forest access roads and singletrack to a popular rocky outcropping atop a local mountain.

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A developed spring, signage, and a covered picnic shelter.

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The first few days are a little wet, but I never get as thoroughly soaked as I did in Prague on my short ride from the airport to the train station. Suited for adventure, I’m running a Garmin eTrex 20 and an iPhone 5 for navigation, with a Sinewave Cycles Beacon headlight on the bars, which serves up to about 750 lumens at night or USB charging during the day.

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Tailwinds and an old railroad grade on a sunny afternoon make you want to bunny hop every mud puddle at 20 miles per hour.

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But when the rain comes back these ski shelters prove extremely useful, not that I mind a night in a tent, but this provides better ventilation.

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Failing to pack a utensil, I spend the first few days cooking and eating with a stick, until I upgrade to a plastic fork from a market, and finally a stamped steel spoon from an Asian discount store on the Czech-German border.

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Alcohol for cooking is easy to find at many gas stations in Czechia.

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Further infrastructure exists in these mountains, and I know I will find more in some of the higher mountains which are most popular with hikers and cyclists. On this morning, I happen upon a small woodland dwelling which houses a cafe. For $5 USD I order traditional sausage with a slice of rye bread, a beer, and a piece of poppyseed cake. Mustard and horseradish are on hand.

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Blueberries are in season up high.

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Apples are everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

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Plums. Some are still not ripe, yet some of the smaller yellow and red varieties are nearly past prime and are sweet as jam.

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Blackberries and raspberries, this particular hedge forming the border between Poland and Czechia.

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Rose hips add color to the thicket alongside many tracks on the route. 

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These purple thistles are common, and a sign of the waning summer season.

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Fireweed tells the same story as it turns to cotton.

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Trail markers and maps and signs are everywhere. The first time I travelled across Europe by bike it was without GPS, relying only on signed routes, posted maps, and some free local maps available from tourist centers. It is easier with the GPS, but there is beauty in looking at the outside world in search of guidance, rather than staring down at a device.

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Mostly, I navigate using basemaps on the Garmin eTrex 20 downloaded from openmtbmap.org, and Open Cycle Maps on the Gaia app on the iPhone. It helps to have something I can use to quickly search for new routing, check weather, or find an address in a city, even though the iPhone is wifi only. I use a simple flip phone back in the States, which I’ve left behind.

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The roads and trails along the 1000 Miles Adventure are varied, greatly varied. One of the things I love most about bikepacking in Europe is how often the scenery and the trail surface and the signage changes. Sometimes it seems like more of a scavenger hunt than a prolonged bike ride, which is a nice distraction for anyone who thinks staring a 50 mile bike ride in the face is daunting. Just pepper the experience with a treasure hunt and regular beer and pastry stops— that should make bikepacking fun for anyone!

A classic forest road.

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Rocky footpath.

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Faint farm tracks.

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Psychedelic bike path along the Elbe River.

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So many dreamy forest roads.

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A ferry from Germany back to Czechia. I love a bike route with a boat ride.

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Climbing out of town under an old ski lift, still in use in winter.

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Dropping into town.

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Back to pavement.

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Into the city to look around and resupply.

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Free wifi at the library. There is so much free wifi in Czechia, it would make for a simple working vacation destination.

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Back out of town.

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Up and over another mountain.

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To see what might be hiding at the top. An old stone tower, a restaurant with a beer garden, communication towers, an old bunker. In fact, just around the corner is a mountain hut with wifi and food and beer.

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Finished with a little night riding by the light of my Beacon.

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To wake up wherever you wake up. The world looks much different in the morning after selecting camp in the dark.

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Dropping into town means it is time to resupply. With the frequency that you encounter towns along the route, you never need more than a day of food. You could easily ride from town to town on an unloaded bike if you wanted to eat and sleep at established services.

In the countryside it is still common for people to leave their children outside the store unattended, and their bikes unlocked.

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My everyday diet includes sausage, cheese, vegetables, and the ubiquitous crusty white bread rolls that can be found at any store. Fruit often comes ripe off the tree. Czech pilsener is an essential part of hydration. I can’t read the labels, but I’m pretty sure they recommend one every four hours.

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Coffee and poppyseed pastry offer a regular afternoon diversion, along with a nap.

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My only meal in a restaurant thus far has been at a rural train station. I don’t know what community was served by this station as there were no houses or people around, but the most wonderful smell of cooked onions and dough was coming from one end of the station. I decided at that moment that I would sit down for my first restaurant meal in the country.

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———-

I could keep living like this for a while. Fingers crossed that the summer sticks around.

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The Deep Greens of August, Czech Republic

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Summer, I know where you are going. I’m coming with you.

I’ve arrived a month too late. The leaves are as deep green as they get before turning other colors and dying. The raspberries are few but those little succulent shriveled fruits hiding behind the furthest leaves. The purple thistle is tall and strong, the nettles aren’t stinging, the spruce tips are sharp and hard and ready for winter. The fireweed has turned to cotton. There are reasons to love August. Blueberries populate hillsides up high and there are some plums to be found, ripe as jam. Apples are in high season, but for a fruit that keeps so well year round, it is hard to be excited about apples. If I hadn’t been born in August I’d be more in love with late June and July, and March and April, and in some places, October is a brilliant moment on the path to winter.

But I was born in August and every year I remember looking forward to my birthday with anticipation, only for it to pass as quickly as any other day. I’d look forward to Christmas and snow, and the end of the school year and the beginning of the next school year. The passage of time is accelerated by anticipation, only to realize that I’m almost 32 and I’d better slow down. And I thought I was still eight years old.

These days— these last three days since arriving in Czech— have felt like forever. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow because today is alright and tomorrow is something of the same and there is no reason to run faster than the clock. In fact, if I could slow the summer to half-time I would. When traveling without a destination, today seems as important as the next and the days last as long as they are. The pace of these last three days are as close as I’ll get to putting the summer on hold. For that, I have another solution. Seasonal migration.

I regret some of my summer in Alaska. Even though the sun is out and the days last all night, I spent the last four months inside working. I spent almost every single day working. I only went swimming once, even though Anchorage isn’t known for hot summers or swimming, it doesn’t feel quite right to call it summer without swimming. To show for my time I worked hard and made money. I respect the opportunity to do this, and I respect the freedom that comes from it, but for four months I saw the inside of one building and thought about one thing only— bikes, bikes, bikes. However, the real reason for regret is that I came out of the summer with less than I started. Lael and I arrived this spring from Baja with the story of a successful winter on the Baja Divide with hundreds of riders, with the success of her FKT ride, and with a future. I hurriedly left Anchorage a week ago, alone. By some twisted miracle, Lael has gone her own direction without me and I’ll never understand it. She’s found someone else and I now realize something very personal about the perceived passage of time. Nearly eleven years of my life— most of which we lived at a vigorous pace where every hour is saturated in new experiences– seem to have vaporized.

I’ve been at this puzzle for over a month now and finally, I’m coming out of the dark. I did the only thing I knew how to do to protect myself, I made a plan to get on my bike and ride. Leaving Anchorage was the first step. Arriving in Eastern Europe is the second step. Beyond that, I’m hoping to ride and slow the summer to wring the most out of it. And then, I’ll go south, to the Balkans and Albania, to the Middle East and Northern Africa. I’ll migrate the same way I’ve done for years, the same way I’ve ridden through the Rockies and into the Southwest and into Mexico.

This blog has been scarce since spring of 2015, after our travels in Israel. Life got increasingly busy with Lael’s racing, work, travel, and the Baja Divide. But this story will continue. In the last few years personal blogs have gone from being commonplace to rare, as micro-media like Instagram and Facebook take over. But I still like to write and I hope to enter my second decade of bicycle travel with the goal to continue sharing information and experiences, honestly and for free. I’m hoping to breath life back into this crackly AM radio station. Thanks for listening. For someone with nowhere to call home, the community of people in this place is the nearest I have to a home sometimes.

Incidentally, I started this blog the second day after leaving Annapolis, Maryland in 2011. At that time, Lael sat me down and told me that she didn’t love me anymore. I pleaded and stewed for a few days. Then, I ordered a mapset of the Great Divide Route and a book about the Arizona Trail. Less than two weeks later I was riding out of town on my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra, the beginning of a 7000 mile journey across North America and the Great Divide Route. Six years later, I’m staring at the same open road.

Arriving in Prague three days ago, I built my bike outside of the airport in barely 30 minutes. I loaded local maps on Gaia and set off into the rain for the city center and the main train station. I wrung out my socks before entering the terminal. Inside, I purchased a ticket to Cheb and waited for the platform to be listed next to my train. Several other cyclists were on board and we all shared a seating cabin near the bikes. One was riding a carbon XC mountain bike, clearly leaving the city for a weekend race. Two riders were on road bikes. Later, while I was asleep, a young woman boarded the train and all of the other riders had departed. I learned that she was looking forward to two weeks in the mountains to teach Czech language classes to Germans students. There, she would enjoy some cycling in her free time. Upon learning of my plans— great thanks to her excellent English— she remarked that two of her friends had completed the 1000 Miles Adventure route a few years ago. The bicycle car on a Czech train is a great welcome to the country.

From Alaska to California to Stockholm to Prague, I’ve since transported myself to the far western edge of the Czech Republic, at the border of Germany, where I begin following a digital line on my GPS. The 1000 Miles Adventure is an annual bikepacking race which travels from the German border, across Czech and Slovakia, to the Ukrainian border. I’m not certain I will follow the entire route, as there are some outstanding hiking trails in southern Poland as well. In either case, I have an approximate roadmap for the coming months. My only real goal is to eventually spend some time in Ukraine before turning south for the season. Ukraine, like August, is my place.

———-

I love Eastern Europe. It is exciting and real. This time of year the countryside is dripping with ripe plums, blueberries are found on the mountaintop polonina, apples and pears are on the way, mushrooms are hiding in the forest, and food is being stored in pantries and root cellars in every home. The mountains are big and inviting, more like the old rounded mountains of the east coast where I grew up. Old roads and trails line the ridges, along former boundaries now forgotten by the open borders of the European Union. In Poland, the PKKT national hiking club maintains a system of huts atop the larger mountains which serve hot food, fermented dairy, and cold beer. Anything east of Germany is exciting to me, but crossing east of Poland and east of Slovakia into Ukraine is another layer. Ukraine is decrepit, but lively, and stands one step closer to the Russian sphere of influence and one step further from the German. There is sadness there, but once you enter into a home and the curtains are drawn and the table fills with food from edge to edge, smiling faces come out of hiding. Food, after religion and family, is the most important thing to Ukrainians.

The roads have been failing in Ukraine for 25 years, jobs and factories are since gone and the economy is weak while Russia continues to pound down doors in this part of the world. Yet some of the new generation of Ukrainians are willing to risk being hopeful. The old generation doesn’t really know what to do in these post-Soviet times, except to keep living. That’s mostly what they did before the Soviet Union collapsed anyway. I don’t know if I would care much about Ukraine, or for Ukraine, if this wasn’t also my home. But it is, and even though I wasn’t born here much of my childhood was spent learning about the country the way that my grandparents remembered it before the war. My grandmother, a recent widow, emigrated from Ukraine in 1941 with an 18 month old daughter. My grandfather wound his way through Europe as a soldier and somehow connected Italy and the United States. Nobody really wants to remember these things.

I’d like to revisit the Balkans. Albania in particular stands out in my memory, but I know that going new places is also worth it, always. However, revisiting Ukraine and Albania will be like turning the page to the second chapter of a novel I picked up a while back. I know the characters, I know the setting, I know the pace and the language, but I still don’t know where the story is going. Come winter, I’m hoping to migrate further towards the equator. North Africa and the Middle East come to mind. It has been my dream for the last 9 years to travel by bike. That is still true.

———-

Revisit my resource of European Bikepacking Routes, which I hope to update with new information this season. For further reading, check out my article from Bicycle Times Issue #30, titled “Bikepacking Europe: North Sea to the Black Sea”.

Bunyan Velo, Issue #4 also features two outstanding stories from Eastern Europe: Lael (page 72) writes a lovely piece about our time in Czech Republic called “Červenec in Czech”, and Przemek (page 148) writes “I’m Happy and I’m Riding and a 1,2,3, 4…” about our shared time in Ukraine. Bunyan Velo, Issue #3 also features my story “Chasing Red and White” about the newfound possibilities of bikepacking in Europe.

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More from the 1000 Miles Adventure coming soon!

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European Bikepacking Routes

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Two years ago I wondered about bikepacking routes in Europe.  After eight months of riding, researching, and blogging from Amsterdam to Sevastapol to Athens, this resource is the culmination of our efforts.  Europe is a great place to explore by bike, off-pavement, and self-supported.  Eat great food, visit fascinating cultural and historical places, and learn new languages, in between bike rides.  In Europe, there are rides and routes for every interest and skill level.  Use the search function or the archives on this page to learn more about our rides in Europe through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Czech, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Greece.  Read more about our adventures across Europe in the Bicycle Times article Bikepacking Europe: North Sea to the Black Sea.

This is an incomplete list of European bikepacking routes.  These routes are either mapped, signed, and/or available as GPS tracks.  Many routes originate as self-supported off-pavement endurance races, multi-day stage races, or challenging routes for solo ITT.  Some are government tourism projects.  Others are the creation of avid riders or cycling organizations to promote the riding in their home country.  Lastly, some routes suggested here are repurposed walking routes, which may be done in sections or as a whole.  One route is currently planned, but is incomplete.  Additional rouetplanning resources include online retailers of maps and guides, or digital trail-finder resources.  The basic concept of this project is to awaken the world to the breadth of bikepacking possibilities in Europe, despite the lack of a single superstar route such as the Great Divide Route, Colorado Trail, or the Arizona Trail.  Bikepacking is a global phenomena, born of the passion to ride somewhere, off the beaten path, self-supported.

Use these links as a springboard to do your own research and riding.  Some routes may be easy with significant paved sections, non-technical terrain, and uncomplicated logistics.  Others are extremely challenging, with a large component of hike-a-bike.

Any assistance to improve the list is welcomed, including relevant comments about any of the listed routes and new route suggestions with links.  When possible the routes are linked to the most informative or relevant webpage, which most often originates from the route organizer or creator.  In a few cases, routes are listed without an official webpage or an official GPS route, such as The Red Trail in Poland, but the route is known to exist on the ground, is signed, and is indicated on Compass brand maps (and others).  To keep this listing simple I have chosen not to indicate the distance, difficulty, or source of route guidance (map, GPS, signs).  These features may come in the future, and if anyone wishes to host this list in further detail, contact me directly.  Start dreaming and get riding!

Please use the comment form below and check back in the future as this page develops.  Special assistance is needed to include routes from many countries, including: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary (The Countrywide Blue Tour?), Serbia, Kosovo, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belorus, Russia, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.  Israel is not in Europe, but is included due to a growing bikepacking scene.  Surely, there are many more routes in the countries listed.  Tell your friends.  Share it online.

Spain: TransAndalusTranspirinaicaTransiberia, Camino de Santiago, Camino del Norte, Transcantábrica, Via de la Plata, Camino del Cid; GR 48, Transnevada.   Many Spanish route maps and guidebooks available from labiciteca.com.

Portugal: Rota Vicentina, Via Algarviana

France: Traversée du Massif Vosgien, Traversée du Jura (maps), Traversée du Massif Central, GR5/E2 trail; VTTrack.fr for interactive MTB trail map of France

Belgium: GR5/E2 walking trail (general info); also, some images and info about the section in the Ardennes Mountains

Germany: GST: Grenzsteintrophy

UK: Bearbones 200England-Wales-EnglandLakeland 200, Pennine Bridleway, Ridgeway Double, South Downs Double, Coast to Coast, Trans Cambrian, Welsh Coast to CoastDevon Coast to Coast (Westcountry Way).  All routes and links thanks to selfsupportedUK.net.

Scotland: Scotland Coast to Coast, Highland Trail 550, West Highland Way, Cairngorms Loop

Italy: Italy Coast to CoastTuscany TrailSan Remo-Monte CarloMyLand Non-Stop (Sardinia), Alto Adige-Südtirol Extreme Bike TrailDolomiti TrailItalia TransmountainsThe Fat River (fatbike route), Transardinia.  Most routes courtesy of bikepacking.it.

Switzerland: Navad 1000National TrailsAlpine Bike #1Panorama Bike #2Jura Bike #3; Alpencross; National website for Mountainbiking in Switzerland

Sweden: Kungsleden

Poland: The Red Trail (Sudecki and Beskidzka, basic info only).  Compass brand maps show all hiking trails and cycling routes, including the long-distance red trails.  Note, the red trail is not a single trail across Poland, but a series of trails with lesser trails marked with painted blazes of other colors.  There is a route most of the way across the country E-W, mostly along red trails.

Czech/Slovakia: 1000 Miles Adventure

Croatia: Adriatic Crest

Montenegro: Top Biking Trail 3: Eastern Enchantment

Greece: Bike Odyssey

Israel: Holyland Bikepacking Challenge, Israel National Bike Trail (in progress), Israel National Trail (hiking)

Other resources: Footpaths provide the basis for many routes in Europe, most of which have developed over the past century.  Generally, these routes allow bicycles, with local exclusions, but they do not exclusively travel singletrack trails across wild lands and will pass towns, farmland, and paved sections.  The European Rambler’s Association (ERA) aims to complete a long-distance international trail system of footpaths throughout Europe, with numbered routes from E1-E12 currently in various phases of completion.  Most routes are assembled from pre-existing local and national trails. Each country may provide more detailed resources in the native tongue via dedicated websites or guides about national trail systems, such as the GR5 listed in France and Belgium, above.  Most often, printed regional trail maps can be found at local touristic centers, and commercial maps and guides may also be available.  Detailed roadmaps are also suitable for broad-scale navigation, and often show more detail than typical road maps in the USA.

Also worth mentioning is the EuroVelo network of cycling routes, fashioned much like the ERA, with international cross-continental routes numbered 1-12 in various stages of completion.  EuroVelo routes are generally ridable on a trekking bike, hybrid, or rigid mountain bike, and in some places are not recommended for a tire less than about 40mm.  Check out the EuroVelo6for the popular route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea.

If you wish to submit a route, please provide a link to the best source(s) of information and a brief description of your experience on that route, if any.  To qualify a multi-day off-pavement route for this listing, consider that it must be documented in detail, like the routes listed on Pedaling Nowhere-Routes or Bikepacking.net.

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Poland, The Red Trail

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Czech, Sumava National Park

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Ukraine, Polonina Borzhava

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France, Traversée du Massif Vosgien, Château Bernstein

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Ukraine

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Serbia

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Slovakia, 1000 Miles Adventure

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Greece, Bike Odyssey

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France, TMV

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Greece, Bike Odyssey

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Luxembourg, GR5/E2 trail

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Belgium, GR5/E2 trail

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Guidebooks for routes in Spain.

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Poland, The Red Trail: one of many PTTK resources for hikers and cyclists available in the mountains, often serving hot food and cold beer.

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Maps in a Slovakian supermarket.

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Romanian rail, Serbian sun, Montenegran mountains

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Above:  Sunny shades of Serbia.  Serbia is a big surprise, as we didn’t have any expectations at all.  

Since parting ways with my family, we’ve returned to our bikes in the Ukrainian Karpaty.  We followed the route from Kolochava to Yst Chorna, again.  It is shown as a road on the map, but it is more of a stream for about half of that distance.  We continue along forest tracks and singletrack to Yasinya.  To our south, the road crosses through the town of Rakhiv and into Romania,  Or, we can climb up the Chornahora Massif, possibly ride or walk up to the highest peak in Ukraine– Hoverla– and continue further east to cross into Romania elsewhere.  However, our plans with Przemek are looming, and the weather is constantly cold and rainy, at least about every other day.  It may not be the best time of year to be exploring the Romanian highlands.  Not sure if Saška would like to be cold and wet on her first bike tour.  Not sure if I want to be cold and wet.  Lael certainly doesn’t.  Weather predictions in the Balkans are promising– 30C and sunny everyday.  Przemek and Saška are coming from Slovenia.  He asks, “Can you be in Podgorica on the 5th”?

Sure!

Lael and I hurry to figure out where Podgorica is.  Ah, Montenegro.  Sounds nice.

We ride into Romania at sunset, and seek an inexpensive hotel in the center of town.  The first night in a new country is exciting.  Which currency do they use?  How much will we pay for a beer, and a loaf of bread?  It surely isn’t as cheap as Ukraine, although the facilities are nicer.  Immediately, we notice the roads are much nicer (smoother, but more traffic).  The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad.  Once-paved roads are actually worse than many dirt roads, in this country or elsewhere.  Low-traffic volumes are the reward.

Romania is welcoming.  The language is different, like Italian or French spoken through a 30% filter of Ukrainian, to my ears.  Espresso is omnipresent, and very good.  The Italians have left their mark on this part of Europe.  We will find more of this further south, and west.  Romanians use the Leu as currency.  Slovakia uses the Euro.   Both Czech and Poland have been EU members as long as Slovakia, yet they do not use the Euro.  Turns out, Montenegro uses the Euro as well, and they aren’t even part of the EU yet.  Previously they had used the Deutsche Mark in place of the unstable Serbian Dinar.  Montenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia in 2006.  There is a lot of history to learn for this part of the world.  We habitually load gargantuan Wikipedia articles about each country (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia), or past country (Yugoslavia), or soon-to-be independent country (Kosovo), and read them offline in the tent.   

Romania

Romania, as seen from across the border in Ukraine. To some, the grass is a little greener over there.

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The next day, we purchase train tickets.  The afternoon allows me to service my bottom bracket, which has begun to creak.  Shimano warns, “Do Not Disassemble”.  I recommend to anyone wishing to prepare their bottom bracket for lots of muck and rain to do this before it makes noise.   Carefully remove the plastic cover, and the rubberized bearing seal.  Flush with lightweight lube, and pack with as much grease as possible.  

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The Shimano crank design is almost free of specialty crank tools.  Unfortunately, the non-drive side utilizes a bearing preload which demands a special star-shaped tool.  In this case, a light tap with a hammer and a Ukrainian coin set the bearing preload just right.

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The Romanian train promises to be comfortable, as the air is cool and the cabin is only at quarter capacity leaving the station.  We’re sad not to spend the time that Romania requires, but this train ride will serve as a small consolation, and a basic reconnaissance mission.  We’ll be back someday, armed with more summer.

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The bikes cost us about $15 each on the train.  There isn’t an official policy or place for the bikes, although the train attendants are very kind and flexible, much unlike the Soviet-era attitudes aboard the Ukrainian railways.  Someone is transporting a large sack of flour on the train.

The 14 hour train costs about $15 per seat, plus the bikes.  Not a bad way to get across the country.  All is well until a woman enters our cabin of eight seats.  Each cabin is only ticketed for a maximum of about four passengers, as the train is quite empty.  She argues that I am in her seat.  I show her our tickets, the attendant ensures that yes, I am in her seat, although he has moved us to this cabin to be near our bikes.  She’s not happy, and the remaining twelve hours are miserable.  I’ll almost never say it, but is was really uncomfortable.  First, she closes the only window and the door to the cabin.  Then, she eats some fragrant fried food.  Finally she inspects us uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out who or what we were.  She argues with her husband.  Lastly, she lays down across three seats, stomach hanging out of her shirt, shoes off, looking at us.  Eventually, she is asleep and snoring.  At intervals, she stretches and rolls over and puts her feet up on the window.  There are some cookies, and more fried foods.  Then, two older Romanian men enter the cabin past midnight to claim their seats.  Now, there are six of us.  Five of us sit upright; she still claims three seats.  She snaps at the two men, who maintain conversational tone in the dark.  Their voices are calm, yet earnest, and it doesn’t bother me.  Incidentally, about an hour later, she begins texting on her cell phone.  The phone is set to full volume, beeping with each key stroke.  That bothers me.  Lael holds back a laugh.  Then I laugh, and she laughs, and the woman looks at us, realizing her mistake.  She lays down again, and falls asleep.

Eventually, the two men deboard the train in the early morning.  Lael stretches out on the remaining seats.  I find an empty cabin at about 4AM, and catch a few hours of sleep.  We arrive in Timisoara at 7AM, greasy and tired.  I glare one last time at the fried food text-messaging bossy lady, and take my things.  Lael suggests we could take another train further south.  I suggest we ride.    

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We exit the train station in Timisoara as all the businesses open for the day, and rain begins to fall.  This is a flat, fertile corner of Romania.  We’ll be in Serbia by the end of the day.

I’d never have chosen to visit this part of the country but we make a great day or it.  We stop in a small store at lunch, to take cover from the rain.  We order two beers and sit on the ground.  The patrons are half Roma gypsies, and half Romanian, split between two tables.  Everyone, at different intervals ask us questions in Romanian, French, German, and some Russian.  The one guy that claims to speak English is wasted, and really doesn’t speak English.  Still, he buys each of us a beer.  This is a poor town stuck near the border.  For a moment, I like being here.

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In fact, this border crossing is listed on the map and on my GPS, but is currently inactive.  We arrive at the abandoned post and ride into Serbia, looking for anyone who can officiate our crossing.  There is no one.  We return to Romania, to find an official border crossing.  We’d hate to be clocking time in the EU when we have in fact left the EU and are in Serbia.  Further, we’d hate to spend time talking to the police later on.

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Serbia

We arrive in Serbia at sunset (a pattern, it seems), and spot a small mound of mountains.  

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Vrŝac, at sunset.

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This is one of Serbia’s premier wine growing regions.  Serbia uses the Dinar as currency, which is valued at about 90 Dinar to the Dollar. 

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Vrŝac is a fantastic city.  

Lael and I have been carrying some things we’d like to send home.  I wander into the post office, which is very busy.  Instead, I leave some layers and a camera in the park.  

Sadly, the lens is scratched and the camera body has a mind of its own when the atmosphere claims more than 90% humidity.  Hopefully, someone in Serbia will appreciate it.  I can’t justify sending it home to gather dust, nor do I want to take pictures marred by a scratched lens.  After a year and over a thousand dollars of experimentation, I’m using the same camera and lens as last year.  It is simple, small, and inexpensive.

In the past year, the screen on my lightly used Olympus E-M5 died within a week, and I lost the external hardware to the EVF on a ride.  I scratched the lens of the Panasonic 12-35mm lens, probably beyond repair.  I broke the threaded plastic filter attachment in the same bike crash that killed my last E-P3 body.  The Olympus E-PM1 body which I left in the park has been a solid performer since I purchased it as my first camera just over two years ago.  This year, I’m planning to keep it simple and cheap.

I enjoy using the Olympus E-P3 body (newer one, as the last one broke), and the photographs from the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens are to my liking.  And when it rains or I want to put the camera away, it fits almost anywhere on the bike.  

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Serbia is full of sun, for us.

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We intersect the EuroVelo6 Route along the Danube River.  This route connects the Atlantic with the Black Sea.

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For about 30 miles, we ride hard packed dirt and gravel along the banks of the river.

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This French cyclist has ridden all the way from Dijon on the EuroVelo6.  He’ll finish through Bulgaria and Romania in the next few weeks.

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Serbia is another place we’d love to come back to visit.  Fruit grows everywhere, the people are friendly, and there are mountains in large doses to the south.  So many people speak English here.  They speak naturally, and transition quickly from Serbian.  I’m not sure how to explain the phenomena.  They also play a lot of basketball. 

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Everyone in this region is familiar with conflict.  Kosovo and Monenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia.  Albania has only been quiet for a short time, and bunker tourism is part of every visit to Albania, I hear.  Each of these countries was part of a failing Yugoslavia just 25 years ago.  A lot has changed in the Balkans.  A few countries are still not yet part of the EU.  

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Entering the mountains is refreshing.  For the most part, we chase paved miles en route to Podgorica.

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Each town posts recent death notices in public places, usually taped around a pole or a tree.

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Yugoslav-era apartment building are everywhere.  As long as you don’t find them ugly, they are fascinating.

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Mining and other industries appear to be healthy across Serbia.  This is a lot different than Ukraine, where almost every old industrial building is vacant and vandalized.

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We first encounter walking trails in Serbia along this dirt road climb.

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Further, we find signage for the walking routes and a biking route.  I do not yet have any insight into these routes, but they do exist.  While many small roads in the mountains are paved, many others are not. There are also thousands of miles of farm roads.  We only find basic road maps in our few days in Serbia.  Also, the Openmtbmap.org file that I was using on the GPS contains less detail than in other nearby countries.  In general, these maps are highly recommended as at least some map detail is available for almost every country.  A small donation to the project allows unlimited downloads.  I have downloaded the maps for Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. 

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Fruit is everywhere, especially blackberries and raspberries.  And as everywhere else in Eastern Europe, plums are in abundance.

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Potatoes.

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Cabbage.  Serbian fields are productive, another change from subsistence farming in Ukraine.

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Roadside springs are abundant on mountain roads.

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In the city, we find this awesome traffic model, scaled down for children on bicycles, rollerblades, and on foot.  This is a good use of schoolyard space.  

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Hot weather and cold water is how I hope to spend my summers.  It feels like we’re getting close, finally.

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We find camp for the night in a cemetery, for the first time, actually.

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The next morning, we pass through Guča, home to the world famous Guča Trumpet Festival.  This festival celebrates the style of Serbian trumpet found in regional brass bands.  I’ve seen one such band escorting a wedding party; the music is riotous.

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The written Serbian language is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.  My Ukrainian is more valuable here than in Romania, where our French-English-Ukrainian was more confusing than anything.  In many of these countries, people try to speak to us in German.  Younger people more often defer to English.

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The mountains!  With each pass, we climb higher and higher.  We climb to 2500ft.  Then 3000, 3500, 4000, and then over 4000ft.

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And at last, over 4000ft, we reach the border with Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Latinized Montenegran and Serbian.

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As we get close, the rain returns.  When the weather is good, I ignore the forecast.  I look for the first time in a week.  The computer calls for rain as far as we can see, in every direction of space and time.  Rain for weeks all up and down the Balkans.  At least it will be warm, as long as we are not chasing dirt roads up to 6000ft.

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Montenegro

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We continue our ride, intersecting lonely paved and dirt roads, and by chance, the largest canyon in Europe.  The Tara River Canyon claims to be up to 4300ft deep in places.  It makes for a spectacular descent from the rim.  A quiet paved road continues upstream in the canyon for about 20 miles.

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Where did that summer weather go?  Lael is still wearing her number from the Fireweed 400.

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We prepare a bounty for Przemek’s arrival.  We will meet him and Saška at the train station in a few days.  Local wormwood liquor is a good start.

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A local sign near the Biogradska Gora National Park indicates a 300km cycling route, for mountain bikes!  The route is signed, mapped, and English-language brochures are offered online.  A website dedicated to the “Top Biking Trail 3-Eastern Enchantment” provides all the information.  Maximum elevation is over 6000ft, maximum grade is 35%; mostly, I think it follows rideable dirt roads.  If the rain holds, we’ll include some of this into our route with Przemek and Saška.

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We descend from the mountain valleys at 3000ft, down towards Podgorica.  At 280ft elevation, the weather is much warmer and the skies are clearer.  If necessary, we’ll plan a route nearer to the coast to avoid the orographic effect of the mountains.  The tallest mountains in Montenegro and Albania are over 8000ft and 9000ft, respectively.  So close to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas (and the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas), they create their own weather.  

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Just 8 miles out of Podgorica, we find a secret riverside campsite.  The water is cold and clear, and finally, it isn’t raining.  It has been a wet ride since crossing from Serbia.

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We awake to some sun and blue skies, tentative as they may be.

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Plums replaced by figs, we’re close to the sea.  We are, effectively, in the Mediterranean.

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Saška and Przemek arrive tomorrow, for two weeks of adventure.  We don’t have a plan or an end destination.  Surely, we’re all looking for good riding, great camping, and if possible, some sun.  Lael, as a recovering Alaskan, is always looking for sun.

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Anyone live in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, or Greece?  We may be in the area over the next month.

Western Ukrainian snapshots; August 2014

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Images from our time in Western Ukraine.  This part of the country is characterized by Euro-Ukrainian cities such as Lviv, Uzhorod, and Ivano-Frankivsk, with roots also in Poland, Galicia, Czechoslovakia, Austria-Hungary, and more; a narrow swathe of the Carpathian Mountains, forested and crawling with people growing things and herding things and collecting things, and some tourists like ourselves; and a unique take on the state and future of the country, naturally.  Most of our time was spent in the mountains, and on either side of the mountains riding to and from Lviv and Uzhorod.  We spent a few days in transit to visit family in the southwest, or perhaps it may be called the south-central part of the county.  It is closer to Odessa and the Moldovian border than I realized.  Technically, this is all from the western half of the country, at the crossroads of our lives and Ukrainian life.  

The billboard reads, “My dad protects Ukraine! Are you ready?”  

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Lviv, Ukraine; August 18-19, 2014

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Following a few days at the hostel in Kolochava, and a few more days of riding, I finally received word from my mom that she was coming to visit us in Ukraine, again.  Last year, as we selected an eastward trajectory from France, we conspired to set a date and she bought a plane ticket to Ukraine.  We would meet just before my birthday.  We planned to visit her father’s family in the southwest, and her mother’s family in the far east, near Luhansk. 

Last Monday she wrote, telling me that she would not be able to come visit again this year, regretfully.  On Wednesday she wrote again, telling me that she had bought a plane ticket.  On Friday, she and my brother arrived in Kyiv and immediately boarded a train to Lviv.  Lael and I composed a roundabout route back towards Strij though the mountains.  We boarded an electro-poyizd (regional electric train) for the final 60km to Lviv.

Lviv is busy and beautiful, full of pedestrian boulevards and sidewalk cafes.  There are tourists, but mostly they are Ukrainian or from elsewhere in nearby Eastern Europe.  The city is rustic but not rusting; while many historic structures remain, they are artfully maintained, not artificially renovated as in more popular destinations.  To my tastes the city feels more like an improvement upon Prague and even Bratislava.  The streets are narrow and cobbled, not wide as in Kyiv, part of which was planned during the Soviet era.  And while comparisons to both Paris and Prague are in order for any charming European city, I’d choose neither of those over Lviv. The time to visit Lviv is now, before Ukraine’s economy booms upward and the city becomes more expensive and the cafes are replaced with tourist shops and the Ukrainians are replaced by English and German and Japanese tourists.  I believe Lviv is experiencing yet another high period in its long history.  It is exceptional.  

Lviv may also be the most Ukrainian city, not because it is the most even slice of the country.  Rather, the people here intend to preserve Ukrainian language and culture more than anywhere else in Ukraine.  Western Ukraine– hundreds of miles from Russia– is also the most Ukrainian part of Ukraine.  However, Ukrainianism here is not without fault.  The popular red and black flag of the УПА  (Ukrainian Insurgent Army)– an organization notorious for fighting both the Nazis and the Russians during WWII, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera— stands as one of several symbols important to nationalistic Ukrainians.  This militaristic organization is also responsible for the death of coutless Poles in the region.  Nationalism, in almost any form, often has a dark side.  Incidentally, the grave of Bandera was recently vandalized in Germany.  And yesterday, several Ukrainians ascended a high-rise structure in Moscow, repainting a soviet star in the blue and yellow pattern of the Ukrainian flag, marking their work with a Ukrainian flag atop the 32-story building.  These are a sign of the times in this part of the world, although the actual situation is much more grave.  

We have been unable to make calls to our family in Stakhanov, in the Luhansk Oblast near the Russian border for several weeks.  We hope they are safe.

Into Lviv.

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This region is known for changing borders.  The former Galician empire included much of the Ukrainian Carpathian region, and some of Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. 

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Someone has decided that smashing the windows of the Russian bank is a good idea.

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No military presence is felt in Lviv, although memorials are scattered throughout the city.  

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As is lighter fare, such as this toilet paper being sold at the touristic market.

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Mostly, life continues for residents of Lviv.  Tourism is down.  Young men and mothers worry about being drafted.  Over 2000 Ukrainians have died in the “anti-terrorist” conflict since this spring.

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A walk around the city reveals characteristic scenes of Lviv.  The aging Lada sedan is ever-present in Ukraine.

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Chruches are full on Sunday.  We’ve discovered that while riding through the country, we can visit as many as five or six churches on a Sunday morning, during active service.

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The Armenian cathedral in Lviv dates to the 1300’s.

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Taras Shevchenko is the most famous Ukrainian.  A poet, painter, and a fervent supporter of the idea of an independent Ukrainian nation, his likeness or bust stands tall in most every Ukrainian city.  He was born a serf in 1814.  He died briefly after a period of exile in Russia.  He died seven days before the official emancipation of serfs in tsarist Russia in 1861.

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Mostly, life continues as usual in Lviv.

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Return to Borzhava, Zakarpats’ka Oblast, Ukraine

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The discoveries of one day become the fuel for another.  For this reason, I have a tendency to revisit the same places and choose another path.  We’ve ridden up and down the west coast a few times, twice down the Divide, to Colorado and the southwest for a third season of fall riding, and to Europe for a second summer in a row.  Each ride leaves unridden routes.  When touring on pavement, we used to say that the world was getting smaller with each pedal stroke.  But the discoveries of off-pavement touring seem to make the world bigger.  These opportunities are not always apparent from afar.  Up close, they come into view.  Zoom in close on the GPS and a network or serpentine red lines appear.

Last summer, we hardly knew what to expect when we touched down in Amsterdam with our bikes.  We return to Europe this summer with the knowledge that there are overwhelming opportunities for off-pavement riding.  Last summer, we crossed borders from west to east until crossing into Ukraine, where things changed greatly.  This summer we return to the east and to Ukraine with an understanding of how things work, how some things just don’t work, and how to get around on two wheels.  We return to the Karpaty in spite of the cold rainy weather from last fall.  

This time around, being in Ukraine is familiar.  The weather is cooperating.  The roads and rides have been great, so far.  We’ve discovered that on Sunday mornings we can visit as many as a half-dozen churches, in active service, while riding through villages.  We also learned that the Ukrainian currency has plummeted in value by 50% in the last few months.  Last time we calculated about 8 hryvnia to the dollar, this time it is more than 12.  As such, a cup of coffee or tea is much less than a dollar, a cold pint of Obolon is often only sixty cents, and a cup of borsch is barely a full American bill.

Surely, there are reasons for this dramatic change.  We’re in Kolochava for a few days, enjoying the hospitality of a large guest house.  The televisor spits out images and details of the situation near Donetsk, in between dubbed American films, infomercials for butt-shaping walking shoes, and Russian soaps.  The Ukrainian border guard made jokes about Lael’s passport photo, calling out to his superior that she looks like a pro-Russian militant, laughing (she does).  The superior paused for a closer look, took a serious look at us, took another look at the passport, and waved us on.  There are some serious things happening on that side of the country, nearly a thousand miles away.  Not that nobody cares, but here it makes for small talk, mostly.  Tourism to this historic mountain village is reported to be about half of normal this summer.  For current English-language news from Ukraine, the Kyiv Post is a good source in addition to some major news organizations such as the BBC.  We’ve also discovered a substantial monthly publication entitled New Eastern Europe, full of essays and editorials from the region, in English.  The magazine is published in Poland, and the current issue focuses on the Ukrainian situation, through the lens of Polish, Georgian, Belorussian, and Ukrainan writers, among others.  The opening interview is with former Polish president Lech Wałȩsa.  

Riding from Slovakia, we detour though Uzghorod, and into the mountains on a series of forest roads and small paved roads.  We shoot for Volovets, to return to Polonina Borzhava.  Przemek led us up the mountain for the first time last year, before an impending thunderstorm sent us bombing down the mountainsides.  An long-term forecast for rain convinced us to catch a train to Crimea.  We intersect our route last year to follow an unfinished path through the Ukrainian Karpaty to Romania.  

Coming over the hill into Volovets.  One of the larger towns in the region, it features a regional train to Lviv for only a dollar or two, and more than a few food stores.  As such, it is a popular starting point for adventures.  There are nicer towns to visit in the mountains, although the setting is scenic.

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Soviet murals exist on large buildings and bus stops.  This is one of my favorites, featuring a couple in traditional mountain dress backdropped by sheep and a rocket and a radio antenna.  The man is holding a chainsaw.

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Packed with food for a day, we climb out of town to camp up high.

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Daily thunderstorms ensure our bikes remain muddy.  Logging trucks and six-wheel drive vehicles ensure some roads remain rutted.  

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We’ve been here before and know that eventually, the road improves.  The light improves as the evening passes.

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The mud ends, the sun sets, and we encounter a flat spot to camp.  Before dawn, people are quietly talking and walking up the mountain.  I suspect they are up early to pick mushrooms.  

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The next day, we discover that everyone is hiking up high to pick and rake blueberries.  These kids from Mukacheve are planning to haul a barrel of berries down the mountain at the end of the day.  They bring a sample of last year’s wine.

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We climb up the steep road at about the same rate as a 67 year old woman, walking.  Czechia?  Polscha?  

Amerikansky, I reply.  

Everyone thinks we are Czech.  In Czech, they all think we are German.  In France, they suppose we are Dutch.  In Holland, they know we are American.

She loves the Karpaty, and swoons when we tell her we have a whole month to enjoy.

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Plai is the first major peak at about 1300m, above 4000ft.  There is a weather station and an assemblage of antennae.

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From Plai, the trail pushes to Veliky Verkh, above 1500m, and 5000ft.

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Everyone is picking berries up high.  Dots on distant hillsides slowly work side to side, clearing only a fraction of the berries on the mountain. 

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This truck full of gypsies will spend the day collecting berries, before driving back down the mountain.  It is a steep drive up and down, especially with twenty people in the back of the truck.  The Ukrainian Roma are much friendlier than those in Slovakia, thus far.  

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Everyone is enjoying the weather up high, on Saturday.  People walk up from Volovets and Pylypets; motorcycles scream past, and a truck full of novice parasailers circle the sky.

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We continue on the polonina past our exit point last year.  The trail narrows as it descends into the trees.

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Our snack bags are nearly empty, and we point towards Mizhhir’ya at the end of this segment of the red trail.  Rutted roads, no longer is use by four-wheels vehicles, descend the mountain.

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Juniper.

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Eventually onto active farm roads into town.

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From here, a quick up and over into the next valley.  That road will descend all the way to Mizhhir’ya.

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Passing the first few homes, I stop to photograph an especially characteristic wooden home.  A woman calls out from the shade, “Dobre vechyr!”  I call back.

Within minutes, we’ve holding bowls of hot mushroom soup and bread.  She offers a bottle of cold beer.  No kidding.  We’re pretty lucky.

Soon, she’s talking about where we will sleep, and what we’ll eat for breakfast.  I compromise and agree to stay, but we will sleep outside, I tell her.  And for breakfast, we only want coffee and tea.  Don’t bother to make too much food for us.  She agrees, and we still awake to a feast of fried potatoes with salo, onion with salt and vinegar, tomatoes, and bread.  I oblige, out of necessity.

Христина was born here.  Her children live in nearby villages, and her mother died about five years ago.  She now keeps three small homes on this property, by herself.  She shows us pictures of her family.  We all sit down to watch the televisor, as she explains the complicated backstory behind Natasha and Mykyta’s love, and his relation to the other girl that lives on the Black Sea in a nice house, and the doctor, and the other red-haired woman and the attractive blond guy.  “Quiet.  Listen.”,  she says.  Then she continues talking about what is happening in the show.  The program captivates her imagination.  She turns it off and we sit outside on the grass for dinner.  

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