Over a 3-month period a Meanderbug contributor and friend, Cat from down under, headed out on her first bicycle touring adventure. She went biking much of the EuroVelo 8 starting from Podgorica, Montenegro in early March.This is a collection of her stories and experiences while biking the EuroVelo 8. Below are excerpts from her posts with links to each original post.
Starting the EuroVelo 8 bike tour
A close friend of mine left Australia some years ago to do something that to me was unheard of and totally awesome. He was going to explore Europe on a bicycle and sleep in a tent. I thought it was an insanely adventurous idea. Three years later and countless stories from a surprising number of other bicycle tourists, and I’ve had a little internal voice persisting at me to do the same. Budget bike touring, here we go.
Day 1 – to Cetinje
Leaving Podgorica, the view was breathtaking. Looking down on the city, and later across mountains and water to see further white-capped mountains, the scenes were like colour-drenched paintings in perfect resolution. I rolled into Cetinje just as rain started to fall. The old capital is picturesque and cultured, no half-finished buildings like in the new capital and plenty of pedestrians out and about despite the drizzle. After a coffee and a bite to eat…. (biking Cetinje)
Day 2 – a beautiful, terrible road
An early start with my gear wrapped in plastic, again I rode and walked the bike up more mountains. Snow started appearing on the slopes and the air grew noticeably crisper. I let my slow, steady pace beat a rhythm of perseverance as I was beginning to doubt whether this had been the best route to start out with – so much incline. At about 11am I reached the top of the final peak of this Kotor mountain road. Bursting into sight was a glorious view of the valley, surrounding snow and pine covered mountains, and the Bay of Kotor beyond. In that moment, every ache and every push was worth it. (biking the Kotor mountain road)
Day 3 – Risan and Bay of Kotor
I particularly liked a story that Goran shared with me. Once there was an old man and a young man. The old man said to the young man, go to this place and you will see all of the beauty of the world. But here, take this spoon and let me fill it with water, and be careful not to spill it. The young man took the spoon, carried it to the place, and was so swept up in the beauty of the world that he forgot about the spoon, spilling the water. He went back to the old man with an apology, and the old man repeated the exercise. Again the young man went to the place, this time paying such close attention to the spoon that he didn’t see any beauty at all. He returned proudly with the spoon full of water. The old man still wasn’t satisfied. He sent him back again with the spoon full of water. This time the young man was able to enjoy all of the beauty of the world, while maintaining just enough focus to prevent the water spilling from the spoon. Finally when he returned the old man was satisfied.
I love the story – travelling (and living life generally) is all about finding that balance between enjoyment and focus. (bicycle touring Risan)
Day 4 – backtracking to Kotor
After a lazy morning sleep in, I hopped on my vastly lighter leg-powered machine and flew along the 17 kms of picturesque bay road back to Kotor. This time I tied her up on the Perast side of the city, just before reaching the gates of the old town. A number of stairways and paths zigzag up the mountain behind the old town to reach a number of buildings, including the ruins of the ancient St. John’s fortress. (biking to Kotor)
Day 5 – resting in Dubrovnik
Today was Goran’s birthday, so he arrived at 7am, picked me up and set off along the coast towards Dubrovnik. Along the way we wove our way through a tiny old village to reach a park, climbed down a hidden walkway to land on the prettiest little white-stone beach I’ve ever seen. Goran prides himself on knowing all of the secrets of the area, from where to eat, where to swim and where the most beautiful women are. This was his little Balkan birthday celebration. We would visit both Dubrovnik, Croatia and Trebinje, Bosnia. (This was a non-bike day on my tour.)
Day 6 – meeting Marko in Mikulići
Already I’ve noticed improvements in my strength and stamina, riding up more hills than before and covering far more distance. The lack of mountains is helping too! Croatia must be secret code for beautiful country. Flowers and farmhouses, blue skies and greenery everywhere, tumbling white stones and wild flowers making gardens of every bit of road-side land. I was expecting to make this my first night of camping, and by around 3pm was starting to consider whether to ask at a farmhouse or a church for permission to pitch my tent, when I came across Marko’s Flea Market in Mikulići, Croatia. (bike touring Mikulici)
Day 7 – toward Cavtat
Today marks a full week on the road, if you count the three day stop in Risan. It would also be my first foray into bicycle touring camping. At the start of the day, though, Marko and I shared kiwifruit, oranges and cake for breakfast. Then he sent me off with a hug and good wishes for my future. If you ever are passing by on the coastal road from MNE to Dubrovnik, take a minute to stop in at Marko’s place and say hi. If I pass by again I’ll make sure to come loaded with something to share, something better than spinach and fruit. (camping in Cavtat)
Day 8 – more Croatia and a touch of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Around 6am I rolled out of my sleeping bag to find a chilly grey sky. I was pretty chilly too, so I quickly freshened up, ate a banana and some nuts, and packed up the camp. Continuing my bicycle touring Croatia, I was actually glad of the steady incline along the coast because it got my blood pumping and temperature up. After about an hour I stopped in at a little town hoping to get a coffee, but Croatia can be so expensive, the coffee was the equivalent of $4 AUD, so I decided not to. Instead I bought an apple pastry from a supermarket and sat by my bicycle in the carpark to make use of a free wifi hotspot. Looking more and more like a penniless cyclist.
Day 9 – freedom to explore
I write this entry lying on my stomach in my tent, facing the ocean as the sun sets. The moon is already brightly hanging in the sky. An airplane is drawing a comet’s tail as it falls toward a purple-pink horizon and all I can hear is the waves. I found another off-season camp-ground down at the beach, just as I was wondering whether it would be possible to camp at the waterfront. I can’t access electricity but I do have running water and perfectly flat ground, five star comforts! It seems to be a common thing, these unattended camp-grounds at this time of year. I’m going to start looking out for them as a free camping option.
Day 10 – thoughts on camping
Camping is changing my sleeping schedule. I’ve fallen in a habit of finding a spot around 4pm, setting up and eating something by 5, doing the necessary things like washing and such, then writing and reading until the sun is gone. By 7 or 8 I’m lying in my sleeping bag, stretching my legs and meditating. Sometime shortly after that I’m asleep. I wake around midnight for a while, then sleep again until daylight wakes me around 5am. Apparently in the days before electric lights and the industrial revolution, there is ample evidence to suggest that most people went to bed early and woke for an hour or two in the middle of the night, and then slept again. Funny isn’t it. Anyway, by 6:30am I was cycling around the edge of a cliff, looking out at the rising sun. (Balkan wilderness camping)
Day 11 – detoured experience
I’ve found that I’m enjoying the intermittent inland detours that the road takes. Often the slopes are gentler, and when there’s a river nearby the road is almost flat. Today, I sprinted along stretches of inland wilderness, reaching the bustling city of Sibernik just after lunch.
Day 12 – wintery biking
Overnight there was a frost and the condensation inside the tent formed into little droplets lining the walls that rained on me and my bags. Needless to say, I wasn’t very cheerful when I woke around 2am, freezing and damp. I wriggled until I could feel my toes again and tried to sleep at least until 5, when I got up and numbly changed into the least damp clothes I had, packed up the bike and ate a banana with red, swollen fingers. No matter how deceptively sunny the days are, it’s still winter.
Day 13 – biking through Zadar
Jelena was the best host one could wish for, she kept me well-fed, entertained and relaxed. I’d been told that the people one meets on Warmshowers are unfailingly amazing, and this, my second experience being hosted, only confirms it. Jelena also set out on her first bicycle tour alone, and it was the best thing she’s ever done. She’s an example of a woman who can maintain grace and femininity while retaining personal strength, guts and courage. I am lucky in the people I’ve met while traveling! (Zadar highlights)
Day 14 – exploring the moon
Maps can’t convey what landscapes hold in store for the traveller. If my map had been accurate it would have said “landing on the moon” when I crossed the bridge to Pag Island. As far as I could see, the land was entirely made of creamy cracked clay and rocks. Nothing but the road broke the continuity. It was surreal and exciting. Except for the gravity, I could have been biking the moon. (Island of Pag)
Day 15 – flexible scheduling
One of the beautiful things about traveling solo is that you don’t have to follow anyone else’s schedule. You don’t have to feel competition. And you only ‘cheat’ if you break rules you decide are worth sticking to. It means there is a built-in flexible schedule. So when I woke up this morning for the second time to a dripping tent and aching legs, when I growled audibly and swore at the mountains I had to climb, questioning my motives for doing it at all, and when the prospect of cycling 100km out of my way to see the ancient gnarly olive trees no longer appealed to me at all, I reminded myself that it didn’t matter. (solo travel by bike)
Day 16 – grays and trolls
Today was big. I started the morning at 6am with an orange, was pushing my bicycle up a mountain by 6:30am, riding through troll country until 9:30am when I finally reached civilization in the form of Senj and had a proper sandwich with coffee for breakfast. Troll country is mountainous desolation strewn with grey stones where I imagine monstrous mythical creatures the color of the rock live in caves and war with each other. A grey sky and misty horizon added to the sense of being stuck in a monochrome film; silver grey, stone grey and storm grey. It’s not every day you go biking with trolls hiding all around you. (biking with trolls)
Day 17 – biking to Illirska Bistrica
Next up is an example of why I love travelling alone and with only a very vague itinerary. About 8km from the Slovenian border I stopped at a roadside memorial to snack on some tuna and beetroot, when Zoran rolled past on his touring bicycle, panniers and all. He slowed and asked where I was from, which lead to a conversation and exchange of details, along with an invite to stay at his place in the Slovenian town of Ilirska Bistrica, should I pass that way. He’s a middle-aged dad who’s worked in hospitality and tourism all his life. A few years ago he decided to take a few months off work to enjoy life, and that worked out so well that he just kept on with it. He’s a warmshowers and couchsurfing host, has travelled widely, often on a bicycle, and has done the Camino de Santiago trail three times, on three different routes. (biking Slovenia)
Day 18 – from Slovenia into Italy
It started with more of Zoran’s excellent cooking, prosciutto and eggs with coffee. He then rode with me almost to the Italian border. It was one of the best rides so far – cruising over 30 kilometres hardly breaking a sweat, on a gentle road following the course of a river, in the sun, with good company. Slovenia is a stunning place for cyclists. Hello Italy.
Week 4 – idyllic Italy
I’m sitting in a sun-filled living room while three Italian guys play bongo drums to Bob Marley in a haze of smoke, two dogs dance, and a green-eyed girl whose name I can’t pronounce sits quietly typing away, sipping sweet black coffee. I arrived to the big house in Padova with a messy yard and yelled “Ciao! Hello! Buenogiorno!” until someone came to the door. Salvo introduced himself and let me in, showed me where to stick my stuff, and invited me up to share in their delicious lunch. Soft boiled cauliflower with olive oil and salt, fresh-baked dark bread, some strong cheese and a variety of preserved tasty things in jars. So Italian! (Biking Italy)
Week 5 – looking for treasures in Italy
After a couple days in Padova, it was on to Bologna. Seven hours and 125km saw me arrive at my couchsurfing host’s place just a little late, with sore knees, hands and bum. It was pretty much flat cycling. Italian roads so far are a dream, I actually didn’t change gears that entire day except to allow myself to stand and give my seat a rest. I was kicking myself for setting up such a rushed cycle because the scenery was gorgeous and I barely got to see it. On the upside, my leg muscles seem to have accepted their fate and weren’t even tired after such a mammoth effort.
Week 6 – biking Florence, Siena, and Perugia
There are paintings of landscapes that I’ve often seen with vivid green hills with sprays of trees in shades of gold, brown and white, little brown houses flanked by two or three towering skinny dark green trees and bright flowerbeds. I’d always thought that they were idealised depictions of rural scenery, works of the imagination. And then I cycled through Italy and discovered that they actually exist!
Week 7 – an unexpected turn
I’m afraid that in this week I’ve failed you all miserably. I haven’t seen any sights, I haven’t followed any of the recommendations of hosts or travellers to hike to wonderful places or explore nearby towns. I have very little to write about! On the other hand, I have let myself relax, enjoying the care and company of my dear friend here, repaired my bicycle and made some key decisions. My change of plans will shape the next six months. So it’s not been a waste at all. (change of plans)
Week 8a – visiting Anne Mustoe
I’ve been reading a travelogue of the late Anne Mustoe who in her fifties left her headmistress job in England and cycled the world. She started on the ancient Roman roads, singing their praises. She writes that the Via Flaminia is so delightful to cycle that when she retires she wishes to cycle back and forth along it endlessly. A sign directed me onto it and Ms Anne Mustoe was right, at least for the first five kilometres. After that it disintegrated into a soggy dirt track, and then ended entirely, putting me back on the ordinary road. A little disappointing. She was riding about twenty years ago so perhaps it has not been well-maintained over that time. (biking with Anne Mustoe)
Week 8b – biking Napoli
Easter Sunday was a big day. I followed the SS 4 from Passo Corese into Rome. Most of the way it was a beautiful ride through almost flat farmland and small villages. In Rome I lost my way as I tried to find the beginning of another ancient Roman road, the Via Appia. I stopped at a shop for a minute and lost my sunglasses from where they were tucked at the top of my front pannier. I thought that was unnecessarily mean! After finding the Via Appia Nuovo (Nuovo = new, the part leading out of Rome is new) I left the city. The road was awfully dusty, with bridge after bridge over smaller roads and suburbs, me picking my way through the gravel and broken glass alongside almost stationary traffic. I took a small road to escape the dust and immediately got a flat tyre. Half an hour later I was back on the road, having patched the inner tube and reassembled the wheel myself. I’d downloaded a basic bike manual back before I started out in Podgorica, but somewhere along the way it seems to have disappeared from my iPad, so I was quite proud of myself for fixing my first flat tyre entirely unassisted.
Week 9 – bike meets ferry
I was exhausted by the time I boarded the boat and secured my bike, going up into the main part armed just with a bag of essentials, my sleeping bag and water. I’d only bought a deck-passenger ticket which entitled me to move about the public spaces on the ship; the bars and restaurants serving overpriced junk food and that didn’t like loitering scruffy cyclists taking up residence on their couches, the cold windy decks, and thankfully a room filled with aeroplane-like seating complete with bony armrests where we cheapskates could take refuge. Following the example of other passengers, after securing my shoes and bag to a footrest, I stretched out in my sleeping bag on the floor and slept soundly with my valuables tucked inside. I was feeling forlorn at that point, and certainly looked the part. (bicycle touring the Mediterranean)
Week 10 – hello Spain!
There’s something in the air in this city, a freshness, a liveliness, I don’t know exactly what, but I connect with it. To put into words what attracted me about Barcelona is like trying to capture the grandeur of the Taj Mahal on Polaroid film, but I’ll try. It’s a loved city. Clearly the local government and town planners are investing in maintaining and developing it as a place where people want to be, with well-preserved older architecture, innovative uses of space, lots of greenery (the tram-tracks are lush grassy strips!) and new art everywhere. Every neighbourhood has a “rambla” – a pedestrian road with outdoor dining, art, and often big shady trees. People are smiling and expressive, they dress well with awesome hairstyles. Everywhere there are signs of a prevailing open and liberal culture. I spent the day wandering around the city, through the historically-dodgy-but-now-intriguing neighbourhood El Raval, and of course, I checked out one of the Gaudi houses which was definitely dreamy but possibly nightmarish too. Adela took me out for dinner that evening to her local Indian restaurant (palaak and dhal! my love!), delicious food and even better company, Barcelona has me hooked….
retiring a bike
In the morning I fixed the flat tyre and packed up my stuff. Just as I loaded it all onto my bike and started to roll out of the bush, the rear tyre went flat. Clearly I needed new tyres too. I repaired that inner tube and set out again. This time I didn’t get lost, but when I was almost at the town of Sueco and AGAIN the front tyre went flat, I gave up. I pushed my bike into town and sat under a tree to think. I had no patches left in my repair kit and new tyres wouldn’t be so cheap, let alone all the other bits and pieces. My dear little bicycle had been faithfully steady for over two months of heavy-duty work, and I had always intended to give her away at the end, and anticipated that she might not make it all the way through Spain. So I unloaded her, tied my sleeping bag, mat and tent to my backpack, took what I needed from my panniers and left her next to a university with bags, tools, and even the keys sitting in the lock. I’m sure some student will give her a new and easier life. Luckily there was a train station in Sueco so I got the afternoon train back to Valencia and booked an overnight train to Granada. (bicycle touring spain)
Looking back on my cycling tour across South Europe, it seems a little debrief would be helpful. Below are the items I packed and some of what I learned and would do next time related to bicycle touring gear. I had many things that people who start out with the intention of traveling by bicycle don’t bring, such as the boots, the art materials, perfume and jeans. I had enough space for everything and didn’t regret them because they brought a little indulgence and comfort to what can become a fairly austere lifestyle. Since leaving the bike and travelling by foot and thumb I’ve culled a lot more because the backpack is too heavy. On the other hand, because I wasn’t planning my bike tour I only bought the bare minimum of gear that I thought I would need, and along the way picked up things that I found through experience really were useful, like the handlebar horns, sewing kit and padded cycling shorts. My packing approach tends to be minimalist, but not necessarily austere. Minimalist to me means identifying the things that I get the most value out of – either because they are useful or because I enjoy them. So my paints and charcoals, makeup and hair product are included, and camping cookware isn’t. (bicycle touring gear list)
For more stories, points of interest, tracks and routes, along the EuroVelo 8 and other superb routes, check out meanderbug’s bicycle touring the Balkans resources.