Date: February 5th, 2016
Distance: Rest day
Most of the morning I spent working on my bike. I need to get in the habit of doing that every time I take a day off, since there is always something that needs to be oiled or tightened. Today I re-wrapped my handlebars. I also went to tighten up my front rack, which was getting loose, and noticed one of the clamps had broken. That took a bit of time to repair. Fortunately, the work shop at the community center had what I needed. I'm glad I connected with these guys. I also noticed that my headset had come loose. That was troubling, as I don't know how long it had been that way. All that said, my bike is riding better than ever now.
Since it was a nice day and my bike was all tuned up I decided to take it for a spin around the city. Zadar is a neat place. Like much of the Croatian coast it has influences from Rome, Venice, and Austria-Hungary. The old town has bits of the Roman forum overlaid with a thousand year old church and surrounded by the old city walls. The city was heavily damaged at the end of the Second World War by American and British bombers, though. I never thought of Croatia as being that much a part of the war, yet most of the sea-facing side of the city was leveled. The new promenade was built in the 60s. Riding around the buildings, new and old, was a great way to spend the afternoon.
At the end of the day I went to the sea front promenade and sat by the Sea organ to watch the sun set. I guess Alfred Hitchcock said that "Zadar has the most beautiful sunsets in the world." I don't know if he is right, but I can't think of a measure by which to prove him wrong. The fading light cast a beautiful glow back on the city and its harbor. Sitting on the steps next to the ocean, listening to the music of the waves, and watching the sun drift behind Uglijan Island is hard to beat.
That night I went back to the "place" as the kids called it. I was invited to see a punk rock show there. How do you refuse an invitation like that? I mean, how often do you get to go to an underground punk show at an illegal squat in Croatia? Man, what a blast. I couldn't understand a word, but that had less to do with language barriers and more to do with the style of singing involved. Instead I could just enjoy the music and the whole experience of being there. (I am sorry I couldn't get any pictures. They were just dark and blurry.)
After the show was over I stayed for a bit to chat with some people. A few guys were teaching me how to swear in Croatian. (Reminds me of a book I received for Christmas just before leaving...) I couldn't stay long, though. My plan was to head out early in the morning so I said goodbye to the people I met and who had helped me out with a place to stay. To the folks in Zadar, thanks for everything, I had a great time.
Date: February 4th, 2016
Song of the Day: The Great Gig in the Sky - Pink Floyd
Wheathered one hell of a storm last night. I thought camping along the Adriatic would be great. My plan was to wake up with a beautiful sunrise over the sea, but I could not have been more wrong. My night was miserable. Strong winds were gusting through the little inlet all night. They would roar out of the canyon and whistle through the power lines overhead. It sounded like a freight train going by. Everything was wet as well. Blowing rain coming in sideways, thunder and lightning. I am happy that as wet as my sleeping bag got it didn't soak all the way through. I was awake most of the night, but at least I wasn't freezing cold the whole time. I was huddled up wondering if this is what a hurricane is like. If so, I didn't like it. I thought about trying to find refuge somewhere else, but where? It also didn't seem to be wise to try and head out into the storm, and trying to navigate the narrow coastal road at night in those conditions seemed like a suicide mission. Most of the time I was just waiting for dawn to come so I could at least be on the road, in daylight.
When morning came I assessed the damage. It looks like my things and my bike are okay. I was worried that something might have been picked up by the storm and smashed, but everything looks all right. My helmet was almost lost, though. Some strong gust must have picked it up and flung it toward the sea. I am fortunate that it struck a rock and got stuck before it could go any further, otherwise it would be floating around in the Mediterranean.
Dawn brought an end to the rain, but not an end to the wind. I really can't think of a time I have had a wind this bad. Maybe my second day in Iceland? Maybe another day in Southern Morocco? Those are the only ones that would even come close. As I broke camp I watched gusts dance over the surface of the water, and even saw waves break backwards and get pushed back out to sea.
Trying to ride in that wind wasn't a picnic, as you can probably guess. It wasn't so much the strength of the wind, but how capricious it was. It would go from calm to a gale so strong I could hardly move against it, and then it would change direction rapidly. In less than a second the breeze could turn and slam in from the opposite side. I haven't crashed once before on this trip but today I fell over twice because of wind changes like that, leaning in to counter a gust from one way and then getting smashed over by a sudden reverse. Absolutely frustrating. Technically I can't even call it a headwind since I was heading south and the wind was mostly coming from the East. Each inlet was a treacherous funnel though. Heading into the bay I would grind along slowly, sometimes pushing my bike. Often I would ride on the wrong side of the road to stay away from the cliff edge. I didn't want an errant gust to blow me into the sea. On the other side it was like having and uncontrolled rocket on my back, I never knew what it was going to do. Even when the wind was perpendicular to me the gusts would threaten to push me over the cliff into the sea below, unpleasant thought. The wind was so bad that the freeway bridge to Zadar was closed. The other bridge is a bit more protected but even so it was singing as I crossed it, the gusts coming through the railings setting up various harmonics and making notes like a pipe organ. I hope that is the last time I have to deal with a wind like that for the rest of my life.
Heading over the last hill to Zadar, I had great view to the east. The mountains in the background are capped with white. I know I will be crossing them in a few days to go to Bosnia and the snow on top isn't an encouraging sign.
I made it to Zadar in one piece though. I don't know if the city is more protected, or if the storm was winding down, but either way the wind had mostly abated by the time I arrived. The afternoon in Zadar was sunny and clear. I had a chance to ride around and even took a little nap in one of the city parks. You remember how I didn't get much sleep last night?
Luka from Rijeka had connected me with a guy, also named Luka, who had a place I could stay. It was a community center of sorts, a place to hang out, talk, smoke, and even have a concert or two. Originally it was a government building but it had been abandoned for decades. A couple of years ago this group of locals took it over and cleaned the place up. They don't really own the building, but the city seems to look the other way since they are keeping it clean and providing a cultural space. It really was a cool spot. I got to meet a lot of young people from Zadar. There are a couple of work shops, so people were making things. A large group was playing games, while other people were making dinner in the kitchen. They had really made a nice community of people in what was otherwise a crumbling and forgotten building.
Date: February 3rd, 2016
Song of the Day: Black Rock - OAR
Remember when I said that the coast here wasn't as bad as Italy? I was wrong. The hills may be a little less steep here, but at least Italy had lots of tunnels. From the border to Genoa there were dozens. In Croatia I had just two all day. That means a lot of long, slow climbs up into the hills. At the top, the road wound in and out of the craggy defiles, narrow and rocky canyons leading to the Adriatic. Towards the sea the road curved around steep little inlets. The word "fjords" came to mind, and then for some odd reason this did too: "Bjorn's bored boars forded four fjords". Try saying that a few times fast.
I saw a couple of people riding around on touring bikes. You see a lot of cyclists out on the road here. There are the recreational guys, and it is almost always a guy, someone out on a lightweight road bike. Other people are just getting around town, my favorite being the grandmothers coming back home with shopping. But a long distance cyclist on a tour is something else entirely. The bike is rugged and loaded down with enough gear for months on the road. That makes us pretty recognizable, so I stopped to say hello. It turns out they are from France and riding around the Adriatic. It's nice to know that I am not alone out here on the road.
The clouds continued to be gray all day, raining now and again. This has turned the limestone hills a dark gray color. I have also noticed these rock walls covering the valleys. I can't see what they might be for, since they aren't like terraces to level out the land for crops. They look too random to be abandoned villages or fortifications of some kind. More than that, I wonder who built the walls? How many people must have worked on them? How many years did it take to build? This part of the coast has so few people, I don't know where all the labor would have come from. So many questions and no answers.
At the end of the day the road descended from the mountains and hugged the shoreline. I was able to find a nice little bay to camp in.
Date: February 2nd, 2016
Song of the Day: The Kids Don't Get It - The Tragically Hip
Not one of my longest days, but I don't care. I said I was taking Croatia slowly. Enjoying the hell out of it too. I did get up pretty early to walk around Rijeka in daylight, then I headed back to BikeWise. I had a little thing to fix on my bike and needed help with it. The owner, Luka, was awesome. After helping me with the bike we hung out for a couple of hours, talking. He just opened the shop a few weeks ago and is very excited about it. I wish him the best of luck. If you are in Rijeka you should go there, stop by. We also talked about Croatia and its history and culture, what life is like, especially for the young people here. Croatia seems to be transitioning from an older industrial economy to one based more around tourism and services. It reminds me of what a lot of the world is going through.
Luka also talked about the other stuff that he does: playing music and organizing festivals. Some of these are like old school raves, totally underground and performed in an abandoned factory nearby. I would never have known it, but there are a lot of interesting cultural things going on in Rijeka. It sounds like a cool place to hang out in, especially in the summer with warm beaches and big musical events. Luka even connected me to some people in Zadar who might be able to give me a place to stay for the night. How cool is that? To Luka, thank you so much for everything.
So after hanging out all morning, and into the afternoon, I didn't get very far. I did get a little bit down the road at least. I really like riding along the coast here. It isn't as rugged as the coast of Italy, but there are some hills. It is also more rocky. I think this area had some vineyards in the past, but there doesn't seem to be much else that is hardy enough to grow except for the scrub and brambles that have taken over most of the hills.
I stopped to have a second lunch (yes, a second lunch) overlooking a really pretty inlet along the coast. Just a small beach and some boats, an ancient town nestled on a small hill at the head of the bay. Things seemed very quiet when I was there, but I wondered what it would be like in summer. Even on a cold winter day it was nice to look at. I may have mentioned before that if you are going to stop and eat, you might as well do it while looking at something beautiful.
Just after I took that photo I heard screetching tires. I looked over to see a car slide off the road and into the ditch. I still had my phone in my hand so I went to call 911, when I realized that wasn't a thing here. What is 911 in Croatia? So instead I just ran over to help out. The car had rolled onto the drivers side and wasn't moving. I couldn't see inside and I wasn't sure if I could get onto the car without tipping it over further. I called out, heard someone inside, then the passenger door opened. The guy got out of the car, talking to someone on his cell phone. (I am not sure if he was on the phone when it happened.) Inside, the front windshield was gone, but the kid didn't have a scratch on him. He seemed very lucky. And when say kid, I do mean a kid. The guy couldn't have been more than 18 years old. Since he didn't need medical attention, and seemed to be talking to someone who could help, I started down the road again. That may have been the weirdest thing to happen on this trip, at least so far.
It got me thinking, though, that every day I put my life into the hands of people just like him - overconfident kids who have just received their license. They aren't the only ones. People on cell phones, and older men and women who really shouldn't be driving anymore. Truck drivers who haven't gotten enough sleep. Not a pleasant thought. That isn't a risk I am taking alone, dear readers. Those drivers use your roads too. Be careful out there.
Date: February 1st, 2016
Song of the Day: Killer Queen - Queen
I left Slovenia today. Much easier said than done, though. I am not sure if there really is a good way to do it. The way I took brought me up into the mountains and I spent most of the morning climbing away from Koper. I really should map the elevation of my ride before I head out. Oh well. Once up in the mountains the highways didn't gain or lose much elevation, but it wasn't flat. I would rise up over a little hill and then go down into the valley on the other side, repeat. It was pretty country at least.
It also got me to the border with Croatia. I got an "HR" stamp in my passport and everything. I am not sure why, though. Croatia is an EU member, but I guess they are new, just since 2013. They also have their own currency, so I don't know exactly where they stand. At the time, though, it didn't really matter because I was so excited to be crossing another border. Croatia was one of the places I have been really excited about seeing. To finally make it here felt so good. I was riding on cloud nine after that.
That, and it was pretty much downhill from the border. It was a good start. I was enjoying my time in Croatia from the very first. The road wound down out of the mountains along a rocky valley, the sky was gray and cloudy, but that paired nicely with the bare winter trees and the pale limestone karsts around.
The I got into Rijeka (pronounced "Reyka"). I had seen it on the map and just assumed it would be a little town, maybe larger than the other villages around it but not much else. Boy was I wrong. Apparently there are about a quarter of a million people living in the metro area, and maybe one hundred and fifty thousand in the city itself. Apparently it's the third largest city in Croatia. It has a cool mix of old industrial buildings, apartment blocks, and a baroque town center. It was also just at sunset over the Adriatic, so everything was looking awesome anyway. I also saw a shop called "BikeWise" which reminded me of a group one of the guys I met in Australia works for. (I went in and asked the owner, but they aren't connected.) It all came together so I figured I would spend the night there and walk around the town. I know it was only a 90 kilometer day, but like I said I really wanted to see Croatia. I am ahead of schedule and I need to push myself to slow down sometimes.
I am so glad that I did. First, I booked into what is probably the best hostel I have ever stayed at. The building was old, the rooms and furniture were modern. It was clean and someone had really taken the time to think about what the guests would need. Like, each bed had its own power socket for charging electronic devices, and there were soap and towels by the sinks so you didn't have to bring your own soap each time you wanted to wash your hands. Frankly, I wish more hostels were like this.
Once I got my stuff put away, I took a walk around the town. I started off with the harbor. Rijeka has seen some hard times since the breakup of Yugoslavia. A lot of the shipyards are closed and the old port facilities aren't being used much anymore. However, there are a few new restaurants and a ferry terminal bringing life, which is good to see. I also took a stroll through the Korzo. That is the main walking square in the center of town. It reminded me a lot of Stephansplatz in Vienna. I guess it isn't that surprising, considering Rijeka itself was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for 450 years. Although, it was technically administered by the Hungarian part of the dual kingship, but anyway. It was a funny mixture of renaissance architecture combined with Times Square. I enjoyed just walking around and seeing people out walking or talking at the cafes and restaurants. I am so happy I stopped to enjoy the city.
Date: January 31st, 2016
Distance: Rest day
Today was another rest day for me. Right now I am a few days ahead of schedule, even though I started late. I have just been ripping across Europe and now it's time to start taking this trip more slowly. Most of the time here I spent relaxing, e-mailing people and writing more PHP for the website.
I did spend some time walking around Koper, though. It is one of the strangest cities I have ever been to. The heart of Koper is this quiet old town with narrow and crooked streets, but this is being consumed and swallowed up by a massive modern city all around it. Right outside the old town walls are wide thoroughfares and giant American-style shopping complexes, complete with a McCafe. Much of this modernity seems due to the Port of Koper. It is massive, and it's not just docks with containers stacked up. It also has gigantic lots with brand new cars destined for dealers all over central Europe. The area covers several football fields of land, to put it in perspective. I don't know if there is a better allegory for the historical and present colliding in this way. The changing face of Europe isn't just about immigrants from Turkey or Syria. More insidiously, it is about the slow creep of the 21st century into everyday life. The old city gates seem like poor defense against the consuming power of capitalism and modernization.
Date: January 30th, 2016
Song of the Day: 3rd Planet - Modest Mouse
I woke up before the sun today. The sun missed its appointment with the horizon, though, and remained hidden behind the mists. I set off with fog all around me. Looking out, it was hard to see where the fields ended and the sky began. The road appeared like a lonely causeway above the farm fields and it was as if I was riding on a vast ocean of tilled soil, the dark brown fading to white without a line in between. The early morning has had me waxing poetic again.
The fog stayed throughout the day, even as I left the flat fields and headed back up into the hills. You didn't think I would get to leave Italy without a few hills first, did you?
Just outside of Trieste I got back to where I could see the Mediterranean again. Or at least I could have if it weren't for the fog. Instead I was looking over a cliff at a wall of gray, like the world beyond hadn't been invented yet. Closer to Trieste I descended close enough to the shore to see the water. Still, the horizon was a vague blur somewhere out over the sea. No line, just a gradient between more and less wet.
It also began to rain on me. I was thinking that morning that it hadn't rained the whole time I was in Italy. Now, I know it is stupid to tempt fate that way, but I did it so of course it rained on me. Not too bad, though, it wasn't the kind of "soaked to the bone" rain I had been having before.
The weather certainly didn't stop me from crossing into Slovenia. Yes, new country day! It isn't just new for this trip, I have never been here before. (How many people do you know who have been to Slovenia?) It is strange to come to a totally new place. I found myself looking around with the wide eyes of a child, trying to take it all in and looking for any little clues of what is different or strange in this unfamiliar place. From here until I hit Turkey it will be all new to me. I am looking forward to it.
Date: January 29th, 2016
Song of the Day: Run - Vampire Weekend
I left Padua today and skipped right by Venice. I know that sounds crazy, but I have been there before. It is lovely and fun. It isn't very bikeable, though. I would love to return, but not this trip.
I have enough of canals anyway. This whole section of northern Italy is filled with them. It makes sense, canals were a main form of transportation before railways were invented. They would bring produce and other heavy goods to markets in cities. They also brought irrigation to fields, so it isn't very surprising to see them in an area this flat. Boy is it flat, though. Not much to look at, just a few abandoned farm houses along the way.
Date: January 28th, 2016
Song of the Day: Castle - Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
More flat. More fields. Not a whole bunch going on so I was thinking a lot, especially after going through Mantua. This is ground that Nepoleon fought over, and other invaders for a few thousand years before that too. It is also the birth place of the poet Virgil, but it was hard to get a sense of history about the place. It seemed so peaceful now, just little towns and farm fields these days.
In the afternoon I stopped to eat some food in a place called Montagnana, mostly because of this castle. I figured if I was going to stop, I might as well have something cool to look at. As neat as it was to look out from the outside, though, it actually got more interesting inside. I thought it was just a little castle but inside is a whole town with all the regular shops and houses. The place is shockingly large, too. Here is this vestige of the old world encircling a modern town, another strange blend of old and new.
From there it wasn't all that exciting coming into Padua. There were a couple of hills around. One seemed to have this spiral of old tombs lining the way to the fortress at the top, but it was too dark to really see what was going on. That is the sad part about a trip like this, there is always more to see and more to do. More questions than answers really. Our lives are always that way, we can only see and do so much. Better to make the most of it.
Also, here is a new one for today:
Date: January 27th, 2016
Song of the Day: Parted Ways - Heartless Bastards
Leaving Milan was slow. Not so much because of the city streets, but because I was looking for some bike shops to grab a spare set of tires. The last time, I found exactly what I was looking for on the first try. This time I visited 6 shops without finding what I was looking for. Annoying.
The rest of the day was pretty unremarkable. Flat roads. Farm fields. The smell of manure and cheese. Not much to do, so I started a new game. Matching an english word with and Italian word. It works like this:
Enjoy. Try it yourself. Here are some others I like.
If you think of any good ones, e-mail me and I will try to post a new list in a week or so.