Friday, June 29, 2012

A Day on the Road: Figuring out the route

As we near Dubrovnik, we need to answer the question: where to next? 

Leaving home, our plans were only: one month to Vienna, one month to Dubrovnik, one month to Istanbul. The first section of the route was easy - follow the Rhine and Danube. Arriving in Vienna, we started to daydream about ways to get to Croatia. 

We consulted our guidebook and the internet, especially bike touring forums. For a few days, we considered continuing along the Danube river to Hungary (the easy, flat path) and other detours that would mean we had to bike long days. But we finally decided that we really wanted to see some of the Alps, and planned a route south to Slovenia then along the coast in Croatia.

The route is definitely not set in stone. Advice from a fellow cyclist in Slovenia convinced us to climb Mount Zavizan rather than just continuing along the Croatian coast. And finding that we could not take our bikes on the high-speed ferries changed which islands we would/could visit.

Even on a daily basis, we stay flexible. Each morning, we set a goal, typically about 60-80 km away, using our road maps, and GPS (loaded with bike-specific maps and campsites). The GPS can show us the hills we’ll face that day, and we can try to find ways around them if we want. By mid-afternoon, we can decide on a new destination depending on our progress.

So… planning the route to Istanbul… We can consider routes starting in Bosnia or Montenegro, then Macedonia, Albania and/or Serbia, then Greece and/or Bulgaria… And only a couple days left to decide.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The coolest little campsite!

We just stayed at the coolest little campsite – for tents only! The sites are on a steep terraced slope down to the beach. Each spot has an area for a tent, and above it has an concrete balcony sheltered by vines, for meals and lounging. We went for a swim in the small bay below the campsite, and finished the day at the beachside bar.

We’re so happy to have found this little gem, and to have had many other enjoyable experiences in Croatia. After the ‘undiscovered’ feel of Slovenia, we had prepared ourselves for masses of tourists headed to the coast. We pictured large resort hotels with towns taken over by entirely German or British (etc) crowds, as you tend to find elsewhere on the Mediterranean.

Instead, there have been lots of family-run local apartments and rooms for rent, and the tourists on the beaches are a mix – Western Europeans, but also lots of locals, and from all around the Balkans.

Even at the tourist hotspots – like these amazing Krka waterfalls – we don’t feel overrun, and you can find some space for yourself.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The morphing coastal landscape

The Croatian coast is stunningly beautiful, with tall mountains rising up from the bright blue sea and many islands. But we’ve been surprised that the landscape seems to change with every passing hour. 

We'll be biking along beside arid mountains covered in small shrubs...  .

...when we come across a lush patch of forest...

...then it transitions to a barren moonscape of white rock...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What a difference 10 degrees makes...

Over a couple days, our trip dynamic has changed dramatically. For most of our trip, we've had a slow start to the day while we wait for the condensation on the tent to dry and we've been stopping for cover whenever it rains.

But the temperatures on the coast of Croatia are at least 10°C warmer (daytime high of 34°C), so now the focus is on staying cool. We get up at dawn and aim to leave the campsite before 7:30, and find shade in the early afternoon for a long siesta. The days are long and sweaty, but we can usually cool off with a swim in the evening.

Even at these temperatures, we managed to climb our tallest mountain yet (1600 m up from the sea), so we're feeling good about managing the heat still to come.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is Slovenia the perfect country?

Although a few people had recommended a stop in Slovenia, we really had no idea what to expect.  It turns out to be a lot like its neighbours, Italy and Austria, in terms of architecture, quaint villages and good infrastructure. With courteous drivers to boot.

And Slovenia abounds in unspoilt nature.

Maybe we’re just suckers for forests, mountains and waterfalls, but we had a great time in the Julian Alps. We stayed beside Lake Bohinj and hiked a beautiful steep path up to the Valley of Seven Lakes (which left us dreaming of continuing right up to the summit of Mt. Triglav).

And we biked over an awesome mountain pass to the Baci river valley.

And further south, we visited the most incredible system of caves and canyons.  An underground river carved out the chambers, which are now also covered with stalactites and stalagmites. Apparently, over 10,000 caves have been found in Slovenia, with several hundred more discovered each year!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Rain started its relentless attack shortly after we arrived in Slovenia. We awoke one morning to heavy rains that trapped us at the campsite all day.

Thinking we could outrun him, we jumped on the train to cover 400 km to northwest Slovenia. But Rain followed us. No sooner had we stepped off the train than the drops started falling. We quickly threw up our tent and clambered inside.

And for three straight days, Rain lay siege to our tent. He threw everything at us - constant rain, thunder, lightning, hail. But we stayed dry in our tent - playing games, reading, eating, and even watching tv and surfing the web.

Finally, Rain gave up. As we got up this morning, the clouds were gone and it was a sunny day. We immediately set off for a hike up the side of a nearby mountain. The path was steep and tricky, but the views of the green lake below were breathtaking.

But as we reached the summit of our hike, we realised that something was wrong. Rain hadn't given up. He was hiding on the other side of the mountains. It was a trap. We had been lured out of our safe tent.

As the clouds filled the skies, we hurriedly descended the switchback path. But not fast enough. Out in the open, we had no protection from the assualt of thundershowers and hail. By the time we made it back to the trailhead, we were soaked to the bone.

We've made it back to the protection of our tent, and I'm not sure when we'll next venture out.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The hills are alive...

Since leaving the riverside paths in Bratislava, we have been crossing the eastern edges of the Alps. This has meant a lot more climbs. Thankfully, the first month of cycling has given us the strength and stamina for them.

Climbing certainly slows us down (to about 6 km/h, not much faster than walking), but we're rewarded by amazing vistas and we make us some of the speed on the way back down...

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Is Austria the perfect country?

Austria has amazing scenery...
So much forest! And mountains! And castles! What's not to love?

Austria has cycling-themed beer...
A 'radler' (or 'cyclist') is a blend of beer and lemonade, that's perfect after a long day of cycling. (* this was also available in Germany, but it seems much more omnipresent here).

Austrians are very kind...
From passersby who stopped to chat with us whenever we looked lost, to our friendly host in Vienna who invited us to see her hometown, to the kind old lady running a campsite who thought we'd be cold in our tent and insisted we use one of the campers at no-charge, we found that Austrians are actively friendly and generous.

Austria has public hammocks!

Monday, June 04, 2012

A Day on the Road: Morning

I wake to the sound of birds singing in the trees and daylight lighting up the inside of the tent. After a quick scurry to the toilet, I come back to wake Anthony. It’s the beginning of another day on the road. We get dressed and I start packing up sleeping bags, mats and clothes as Anthony gets out to make breakfast. By the time I’ve packed away the last sleeping mat, Anthony calls me for breakfast. Almost every morning, breakfast is oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon, sugar and sometimes fresh fruit and coffee. Although it’s a simple breakfast, we linger over it, enjoying the warmth and how it sticks to our ribs. A full day of cycling calls for a filling breakfast.

Most mornings the fly is wet from condensation and/or rain, so if it’s remotely sunny we try drying it as much as possible before taking down the tent. In the meantime we divide tasks, one of us does dishes, the other continues packing. Once the fly is dry, the tent is taken down and folded up. After brushing our teeth and filling up our water bottles, we unlock our bikes and start loading the bikes with panniers. Sunscreen is applied, bike gloves and helmets are pulled on, and then we’re off for another day on the road.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Wind-Bike Route

It may not be the combination that most cyclists are looking for, but the Austrian "Wind-Bike Route" (Windradweg) seems custom-designed for Anthony.

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Friday, June 01, 2012

Is Slovakia the perfect country?

Is it fair to judge a country after a stay of less than one day? Probably not if that visit was dominated by traversing the outskirts of its biggest city (Delhi is not a fair reflection of India, nor Toronto of Canada). So we’ll have to reserve our verdict on Slovakia until after a longer visit in the future…

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Bratislava at its best and worst