Biking the Balkans: Is it cool to go cycling in Croatia?

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The kids look ready to leave Split, but as parents we have a few doubts.

Biking the Balkans: Is it cool to go cycling in Croatia?

Kirstie Profile Small Biking the Balkans: Is it cool to go cycling in Croatia?Split was the planned starting point for this summer’s four week biking expedition across the Balkans. But over three days in the city, the intensity of the experience made us nervous. Could we do this, with children, one of them riding for the first time on his own bike? Would we be able to complete our challenge given the conditions? And more to the point, could we or should we even begin cycling in Croatia?

Disorientation from the start

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A few days in Split has us wondering whether biking in the Balkan heat makes sense. Maybe bikes here are better used as decoration?

It’s not often we balk at a challenge we’ve committed to. It’s not often we question our journeys. But Split sees us almost falling at the first hurdle.

We arrive in the city late at night, in the sweltering heat, with Google Maps telling us our apartment is straight ahead. After half an hour trying to break into several blocks of flats, we have another go on the GPS and are sent half a mile down the road.

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This turns out to be where we find our apartment in Split. Not quite what we were expecting from the photos.

If I had to describe our accommodation, I’d say 1970’s Glasgow tenement, with residents straight from Little Britain. And that’s catching me on a fond moment. Our small flat is within the bowels of a high rise, set in a complex of high rises, on a busy main road. The community parking area is a hang out zone for people to smoke and drink in. Dogs wander freely. It’s so hot that everyone spends their whole evening on their balcony, or on a chair at ground level. Staring for hours into the middle distance.

Thankfully we have air conditioning in our sparsely decorated flat that looks like a student just moved out. (Actually, he did, to return to live with his parents.) Cold air is such a luxury that we all want to sleep on the sofa, located just below the air con system, a towel draped over the velour to hide the stains.

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Down outside the Old Town, the closed market isn’t much more welcoming.

Our bikes arrive

Just before dark on the second night in the city, our bikes arrive, strapped to the roof of a huge white van. Mike, the enigmatic driver, tumbles out with his family. Sweating profusely, he shouts instructions to his wife and his sister who are balanced on the roof, lugging and hauling. On the crowded balconies no one is staring into the middle distance any more.

Mike passes each bike to us with a running commentary about how beautiful the Balkans are and how dangerous it would be for us to ride them. A colourful list of top hits and near misses. His words scare me. As a professional driver his words carry weight. The local residents’ interest also tells me that cycle touring is not done much round here. I start to doubt our plans.

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Split Old Town just doesn’t do it for me. I am on edge and I don’t know quite why.

A burst of traditional tourism

In the morning, we escape our thoughts and head into the city to look around. We have heard of the beauty of Split’s Diocletian’s Palace; a walled city built in AD 305 for Emperor Diocletian; a Roman Empire reformer. The Palace-that’s-not-a-palace is a fortress-like structure of almost ten acres. Facing the Adriatic sea on one side, this UNESCO World Heritage site has survived two world wars and the death of Yugoslavia. It is one of the highlights of any trip to Split and we are keen to see it.

We are keen. The kids are not. They don’t want to leave the air conditioning. Their feet lag as we walk the short distance in the strong sun. I promise them the world wrapped in a city wall. But I can’t deliver on that.

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Split Old Town has its moments of glory too. But the kids aren’t interested in anything except cold water and ice cream. I totally get it.

Split reminds me of Morecambe Market

Split stinks. The historic palace smells like someone just peed on it. It is full of market stalls, and in sun drenched corners the detritus of yesterday’s trading rots away. Berry stained cardboard boxes are heaped on top of fly ridden fruit skins. Packed bars selling overpriced drinks spray water from lamp stands; enticing enough to draw you in. But in reality just smoke and mirrors; in the heat the water evaporates before it reaches you and your espresso.  Stallholders welcome you, until they realise you are browsing. There is a high price for the toilet, which also smells like a toilet. It all reminds me of Morecambe Market on a Saturday. Apart from the two Roman Soldiers, posing for photographs. Morecambe Market has no Roman Soldiers. Not on a Saturday. Meanwhile the human statues are not human. Someone has dumped a silver scarecrow on a chair and gone home. Children pop in a coin and then wait for it to do something. And wait. And wait.

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Staring at the Statue in Split Old Town. Is it alive? Or, like the Diocletian Palace, not quite as advertised.

Nerves set in

It’s probably our own fault that we don’t bond with Split. We make no effort to go into the museums. We don’t book ourselves into the National Theatre to sample the culture. We don’t even go shopping. We head out of the oppressive city walls to the waterfront, where the ferries come in and out, unloading more tourists with wheelie cases and smart summer clothes.

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Cooling off in the fountains outside the Diocletian Palace

Is it cool to go cycling in Croatia?

We try and fail to suck fresh air into our lungs. We buy drinks that fail to come with ice.  We dunk our heads in waterfalls and hope it will bring us to our senses. We eat pistachio ice cream but it melts away before our thirsty tongues can reach its frozen core.

And then we go back to our student digs and wonder if it’s cool to go cycling in Croatia in the height of summer? And whether we will be able to pedal an inch?

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Lamp Split Old Town. It kind of says it all.

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10 Responses to “Biking the Balkans: Is it cool to go cycling in Croatia?” Subscribe

  1. Trish September 20, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    This makes for quite uncomfortable reading. I followed each day with you on Facebook at the time, while melting in Austria with the same heat, but your experience was so gruelling at times. Quite amazing what you all achieved, particularly the children.

    • Stuart September 24, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

      Don’t worry, it wasn’t all like that! Although it was a bit of a rollercoaster and I think that’ll be reflected in our blog posts for the next couple of weeks. And thanks for following us on our journey. Next time can you follow us in an ice cream van?

  2. Thomas Arbs September 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Those weren’t the pictures you were posting live at the time. I almost feel a bit sorry, cheerfully posting away at how lovely it was in England in the meantime. Must’ve hurt.

    • Stuart September 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

      Thomas there are some things you don’t even admit to yourself and at that point I’m not sure we even voiced our apprehension to each other. We did suspect that it would get better, and it did when we got on to the delightful Hvar. And we loved to hear about your England exploits! Especially the soggy parts in the tent.

  3. Varun Kumar September 26, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    These pictures shows you guys are very adventures. Biking in the hill station also a very good experience. Please visit in India and take adventures biking experience with us.

  4. Antonio September 30, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    You really can’t handle city like Split?
    You admit that you didn’t go to museums, tried to see anything deeper from history of this 1 700 years old town, but you still think you have credibility to talk badly about it?
    Sorry, but if you go on adventure and write about how hot it is, because you can’t eat your ice cream because it melts (which is nonsense btw) I don’t consider you a worthy reading. Split is not Sahara, you know…
    And talking about dangers of cycling on Balkans, you made it sound like it is Middle East, or Amazon rain forest, in reality its not that dangerous you know…
    I am sorry if my reply made you feel bad, but your article made ME (as a person living in Split) feel like c*ap also.
    I fell you disrespected something that you know almost nothing about, and I am bit angry. Usually I don’t leave comments like this.
    But you have right to your own opinion, and I can’t change that. Maybe next time, try to embrace more of the culture of a place you are visiting?

    Disappointed greeting from Split

    • Kirstie September 30, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Hey Antonio, Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your honesty and your reaction too. And I’m sorry if I caused offence in my ungracious attitude to your home town. You know you are right, we didn’t stay long enough to give it a chance or get to know it. I’m also aware that sites which have World Heritage status have that for a good and well deserving reason. And on another day maybe I would have loved it.

      This piece was not meant to be a review of Spllt rather a piece about what was going on for me as we contemplated setting out on a long cycle journey with young kids. As a mother sometimes my reactions to a place are bound up in many things that are not necessarily about the place. Maybe I didn’t make this clear enough in the writing. And maybe you don’t find cycling in Split dangerous, but when we set out with a nine year old on his own bike, in the heat, for the first time, it FELT dangerous. Next time I’m in Split maybe we could meet up and you could show me how it is for you.

      • Brian August 20, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

        I must admit that I, too, am disappointed in this piece. It certainly doesn’t reflect what you claim to have intended. Phrases like “Split stinks” don’t immediately bring to mind the image of a concerned parent. It just comes across as whiny and entitled and crude.

        You sought cheap accommodations and were appalled that there were stains and poor people and lots of ugly architecture. You went cycling in a new city and couldn’t be bothered to check its history or climate on Wikipedia (which, incidentally, has a handy graph to show you that, yes, it’s actually quite hot in Central Europe that time of year). You went to a tourist hotspot and saw cheap hawkers and bad street performers. Shock.

        Honestly, though, these complaints don’t bother me much. I’ve committed the same sins. What bothers me is that you then flip these around so that they’re *Split’s* fault. They’re not. They’re yours.

        Did you talk with any of the “Little Britain” characters in those “tenements”? Most of them have fascinating stories to tell. And in a city as large as Split, I’m sure they all have their favorite little place they’d like to show you. What they don’t have much of, though, is money or job opportunities. So your mockery of them struck me as particularly crass.

        Did you speak to anybody other than Mike the Driver about cycling in Split? Because if you had, you’d have discovered that there’s actually quite the bike culture in town. Serious bike shops, knowledgeable mechanics, strong camaraderie… the works. Fellow cyclists would have steered you along the promenades to avoid car traffic. They’d have pointed you toward Marjan Park and Trogir and Varoš and Bačvice Beach and the scenic (and safe) roads out of town. I find it hilarious that you presumed to be the only family biking in Split. Thousands of people do it — without incident — every single day. Those people could have been a great resource for you.

        Did you bother to ask any locals about things to see in Diocletian’s Palace before you went on your cursory outing? Because if you had, they’d surely have told you about the churches or the concerts or the museums or the underground tour, which would have satisfied your apparently insatiable need for cool air as well as given you a greater appreciation for the history of the place (it *was* a palace, 1700 years ago, but a couple interesting things have happened since then). At the very least, you’d come across as much less flippant.

        I could go on, but I won’t. I hope you appreciate my point.

        My experiences in the Balkans have been the polar opposite of yours, and I suspect it’s all down to attitude. I have only ever found the people to be welcoming, gracious, and generous hosts who are eager — to an almost extreme degree — to show off the places and people and culture that make their homes special.

        This piece, on the other hand, comes across as willfully (almost gleefully) ignorant and painfully arrogant. In your rush to add an aura of danger to your “adventure” (seriously? you’re biking through one of the most touristed parts of Europe!), you unfairly smeared a city and did a serious disservice to those people. What’s the point of going someplace if you’re not going to make a serious go of meeting the people, staying with them, and learning their culture?

        Why not just watch a documentary instead? It’d save you the saddle sores and us the whining.

        • admin August 22, 2014 at 1:13 am #

          Brian, Sounds like we got this post wrong for you. Sorry about that. I’m glad to hear you had a richer, different and more positive experience. This is a strongly worded piece but rereading it now it still feels a representation of our experience there. Of course that is not the truth of the city and of course we are responsible for our experience and mistakes and we do in fact acknowledge that in the piece.

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