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
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, through no fault of its own.
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.
Not what we were led to expect
Expectations are everything and somewhere along the line we got ours mispcalibrated. 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 irritable 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. At what I don’t know.
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. It’s not pretty but it will do.
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 who knows the area well his words carry weight. The local residents’ interest also tells me that cycle touring is perhaps not a mainstream activity around here. I start to doubt our plans.
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 don’t seem to be able to deliver on that for them.
Split reminds me of Morecambe Market
Split is showing its age, at least when it comes to the palace drains. 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.
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.
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?