Karlovac to Plitvice Lakes by Bike Day 2

The second official day of biking on this bike trip was from Karlovac to Plitvice.  In some ways, this could be considered my first official day getting into the real country of Croatia, and it was a great day of biking indeed.  I started out by leaving relatively early in the morning from the hotel in Karlovac, and was stocked up with some food and drink from the local supermarket.(The supermarket excursion was a super big trip in and of itself.  It seemed to be filled with communist era grandmas working the cashier stands etc… but great fun to check out none the less.  And there I was rolling around in my biking gear and saddle bags testing out what would fit inside)

Once on the saddle, my first task was to find the highway or road that was to take me all the way to my daily destination.  This didn’t turn out all too hard.  Actually, the road was a recently constructed new “highway” and that it was indeed.  It was nicely paved, and a treat to ride on.  But the best part of all was the bike lane was well marked most of the way, and that just made me feel great as I was still starting off this bike journey in Croatia, and all was still new.

I made a great pit stop on during the day’s bike ride at a side of the road restaurant.  This restaurant was one with a huge spit fire grill going presumably all the time.  The day I was there, they were in the middle of roasting a nice lamb, the entire lamb as well.  This was quite a treat to sit at one of the tables outside, right next to my bike, and  a few hundred feet off the road and to be able to watch the local Croatian guy cook up the lamb, that was going around and around.  I actually went up to him and asked him a few questions, and took some video with my video camera since this was all new to me.

If you are not in any hurry during your Croatian bike trip, I highly suggest getting off the coastal routes for a few days, and make your way up into the mountain towns and see what you can see.  A restaurant like this is always a super big treat, but especially after you have been bike riding for several hours during the morning, and you want to just kick back and relax for about an hour or so mid-day.

I ended up ordering fried trout and french fries, which was really tasty, and then got back onto my bike for the rest of the ride to the campground before the Plitvice Lakes.  This part of the ride took me through the town of Slunj, which is right off the highway, actually you bike right through the town if you are headed in the direction I was.  And, the best part is that there are all kinds of waterfalls in Slunj, some really big beautiful waterfalls that you can even see from the highway.  I didn’t stop in this town, as it was about 3:00pm when I was travelling through and there was actually quite a bit of hustle and bustle going on.  School kids were walking home from school, and some large trucks were making all types of noise, so I just kept on bike riding right through.

Eventually, towards the end of the afternoon, I did make it to the campground I was searching for.  I rode on in, and found the reception/administration part, and purchased one night’s stay by tent, and then off to the showers I roamed.  The campground itself was really really big, I guess it could accomodate a few thousand campers if it was in the middle of the summer during peak seasons.  One thing though, this campground was not filled with private campsites like I was used to being from the United States.  It was more like open fields where you picked a spot on the grass to setup your tent.  Either way, it was just fine, I set my bike up next to a tree, pitched the tent, and then off to the showers.

Zagreb to Karlovac by Bike Day 1

May 3rd, 2005

This was the first full day for me in the new country of Croatia.  Also, this was going to be my first official day of bike touring EVER.  My guess is that if you have ever gone on a bike tour, you can remember your first day pretty darn well.  That sure is the case for me.

The day started out early in the morning, maybe around 7am.  I woke up in the youth hostel that I spent the night at, took a quick shower, and ate my meal down in the cafeteria area with some other travelers.  I definitely did not get the best night sleep, but that is what you should expect with such a large time change and a new place etc…, but that wasn’t bothering me a bit.  I had to make it to Dubrovnik to catch a ferry and head to a wedding in Sicily, and time and distance was of the essence.  So off I went, out the door with my bike all loaded up, saddle bags attached to the rack, and a big grin on my face.  Also, a helmet on my head.

As is probably the case in any capital city on our planet, early morning is a tough time to be biking around, especially if you don’t know the area at all.  I was looking at my large map of the country, and trying to figure out how to get to Karlovac.  This was the city I was hoping to make it to to spend the night.  It appeared to be a potentially 30-40km bike ride for the whole day which isn’t too much, but a good warm up for my first day on the road.

As luck would have it, I would lick the pavement in the city of Zagreb within my first 30 minutes of starting off my first day’s bike ride.  That’s right, my first crash, and still my only crash(5 years later) but a minor crash none the less.  I was riding down a sidewalk, and there were all kinds of people in a small area getting ready to board a bus, and then the next thing I knew was I was heading over bike clips still attached.  Not a high speed situation, but embarrassing to the point where I jumped right back on the bike and sped away with a few tiny minor scrapes.  What happened was a real amateur mistake.  Mike bike bags that stick out about a foot on both sides, actually hit the building walls to my right and caused me to go the other direction and down I went.   Not a big deal, minor blood, and a few little scrapes.
So, once out of Zagreb, I was starting to get a true feeling for what it was like to be in a foreign land.  All alone, with a great mountain bike, great gear, and a camera or two to do some documenting.  I remember looking around all along, trying to figure out what the heck the deal was with the locals.  There were so many different things to look at.  It wasn’t too long until I was outside of the capital and felt like I was in farmland for good.  That’s right, small town farmers all around.  Old people who looked to be 80 years old, doing field work as though they were still in their twenties.  It was a sight to see.  And the greenery was great too.  It wasn’t all burnt out weeds everywhere like I was used to in much of California.

As you might imagine, there always comes a time where you want to make a quick pit stop.  For me, it wasn’t always about needing something to eat, or a question to ask.  It was more about wanting to go into some small shop and order a drink or a coffee, and just to talk with whoever was there, and to try and learn what the deal was wherever I was at.  That was always fun to me in Croatia, and has continued to be so much fun everywhere else.  But, as this was still my first day, I was always locking up my bike, making sure to keep my passport inches away from me at all times, and always watching out for every suspicious person.

After about 20 kilometers, it was finally time for lunch.  So I saw a small tiny restaurant in the town of Klinca Sela.  I wrote down on my map that I had lamb there, and it was actually not my favorite meal of the trip.  It was real real dry as I remember, but it was a treat to be at such a tiny place on the side of the road, so I didn’t care about the food at all.  And it was dirt cheap, so it was all a good memory.  But, within a few more minutes, I was back on the bike and headed for Karlovac at last.

When I finally did make it into the town, I was not sure where to go for lodging.   I had not learned any Croatian at this point, so my communication was either in English, or in sign language which I also do not know.  After riding around for about an hour, I came across a small hotel, and that is where I decided to spend the night.  As I remember, the cost was about $50 for the night, and that remained my most expensive lodging for the entire trip.  The best part of this was I met a guy who worked there named Marko and he spoke excellent English.  We both went out and had a drink later that night and I even saw him again in the morning.  Marko I would consider to be my first Croatian friend.  And as you may not expect, both Marko and I have probably emailed back and forth over 50 times in the past five years.  He is from Karlovac, and is a musician there.  He as well is planning on getting married to a girl from Zagreb in June of 2010.  So congrats to you Marko.

As for the town itself, I really can’t say I saw too much of Karlovac, I did walk around with my video camera the day I arrived in the evening and took some footage.  What I do remember was that it seemed to be quite a bit of a military type town.  And there also seemed to be some buildings that looked to be destroyed by the war or were just busted up pretty bad.  Some structures looked liked they had been bombed out in the not too recent past.  And there was a good amount of graffiti on some walls too.  The beer garden I went to was pretty interesting.  I didn’t strike up any conversation with any locals there, but that was just fine too.  Everyone seemed to be in a pleasant mood and I hope to make it back there someday to visit with Marko and his family.

Biking Conditions from Zagreb to Karlovac are excellent.  The roads are well kept, and there were plenty of places to stop for drinks and food on the way.  I do remember having a semi dangerous encounter with a chase dog, but he was not fast enough to get to me, I was pedalling pretty hard once he broke out of his sleep and ran after me though.

Biking From Gracac to Pag Island in Croatia

It was the end of May in 2005 when I biked from Gracac to Pag.  My goal was to get all the way to Novalja because it sounded like a seriously fun party town on the water, or at least that is what the guide book made it out to be.  But of course, you never really know what anything is going to be like until you do it yourself when you are on a bike trip.

As I spent the night in Gracac, I shoved off relatively early in the morning, and I remember going up some serious hills before things turned to downhill.  It was not so much forest as it was more barren red mountainous areas as I recall, and it was quite beautiful.  Most importantly, there were few if any vehicles on the road with me.  This was usually the case in most of Croatia, and that is one of the best parts of biking in this awesome country.  No vehicle traffic means you can actually hear what the natural life and sounds are, and it also gave me a sense of really being off the grid at times.

This stretch of biking was filled with a massive uphill and then a massive downhill towards the Adriatic Sea.  Once I neared the bottom of the downhill portion, things began to get somewhat tough.  There was some type of semi road construction going on before I got to Maslenica, and the pavement was not too good.  Looking back on the trip, this was one of the first times where the road conditions were sub par actually, so it was somewhat exciting to be biking on some nasty road finally.  I had expected this much more often, but up to that point it just never happened.

The cuttof to get to Zadar was another major crossing point in the day’s bike ride.  I took some time and figured out on the map where to go to head towards Pag Island, and there was actually some really great signs so it definitely was not too difficult.

I remember stopping at a small restaurant in a town that might have been called Razanac or Miletici.  It was  a hotel/bed and breakfast type place, and I sat outside where there was another couple and had lunch.  I was really hungry and it just turned out that this place was serving my new favorite meal.  Seafood pasta or Spaghetti Fruti de Mare.  Although Croatia is very different than Italy in many ways, there is some similarities as well.  One thing that is for sure is that the Croatian cooks surely know how to make seafood pasta.  This on many days turned into by lunch and dinner.  After a long morning or afternoon’s bike ride, there is something to be said to sit down to some fabulous seafood pasta with fresh calamari/clams/mussles and scallops and fish mixed in.  I can taste it now, and the price was always about 30 kuna or $5 at the time.

One thing to note, was at this restaurant, I started to notice that the weather was changing.  It was not getting very cloudy or raining, but it was getting VERY VERY WINDY!.  To the point where I had to grab my napkin off the ground and was worried that my bike would fall over from where it was laying often.  But, of course, I didn’t think anything of this wind.

After lunch, I got back on my bike, and was planning on making it over to Pag Island and eventually to Novalja or somewhere in between.  It wasn’t too long until the wind was blowing so hard that I started to have to lean to the right just to stay on the bike.  This was definitely something new to me.

And then there came a point where I came around a bend and the land/wall that was on my right got lower and I was much more exposed to the wind that was flying by, and somehow, I looked towards the Adriatic which was to my left, and my sunglasses flew off my face at about 30 miles per hour, went up before they went down, and probably landed about 200 feet away from me and have never been seen again.  Also at this time, I was straddling my bike on the side of the road, and leaning to the right(way over) just to maintain being upright.  The wind had to have been blowing 50-60 miles per hour now or more, and I was actually panicked and not sure what to do.  Little did I know, this was just a few hundred yards from the bridge that goes over to Pag Island.  And, there were several motorcycle bikers who were not allowed to pass over the bridge due to the high winds.  They have a little bridgetakers booth, where an older Croatian man was waiting and telling all 2 wheeled vehicles to stop and go back.  I was lucky enough to have someone who was waiting run out and help me get to safety(which was behind this little bridgetakers hut and out of the wind).  So there we were, I remember a Frech guy, who was also on bike, and a few motorcycle guys.  One of the motor cycle guys was named Josef, and he helped me out in a major way.  He actually owned a restaurant in Novaja which is where I wanted to go, and he told me a friend of his was to pick him up in a van and I could pack my bike in there too if I liked.  So, I took him up on the offer(this was my first time travelling by something other than bike or boat so far on the trip)

Everything worked out in the end.  I made it to Novalja, found a house to rent a room in(young guy named Marko lived there and took me around) and I even stopped into Josef’s restaurant my first night and ate with him and his friends, he wouldn’t let me pay a cent as is the usual Croatian way.

I decided to stay a few days in Novaja, and hung out with some of the locals, mainly Marko’s friends, even played some basketball with them, they kicked my butt but I blame that on me having to play in sandals.  And of course, I ate some Pag cheese.  This is some salty sheep cheese that the locals are very proud of.