Do not trust first impressions

Day 11 – Monday 8thAugust – From Dubrovnik to Kotor (107,1km)

Today I woke up with the excitement of crossing a border into a country I had never been to before – Montenegro.

We loaded the bike, which as I said on the previous post was parked in the car park of a shopping centre and rode down the ramp that led to the road to find that unlike the weekend, the boom gate was down and there was a guard in the booth. I had seen a sign detailing the prices per hour and more importantly, the price in the event of losing the ticket, and I definitely did not want to pay that so when we saw that the guard was busy with a driver who was paying his stay we seized the chance to slip out through the gap between the boom and wall and zoom down the street without looking back. We’ll be at the border before they realise, kid.

20160808025014And we were soon indeed at the border after a quick ride up the fort to snap
a panorama of the city. Anticipating long queues again we had set off early and taken a road south of the main one which followed the coast in order to avoid traffic. We were not sure whether there was a border crossing on that road or not, or if it would be open to traffic, for that matter. There were no other cars on the road, which was really beautiful, winding its way down to the green slopes overlooking the Adriatic. After enjoying the road for a while we came to the Croatian border, with only two cars waiting in front of us, and were let through very quickly.

Two corners down the road we found the Montenegrin border, where there three cars waiting, but the police there took things a lot more slowly, taking each car’s passports into the building and coming back out again a good while later. We waited patiently in the sun, with the temperature rising as the day advanced, until we were finally cleared through and arrived in the first big city on the other side, Herzeg Novi, ten minutes later, joining the traffic that was coming from Croatia on the main road. At the first petrol station we saw we found a sticker for the bike (the old Suzy doesn’t have this one!).

20160808041713We were at the entrance of one of the most beautiful and remarkable places in the Adriatic – the Bay of Kotor, an intricate bay surrounded by mountains that reach over 1000m above sea level, and which forms what might be the only fjord in the Mediterranean area. All along its winding coast, over 100km of a road I was quite looking forward to.

Unfortunately, unlike other roads that have built up great expectations in me, this one turned out to be a bit of a disappointment… the road itself is great, but it is the main thoroughfare in the area, and this time of year it sees heavy traffic. We spent most of the journey stuck behind slow traffic or not moving at all each time the road crossed a town, there was constant traffic coming the other way and it was too narrow to try and ride down the middle as I did in the Bosnian border. By the time we got to Kotor, where traffic was at its absolute worse, and turned off the road to find the apartment, I was glad we did not have to ride all 100km of it. There is a ferry that crosses the bay at its narrowest point, saving about half the trip, but I did not take it because I had read that the road was worth it. If you come here in the midst of the summer tourist season, I would take it.

Our apartment was perched on the mountain side with a stunning view of the bay, Kotor’s old town and the fortress and its walls. To get there I had to ride some of the steepest streets I have ever seen (and those who know where I used to live know how steep the streets were there). This was Nat’s first contact with far Easter European architecture – haphazard, grey, functional, partly unfinished… and she was not impressed with the place at all.

2016080810222520160808102503Only after seeing the apartment, which was the best we had found so far, and taking a walk in the afternoon in the beautifully preserved medieval old town did she start to like Montenegro. The heat and traffic jams on the way here had not helped either, so to compensate that we went for a swim in the town beach, which had amazingly clear water for a beach that was right next to a harbour where big cruise ships moor.

2016080811255620160808115859With the sun and the temperature going down we felt brave enough to dare a visit to the fortress and the city walls, an impressive feat of medieval engineering that protected the city from attacks from the mountains. The wall clings to the mountain face almost vertically behind the city, culminating in a fortress with a commanding view of the city below, the bay beyond and the mountains behind.

20160808132406Even this late in the day, with the sun behind the mountains, the temperature was quite high, and we reached the top exhausted and drenched in sweat, but the views were definitely worth it.

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King’s Landing

Day 10 – Sunday 7th of August – Dubrovnik (0km)

King’s Landing and also thousands of tourists’ landing, as Dubrovnik is one of the most popular destinations on the Mediterranean area, both for cruise ships and people coming by car, bus, plane and even hitchhiking.

That steady stream of people constitutes the main revenue of the city, which reflects on the prices for accommodation. The cheapest we could find was a room in a house about 20 minutes on foot from the old town, with a shared bathroom and kitchen, which was not bad, but compared to what we had found so far it doubtlessly was the worst value for money. It was only accessible from a pedestrian alley, so the closest I could get the bike was the car park of a shopping centre opposite the house where it spent the night chained to a metal staircase.

DCIM123GOPROWe had considered visiting the island of Mljet, which Josep had highly recommended, but the weather forecast for the day looked grim – strong winds, thunderstorms and showers again, so we decided to stay and visit the city, which was the plan for the previous day if the journey had not taken so long.

20160807033855Despite being packed full of people on the summer season, the old town is definitely worth the visit. Surrounded by high and thick stone walls, its streets are a labyrinth of narrow and steep backstreets and alleys where one can easily get lost and find rare corners away from the hustle and bustle of the main streets and wander around without seeing other tourists. It takes time to explore the whole city, even more if you want to take a tour of the walls or visit its many museums.

20160807122241Shortly after crossing the main gate it started to rain, so we followed a French cruise party into what seemed to be a memorial to the citizens that had given their lives defending the city during the war. The girl at the entrance assumed we were part of the group, so we saved a few Kuna that would later be reinvested in a cold beer, and we benefited from the guide’s explanation about how the city had suffered the war.

The old town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, and even though as early as 1970 the whole city was demilitarised so that it would not be target in the event of an armed conflict, in 1991 it was attacked and besieged by the Yugoslavian People’s Army following the declaration of independence of Slovenia and Croatia. At that time the country did not have a regular army, so it was down to the citizens to defend the city for the seven months that the siege lasted, until it was liberated by the newly-founded Croatian Army, created from the police force. The shelling of the city had a devastating effect, and even though most of it has been restored today, it is easy to see the extent of the destruction if you visit the fort that overlooks the city, from where many new roofs can be spotted in the old city.

20160808031654There is plenty to see and do if you have the time and the money – boat trips to the islands, great restaurants, a couple of bars perched on the rocks outside the walls facing the sea, beautiful beaches, night promenades… You can even take a Game Of Thrones tour. No wonder the city attracts so many people these days.

As usual, a lot more pictures on the Facebook page.

Riding 30km on the wrong side of the road

Day 9 – Saturday 6th August – From Omiš to Dubrovnik (209km)

It was supposed to be an easy ride today, just 209km of nice coast road to be in Dubrovnik by mid morning with plenty of time to make the most of the day and visit the city, but things don’t always turn out as we would like.

The weather forecast announced cloudy skies with a chance of thunderstorms by noon, which I was actually quite happy with, as I did not want to ride in the heat of the last three days, particularly when there was a border to cross where we might be made to wait in the sun. After a stormy night with heavy rain the day started cloudy but dry, and we had the bike ready to go by 9:00 when the owner of the apartment building came to see us off. The previous evening, when we had gone down to his apartment to pay our stay, he had invited us to a glass of a red wine he made himself and he had told us a bit about his life. He had been working in Germany for 30 years, and had built the apartment block with the money he had earned there as an investment for his retirement. He did not speak any English, but he got his story across with what little German I remembered from university. The wine was rather good, and seeing that we liked it, he gave us a bottle as a goodbye present and told us to be ‘very careful with the wind for the first 20km or so’ on the coast road. ‘Langsam, langsam!’

20160806042020The moment we left Omiš it was clear that his warning was not to be taken lightly. Not since the fist day of my frustrated trip to Mongolia had I experienced such bad winds on the bike. The jagged coast and the winding road meant that the strong winds blowing from the sea buffeted in all directions, making it difficult to predict where the next gust was going to come from, and we had a few heart-stopping moments when a gust caught us from the wrong side while leaning through a tight corner. After only a few kilometres the sky ahead was completely black and we could see bolts of lighting striking the water and the cliffs relentlessly. It really did look like doomsday up ahead. As I was having these thoughts while fighting to keep the bike from being blown onto oncoming traffic or over the armco and into the sea, I felt a not-so-gentle tapping on my helmet – Nat had put her foot down and refused to continue riding in those conditions.

I stopped the bike and by happy coincidence there was a restaurant right across the road where we took shelter from the wind after parking the bike securely to make sure it would not be blown onto its side by the wind. With a cup of coffee and Wi-Fi to check the forecast, we studied our options, which turned out to be rather limited. Nat squarely refused to get on the bike again, so we could not brave it and go on to try to ride through the windy bit and the storm ahead and neither could we go back to Omiš to spend the day there in the hope that the following day conditions would be better. So we sipped our coffee and waited for almost two hours.

When the wind finally died down we rode on until we found the first road inland – we were heading for the motorway and away from the coast road in an attempt to escape the wind.

It worked, there was almost no wind there, but the moment we had collected the ticket from the toll booth and were pulling onto the motorway, the skies opened and the wraith of God fell upon us in the form of a deluge. We stopped at the first service station we found, but our supposedly water proof gear was already soaked halfway through. We spent another two hours there, watching the rain fall and other miserable bikers come and go while we chatted to a Dutch guy who had friends in MotoGP.

20160806064306Seeing that thing were not going to change anytime soon, we hit the road again and to our delight conditions improved a bit by the time the motorway ended in Ploče and we started heading down the coast again towards Dubrovnik.

We were more than halfway there, the rain had stopped and the wind too, but it was too soon to claim victory – there was one more obstacle to overcome. The region of Dalmatia, which comprises more than half the total lenght of the Croatian coast and at the southern tip of which Dubrovnik is located, is actually cut in two by a small Bosnian corridor that gives that country access to the Adriatic sea. This means that to get there you have to cross a border into a non-EU country, ride for about 10km and then cross another border back into Croatia. If you think this is a hassle, you are right. Now add to that thought the fact that we kkare talking about a narrow two-way coast road that cuts through all towns and villages and which is the only way to get to southern Dalmatia. In the midst of the high summer season.

Our friend Josep had told us that he had spent three hours to get through the border, but we were not expecting to find traffic completely stopped 20km from the border. O n top of that, it started raining again, so I did not think twice and did the only thing I could do – change onto the opposite lane and ride towards incoming traffic. For 20km I rode on the wrong side of the road, pulling in between stopped cars when something big was coming the other way, like a coach or a lorry (or a police van), and then for 10km more in Bosnia, where the traffic jam continued because there was another border to cross down the road. Had I not done that we might still be waiting there stuck in traffic and soaking through and through.

Just before crossing the border back into Croatia we stopped at a Bosnian petrol station to honour the tradition of getting a country sticker for the bike, which has to start earning them. It was the second this trip, the first one having been obtained in Croatia that morning.

For the last 30km before Dubrovnik both the weather and the traffic finally cleared, even though the strong winds made an unwelcome return. We finally made it to our guesthouse at almost 19:00, got the cases off the bike and went for a night visit of the old town.