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.

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Omiš

Days 6 to 8 – Wednesday 3rd to Friday 5th August (0km)

After a hard year of work, one of the things we wanted to do this summer was relax a bit. Adventure holidays are fine, and we would have plenty of that in the coming days, but first a few days to unwind on the beach would be more than welcome, and Omiš was the perfect place for that.

Omiš lies at the mouth of the Cetina river, and its unique location, hidden from the open sea by the island of Brac and with the deep canyon of the river behind, made it a perfect hiding place for pirate.

Most people who visit Croatia go to Dubrovnik or the many islands that the country has, so the stunning pebble beaches in Omiš are rather quiet, with mostly Croatian holidaymakers and a few Hungarians, Austrians and Poles. You can enjoy an excellent fish or seafood dinner in the center at a very reasonable price and accommodation is also cheap.

We got an apartment across the road from the beach and then found a small secluded beach on the other side of the river mouth, just outside the city, with crystal clear water and shade from the trees right on the shore. Because there was barely any sand there, the place was also mostly blessedly kid-free, so it was really quiet. Perfect for a bit of swimming, reading and relaxing.

With our beach half an hour on foot from the apartment and the city center even closer than that, the bike spent all our time here safely chained under a tree in the garden, all the best taking into account how bad traffic is. If you decide to visit Omiš, come here by bike or of you do it by car, get an apartment that is within walking distance from the beaches and the center, or you’ll go crazy. The coast road cuts through the center, and there is only one narrow bridge to cross the Cetina river with jwo junctions on either side of it leading to two roads going into the canyon along the river, and with high hills right behind the town, there is no room to build a bypass. This means that traffic crawls so slowly through the city that it is actually faster to cross it on foot.

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On the last night we had dinner with some good friends who live in London and who were also on holiday in Croatia, Josep and Mona. He had seen on the blog that we were around here, and they were on their way to Split to take a plane back home on Saturday, so they made their last stop in Omiš and we shared a great evening together.

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Objekat 505

Day 5 – Tuesday 2nd August – From Korenica to Omiš (325km)

When travelling, talk to the locals, always talk to the locals. They are a source of information a thousand times more valuable than any published guide or regular travel website if you want to discover interesting things.

There are is no local bus connecting Korenica to Plitvice natural park, so to get back home at the end of the previous day visit we had wait at the bus stop outside the park for one of the regular line coaches that go from Zagreb to Zadar or Split and hope that there were free seats, which did not seem very likely in view of how many Japanese tourists and backpackers were also waiting with a booked seat. When the coach arrived it was full, but fortunately, even though Croatia had been a EU member for about three years, the health and safety obsession that seems prevalent in most member countries had not yet made it into people’s lives here, so we were just told that we would have to stand on the aisle. A Japanese tourist got off at the first stop, freeing up a seat for Nat, and then a local guy who was seating at the front, in the guide’s jumpseat, chatting to the bus driver, invited me to seat with them.

We quickly got talking about motorbikes and places to visit in the region, and then he pointed out the left side windows at a mountain with some antennas on top and told me that it was Plješevica Mountain, the tallest in the region. Then, in a more hushed tone, he said that hidden behind the mountain there was a ‘secret airport’. On the map of the natural park and its surrounding that we had been given earlier I had seen a couple of long straight lines that looked like runways and that the border line between Croatia and Bosnia, which generally followed the watershed line along the mountins, turned into the Bosnian side to encompass them in Croatian territory, but there were no labels indicating that it was an airport or that it was in use. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued, but before I could ask for more information his mobile phone rang and he got engaged in a conversation that was still going on when we reached our stop.

Back at the apartment I checked Google Maps, but there was nothing there other than a couple of small villages off the road crossing into Bosnia. Switching to satellite view, however, revealed a sort of access road from one of the villages and what seemed to be at least five runways.

Screenshot_2016-08-03-15-50-44Screenshot_2016-08-03-15-50-25The OSM map on my Garmin confirmed this, and by now I was determined to go and find out what it was. Googling the name of the mountain, I finally found some more information.

It was not an abandoned airport, but a military base, called Željava Air Base and codenamend ‘Objekat 505’, built between 1948 and 1968 as an early warning radar system for the former Yugoslavia, with a radar station at the top of Plješevica Mountain and an airbase buried deep at the base of the mountain that housed Mig fighter jets inside nuclear bomb-proof facilities. The base saw heavy use during the Balkan War, and when the Yugoslav People’s Army fled the area, they destroyed the runway and the tunnel complex with tonnes of explosives. Today the base is completely abandoned and easily accessible from the nearby village of Željava.

‘Easily accessible’ does not imply that it is safe nor advisable to do so. Being a military facility, the area was heavily mined, and those mines have still not been cleared today. Inside, the structure was heavily damaged by the detonation of more than 56 tonnes of explosives, and there are large amounts of cancirogenig PCB dust and radioactive americum from the destroyed fire detection system. Right, so the only thing left to do was explain to Nat that we were going to be a few hours late to the beach in Omiš. And not mention the landmines.

20160802034714Thanks to the OSM maps we found our way to the town of Željava very easily after a nice ride to the other side of the mountaing range, and from there a narrow road that the vegetation on both sides was eating up led to a rusting gate that marked the entrance to the complex. Next to it, the first surprise of the visit, standing in the overgrown bushes – a DC3.

20160802033913We got off the bike and I told Nat not to walk outside the paved areas or paths that had been clearly trodden before because there were mines everywhere. She gave me her worst ‘divorce’ look.

20160802033726Riding on past the gate and with more bushes and trees closing on the road, we reached the intersection of the three main runways, and to our right, the entrances to the underground complex.

20160802041640 20160802035253 20160802035408 20160802035520The central one was specifically designed for fighter jets, and on the other two the damage from the explosions was clearly visible, with huge chunks of thick reinforced concrete hanging from the arched ceiling and part of the enormous concrete and steel pressure doors lying on the ground.

20160802035701 20160802034859I had a powerful torch with me and started to wander down the tunnel, but the air was rarified, and a picture with flash revealed the amount of dust in suspension in there, so I did not want to venture any further in without wearing a mask. We’ll have to come back someday before the EU hears about the place and orders it shut.

20160802035823We then rode on a fourth runway that cut across the border between Croatia and Bosnia. Halfway through it there were some concrete blocks that prevented us from riding any further and signs on both sides forbidding the crossing, but there was no surveillance. Here we are one on each side of the border, Nat in the EU and me outside of it.

201608020414202016080204124420160802041152After that we made a full power run of the main runway on the motorbike (who wouldn’t!) and happy not to have been blown to oblivion by some forgotten landmine, we headed back to Korenica and the road south to Omiš.

20160802042249Since my first visit to Croatia, the motorway that crosses the country roughly following the coast has practically been completed, taking most traffic away from the B roads that used to be the only way of getting around the country. This meant that roads that were previously hell to travel in (hours stuck behind lorries and slow moving traffic) were now gloriously empty. If you come to Croatia by bike, stay away from the motorway, the roads and the landscape in the interior are a gem.

20160802060217We got to Omiš by mid afternoon in 35-degree heat and were delighted to find that the woman we were renting the apartment form greeted us with a couple of chilled beers. I love this Croatian custom!

After unloading the bike and a cold shower, we changed clothes and took a walk to the centre to start our four-day beach break with a huge fish platter.

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Rocky beaches and seafood

Day 61 – Saturday 24th of August – Omis (0km)

We got up very late, happy not to have to wake up to sound of the alarm clock at 7 am for another day of riding, and spent the day doing what I had come to Croatia to do – nothing.

We took the sleeping mats and our books and headed down to the beach. We were in an area just two kilometers from Omis, with a lot of apartments, and we were a bit afraid that the beach might be too crowded, as beaches are somewhat hard to find in Croatia, most of the coast are just jagged rocks where it is very hard to take a swim, but it was a very nice surprise to find that there was a lot less people than we had feared and the atmosphere was very quiet and relaxed. We laid down our mats and spent the whole day sunbathing, reading and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea.

In the evening we rode to the center to find a place to have a seafood dinner. I had spent one of the best holidays of my life in Croatia years back, and one of the things I remembered most fondly was having such a meal in Omis.

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We found a nice restaurant in a narrow street in the old town, and enjoyed a huge platter of fresh seafood and fish. After that we bought a couple of ice creams and then walked up a steep narrow path cut into the rock to the town’s fortress, where a concert was just finishing. It was already dark and there was a beautiful view of the city from the top.

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Riding back to the apartment, I remembered how, when I was preparing the trip and seeing that I had no budget left for a pair of extra spotlights for the motorbike, I had told myself that I would not ride at night, and here I was, not only riding at night, but riding in shorts, flip-flops, a short-sleeved shirt and a passenger. After so many days of stifling heat and freezing cold in the bulky riding suit, feeling the warm sea breeze on my arms and legs was a wonderful sensation.

The Mostar Bridge

Day 60 – Friday 23rd of August – Sarajevo to Omis (290km)

It was not a long way to Croatia, but we set off early because we wanted to stop and visit Mostar and its famous bridge and also because we had not booked anywhere to stay in Croatia, the plan was to get to the coast and then ride north until we found a place we liked and try to find an apartment or a room there, as there is a lot of offer and it should not be difficult to find something.

Riding out of Sarajevo we discovered that it is a much bigger city than we had imagined when we were visiting the center, it extended to the south before turning into suburbs and industrial areas and then the hills closed around us again and we were on twisty roads, enjoying the nice weather. After a while the road wound its way into a canyon following a river that further down flowed under the bridge in Mostar. The scenery was amazing, a winding road along an emerald river with majestic grey-white cliffs on both sides. When the canyon finally opened into a wider valley we found the town, or rather city. It was bigger than I thought, in fact it is the fifht biggest city in the country, and as usual, we rode through some uninteresting suburbs before finding the old town. We rode down a cobbled street following the signs that pointed towards the Stari Most until we came to a point where we could not ride any further. I was turning the bike around to go back up the street and find a place to park when a boy gestured me to ride onto a bar’s terrace where there were already four motorbikes parked. It seems the owner of the bar, seeing the country was a popular destination for riders, had smelled business and decided to use the terrace as parking space. We left the bike in the shade and under the eye of the barman for a couple of Euros (that price was for the whole day if we had wanted to stay) and walked a few meters down the street to find the bridge.

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The first impression was that it was a very crowded tourist spot, there were a lot of people standing on the bridge, so many in fact that it was difficult to make our way onto it, but then we saw the reason so many people had congregated at the same time on the bridge itself and on both banks – a young man in swimming trunks was getting ready to jump off into the ice cold river below. He dosed himself with cold water from a hose to get ready, stepped over the railings, clapped his hands a few times to get everybody cheering and flexed his legs as silence fell over the crowd watching. Then he jumped up and forward, spreading his arms like wings and arching his back as he stood in the air for a fraction of a second before plunging into the river more than 20 meters below. It seems that it is traditional for young men to dive from the bridge into the river, there are formal competitions organized every summer, a diving club in a house by the bridge, and it dates all the way back to the bridge’s construction, in the 16th century.

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We visited the rest of the old town, including an exhibition with photographs of the city before, during and after the war, and a video of the destruction of the bridge. During the Bosnian war, the town saw fighting between the army of Bosnia I Herzegovina and the Croatian army on one side, and the Yugoslav’s People Army. The Croatian army bombed and destroyed the bridge claiming that it was of strategic importance, although the action is mostly considered to be an act against Bosnian cultural heritage. After the war it was reconstructed and it stands as a symbol of the union between cultures in the country.

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We left the town under the intense summer heat and stopped one last time before crossing the border to spend what we had left of Bosnian money on petrol and a bottle of water; we had some lunch sitting in the shade of some trees by the petrol station and then rode to the border. The crossing was the easiest one I had done outside the EU – I handed the guard the passports, and the moment she saw they were EU passports she waved us through. After a short ride we finally saw the sea, and started making our way up the coast. We had decided to skip Dubrovnik, as it meant riding almost 90km south and then back up again, I had already seen the city and it was swarming with tourists this time of the year, as all Mediterranean cruises call on its port. Instead, we decided to try and get as close as possible to Split. By late afternoon we had made it to Omis, a beautiful fishing town a few kilometers from Split and once a pirate haven, where we tried to find accommodation. The idea was to try and rent a room in the center, so we could walk back to bed if we went out for dinner or for a beer, but all the places where we asked were out of our budget. In the end we rode for just a couple of kilometers out of town and found an apartment with a view to the sea, two minutes away from the beach on foot and with internet connection at a very reasonable price, so we took it for four nights.

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