This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Adventure Cyclist. To receive a year's subscription as well as a host of other benefits, join Adventure Cycling today.
We pedaled from Croatia’s southern tip, on the Adriatic Coast, north to the mountains and into Bosnia and Herzegovina. After crossing the border, a curtain of charcoal gray clouds and rain gathered and began to creep behind us, swallowing up blue sky as it went. Over the next few days, the storm would reappear at intervals in our rear view. It was, however, polite — like a shy stray dog. It played hide-and-seek between bluffs and across plateaus. It sniffed at our group. It even mustered the courage to lick our legs a time or two.
For the most part, the storm remained at a safe distance from our gaggle of six cyclists during the five-day, 260-kilometer (161-mile) cycling tour from seaside Dubrovnik to the ancient Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. All the same, the weather system’s existence was important; it provided both a siren song and a Pavlovian reminder. The deep mauve clouds were mesmerizing — swirling above craggy hills and sweeping through green river valleys — but the lesson was clear: stay focused and roll forward. Stay ahead of the squalls enveloping the immediate past and remain in the now. We were conditioned to keep our collective eye on the fresh landscape, the path ahead of our front tires, and each new dawn as we rode into the future and the heart of the Balkans.
As with any cycling tour, each new dawn meant our posse was busy gobbling down breakfast, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and stuffing jerseys with energy bars. From the outset, however, there was something different about this journey. We were riding across one of the continent’s rare undeveloped and unsullied multiborder regions. Gardens and fruit trees aproned solitary stone houses at the base of the Dinaric Alps that cut across the Western Balkans. Free-roaming goats in meadows of wild yellow lilies and blue anemones didn’t bother looking up from their nibbling as we passed. In many places, we could have been riding through the 19th century.
Still, our desires — on a tour billed as equal parts culture and cycling — did not lean on the pith-helmeted need to chart virgin territory. Instead, our goal was to see this complex region with new eyes.
For millennia here in Europe’s southeastern corner, kingdoms have expanded and contracted, cultures have fused, and the art of hospitality has been perfected. Winston Churchill once said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” It is more accurate to say the region was forced to consume more history than it would prefer. The Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires all staked claims to chunks of the peninsula. The Venetians snatched swathes of the coast. Napoleon set up shop for a while. The Austro-Hungarians colonized the area until World War I.
“Beautiful mountains and isolated valleys contributed to the hardiness of the inhabitants and enabled a patchwork of microcultures to take root across these countries,” said Vjeran Pavlakovi?, a historian and cultural studies professor at the University of Rijeka in Croatia, when I contacted him about the region’s misperceived identity. “The dominant narratives of war, so often manipulated by both local politicians and foreign rulers, obscure the fact that the diversity of the Balkans actually resulted in a vibrant exchange of ideas, traditions, rituals, cuisines, and arts, revealing a fascinating palimpsest of cultures and entangled histories waiting to be properly discovered.”
“The same forces that impeded so-called ‘modern development’ for most of the past century in the Western Balkans have made it possible for us to experience Europe much as it was centuries ago,” Jim Johnson, the founder and president of biketours.com — and one of the excursion’s two host companies — told me over the phone from Chattanooga, Tennessee, before his arrival for our adventure. Johnson has become a regular in the region over the last few years, but he was making his first trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth referred to simply as Bosnia). Our route, he said, would take us mostly on asphalt with stretches of dirt road. The tour would be eight days total consisting of five days of riding with segmented stages passing through the cities of Trebinje, Mostar, and Konjic, on the way to the mountains that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games outside Sarajevo. “For cycle tourists,” said Johnson, “the plan is to mix low traffic and rural routes that will yield breathtaking views that likely haven’t changed much for a millennium or two.”
The group flew into and gathered in Dubrovnik. The famously walled city (of recent Game of Thrones fame) dangles over the sea and acts as a mass tourism magnet for Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. However, we quickly escaped the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s medieval fortifications and the cruise-ship, selfie-stick–waggling crowds jostling for elbow room. We started our ride south of town, in the country’s Konavle region, which runs to the Montenegrin border. Our world went from ice cream and tchotchke shops to the classic Balkan experience of the sort the tour had promised: solitude encapsulated by mountains to the northeast and the sea to the southwest.
We cycled through rolling hills, up gentle climbs, and down long, mild descents. Reaching a crest felt like flying. Views soared across the Adriatic, where the white wake lines from sailboats, fishing skiffs, and ferries crisscrossed and created fading tic-tac-toe boards in the sea. There was the smell of honeysuckle and trees plump with figs. Cicadas chirped in a metronomic rhythm that reverberated in the heat as we passed crumbling, waist-high rock walls — constructed and reconstructed as a matter of birthright since before the Slavs came to the Balkans in the sixth century. Olive groves and vineyards leapfrogged each other within these ancient plots, the chain broken by villages that had sprouted along the undulating road. Catholic churches, with steeples and iron bells, punctuated the stone-pile skyline. Outside of Popovi?i, a poster advertising a local soccer tournament was tacked next to death notices on a public announcement board beside a chapel.
“Konavle is great for cycling because it has all varieties of terrain: flats, ascents, and downhills,” said Tomi ?ori?, a tourism operator from Dubrovnik who cycled with us for the day. ?ori?’s company, Epic Croatia (epiccroatia.com), leads bike trips throughout the region. As we rode, he explained that this part of Dalmatia is a big surprise for people, especially compared to Dubrovnik. “The valley and Ljuta River provides an escape from the crowds. Life here is focused on the farms. Fishermen still work the waters in the old-fashioned ways. Even the [folkloric] costumes and accents are different.”
For lunch at Konoba Vinica (konobavinica.com), we sat at a wooden table on the bank of the Ljuta River and ate trout and vegetables baked in parchment paper. We drank glasses of local, chilled red wine. It was our first post-ride meal as a group, and we were quickly adjusting to the embarrassment of unpretentious cultural riches. Villagers sold honey, wine, oranges, and rakija (locally made schnapps) by the side of the road. Old men walked next to their donkeys loaded with hay and waved as we passed.
“The Western Balkans is an adventure travel wonderland because the region’s strength is real experiences rather than packaged product,” said Thierry Joubert, sitting on a stacked-stone wall next to his bike after lunch. Joubert is the managing partner of Sarajevo-based Green Visions (greenvisions.ba), a regional ecotourism operator. Green Visions was the other host of the expedition and the local organizer. “Visitors here go from having no expectations, to being surprised, to asking why more people don’t know about the Balkans — especially since we’re a bus or boat ride from Italy.”
To say something exceeds expectations when there are none is, at best, a backhanded compliment. With the Western Balkans, which includes countries that were once part of Yugoslavia, plus Albania, success isn’t coincidental. Cosmically speaking, people who end up here were meant to — tourism’s version of “preaching to the choir.”
The more logical explanation is that visitors who find their way here are typically more evolved travelers and have already seen the tourism spots in Western Europe. They understand the inverse relationship between commodified, seven-day, 14-city bus tours and those centered on authentic experiences. As Joubert would often repeat, mantra-like, during the ride, “This is next-layer tourism.” At nearly every curve along the road, our journey bore this out — not with magical, once-in-a-lifetime moments, but with magical, everyday Balkan moments.
“It was the right time in my traveling career to come to the Balkans,” said Erica Bower, 25, a member of our group from New York. Bower, a climate change specialist at the UN Refugee Agency in Geneva, Switzerland, was making her first visit to the region. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Western Europe and sporadic periods of time in the Middle East and in Asia, but each as discrete and separate experiences. The Balkans is such a fascinating place to travel because it combines elements of East mingled with West, but equally past mingled with future.”
In this way — combining elements for those ready to accept them — the Western Balkans has revolutionized its tourism philosophy with a region-wide push to promote cross-border experiences. Cycling tours like this one have begun to tap into the deep well of authentic culture that goes beyond arbitrary boundaries. For visitors, it means getting something like an eight-countries-for-one deal at the adventure travel supermarket.
“When countries here promote the region, we all do better,” said Joubert, who was part of a group behind the Via Dinarica (via-dinarica.org) hiking trail, which traverses Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. National Geographic Traveler named the trek one its “Best of the World” destinations in 2017. That team is now working on the TransDinarica (transdinarica.com) mountain bike route across the same stretch. “In the end, the real winner is the traveler who enjoys multiple landscapes and cultures,” Joubert said. “Cooperation has no downside.”
The next morning, with the sea to our backs, we snaked single file from Slano, a tiny Croatian village on a secluded rocky bay north of Dubrovnik, up a winding road to the Bosnian border. I rolled up to passport control with one of our guides for the week, Sabina Redžovi?, a Sarajevo native. When the officer handed our documents back, he beamed with equal parts pride and mockery when he informed us that Sabina was the first woman to cycle across this checkpoint, I was the second man, and ours was the premier group. “We just made history,” Redžovi? said and shook my hand.
Our destination for the day was Trebinje, on the southern tip of Bosnia — a town renowned for its Mediterranean feel, sunny and hospitable squares, and red wine. On the way, we would visit the Serbian Orthodox Tvrdoš Monastery (tvrdos.com) and its wine cellar. Before we could drink any vino though, we needed to perform our due diligence with lunch on the edge of Popovo Polje: a massive field, flood plain, and the source for the region’s most famous liquid.
We pedaled to the terrace outside Gostionica Zavala (gostionica-zavala.com), a restaurant and inn overlooking Popovo Polje. Formerly an Austro-Hungarian train station built in 1903, the renovated structure is now the centerpiece of a stretch of road that includes a museum and the entrance to the seven-kilometer Vjetrenica Cave (vjetrenica.ba), the largest system in Bosnia. Importantly, it is also the hub of a movement to revitalize the former narrow-gauge railway line — along the same stretch of road — into a cycling route (ciro.herzegovinabike.ba/gb).
Over coffee, we gazed across the fields. Corduroy rows of grapes — uniform and dense with green vine leaves — extended across the plain as far as we could see. We then clipped in and rode a section of the “?iro” (as the narrow-gauge steam train was called) railway-cum-cycling route to the Trebišnjica River, where we funneled to the town of Trebinje. At the Hotel Platani (hotel-platani-trebinje.com), which opened onto an expanse of outdoor café tables and where linen-clad patrons sipped wine spritzers beneath the interlocking branches of sycamore-like plane trees, we secured our bikes for the night.
After breakfast the next day, we climbed out of the valley to a plateau beneath the 6,459-foot peak of Velež Mountain, which stands above our next city goal, Mostar. Near the village of Podvelež, the group pedaled through burial grounds with car-sized, medieval tombstones known as ste?ci. Centuries of weather had rounded the rectangular blocks, which were scattered about and unprotected — emblematic of epochs here. Their curlicue and crisscross engravings looked more like messages to interplanetary visitors than biblical homages. In front of us on the next rise, a shepherd plodded behind his flock, which grazed on grass stubble. With a DNA-woven rhythm that seemed dictated by the sun and rain, he raised his crook as a greeting when we swooshed by in a Lycra blur of blues, reds, and yellows.
The group bolted down a switchback road to Mostar. The valley opened. A vista of ancient and modern buildings spread out along the aqua-green Neretva River. The magnetism and heft of history was immediate — no matter how far ahead of our front tires we focused — and stitched into the salmon-colored rocks rippling into the late afternoon. We made a beeline to the city’s calling-card attraction, the Old Bridge, which was built in the 16th century during the Ottoman period, destroyed during the 1990s conflict, and rebuilt in 2004.
The smell of ?evap?i?i (sausages made of lamb and beef) sizzling on an open grill mixed with cherry-flavored hookah smoke pouring out of cafés as we walked our bikes to the 95-foot-long arched limestone structure. Throngs of tourists were gathered at its 78-foot apex to cheer on Mostar’s famous bridge divers who were taking turns jumping into the cold waters below and soliciting visitors for money. As we wove through the crowd, across the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s slick blocks spanning the Neretva River, we heard the Catholic cathedral’s bells ringing from one bank. On the other side, a muezzin’s call to prayer warbled from mosque loudspeakers.
History, in the form of our stray-dog storm, finally caught up to our small peloton the day before Sarajevo. The veil of clouds and rain, so respectful on previous stages of our trip, overtook the group as we cycled from Bora?ko Lake to the mountain village of Umoljani along the “caravan” trading route used during the Ottoman era. The weather reeled us in on a stretch between the Prenj and Bjelašnica massifs through the heart of the Viso?ica range. However, as is often the case in the Balkans, lessons come at human speed — and specifically when you stop.
Our group crowded under a covered picnic table next to a house in the village of Luka as rain blew overhead. Within minutes the house’s owner, just awake from a nap, came outside to say hello. Happy for the unexpected company, he served us a tray loaded with homemade plum rakija and thick coffee cooked on his iron stove and served in copper pots. “My family has lived here 800 years,” Džale Surkovi? told us as the sun poked through clouds. We sipped from shot glasses and contemplated the idea of his people welcoming travelers since the time of the Crusades. “Bosnians are known as friendly people. We want to talk to others about Bosnian beauty and history and to hear from visitors about their habits and history,” he said.
A steep, two-mile gravel climb, and a steeper one on asphalt, brought us to the community of Umoljani, high on the slopes of Bjelašnica Mountain, which hosted men’s skiing during Sarajevo’s 1984 Olympics. The sun had begun to set in a crisp, clear sky behind our lodge, Pansion Umoljani (umoljani.com.ba). The other village houses, built close to the earth with wood shake roofs, faded to silhouettes. The soundtrack of atonal sheep bells and bleating filled the dusk as the thermometer dropped to hat-and-gloves temperatures.
In the dining room, exposed stone walls surrounded a brick fireplace and a woodstove. The owners, who doubled as chefs, unloaded our dinner armloads at a time on the rough-sawn table. Tire-sized baking dishes of burek — a phyllo-dough pastry stuffed with meat — sat next to other savory pies called pita, filled with spinach or cheese. There were pans of roasted potatoes, plates of grilled peppers, bowls of salad, and baskets of dense homemade bread. Carafes of red wine stood guard at the surface’s corners.
“The Bosnian word ?ef (pronounced chaif) has no English equivalent — and is not easy to define,” Joubert told me as we gathered for our last breakfast. “It means, loosely, that there is a correct way to enjoy something and be completely present … in the moment. This concept says a lot about how people think about life and time in the Balkans. This is also the way we try to design our tours for visitors. We want them to have ?ef.”
The sun shone bright for the ride’s final morning. Over tea, we pulled out maps to see how far we had come. We dragged fingers along topographic profile lines, across peaks and plateaus, rivers and lakes. We relived our rides through cities and villages. Through the map we saw vineyards, groves, canyons, and the sheer limestone cliffs that dropped straight to the sea.
Outside we mounted our bicycles and faced the last stage of our journey. The group stared into the distance and studied the day’s path from Bjelašnica Mountain to Mount Igman, the site of the ski jump during the 1984 Games. Our route extended over urgent, soaring peaks and then plunged under jagged ridgelines into deep, cave-riddled vistas. The route would lead into a valley that would eventually leave us in Sarajevo.
Days ago we were dodging sheep. Today we would be in the Bosnian capital’s Ottoman-era bazaar talking to carpet sellers and gold hawkers. We would hear the pinging of coppersmiths shaping the intricate vessels used to cook Bosnian coffee. By the afternoon, our group was regaling each other with personal versions of our adventure over rakija at café tables on ancient cobblestones in the main square. As we toasted each other, the end of our journey in the Balkans felt like a new beginning. We had outpaced the squalls. We stayed in the now. Riding out of the village of Umoljani, we could already feel the moment filling with ?ef.
Alex Crevar is a journalist based in Zagreb, Croatia. See more of his work at alexcrevar.com.
Nuts & Bolts: Balkans
Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) has one-stop flights from New York’s JFK to Dubrovnik (with a layover in Istanbul) for approximately $875.
When to Go
Conditions in the Balkans are solid from late May to mid-October, when the holiday season is in full swing and accommodations are open. Temperatures in the spring and fall are ideal and generally mild (with cooler temps in the mountains), although weather is more temperamental and changing. June through August can be quite hot and crowded (especially in cities such as Dubrovnik and Sarajevo); however, roads for cycling are quiet and off the tourism radar.
How to Go
Going guided is a great way to learn about history from locals and to have smoother communication with residents and villagers. There are, however, options for taking the tour guided or self-guided, with or without vehicle support. For more information about this tour and others in the region, contact Green Visions (greenvisions.ba). For more information about trips throughout Europe (as well as guidance about this tour), contact U.S.-based biketours.com.