This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
For one hold-your-breath moment, everything stopped. The rustling oaks, elms, and ash trees lining the Mirna River in Istria, a peninsula in Croatia’s northwest corner, went silent. The dogs accompanying us, Mojca and Nika, previously busy avoiding work with appeals for behind-the-ear scratches, froze, their cocked heads fixed with blank stares as if receiving a transmission from beyond. Then, with spastic zeal, the mixed-retriever breeds found their calling. In a swirl of red, gold, and brown October leaves, they tore through the forest’s underbrush in search of buried treasure only they could sense: truffles.
I fell in behind the dogs’ owner, 66-year-old Anita, who has six decades of truffle-hunting experience, and began speed-walking with her and her daughter Daniela Puh, who runs the family’s company Pietro & Pietro, which offers tours, like the one I was on, and produces an array of truffle-based delicacies. Our group’s unspoken imperative: we need to get to that insanely expensive fungus at the same time the dogs do because Mojca and Nika adore the fragrant tubers and couldn’t care less that the white variety we hoped to find sells for thousands of dollars per pound.
It was somehow appropriate that the finale of my 500-mile cycling expedition searching for gourmet ingredients along Croatia’s Adriatic coast — starting in the far south and ending here in the country’s northern reaches — came down to a footrace with canines through spring-loaded face-, stomach-, and shin-high branches. The absurdity confirmed my contention: this boomerang-shaped nation with more than 1,200 islands strung along the Balkan Peninsula’s western edge is best enjoyed at human- (or perhaps dog-) speed. Personally, I believe all travel should happen at this pace. In Croatia (with a population of four million, and about the size of West Virginia), where the cities, towns, and villages lining the shore have their own traditions and, important for a perpetually famished cyclist, food specialties, it’s imperative.
A week earlier, my journey had begun in a region called Konavle, Croatia’s southernmost section, which extends from the Montenegrin border up to the city of Dubrovnik. The plan was simple: ride north and stay on the seaside road known as the Adriatic Highway (Jadranska Magistrala in Croatian). The two-lane byway (at different points signed as State Route D8 and European Route E65) can be busy and prohibitively hot from mid-June to September. However, in October — as crowds dissipate with the first hints of autumn — this road transforms into a cultural corridor from which to imbibe harvest-season rhythms and the buzz of winemakers, farmers, and fishermen. Croats turn to gathering grapes, olives, and all manner of seafood to be loaded into trucks, baskets atop donkeys, and skiffs.
Aside from choosing the month of the excursion, my other preplanning was purposely basic for easy replication. I would pedal around 70 miles per day and travel light with only a seatbag (clothes), a handlebar bag (easy-to-grab necessities), and a framebag (tubes and tools). I decided to treat myself with meals out (instead of taking a camping stove) and inexpensive but comfortable accommodations booked on the fly. Having ridden multiple versions of this itinerary before — which I’d started calling the Adriatic Gourmet Route — I knew what to expect. For instance, flat spots along the route are rare indeed. My daily climbing would range from about 2,500 to 5,000 feet.
Konavle, the starting point, is one of Croatia’s most unheralded regions. Many tourists never make it this far south into Dalmatia, as the bottom half of the country (and coast) is known. Happy to check Dubrovnik off their lists and move on (after visiting the real-life Game of Thrones set, of course), they miss one of Europe’s most dramatic landscapes.
Cycling that first morning felt like rolling through a funnel. My anticipation, excitement, and opening-stage nervousness were framed by the steep and craggy Dinaric Alps, which rose to my right and tumbled east into Montenegro and then, farther north, into Bosnia and Herzegovina. To my left and west, the land dropped into the cobalt Adriatic, which merged with a cloudless sky; the mirage was broken by sailboats gliding across that union. Between the mountains and sea, I pedaled on quiet asphalt squeezed by vineyards.
For lunch, I stopped at Konoba Vinica (konobas, or taverns, are typical throughout Croatia), in the village of Donja Ljuta, immediately setting the week’s tone. First, I received a welcome glass of Travarica, a rakija (homemade schnapps) made from herbs. Next came a carafe of white wine from a nearby vineyard and a plate of local prosciutto and cheese. Then the restaurant’s specialty: lamb, veal, and potatoes slow-baked in a stone oven. For dessert, I wallowed in self-pity, fought a nap, and gave in to chocolate soufflé.
I teetered atop my saddle and continued to Dubrovnik. The city’s famous medieval walls came into view, rising from the sea. I pulled over to a designated viewing area to ogle.
Dubrovnik, a UNESCO Heritage Site, was once its own republic and a trading hub for the world powers of the age: the Ottoman Empire and Venetian Republic, to name two. (In the eighteenth century, Ragusa, as Dubrovnik was then known, was also among the first to recognize the independence of a nascent U.S.) The proud city’s ramparts, constructed over 500 years, protected it from foreign invasion. It has not escaped modern tourism. Today, the fortifications overflow with visitors shuttled in from cruise ships. Still, it’s hard to blame them. For many, this is Croatia.
At a distance and with a clear view, however, Dubrovnik was all mine. I just breathed and studied the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” which is the cover shot for many Croatian articles and books. Seeing it in real life is always surreal and unexpected — like a private audience to the Mona Lisa. I watched its ancient port that leads to its old town and the walls corralling selfie-snapping visitors. When I was satisfied, I continued into the heart of Southern Dalmatia.
Another 30 undulating miles brought me to the Pelješac Peninsula. This was more than a convenient place to stop for the evening. For gastronomes, this finger jutting from the mainland means three things: salt, oysters, and wine, especially strong reds from a grape variety called Plavac Mali, which has evolved to survive in rocky, sunbaked soil and is traditionally harvested with donkeys because the slopes are too steep for machinery.
After pulling onto the peninsula, the Walls of Ston soared overhead. At more than three miles in length, they are among Europe’s longest fortifications, and visitors can walk atop them year-round. Built by the Dubrovnik Republic in 1333, the bulwark protected the town of Ston and its prosperous salt flats, which were first developed by the Romans and are still active today. I then turned into the village of Mali Ston, or Little Ston, to overindulge on another of the Pelješac triumvirate, oysters.
Sitting on a bay formed between the peninsula and the mainland, the conditions are perfect around Mali Ston for farming European flat oysters, and about two million are harvested yearly. All the bistros hugging the water’s edge sell boat-to-table oysters, but I booked a tasting with Bota Šare restaurant, which takes gourmands by boat to a platform on the bay. I was then served a plate of freshly shucked bivalves, still dripping with saltwater, and a glass of white wine called Pošip from the nearby island of Korcula. In mid-slurp, I looked up to see the only other people, an American couple, gazing at me with knowing looks. They raised their glasses and the man said, without irony, “This doesn’t suck.”
“Touring Southern Dalmatia on two wheels is an ideal way to get under the place’s skin,” said Alexandra Cram, who owns and operates Piknik Dubrovnik. Cram assembles gourmet packs for guests with handpicked local specialties and tips about where to enjoy their picnics throughout the region. “With a little investigation, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll come across great discoveries from a roadside vendor, family-run restaurant, or fish straight from the boat. Whether it’s finding your way along Pelješac’s wine roads, cruising through lavender fields on the island of Hvar, dining on Europe’s best shellfish, or eating a spicy stew of eel or frog legs in the under-explored, fertile Neretva Valley.”
The morning air was clear and brisk — “fresh” as people here say — when I reached a hilltop overlooking the Neretva Delta, where the Neretva River flows from Bosnia and Herzegovina and meets the sea. Beneath me, in fields encircled by mountains, plots of fruits and vegetables surrounded by irrigation canals filled the panorama. A bounty of figs, plums, peaches, strawberries, pomegranates, melons, and mandarin oranges have earned this fertile swatch the nickname “Little California,” though I believe California is just as lucky for the comparison.
Leaving the delta — passing rows of vendors selling produce, liqueurs, and honey — the road again met the shore. The Adriatic Highway’s next stretch is the one that most often fills my dreams. The ribbon of quiet blacktop rose and fell, clinging to cliffs above and unfurling around curves over the sea below. In a car, this would be white-knuckle material. On a bike, it was ecstasy.
I found my zone as I tackled the steep crests and curled through diving troughs. At a hill’s summit, I tucked and descended the often-empty roadway to the next climb, when, like a skier employing camber, I popped out of the saddle and fell into a rhythm before sitting, shifting, and pushing to the next crest.
To my left, the country’s archipelago of isles marked my progress. By the time I reached the mainland town of Drvenik, I had already passed the islands of Mljet and Korcula, and was now alongside Hvar, a paradise for wine, olive oil, and fields of lavender. As is often the case after hours in the saddle, I began to daydream. This time, my thoughts drifted to how cycling has changed my interactions with Croatia, and thus my view of travel generally.
It is not too dramatic to say I owe my career to Croatia, which had only been independent for a decade when I began covering it in the early 2000s. After war in the 1990s, many here were simply excited to get this country back on the map. The term “overtourism” was seldom, if ever, used. In the decades that followed, however, ease of travel and the need to produce click-inducing information has fueled global tourism’s exponential explosion. Tourism has many positives, of course, but uncontrolled growth has also facilitated the commodification of culture and replaced in-depth discovery with collecting passport stamps.
Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” For my part, I made a pact to be more respectful about how I cover destinations. Croatia, again, deserves credit as my muse for more articles espousing slow, conscious travel. Cycling has played a role in my rediscovery of this country. This country, in turn, helped me redefine myself.
“Understanding that visiting a destination is as much about the impact we have on it as it is the change a locale has on us is an evolved, and I believe necessary, shift in mindset,” said Jake Haupert, cofounder and CEO of the Transformational Travel Council (TTC), when I asked how cycling can help recalibrate our collective view of travel. The TTC — which includes tourism operators, professionals, and journalists (I am a member) — encourages more mindfulness throughout the travel industry. “When you take the time and put in the effort a cycling journey requires, you are more intentional, aware, and show the respect a destination deserves.”
I, like many cyclists, choose this style of travel because I’m attracted to what’s known as Type 2 fun, in which pushing my body is as thrilling as reaching the end of a day’s stage. The positive byproduct (which a car can’t provide): I am compelled to become a part of the landscape with every pedal stroke.
“Cycling allows you to explore the real Croatia,” said Tomi Coric, the director of Dubrovnik-based Epic Croatia, which leads custom cycling tours. I’ve ridden with Coric on several occasions, including the first stage of this journey, and regularly lean on his expertise. “Our coast has many highlights, but there are many not-so-famous spots to see if you are open. Here we say ‘pomalo,’ which means take it easy or slow down,” Coric said. “Cycling is about more than tourism or sport. It is a slower way to explore, have unique experiences, and combine all the random moments you only get on a bike: moments of freedom, joy, curiosity.”
Split, Dalmatia’s de facto capital and Croatia’s second largest city (Zagreb, the capital, is first), dominates the central coast. I rode down to its riva (waterfront promenade) to take a break and meet another friend and tourism expert, Vese Huljic, the founder of AndAdventure, which guides multisport trips along the coast and in the islands. The sun was beginning to set — casting a salmon hue across the west-facing seaside buildings and Mount Mosor rising behind — as we took a table on a restaurant terrace and dug into bowls of brudet, a traditional tomato- and fish stock–based stew loaded with an assortment of the day’s fresh seafood catches.
We watched ferries come and go from the port. Disembarking tourists strode by our table in a chorus of rattling, rolling suitcases and disappeared through the limestone façade of the Diocletian Palace, the city-sized UNESCO World Heritage site that’s Split’s calling-card attraction and the heart of its old town. Built in the early fourth century as a retirement villa for Roman Emperor Diocletian, today the palace is a tangle of pedestrian-only avenues teeming with apartments, shops, museums, churches, Roman temples, and bars.
“We are fortunate to have an incredible coast,” Huljic said as we sipped our post-meal rakija. “But that means we have to be even more aware of how fragile this landscape actually is. Our greatest potential will come when more people see the value of responsible, self-propelled travel. We’re ready for travel’s next stage, when cyclists, hikers, kayakers, sailing enthusiasts, and people searching for slower, immersive experiences dominate Croatian tourism.”
Traffic was steady from Central to Northern Dalmatia, and understandably so. This section of the Adriatic Highway is arguably the most iconic — UNESCO World Heritage sites are as common in this area as strip malls are where I grew up in the U.S. From Split’s Diocletian Palace, the road led to the medieval town of Trogir. The next stop, Šibenik, boasts the Gothic and Renaissance Cathedral of St. James, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Finally, the end of my longest day landed me in Zadar, a 3,000-year-old city that still retains its Roman street plan and an ancient forum from the first century BC.
I stopped at Zadar’s northwestern tip and sat atop the city’s Sea Organ, where 35 pipes of various sizes have been installed under the riva. As the tide rolled in and out under the stone promenade, air rushed in and out through the pipes creating a symphony with the ethereality of a theremin and the soothing of whale calls. While in meditation, I decided to stay in Zadar for two nights, rest my legs, sleep, and wallow in the sea.
My lodging sat on the front row of houses overlooking the water. The owner, a joyful character named Neven, greeted me when I rolled up. As he showed me to my apartment, I pulled an energy bar from my jersey. He began to “tsk tsk” the way Croatians do. “You will not eat that while you are here,” Neven said, his face screwed up in mock pain. “Why are you even cycling along the coast if you are just going to eat whatever that is? I will leave you to clean up, then get ready for a real lunch.”
He returned with two armloads of Croatia at its finest. The sea bass, which he caught in front of the house, was grilled, lathered in Neven’s own olive oil, and served in its entirety. Bread was placed on the table with instructions not to waste any of the oil, chunked with garlic and rosemary. Finally, he opened a bottle of his own merlot and poured me a glass. “Food here is not just about eating,” he said as he walked out. “It is about connection.”
Over the next two days, barrier islands continued to pace my journey. After Zadar, the isle of Pag, home to the country’s most famous cheese — from sheep that graze on meadows of herbs (sage, thyme, mint) dusted by the salty breeze — flanked the shore to the west. I rode steadily into the Kvarner Region, along the northern coast, until reaching the 90° bend where the mainland makes an abrupt left turn onto the Istrian Peninsula.
Mount Ucka, which stands guard between the peninsula and continental Croatia, was the only genuine mountain along my gourmet Adriatic route. As if to drive home that I must earn every pedal stroke and slow-travel connection with the country, the road kicked hard for 14 miles of six to 10 percent climbing and 4,500 feet of elevation gain.
On the backside of the mountain, Istria opened before me. Dense forests of oak, elm, and ash trees carpeted rolling contours straddling the Mirna River, silver in the sun and winding between perched villages of stone houses with terracotta roofs. I shifted into my biggest gear and raced toward the town of Buzet, where I met up with Anita, Daniela, and their truffle-obsessed canines — Mojca and Nika — plowing through branches and hot on the tuber trail.
We scurried up behind the diggers, which were already pawing the ground near the base of a tree. Anita squeezed between the two and knelt. She pulled out a flat spade with a wooden handle. Working through dog kisses, she gently slid the tiny shovel into the forest floor above oak roots and unearthed a white truffle that filled the center of her palm. She showered Mojca and Nika with treats and praise and handed me the potato-like mushroom. I gasped like a prospector holding a golden nugget. Perhaps I was invigorated by the hunt. Perhaps, on the heels of a cross-country ride, I was simply tired. Or, perhaps, I was satisfied because some moments are just meant to be.
“Truffles are rare in the world and we are proud because we have them,” Daniela said as I returned the valuable find, which would likely be in some high-end European restaurant within a few days. Truffles, she explained, need very specific conditions to exist and this peninsula has unearthed some of the world’s largest and most prized specimens. “It is a good symbol. We are also rare and unique. You can taste it in our food, you can feel it with the experiences, and you can see it with how we respect traditions.”
There are new, direct flights from New York to Dubrovnik on both Delta and United. As well, several airlines offer one-stop flights from U.S. airports to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. The coast is beautiful year-round; however, May to June and September to October are the best times to avoid crowds and enjoy comfortable temperatures.
Hotel Mlini: Celebrate the start of your Adriatic route at this beachside, four-star hotel on the Konavle Region’s northern edge.
Guesthouse Medine: For a homier, apartment option, contact Valerija in the town of Mlini.
Apartments Basioli: Just outside of Zadar, the quiet apartments face the sea and are a perfect place to relax and unwind.
Vela Vrata Hotel: In Old Town Buzet, the reasonably-priced historic hotel provides commanding views of Istria’s countryside and is a great place to recover at your ride’s end.
Konoba Vinica: On the banks of the Ljuta River in South Dalmatia’s Konavle Region, this tavern serves traditional dishes and local wine.
Bota Šare: In the village of Mali Ston on the Pelješac Peninsula, the bayside bistro serves some of Europe’s best oysters.
Konoba Dolina: Order the homemade pasta and fresh truffles at this konoba located in Istria’s Mirna River valley.
Epic Croatia: The Dubrovnik-based company offers custom cycling tours and top-end bike rental.
AndAdventure: Great multisport trips and loads of Croatian knowledge are the hallmarks of this adventure company.
Piknik Dubrovnik: Let the experts pack your gourmet picnic and help you find your own version of Dalmatia.
Istrian-Italian Travel: Specializing in trips from the U.S., this outfit leads foodie excursions in Istria.
Pietro & Pietro: Contact this family operation for an unforgettable truffle-hunting expedition and an assortment of truffle-based products.
Hvar: The 50-mile-long island is an incredible place to cycle and is loaded with gourmet delectables: wine, olive oil, and fields of lavender.
Pag: Home to some of Croatia’s best cheese, the sheep variety’s taste is a product of the 40-mile island’s landscape and salt-blown herbs.
Circumnavigate Istria: Easily a trip on its own, cycling the peninsula’s outer edge delivers you to fantastic vineyards, great seafood, and quality olive oil producers.
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