Biking Across Borders in the Balkans
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Cycling through three formerly war-torn Balkan countries over six days means beautiful scenery pockmarked by sad reminders of the past.

Cycling through the Balkans

It feels like we’re the only people left on Earth. There are no sounds, no people, and the buildings all look bombed out or long abandoned. As we park the bikes next to an old stone train station to stretch our legs, we hear a rustling sound coming from inside. It’s not a zombie though. A big cow lumbers out the front door, glances at us, then starts chewing on some weeds.

We’ve gotten here by bike, so it’s hard to believe that the night before we were in a different country, at the seaside, sipping a glass of wine with laughter around us in full cafes. In the former war zone of the Balkans, the countries are squeezed close together but a few miles can bring stark contrasts.

Abandoned train station

I’m on a tour called “Cycling the West Balkans Triangle” from and Biking Croatia. In just a week it zig-zags through three countries and more than twice as many border crossings. From the Adriatic Sea of Croatia, around the Bay of Kotor, and through farmland of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it’s a challenging tour that rewards riders with some spectacular scenery and some history lessons.

I start out cranky, however, since our first night in Dubrovnik is not what I had imagined. The Serbs never conquered this city in the Balkan conflict, but they tried shelling it from positions above. Now there are invaders of a different sort: thousands of cruise ship passengers from around the world. Unlike the Serbs, they always make it through the old city walls, lumbering through the fortified city streets in huge clumps.

Up and Down on Two Wheels to Kotor

When we hop on our bikes just outside the city the next morning, as soon as we cross the border to Bosnia-Herzegovina we start climbing. And climbing some more. And then some more. On the first morning of our first day, the local tour operator decided four kilometers at an 8-10% grade was a fine way to loosen up our legs. I try to concentrate on the pavement right in front of me so I don’t have to see how far I must go. Every time I see a rare shady spot beside the road, I pull over for a rest.

One guy in our group flags down a support van that’s following us to the first hotel, but I make it to the top of the mountain without a ride and mentally pat myself on the back. After a picnic lunch of burek and another border crossing into Montenegro, we’re soon rewarded with panoramic views while gliding downhill to the Bay of Kotor. Over the next two days we are to circle the entire bay, seeing it all at a human pace instead of from a careening tour bus.

From a viewpoint we see Sveti Dorde Island, where there’s a monastery and a small graveyard. The other small island with a church on top wasn’t always there. Fishermen threw rocks into the water and then later sank boats to build an artificial island. The current church dates back to 1722.

Eventually we stop for coffee in Perast, the lesser-known UNESCO World Heritage city in this area, and collectively give thanks that we’re on a bike tour. We pass hundreds of tourists who must literally feel like a number: their cruise ship has made them put a number sticker onto their shirts so the guides can gather them up in an hour like cattle. As we sit at a seaside café while they hear the call to return to their bus, I think I see a little longing in a few eyes.

Bay of Kotor

Historic Kotor

I’ve been looking forward to visiting Kotor for years after seeing photos. With its dramatic fortress on a steep mountainside and walls that are more than 1,000 years old, it makes a dramatic site with the jagged mountains behind it and the water in front. High season reality hits us in the face quickly though when we get caught in a traffic jam entering the city, breathing in bus and car fumes. There are two cruise ships in the harbor, but the passengers of many others are in for the day on tour buses from Dubrovnik. I walk through the 15th-century streets looking for quiet spots I can photograph with no people in them. I finally find one after taking some random turns and have snapped just one photo when a man with a megaphone rounds the corner holding up a sign. More than 50 people are following him through a narrow cobblestone alley like the Pied Piper of Hamlet.

“When do the ships stop coming?” I ask a woman who is hanging laundry, hoping she speaks English. “This place is lovely in November,” she says with barely an accent. She reaches into her apron and hands me a card for her guesthouse.

Around the Bay in Montenegro

Once we cycle a few miles down the road to Hotel Splendido though, it’s a different story. The view out my window matches the lovely photos I’ve seen for years, a blue swimming pool against the bay and the mountains, with ancient stone buildings on the shore. After a swim, I take a walk down the road and visit a church that’s a few hundred years old, beside buildings with walls thick enough to withstand invading armies. With five euros I buy a half kilo of cherries, two local dark beers, cheese, and some bread to watch the sun go down by the water.

Bay of Kotor

We circle the rest of the bay and take a one-euro ferry to the other side to get to bustling Herceg Novi. We ride slowly along a pedestrian and bike path there, past gelato stands, seafront fish restaurants, and at least a hundred places to get a cup of coffee. The “beaches” here are really concrete platforms or collections of rocks, but the water is clear and beautiful.

This ends up being our longest day of cycling and the one with the most countries. We start in Montenegro, ride through Bosnia’s Konavle countryside, then after lunch head to the coast of Croatia. This trip has not been good for conserving blank pages in my passport that expires four years from now. Every crossing means two more stamps and I’m losing count of how many of these we’ve done. This despite the fact these places are biking distance from each other and we’re moving through an area smaller than the average U.S. state.

Historic KotorAs we leave the bay, we climb a 10% grade for what feels like an hour to get over the surrounding ridge we came down from a few days earlier. Three of us groan, three just pump harder and conquer it.

There’s been a clear split in our group along the way. The guide loves to haul ass out front and there are two people in our group who love to join him. One of them is a female cyclist who has legs twice as muscular as mine. This is an easy trip for her. She and husband are on their own road bikes they brought along. They are wearing cycling jerseys commemorating a ride they did across the Alps in Switzerland, with all the elevation that entails.

I, on the other hand, am wearing one of two off-the-rack cycling shirts I own that don’t commemorate any great feat. My shorts have some padding, but they look just like regular shorts you could wear into a bar. I bike a lot, but in Florida, where the only hills are overpasses. While I’m huffing and puffing in the lowest gear, half the group is gliding up to the top like it’s a beach boardwalk ride on a cruiser bike.

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Read this article online at: Biking Across Borders in the Balkans

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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