It’s our last cycle ride of the week in Southern Dalmatia, and I’ve just had a tight scrape with a hairpin bend. I’d been going foolishly fast, filled with the thrill of a car-free downhill, the woozy heat of an Adriatic afternoon and the pine-needle air of the coastal mountains. Filled with everything, really, except common sense.
The bend had come suddenly. I’d squeezed hard on my rear brake and my tyre had skidded wildly. When the world stopped spinning, I was somehow on both feet, unhurt, looking down at a back wheel that had tried with some success to fold itself in two. Now, 20 slow minutes of improvised maintenance later — assisted, I should add — I manage to reach the rest of the group, with my pride as dented as my spokes.
We’re all here on a seven-day bike trip, following a looped itinerary across four islands and stretches of the coastal mainland. Due to the history of the area, however, the week is proving far more than just a chance to wallow in wide-open scenery. When I re-join them, the other cyclists are resting at a roadside under a large limestone statue of the Virgin Mary. I don’t know whether I’m imagining it, but her expression almost looks like one of pity.
Recklessness, religion and even limestone have all, in their way, helped to mould Southern Dalmatia. The region’s story is a rich one. Centred on the photogenic citadel of Dubrovnik — once home to one of Europe’s most powerful kingdoms — it occupies a sliver of land geographically adrift from the rest of Croatia. It’s hemmed in by Bosnia to the north and east, and Montenegro to the south, although culturally the exclave has been just as influenced by what lies to its west: the Mediterranean, Italy and beyond.
Dubrovnik’s strategic location helped it amass enormous clout and wealth in the Middle Ages. From the 7th to the early 20th century, the city was named Ragusa, and at its height in the 1500s it controlled a maritime republic of more than 500 square miles of coast and islands. It oversaw a hefty chunk of trans-European trade, allowing it to construct palaces, monasteries, battlements and vast aqueducts. In typically medieval fashion, it also spent time under the control of various other dominions. Its greatest rival was that other gorgeous Adriatic powerhouse, Venice.
The route we’re following travels almost the full length of the former Republic of Ragusa, highlighting the peaks and troughs of the region’s history while focusing on two modern visitor pastimes: cycling and island-hopping. Our floating home for the week is Harmonia, a purpose-built boat fitted with a bike garage. We’re setting sail at dawn each morning, arriving somewhere new for the day then setting off on two wheels to explore it. We’re clocking up between 14 and 30 miles a day. It’s a simple concept that benefits from the short distances between the Dalmatian islands.
This is no horizon-blotting cruise ship. There are just 20 of us on board, a thirsty, international, lycra-clad bunch drawn from places as sundry as Bavaria, Boston, Brazil and Beijing. The group dynamic is enjoyably solid from the outset, although the range of abilities is vast — there are 80-year-olds on e-bikes and 20-year-olds on mountain bikes. We’re in good hands, too. Among the vessel’s crew are three young and knowledgeable cycle guides, a cook with a gift for preparing fresh sea bass and a taciturn captain with biceps as thick as oaks. In short, precisely the kind of ship’s company you’d want.
Ups & downs
Our week begins in Dubrovnik itself. Much gets said about the contrast between the ochre roofs of the Old Town and the peacock blue of the Adriatic, but there are two other important colours at play. The first is the pale antiquarian grey of the limestone, the rock that gives shape to the city: to its thick walls, its sturdy houses, its neat churches. The same locally quarried material was even used for the paving stones, which is often mistaken for marble thanks to the gleam bestowed on it by the soles of Dubrovnik’s millions of annual visitors.
The second hue is the wild, deep green that fringes the city, lining its outer streets with trees and covering its islands with orchards and vineyards. Southern Dalmatia is a hugely fertile region, where figs and grapes, quinces and grapefruits, olives and walnuts grow in abundance. And, unsurprisingly, that Italian influence is at its strongest in the local food and drink.
The land’s bounty is very much evident in the fruit-filled groves of Šipan, our first cycling stop of the week. A small island in the Elaphite archipelago just off Dubrovnik’s coastline, Šipan was fashionable with local nobility during the city’s golden age. It’s still dotted with villas and rectors’ palaces.
“You see, there are also some nice uphill stretches to enjoy,” smiles our goateed bike guide Senad, as we gather on deck to watch the hills approach. “We call them Croatian undulations.”
The ups and downs are fairly gentle, however, and they provide an enjoyable morning’s ride. We cycle from Šipan’s south coast to its north and back again, free-wheeling along curving lanes. Lizards bask on sunny walls, yellow butterflies dip-flip on the warm breeze and rosemary scents waft from the verge. At one point I find myself behind the island postman, puttering un-helmeted through his morning deliveries on a small moped. It’s all very serene.
By contrast, Mljet, our next stop, is more testing. Not content with being hard to pronounce, the little populated island is also a serious challenge to bike across. It might be a hugely attractive landmass — a 10-mile strip of rising cypress woods and broad bays — but the climbs are tough. There’s a legend that Odysseus spent seven years here with the nymph Calypso, and one assumes he made suitable use of the large, wood-circled saltwater lake that marks the finish line of our own modest exploits. We dismount and swim, relishing the early-evening sunshine and the buoyancy of the water.
Back at the boat that night, we drink wine and toast with the crew: Živjeli! To conquering the hills. Živjeli! To Dalmatia. Živjeli! To the islands and the open road. And then, of course, the weather turns.
It’s 11am, and the peak-capped man in the village bar raises his beer as I cycle past. I attempt a smile, and he looks amused — as well he might. To my left are trees heavy with ripe mandarins. To my right, a willow leans its soft branches down, dangling its leaves into the River Neretva. There’s only one thing spoiling this tranquil pastoral scene, and that’s the torrential rain that’s been bucketing down since breakfast. If I were to steer my bike right into the swollen, rushing river, I could get no wetter than I already am.
A hastily rejigged itinerary has seen us embarking on a long, downpour-lashed ride from the seaport of Ploce to the riverside town of Metkovic, a settlement on the Bosnia & Herzegovina border. Several of the group have chosen to remain on board rather than pedal through the rain. I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t seemed tempting, but a sense of duty, combined with a curiosity as to what the area might look like when you can barely see it, forced me out. And you know what? Against the odds, the experience wasn’t hellish.
The cafe in Metkovic doesn’t know what’s hit it. We leave the place saturated with puddles and spilled coffee, then begin back to Ploce in rain that has, improbably, become even stronger. But there’s little wind, and the day is nowhere near cold enough to be truly grim, so we pedal onwards, sending mighty arcs of water up behind us. Cormorants scud past as the cloud-blurred karst hills stare down on our sodden convoy.
In some ways, the inclement weather is wholly apt. This is a part of the mainland where modern history has left its mark in grey, crushing terms. Metkovic witnessed an appalling massacre during World War II, in which some 280 Serbs lost their lives. And when we take a coach inland to visit the Bosnian city of Mostar the following day, we find a place you can’t separate from the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.
Outwardly Mostar is a pretty town, with a cobbled old quarter and a famously graceful bridge. But today’s bridge is a reconstruction, a facsimile of the crossing that was destroyed in 1993, after having stood for more than 400 years. The city was unfortunate enough to be one of the eyes in the storm of a complex war — Muslim Bosniaks on one riverbank, Catholic Croats on the other — and hundreds lost their lives here. The relative recentness of it all is hard to grasp. Two generals are still serving sentences for targeting the bridge.
I climb a restored 17th-century minaret and look down on the rows of rainy souvenir shops, and fairly quickly it feels like time to go.
Our captain puts his tree-trunk arms to full use the next morning, steering us to the island of Korcula, where the sun returns. This is one of the most eulogised parts of Southern Dalmatia, and the reasons why are immediately apparent. Korcula Town itself is an exquisite cluster of medieval buildings ringed by coastal fortifications, and the rest of the island, covering an area 28 miles across and five miles wide, is a vivid green splash of pines, hills and vineyards. It’s also somewhere with a claim to fame.
“Don’t listen to what Venetians tell you. We’re 99% sure that Marco Polo grew up here in Korcula Town,” affirms Stanka, our admirably partisan city guide. She points out the alleged house of his birth, currently undergoing a major refit before it reopens as a themed museum. In the mid-1200s, when the fabled traveller was born, the Republic of Ragusa, of which Korcula formed a part, was under Venetian sovereignty. Hence the confusion over his provenance. Or so the story goes.
Even in lieu of hard facts, it’s a stirring notion to think of the island as Polo’s childhood home. The tale continues that, having returned from his globetrotting exploits, he was captured from Korcula after a huge nearby sea battle between the Venetians and the Genovese. What’s seemingly beyond debate is that he spent time in prison, where he narrated his Asian adventures to his cellmate, who transcribed the lot.
“Korcula produced the father of travel writing,” beams Stanka. “It was he [Polo] who introduced Europe to paper money, ice cream, gunpowder and spaghetti.”
These days the island also remains well known for its strong white wines, in particular the heady pošip. Our cycle route here winds right through a series of maritime vineyards, where fat grapes dangle just tens of metres away from the waves. This is a fine island to ride through, giving deep views of the bald-topped slopes of the mainland. The Korcula countryside itself is quiet but feels lived in: in the inlets and small harbours along the north coast, hoary fishermen hand-mend their nets and cut at freshly caught sardines, or bob their small vessels out slowly into the dark blue channels of the deeper sea.
After 20 miles of alternating ascent and descent, we arrive back at the boat having worked up hefty appetites. The evening reward? A rooftop restaurant in Korcula Town, where the chargrilled squid is offset by a bottle of “Marko Polo” pošip (but of course). After the meal, we find a gelateria close to where our boat is moored. It’s questionable as to whether the man himself did indeed acquaint the western world with ice cream, but I find myself raising my mint choc chip to him in any case.
The week holds two further enjoyable rides. The first on the steep-sided island of Lastovo, which nicely encapsulates the rolling history of the overall region: after having long ago passed hands between everyone from the Venetians to the Ottomans and the French to the Austrians, Lastovo then became an off-limits Yugoslavian military base until 1989. On the day we’re here the sea is stippled white from the wind and, in the sun, the island’s partially hidden, limestone-built settlements spill down the cypress hills with buttery brightness.
Our final ride is back on the mainland: a long climb into the mountains followed by an exhilarating downhill and, in my case, that humbling encounter with a sharp bend. Before that we cycle through Ston, a town that takes me entirely by surprise. Not only does it give the chance to tuck into the much-lauded local oysters (the brackish waters nearby are ideal for their cultivation) but, more impressively, it also remains surrounded by more than three miles of ancient walls. Long ago they kept the Venetians out; today they create the impression of the Great Wall of China displaced to the Med.
Back in Dubrovnik’s Port Gruž that evening, the night becomes a whirl of winking shore lights, charged glasses and upbeat speeches. Our transcontinental group has bonded well. The guides tell jokes. We clap the cook. We clap the barman. We clap the captain, who nods a stubbled, tolerant smile in return. Below deck, meanwhile, the bikes are enjoying a well-earned rest after a week that has been as much about the setting as the cycling.
Two young Brazilian members of the group take a late-night taxi out to the clubs of the Old Town, and I see them when we disembark the next morning. “It was a big surprise,” one tells me, fuzzy-eyed. “I never thought an ancient city would be so lively.” But in many ways Southern Dalmatia has never stopped evolving, and it’s exactly this that makes it such an absorbing region to ride through. Just so long as you don’t pull down on the back brake too hard.
British Airways flies between Gatwick and Dubrovnik up to seven times weekly. Croatia Airlines flies between Heathrow and Dubrovnik six times weekly. Jet2.com flies to Dubrovnik from Belfast, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.
Average flight time: 3h
Sailing times between Southern Dalmatia’s islands are favourable. Ferries and catamarans run from Dubrovnik (sample journey time 1h 5m to Mljet). There’s a good network of buses on the mainland, including to Mostar in Bosnia. European Coastal Airlines offers seaplane connections between the islands.
When to go
Temperatures average 18C and get hotter from May to October, with July and August being the busiest and hottest months. This six-month period is when cycling holidays are generally offered. Dubrovnik is a year-round destination though, as the winters are traditionally mild.
Need to know
Visas: No visa for stays of up to 90 days.
Currency: Croatian Kuna (HRK).
£1 = HRK 10.65.
International dial code: 00 385
(then 20 for Dubrovnik).
Time: GMT +1.
The Bradt Guide To Croatia. RRP: £15.99
How to do it
Flexitreks offers seven nights aboard the Harmonia in May-October, from £992 per person, based on a twin cabin (excludes flights). It includes four days’ full board and three days’ half-board, a 21-speed bike with pannier and lock, tour guide, guided tours of Dubrovnik and Mostar, and local assistance.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)