Say "I am going to Europe" to a friend and Vienna, Paris, Rome, the Alps or the hills of Tuscany likely pop to their mind. Yet there is "another" Europe, that of the Eastern countries which, hidden for decades behind the Iron Curtain, are now part of, or vying for membership in, the European Union.
The beauty of this area is not simply its natural splendor, but also the relative obscurity it has with tourists. While sunbathers are 20 deep on the Italian side of the Adriatic, the Croatian side boasts nearly empty beaches, lightly trafficked roads, and villages where you will be the first "outsider" to come through in the past 3 days.
Yet stunning scenery sets the stage from the opening of the Adriatic Amble. Relaxing on arrival day by the shores of Lake Bled the 'perfectness' of the surroundings will captivate you. Your first ride in Slovenia, on tiny roads meandering along a lakeshore, or over impressive passes in the Julian Alps, will not soon be forgotten!
Ljubljana, the Capital of Slovenia, with its attractive old town, will lure many tour participants as we head southeast to Croatia. Here life is busy, by Slovenian standard, and quite relaxed when compared with Capital cities in other countries. Lunch, a walk about the old section, and just the right amount of culture will send us on our way.
As we ride away from Ljubljana the towns we pass through become smaller and smaller, until, up in the hills to the east, many hamlets have populations of fewer than 500. Surprises await. Motorheads will recognize Akrapovič, the manufacturer of performance motorcycle exhaust systems based in Ivančna Gorica, while ancient history buffs may delight in a detour to Novo mesto, an important settlement of the early iron age.
Move Away from the Tourist Mainstream:
Riding through inland Croatia is a step back in time. The only bikes you are likely to encounter are other foreigners who, like you, are discovering the interior for the first time. Farm vehicles are small, as are the fields themselves. Industrial agriculture hasn't arrived, and the pace of life here needs to be experienced to be understood.
Occasionally it is a good thing to admit to being a tourist by stopping at the "must see" places. Thus, an overnight in Plitvice, on the edge of Croatia's world famous National Park, offers a special treat. Here 16 lakes cascade from one into another, creating a magical effect. We have the opportunity to walk about the lakes and waterfalls outside normal tourist hours allowing us to enjoy this serene area without the bother of the bus crowds.
Bosnia and Herzegovina:
At the frontier with Eastern Europe, Bosnia was settled when the Romans arrived in the 1st century, and has seen tribes, armies and masses of people migrating, settling, and moving on over the centuries. Today Bosnia is a fascinating mix of culture, religion, and architecture.
The old Bosnian town of Jajce, surrounded by striking mountains, is situated at the conflux of two major rivers. Brilliantly, in the middle of town the waters come together via a most impressive waterfall. Our overnight here allows exploration in detail. Just up the river, a unique mill awaits your camera, which will be very busy during the stay here! Historically, Jajce is the location of a meeting forming the organized resistance to the Axis during the 2nd World War.
Two decades ago, the Bosnian War overwhelmed the Balkans and lead to extensive suffering during the longest siege of a city in modern times. Following 44 months of daily tragedy, Sarajevo has bounced back to become one of the top attractions in the Balkans.
According to Jim Marshall, an Englishman who survived the siege and lives in Sarajevo today, "The city is virtually unrecognizable as the same city photographed in 1996. "There is little left in the city of the severe destruction it suffered during the siege. Only pockmarks on the walls of the buildings and shell markings on the roads, known as Sarajevo roses, remain. Otherwise the burned out apartment blocks, offices, hospitals, schools and government buildings have been either rebuilt or in some cases completely removed."
Now the fastest growing city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is also, in 2014, the European capital of culture, so honored 100 years after the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in its streets sparked the First World War.
The renewal of the city means we can discover the new, as well as the old. In the pathway of history's military and political influence between the east and the west, Sarajevo had developed a multi faceted culture. Now, after the war, it is largely populated by Bosniaks. Still, it remains, besides Jerusalem, the only city in the world which houses a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church, a Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue all within walking distance of each other. Our double-overnight stay here allows time to investigate the turbulent history of this town in detail, and an optional (included) walking tour gives us a first-hand, local perspective.
Those who prefer to ride on the free day may add another pin to the map following a route into Serbia. Along small roads through one of the most mountainous parts of Bosnia, this big loop will reward riders with views and roads equal the effort.
Departing Sarajevo the routes generally follow the Neretva river, the largest river on the eastern Adriatic. Thanks to its source high in the mountains, over 1300 meters above sea level, its water is some of the coldest river water in the world! This same water flows under Mostar's famous Old Bridge, the symbolic meeting point of the eastern and western civilizations.
A Town Divided:
Mostar, post-war, reflects some of the significant changes that have taken place in Bosnia in recent memory. Today the Old Bridge, and the river Neretva, split the town's population along ethnic lines. The western districts have a Croatian majority, while the Bosniaks call the eastern side home.
The mix of east and west comes together here in every aspect of life�"the cuisine, the architecture, and the people themselves. Like Sarajevo, Mostar has bounced back from a long siege to become, once again, a delightful destination worthy of exploration!
The ruggedness of the mountains, and the delightful curves that go along with traveling through them, take us to the coast for the first of many days along the shores of the Adriatic. Descending from the hills the horizon fills with the sea as we make our way to a perfect double-overnight in Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik�"a Jewel of the Adriatic:
Centuries of trade turned this small port town into an international powerhouse which, along with its ally Ancona, rivaled, and kept in check, the Venetians. Skilled diplomacy, rather than military might, was the path the Croats used to gain access to ports throughout the world.
Our time here allows one to browse the markets, circle the city walls, enjoy a tour of a Medieval fortress, or simply walk along marble streets between majestic baroque buildings. When the cruising tourists leave to board their ships the city takes on a very different air and the magic of history takes over. It is then, after the masses depart, that we offer a walking tour of the city led by a local guide.
Choices are the important aspect of tours with Beach's Motorcycle Adventures, and a choice ride on the free day is through the mountains into Montenegro. The bewitching town of Kotor, nestled on a very protected bay surrounded by breathtaking, towering mountains, will be one you don't soon forget. Return along the coast and enjoy the contrast of mountains on your right and the Adriatic on your left. Imagine California's Highway 1 without endless lines of campers and tourists.
Towering Mountains, Serene Seashores:
And that is the scene for the next few days. Mountains, seashore, small fishing villages, beaches and amusing riding. The Alps run down the eastern coast of the Adriatic, where they are known as the Dinaric Alps. Twisty roads are everywhere, hemmed between impressive peaks and jagged coastline. Imagine riding to over a mile above sea level less than three and a half miles from the shoreline. Yes, these are serious mountains!
Literally flowing out of a mountain, the Cetina river begins with a spring high in the Alps, gathering mass from other Kaast springs as it flows down a quiet valley to the Adriatic at Omiš. Our accommodation in Omiš is impressively located high on a rock on the edge of this lovely river.
Modern rafters enjoying a paddle on the river are a complete contrast to the Corsairs of Almissa, who used the river as a refuge for their pirate ships between raids of Venetian shipping.
On to the Island:
The Croatian coastline is punctuated with hundreds of islands. Pag, with the longest coastline of any, is the next destination. Pag's farms, surrounding tiny towns, seem unchanged from five decades ago. In fact, that is a consistent feeling while traveling here�"that you have somehow time traveled back to 1950!
As with most every day riding along the coast, which route to ride is a tough choice. Choose inland routes and enjoy great little roads, pass through tiny villages with populations in the two digits, and marvel at the ruggedness of the terrain. Or stay by the sea, stopping here and there to explore centuries old villages such as Zadar. Throughout Croatia any choice leads to amusing riding and adventure!
Now it is time to treat ourselves Royally. Like the Austrian nobility, we spend the next two nights in Opatija, a posh resort town on the northern end of the Gulf of Kvarner. Our time is a bit more rigid than was that of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who used to spend several months here. Many of the late 19th-century luxury hotels and villas that were his haunts have survived to present times.
Visitors to Opatija don't stop enjoying themselves when the sun sets. The town has a hive of bars and restaurants supporting a very lively night life. You can let it loose tonight with new friends from all over Europe!
The diversity of the Istrian Peninsula is surprising. Jump from the coast inland to medieval hilltop villages in no time at all. Ride endless twisting, undulating roads, visit Roman ruins, go hot-air ballooning or paragliding, or simply sit and enjoy just being here.
Bid "zbogom" (goodbye) to Croatia and "Pozdravljeni še enkrat" (hello, again) to Slovenia. What was so different two weeks ago somehow feels familiar today. Great little roads, tidy villages, and little traffic. Yes, this is a great place to ride motorcycles!
The surprise of "What's around the corner?" continues even on this, the last riding day. Predjama Castle, the fortified home of the robber Baron Leuger, is built directly in the mouth of a cave. Nearby, unseen, are the Postojna caves�"featuring the longest public cave in the world. There is no need to walk. An electric train will take you through 3+ miles of caverns.
Right to our final destination�"back where we began this great adventure, the riding, scenery and surprises don't end!