I had never heard of a bicycling vacation before it was suggested to me a few months ago. But it sounded amazing - spending a week on the Dalmatian Islands off the coast of Croatia - biking about 30 miles each day while eating local food, learning about the local culture, and seeing the sights of a country I had never visited.
So, two weeks ago, off I flew to the southern coast of Croatia.
The organized tour started Thursday. But, I left Chicago Saturday evening and arrived in Croatia Sunday morning.
The trip began in Dubrovnik, an ancient city nestled between towering cliffs and the Adriatic Sea. We planned these days on our own before the tour company bussed us four and a half hours northwest to Trogir - an island city further up the coast. After a day in Trogir, we took a ferry to the island of Brač, where our biking adventure began. We spent 4 days on Brač and 3 on Hvar, bicycling different paths around the island each day. On the final day, we ferried back to the mainland and spent a day exploring the large coastal city of Split before flying home.
Dubrovnik was amazing. I have been wanting to visit since someone recommended it to me decades ago. The oldest part of the city is enclosed by walls built between 1100 and 1700 AD after the departure of the Venetian Empire. The walls were strong enough to repel most invaders and survive a devastating 1667 earthquake. The walled city is a UNESCO heritage site, but that did not prevent the Yugoslavian army from bombarding the city during the 1991 Homeland War, damaging over 60% of the buildings. Happily, the Croatians were able to rebuild the damaged city after gaining independence. We enhanced our trip with a few activities: We scheduled two guided walking tours: one focused on the history of the city; the other on food and wine; and we took a boat ride out to some of the islands off the coast, where we went snorkeling into some natural caves. We spent a couple hours exploring one of the islands. I tried to take some video with my drone, but I broke a propellor by accidentally crashing it into a wall.
I don't know if it was the boat ride, the cave diving, or something else that caused an old back injury to flare up, but it affected me the rest of the trip. I was fine while riding a bike but coughing or standing up too quickly sometimes caused intense pain. Luckily, it did not significantly impair our activities that week.
Trigor and Split are also old walled cities along the coast with rich histories of their own and we spent a day exploring each - hiring a guide to show us Split.
I traveled with a group of 4 people, but our guided tour included 10 other tourists - all of whom knew one another and most of whom had traveled together previously. Our tour guides - Marco and Mario - provided excellent leadership. Each had local connections (Mario was born and raised on Hvar and Marco's wife was from Hvar), so they provided great perspectives about the history, culture, food, and locations. They also took care of many of our logistical issues - making dinner, boat, and hotel reservations and planning our bike routes each day. Many of the Hvar inhabitants are related to Mario, so we received special treatment. The boat driver was his uncle, and the van driver was his brother.
The islands were gorgeous. Mountains jut up from the Adriatic and you can see the sea from nearly every point, with beautiful vistas in each direction. The land was covered with rocks, which farmers have dug up over the centuries and stacked into houses, fences, kilns, or just piles.
This is the end of the tourist season, which meant that many of the restaurants were closed; but the advantage is that there were a lot fewer people now than in the summer. Fewer cruise ships stopping also meant smaller crowds. Most people are not wearing masks here, but that was less distressing because we did not run into a lot of people. Everyone we met was very friendly. The locals were familiar with the VBT tours and waved as we rode past.
The roads were in surprisingly good condition. We did not encounter a lot of traffic, but there were few bike lanes, so we had to be cognizant of cars on the road. We mostly stayed off the main roads but had to cross them from time to time.
The American TV show "The Bachelor" was filming in front of our hotel, so we were able to see and hear a bit of next season's show.
I have never seen a place with so many cats. They roam free in the streets and it is unclear if they belong to any human families.
This was my first time riding an electronic bike (eBike) and it was ideal for this trip. Although it has a motor, it is different from a motorized scooter. An eBike motor assists with pedaling, rather than replacing it. You must continue to pedal, but you can select up to 4 speeds to boost your velocity. This was particularly helpful when biking up a steep hill. About half the trip was level, downhill, or a slight upgrade. I turned off the motor during these times and turned it on when confronted with one of the many uphill grades. The weight of an eBike makes it more difficult when the motor is turned off, but the extra boost came in handy on the steep climbs.
I rode nearly 150 miles over the course of 6 days. Some of the routes were optional, but there was no way I was going to skip any of them.
Fans of the popular TV show "Game of Thrones" would recognize many sites in Croatia. Dubrovnik was the setting for King's Landing, while Split played the part of Meereen. They offer tours that focus on filming locations for the show, but we were not interested.
This was the longest vacation trip I have taken since 1988 and it came at a time when I desperately needed a break from work. I was impressed with VBT - the trip organizers and I am already considering a similar trip next year to a different part of the world. I took a lot of photos, which you can see here.
Here is how I spent each day:
Arrived in Dubrovnik
Watched the sunset over the Adriatic Sea from a nice restaurant just outside the city walls
Walked around the old city at night
Took a cable car to the cliffs above Dubrovnik. Sipped coffee, read, and watched the sunset from a cafe at the top of the cliff
Visited a museum dedicated to the 1991 Homeland War which broke up Yugoslavian and granted independence to Croatia
Attended an organized walking tour of the old city, learning the history of Dubrovnik and Dalmatia
Circumnavigated the old city atop the surrounding walls
Attended a second walking tour - this one visiting old restaurants and focusing on the food and wine of the region.
Took a boat ride out to the islands off Dubrovnik's coast.
Dove into two natural caves on the islands.
Bus ride to Trigor, which passed briefly through Bosnia.
Walked around the old city of Trigor, including a trip to the top of the St. Lawrence Cathedral tower, from which one can see most of the city.
Ferry to Brač.
6-mile warmup bike ride to and from Dol
Return to Dol for dinner in a thousand-year-old building. Rakija/grappa tasting (walnut, herb, cherry, olive, etc.)
32-mile bike ride. Stops in:
Skrip: Tour olive oil museum. Tasting olive oil, fig jam, olive spread
Puciska: Harbor town. Tour of stone cutter school.
Dinner with a local family - a brother and sister who served homemade rakija.
34-mile bike ride.
Started at the highest point in Croatia. Rode down to the coast; then along the coast back to the hotel.
Lunch + Turkish coffee in Milna by the harbor
Gelato in Supetar - the largest city on Brač
11-mile bike ride in the morning, beginning at the highest point in Croatia
Hike along the shore
Boat ride to Hvar
Checked into a beautiful old hotel, overlooking the harbor
29-mile bike ride, crossing the entire island - west to east and back again.
Stopped at a beach to swim
35-mile bike ride, again across the entire island, but also including an optional ride over the mountain back to the hotel.
Took a morning ferry to Split
Walked around the old part of the city and enjoyed a late lunch at an outdoor cafe.
Hired a tour guide in the evening to show us around the old city, which was formerly the palace of the third-century Roman Emperor Diocletian, who abdicated his throne in 305AD.
Woke up at 5 AM to catch a 7:30 flight to Munich, then change planes to head home.
Slept 10 hours in my own bed.