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Week Eleven: Hot and Chill in Croatia

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Trieste to Zadar, 581km; total 5,135km

“I love you, baby.”

- Required Croatian marital expression

Over almost twenty years of marriage, you try out the full gamut of possible pet names for each other until you settle on a few that become truly meaningful.

One that Ed has never even dared is “baby” - just sounding it out in his head conjures a slimy guy in a black-and-white movie with a pencil moustache and a trench coat, whistling at the starlet as she passes by.

That, and the many potential, less-than-impressed looks he imagines on Joce’s face if he were to go there.

But, hey, Croatia has its rules.

We were sweating both figuratively and literally as we approached our first border crossing in months, leaving Slovenia and the Schengen free-movement visa region (essentially most of Europe) into Hrvatska - country number ten of our Europe Epic. Sure, we had our freshly laminated Spanish residency cards that we were keen to show off, to prove we could stay in this convoluted Schengen land for our full six-month trip. However, we’d only just started researching basic phrases in Croatian - and you can only use “Good afternoon,” “Thank you” and “Sorry” in a limited number of combinations before conversation stalls.

(How Canadian are we to have “Sorry” among our top three expressions to know while traveling abroad?)

Plus, Ed gets stress-chatty whenever he crosses international borders. And let’s just say the famous Gillis sense of humour doesn’t always translate well.

Fortunately, there was a bike-path detour weaving straight past the border station! Unfortunately, like a slapstick Simpsons moment, the detour weaved its way backwards again, right into the first customs booth. The burly, imposing guard stared us down on our bikes, with our silly helmets that again gave us away as being clearly non-local.

Ed nervously fumbles through his trusty backpack for the passports. Damn! This is taking too long. Does this make me look guilty of something? I should crack a joke about not being able to find my stash of marijuana.

Ed looks up and opens his mouth, but catches Joce shaking her head disapprovingly. But she hasn’t even heard the joke yet.

The cars are lined up behind us, so the border guard shoos us aside while we find our documentation. At last, Ed heads back over, dangerously alone. He hands over the Canadian passports.

“Okay, I‘ll get you your stamp,” mutters the guard.

Ed needlessly whips out the Spain cards.

“Oh, you’re residents. You don’t need a stamp.”

Damn! Do I need a stamp? Ed fumbles through his head to remember whether passport stamps were a need, a want or a no-go. By the time he’s sorted it out, the border guard’s bemused patience has elapsed. He waves Ed hastily away. Ed fumbles with all his documents, steps on the guard’s foot and apologizes in a mix of Italian and Spanish as he bumbles back to his family - relieved to have survived the process with minimal incident.

Then we all realize that we’d merely passed the Slovenian exit station. Entry to Hrvatska lies immediately ahead.

A stout, middle-aged man in a well-worn white dress shirt and bureaucratic red tie scurries out of the main office to a booth on the far end of the complex. He looks put out already. This can’t be good. Ed starts anxiously thinking of witty icebreakers.

Our gatekeeper to Croatia waves vigorously to get our attention, then motions for us to cross a few lanes of traffic to where he sits. We awkwardly rush our bikes over to decide our fate. Ed has the documentation neatly ready this time, and hands it over.

“I didn’t ask you for nothing,” the stern voice chastens us right off the bat. Questioning eyes look us up and down. Little man hands snatch the passports onto their side of the fibreglass.

Yet we detect a hint of sly smile as he continues: “I’m very angry.” He contorts his arm upward in a gesture we do not undertand. “First, I tore my muscle fibre waving you over here.”

We’re still not sure whether to relax or not. Ed is bursting to join in the repartee.

“Here are the rules you must follow in Croatia.” Tough voice, but now a full, grandfatherly smile peers at Sitka.

“Children must get ice cream, every day. No exceptions.”

“Okay!” come two young replies.

“And you…”

Maybe Ed’s in trouble after all. But I haven’t said anything dumb yet.

“For your wife, you must buy very fine wine, and say I love you baby.”

“A-ha! Yes! We will definitely follow the rules.”

So it’s okay for Joce to join in the jokes now? Ed is at a complete loss as to what to say.

“Have a good time in Croatia.” He shoves the passports back into Ed’s hands without having even looked inside.

Joce, Heron and Sitka each grab a piece of Ed’s clothing and yank him away before he spoils the whole thing.

This was our introduction to a land of endlessly long pebble beaches, pristine-clear waters, idyllic islands, soaring coastal mountains, and an exceptionally relaxed mood. Just 30 years removed from a brutal series of civil wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, we couldn’t fathom how this nation of four million souls (best known to the boys as one of Canada’s nemeses in the coming World Cup of men’s soccer) could live up to its hype as an exploding holiday Mecca for vacationers of all ages, origins and interests. But in our week pedaling the northern half of the Croatian coast, we found a magazine-cover paradise to bike, swim, sail, yacht (is that verb?), sunbathe, party, hike, paddle, climb on ancient castles and Roman ruins, and generally chill out.

We actually began our ride down the east side of the Adriatic Sea with an overnight in Slovenia, another former Yugoslav nation whose narrow slice of coastline with rolling hills and olive trees in the backdrop squishes neatly in between northern Italy and Croatia. The unfamiliar language was initially unsettling (we kept mixing up Zdravo and Hvala, thanking people as we approached on our bikes and saying Hello after we passed), but we were relieved to learn 24 hours later that most basic expressions are shared or similar across the various southern Slavic languages. And that folks here find it cute when foreigners garble their way through Croatian pleasantries before switching to English, which they’ve been learning since elementary school.

After pitching on a stony corner campground nook between two large trailers (right on the Slovenian seafront, mind you), we decided to try cycling along the EuroVelo 8 route in Croatia with no daily destination in mind, then wait until mid-afternoon when we would look out for one of the many appealing shady, picnic-tabled sites we’d noticed all morning. Yet by the time we’d pedalled 80km on Day One (after a long bakery stop devouring burek in the magical Tartini Square in Piran), those perfect places disappeared except for a “naturalist” camp that sounded lovely until we read the billboard’s byline: Once you get here, make yourself comfortable, then stay that way. Free from clothes for the duration of your holiday.

Fortunately, just as we were cobbling together an explanation of nudism for our two sons, the sky opened up and the downpour convinced us all to seek more indoor accommodation - which introduced us to the wonderful world of Hrvatska landladies. It’s Croatian custom, we’re told, to have fully equipped suites ready for family visitors - and now that Croatia has become a thriving tourist hot spot, many are making the easy move to vacation rentals. Most of the towns we cycled through felt strikingly like Cuba, with blue apartmani placards found on every other home.

And so as we continued around the rugged Istrian peninsula - including a figuratively and literally breathtaking ride up and along the awesome Lamski Fjord - we discovered that staying in the homes of Croatians was a better deal than camping - for both the cultural experience and the price. Grozdana in Poreč and Emina in Pula each showed motherly concern when we arrived drenched after sudden downpours, helping us get dry and warm. Mijlenka in Rab had a pitcher of fresh juice ready, then gave us an extra room so the boys could each have their own bed. Tatijana in Povljena had a welcome shot of some homemade concoction for us (adults) to celebrate the end of our day, and Antona in Zadar spent over an hour at the post office to be sure our forgotten toiletries kit would rejoin our trip a week or so down the road.

Even when we did decide to camp for a night in Rabin, way up in the hills on the east side of Istria, Marjo hustled us off into a secret corner of his farm where we would have morning shade and an outdoor kitchen to cook dinner. All of our hosts were infinitely curious about our trip, despite the often challenging language barrier, making us feel like we were the family these suites were originally intended for.

Joce’s diligent (if spontaneous) route research unearthed the brilliant idea to skip past the longer, busier mainland for a spell by hopping islands just off the coast. On mountainous, thickly forested Cres, we were reminded of Canada’s Gulf Islands whilst cycling straight up for a couple hours right off the ferry, then screeching back down to the main town. The billboards and souvenir t-shirts read “No stress on Cres” so we camped beachfront for a couple nights, with a daytrip to the trippy Blue Cave in the cliffs below Lubenice, floating in the saltwater in the evenings.

On flatter, relaxed Rab Island, we explored tall-treed, car-free bike paths and craggly coast before ferrying to Pag - where it’s said that the scrubby, bouldery terrain feels like a lunar landscape. We would now add “if the moon were located on the surface of the sun” after sweating through a sweltering midday with no shade and only a 24/7 drunken beach town between the ferry port and our seaside overnight stop 53km away. The beaches were theoretically close, but the steep descent down dissuaded us from cooling off if we’d only be sweatier and an hour behind schedule by the time we climbed back to the main road. At one point, our supposedly more direct “Road Bike” route led us to a steep, overgrown rocky footpath that we would have assumed was the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement - except that even the Romans wouldn’t have tolerated such a terrible excuse for a thoroughfare.

Through it all, we reveled in the relative calm of island biking and the warm welcomes we received every evening. We learned a fourth word in Croatian - molim - being told “You’re welcome” so often this week. Even the two-inch-thick snakes (reputedly non-venomous but still bitey) we encountered at regular intervals politely wriggled out of our way just after making us leap out of our bike shorts. The boys especially got a kick out of the varied sounds of pure terror coming from their dad whenever a slithering reptile darted out, then back into, the roadside brush.

At only one point was the laid-back Croatian style less appreciated - when our catamaran captain managed to whisk us and a dozen dazed others across the Adriatic Sea between two islands without ever touching the steering wheel. At least not with his hands. From launch until we entered the harbour at Lun, the man was entertaining (unabashedly flirting with) three female passengers who were specially invited to the front deck. Periodically, he would reach in with his foot to course correct, with Joce and Heron staring in outraged disbelief. Ed, of course, was chatting with the Hungarian family next to him, oblivious to the atrocious navigational practices of the skipper.

We did arrive alive, and were later informed that “rules” in Croatia are generally met with shrugged shoulders and a preference for living in the moment. And so it was that Ed, knowing full-well that Joce rarely finished a small glass of wine, let alone a whole bottle, picked up a refreshing lemon radler for Jocelyn one evening, popped the can top, kissed her and (when in Rome) said, “I love you baby.”

And Heron and Sitka haven’t missed a day of ice cream.


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