I’m sitting in a bar in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Surrounded by ancient walls and the Adriatic Sea, this is Croatia’s crown tourism jewel. This is also the spot where I will begin a seven-day cycling journey.
After ordering a beer, I turn my attention to my tour companions. We will be embarking on an odyssey of sorts—starting here on the coast and winding into the Western Balkans’ Dinaric Alps—until we reach Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will travel through some of the most interesting and undiscovered areas of southeastern Europe. This expedition will be orchestrated through Green Visions, an adventure-travel operator based in Sarajevo with a sustainability and ecotourism focus. The promotion, and booking for the tour was a joint effort with Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Biketours.com.
“What we are about to do is embark on the inaugural bike ride from the coast of Croatia through the mountains and onwards to Sarajevo, finding the local touch as much as possible along the way,” says Thierry Joubert, the director of Green Visions. “We will be embarking from Dubrovnik, averaging 50 kilometers a day.”
Biking, we will soon discover, is the perfect way to explore the Balkans … and an opportunity to cover more distance and diversity of landscapes and cultures than travel by foot, but more slowly and intentional than by car.
“We are committed to sustainability and part of sustainability is through local operators and keeping the profit as local as possible,” said Jim Johnson, President of Biketours.com, which runs more than 200 tours representing more than 70 European bike tours operators in more than 40 companies. “We have been told by [local operators] that we are their megaphone to the world.”
The “Pearl of the Adriatic” is all about the views, the blue water, the terra cotta roofs, and, of course, the walls. My three recommendations for this town are to first, visit the walls as early as you possibly can. That means 8 a.m. My second: Dinner at Konoba Sciabecco in the Old Town and under the Saint Nicholas chapel. Order the fish platter and sit along the polished limestone walkway at sunset. After, and number three, head to Libertina Bar for a real local’s experience and ice-cold beer.
Our first official day on bikes was south of Dubrovnik in an area called Konavle. We pedal through pine and cypress forests, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees, including tangerines, figs and mulberries. We stopped for a mid-day meal at Konoba Vinica Monkovic in the village of Ljuta. The local trout cooked in parchment paper and decorated with colorful sautéed zucchini and capers only added to this restaurant’s ambiance. Choice of seats include tables literally atop the Ljuta River, on a floating platform.
As we pedal back to Dubrovnik, we are briefly stopped by a traffic jam of stubborn sheep in the road, reluctant to make a passageway for our bikes, and it hit me: this was not going to be an average trip. It could be hours—if not entire days—before we would run into another car or cyclist on the road. The Balkans are raw and unscripted.
Our introduction to this rugged country, which sits in the heart of the Western Balkans, came immediately after we crossed the border and started to climb up and through the Dinaric Alps. We then descended into a valley on the outskirts of the city of Trebinje for a lunch at an old rail station in the community of Zavala. Here, the route merged onto the old Austro-Hungarian train tracks, which have recently been repurposed as biking trails.
Before heading into Trebinje, we visit the Vjetrenica Cave, a seven-kilometer system complete stalagmites, stalactites and it’s own species: the blind, albino and lizard-like human fish.
In the evening, we relaxed in the city, where families mixed with intoxicated bar hoppers while DJs provided a riverside soundtrack. A short distance from the walls of the Old Town, we ate at the Restaurant Vukoje, which serves a bevy of its own high-end wines and has a panoramic view of the entire valley.
A day of climbs and sharp descents culminated with Herzegovina’s unofficial capital, Mostar. We arrived to Ottoman Quarter of the city. The smell of incense mixed with the call to prayer.
The city of Mostar is best known for its famed bridge, which rises as a stunning stone arch between two medieval towers in the heart of the Old Town. Dusk is the best time to visit, as selfie sticks and tourists pervade during the day, especially throughout the summer season.
A highlight was walking our bikes across this famed bridge as the sun was setting. Then we celebrated the end of another successful day of biking with rakija, the Balkans’ version of schnapps, on the balcony of our hotel, Almira, in the city center.
Our next cycling day was perhaps most special for our group as we were mashing through terrain few traverse. We were now in the heart of Bosnia.
We began a strenuous climb over Prenj, Visocica and Bjelasnica mountain ranges, ascending through a beautiful wooded forest. As a light rain began falling, we parked our bikes in what appeared to be a quaint mountain house in the middle of the countryside. Typical of this region, our stop turned into a conversation and coffee with the owner, who was all too happy to share with us the region’s history. He gave us an impromptu tour of his kula, a traditional guesthouse, and the plot of land that has been in his family for 800 years.
We cycled onwards and upwards, continuing over mountain passes towards to a remote village, Umoljani. Our lodging for the evening, Pansion Umoljani, overlooked the valley beyond, and served a delicious array of authentic cuisine, including spinach, potato and cheese pies and copious amounts of rakija.
Walking through the streets of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, I could feel its turbulent and beautiful past weaving together into a harmony of inspiring “now-ness.” Nestled in the mountains, we pedaled into the lights and pavement of the city by dusk, a dynamic difference to the gravel country roads that led us here.
I had heard in passing that Sarajevo has been nicknamed “The European Jerusalem.” It did not take me long to understand why: In the center, the main mosque, Orthodox Christian church, Catholic Cathedral, and synagogue sit within a few hundred feet of one another.
And contrary to what many travel stories write, the scars of the past do not define this city today. Sarajevo hosts over 15 yearly festivals and is, as it has always been, a cultural hub of artistic renaissance and musical exploration. The capital is also home to youth mountaineering groups that encourage locals to explore the surrounding mountains once again, and companies like Green Visions that make the outdoors accessible for locals and travelers alike.
Eating dinner, in the traditional and delicious restaurant Zara iz duvara, we debriefed about the trip and realized that the Balkans region is the perfect spot for visitors to learn about Europe, the Near East, and, well, travel. This is where East meets West: Where cobble stones intersect with dirt roads, and where past meets present. The Balkans are some of the last remaining places for authentic adventure on this planet; tourism has not yet been thoroughly developed in this part of the world, which makes it raw and undiscovered.
While the infrastructure of the Balkans may not compare to its Western European neighbors quite yet, paved roads and paths are prime for cycling and adventure tours.
If You Go
Make sure to contact either (or both) Green Visions and Biketours.com.
Olivia Balsinger is a travel writer based in New York City. She is also a Paste Health columnist, deputy editor of About.com’s Sustainable Travel and OhThePeopleYouMeet.com