Croatia is where again?“I’m sorry; could you repeat what you just said?” For a minute, I thought I heard husband say he wanted to go mountain biking in Croatia but he must have said ‘I want to go mountain hiking’ in Croatia. Yes, surely that’s what he said. A nice leisurely stroll up the side of a beautiful hill or two would be lovely to. . .
“Mountain biking. That’s the excursion I want to do here.”
“. . .day. Um, really?” Pause while thinking back on our wonderful, placid, serene and civil bike riding done just a few days earlier in Tuscany when we started this cruise, and fast forwarding to an attempt at, gulp, mountain biking? “Like, in those mountains we’re seeing over there on land?”
“Yeah. Let’s do it!” Husband says with more enthusiasm than I’ve heard from him about any other excursion on this trip, and that’s saying a lot. Methinks he really wants to do this!
“But, what about your bad knee, and well, my lack of mountain bike-riding skills? Isn’t this kind of the wrong place to learn a new sport?” And, in the bubble circling my head right now I was also thinking. “. . .a potentially dangerous one that I could be made a fool attempting at this stage of the game?” (‘Game’ meaning my life!)
“My knee is fine. Let’s get ready” said husband.
And it happens just that quickly when you’re nearing the end of a cruise extravaganza and you want to go out with a bang. Thinking back on that decision, it was kind of predictable. We knew we were both done with standard tours involving walking through cathedrals, museums and monuments, so were looking for a little more excitement and activity. My choice had been kayaking along the Dalmatian Coastline, which I thought would be quite enough excitement, thank you. Especially considering neither of us had even been in a kayak before. But husband is not too keen on cold water, and by ‘not too keen’ I mean will avoid it at all costs, so he had not exactly warmed up to that idea at any point in the conversations. But mountain biking could be problematic, mostly because I’m not a strong rider and, well, even though I know zero about mountain biking I was already thinking that one needed to be at the very least a ‘sort-of’ strong rider, if not a card carrying ‘full-on’ one.
Anyways. . .
“Okay then, welcome to Croatia!” Our pert and quite fit guide, Adriana, was just a little too energetic for my cautious self, but I soon discovered that I really didn’t need to worry about her at all because she was the pack leader and I was most certainly not anywhere near the front! In fact, for most legs of the ‘race’ (which technically it wasn’t, but then again when you’re all riding bikes together in a group going up and down mountain runs, doesn’t it just stand to reason that everyone thinks they’re in a competition to the finish line? Of course.), I was dead last in the ‘this is not a race’ category, but did I really care at all? No. I was just happy to not be embarrassing myself by crashing into one of those lovely olive trees that we were whizzing past or potentially suffering a neck-braking fall off the steep side of the road that I was petrified to look down upon.
But, before we go racing downhill and get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back for a minute and start at the beginning of the day. We docked at Dubrovnik (which, by the way, would have been a perfectly charming place to spend the day shopping. . .) where we were met by a very smart guide and boarded a bus for a half hour journey through picturesque countryside along the Adriatic Road. We knew he was smart because he spent very little time giving us the detailed historical rundown on his country, choosing instead to give us the Cliff notes version which was perfectly fine with everyone on this particular excursion. We were in this day for mountain biking action, and he must have been able to smell some fear among those in our group as we (and by ‘we’ I might just mean me. . .) watched in awe as the bus climbed higher up the mountainside in order to reach our launch point for the biking. It was at this spot where we met Adriana, and since you already know I didn’t spend too much time with her up at the front of the pack, rest assured there were plenty of other bike riding guides that I did get to know. These were the patient ones, the spotters that were positioned at different levels within our group to watch for our safety, well-being, and flat tires. Whew. That was a relief to know that at least someone felt responsible for little ole’ me, and that there was a good number of these guides taking the ride with us. That was the good news. On the other hand, I quickly learned that most of them didn’t speak much English, although Adriana did. But have I mentioned she didn’t spend much time riding by my side? Enough said.
So, once we were fitted with our helmets and each matched up with a compatible bike, Adriana reviewed a few basic road rules that amounted mostly to stay with the group and know where your brakes are. And pretty much just like that we were off!
“Weeee – look at me! I’m mountain biking in Croatia!” was my first thought as I attempted to look calm on my first leg of the run, which by the way was totally downhill and terrifying. As I recall, my hands were literally frozen in place squeezing both brakes as hard as I could, but I was determined to try and enjoy the journey. Especially since I had already been told that at some point wine would be involved – yippee! And very quickly the journey got more interesting – or humiliating – when the only two young girls in our group, ages 10 and 13, went whizzing by me on this first trial run. So, remember in the above paragraph when I mentioned that everyone felt pressure to race? Well if I hadn’t considered it before, just seeing those two little darlings ahead of me gave me momentum to want to see them choke on my dust. Game on, sisters!
All kidding aside, almost everyone was courteous and looking out for one another during the entire ride. I say ‘almost everyone’ because I can’t be certain of anything that went on with Adriana and the other Tour-de-Croatia members in the lead positions, husband included. Ahem. I can only speak for those peddling away at my speed (or lack thereof), and we were all living in the moment, adrenaline pumping, laughing and smiling at being here in a country we’d barely ever heard of participating in a sport that back home we would never consider. Okay, maybe I was with the nerds in the back of the pack, but nerds can have fun, too, right?
After lots of downhill runs (yes, our hands were frozen to those brakes!) we made our first stop at a charming farmhouse that had been in the same family for centuries. It contained a working olive oil press and we dined in an adorable cellar while the owner spoke to us about their farm and products. But the best part was the fantastic snack they provided that consisted of a simple plate holding a hearty piece of farm bread that we could dip in their freshly pressed olive oil along with some cold cuts, cheese slices, pickles, olives and other farm delights including big bottomless pitchers of water and lemonade. As yet no wine, and to be honest it was far from my thoughts at this point. We had already heard about what was up ahead.
Apparently, the carefree free flowing, no peddling ride-as-fast-as-you-dare-downhill part of the journey was coming to an end. Abruptly, as in this was the half-way point, and you know what happens when you reach the lowest valley in the journey, right? It’s uphill all the way back, baby. This is also where some members of the group started dropping like flies. Finally! And for me, the good news was that I wasn’t among the quitters. Yet. I chugged, and sometimes walked, and then huffed and puffed, one peak after another until my breaking point finally hit. I walked my bike to the side of the road and waited to flag down the ever present chase van and am happy to report that by the time it got to me there was no more room left on it! Better still, those two perky little girls had dropped off quite a ways back – go me! At least I beat the young guns, and yes, I had just a little shame and pride at feeling snug about that. Mostly pride, but definitely some guilt. I think.
So, with no more room in the van, what happened next? I asked if they could just take my bike and I would walk the rest of the way and several of the bike guides pulled up beside me to encourage me to keep going.
“You can do it! Don’t stop now!” (Or, whatever they were saying in their native tongue.)
And I’m thinking, huh? I left my land legs back at the olive press and now all I have is mush! The thrill is gone. I. Can’t. Ride. Anymore.
“Keep going! Be strong!”
And it was only then as I really huffed and puffed and panted and gasped as well as kept moving forward (mostly for fear that if I stopped I would surely fall over and tumble down a cliff) that I realized the end of the line was waiting for me right at the top of this very hill I was now challenging. That, and Adriana, husband, and all the others who had raced ahead even during this uphill climb portion but that were all cheering the rest of us on to the finish line. So that was it! I had accepted the challenge and stayed the course. I was sure that a yellow shirt was waiting for me on the podium at the end, but alas, it was simply another charming farmhouse plus the promised wine. Ah yes. First some much needed water, then the delightful group toast with the wine which had been pressed and aged right here in this very farmland on which we were now sweating and laughing and collectively patting ourselves on the back. Quite a day. Quite a memory.
Oh, and about Croatia in general? It was charming and an honest to goodness mix of really old with really new. We learned that they had experienced civil war as little as ten years prior – ten years! Like Montenegro, Croatia had originally been part of Yugoslavia until recent years, and now was extremely proud of their freedom and new found independence. They are emerging as an incredible tourist destination with a solid foundation in ecotourism and – are you ready for this? – plenty of healthy, outdoor activities such as our mountain biking excursions as well as the kayaking options and scores of others. They are fast becoming an ‘it’ destination for chic Europeans and well-traveled sports-minded foreigners looking for the new and undiscovered, and we could definitely feel the vibe and vitality of this up and coming nation.
And finally, yes, we still managed to dance that night! Both husband and I were back on the dance floor after another incredible gourmet meal followed by another outstanding floor show in the main theatre. Was it the wine? The fresh air? The energy we drew from that incredibly refreshing and exhausting day? Most likely a combination of all things combined, not to mention the decent nap we took immediately after return on board the ship!