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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana

Written by Dale Fehringer
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Ana just might be the hardest-working tour guide in Europe. During the week she led our cycling tour around Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands she rode with us, entertained us, educated us, and watched over us – from breakfast until we were safely tucked in bed at night. Because of her efforts, we were transformed from a group of strangers into a cohesive group of friends … and in some respects into her temporary family.

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana, Split, cycling croatia, cycling tour europe, Dalmatian islands, Hvar,  Dubrovnik, Korcula, Ston, Sucuraj, Jelsa, Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vela Luka, Mljet, Prizba, Brna,  Smokvica, Pupnat, Dale Fehringer

An attractive, strongly-built woman in her mid-30s, Ana has athlete written all over her. Shoulder-length highlighted brown hair and an angular jaw frame her determined brown eyes and slightly freckled checks. Large, square sunglasses perch on top of her head and a first aid pack is strapped to her waist … just in case. She’s tough and capable of taking care of herself – and of a group of cyclists who don’t know the language or their way around. Ana loves being outdoors, and in addition to being a tour guide she is also a lifeguard and ski patrol; all activities that put her in charge – and in a position to help others.

This was Ana’s first time to lead this tour and we could tell she was nervous. She spent a lot of time reviewing the itinerary and checking our position and got very concerned if any of us were separated from the group. She generally rode in the lead, scouting the course, but she also cycled and visited with each tour member. She was assisted by Kristo, who had not been on the ride before, and Boris, who drove the support van and bike trailer. (Boris, we later found out, is missing his toes due to frostbite suffered during a mountain climb). But Ana was clearly in charge.

Meeting the Group

You never know what you are getting into when you sign up for a group bicycle tour and we were a little anxious as we waited at the Split airport to meet our fellow cyclists. There were four in our party (middle-age Americans) and we were joined by two other Americans, four Irish, and six Brits. Everyone had previous cycling experience and all were good riders. Ana greeted each of us with a smile and warm handshake and checked us off her list. Eleven … twelve … thirteen … wait a minute, there were supposed to be 16! Where are the rest?

Croatia and the Dalmatian Islands

Croatia is located in Central Europe, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It’s roughly the shape of an upside down horseshoe and is surrounded by other former Yugoslavian states including Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The fair weather, natural beauty, and gentile people have made Croatia a vacation destination for decades and Europeans have long traveled there to sail, enjoy the great beaches, and swim in the Adriatic Sea. In the 1990s the region was devastated by civil war. Today, the war is history and Croatia is once again a remarkable place to visit.


The people of Croatia are generous and gracious hosts and they make visitors feel welcome. We felt comfortable and safe everywhere we went and we were greeted by friendly, helpful people throughout the country. The Croatian language is difficult and we had problems mastering even simple phrases, but the locals speak enough English to understand your needs, and they went out of their way to help us.

Getting to Croatia isn’t direct, but it’s relatively easy. It’s usually two flights from the U.S., with connections to Split and Dubrovnik through London, Dublin, Vienna, and other major European gateways. We flew to Split with a connection in Dublin.

Split: A Great City for Tourists

Our cycling tour started in the historic city of Split, circled three Dalmatian islands (Hvar, Korcula, and Mljet), and wound up in the ancient port city of Dubrovnik.

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Split is a great city for tourists because it is historic, compact, and easy to navigate on foot. Of special interest, the outdoor fish market features dozens of locals selling seafood, each sales person calling out the benefits of their sardines or octopus versus that of their neighbors. The Split night life is active with several reasonably-priced restaurants and bars.

After dinner, we climbed on a ferry for a 1½ hour ride to the island of Hvar. Aboard the ferry Ana resolved the issue of the three missing group members. She found out that Peter, from the U.K., had mistakenly gone to the London airport with his daughter’s passport instead of his own, and he missed his flight and would join us the next day. Two women from Ireland hadn’t appeared in the Split Airport or at dinner, but when we boarded the ferry, there they were. Ana chided them for not meeting the group at the airport, but they assured her they were never lost – and here they were. Ana was perturbed, but also relieved that two more of her charges were in the fold.

When we arrived at Hvar we boarded a bus to our hotel in the seaside town of Jelsa, our home for the next two days.


Circling Hvar

Hvar is a good place to start a bike tour; it’s historic (having been populated at least since the 4th century BC), has a mild climate, good beaches, and an abundance of lavender, vineyards, and wildflowers.

We woke the first morning to sunshine and birds singing outside our hotel room. We dressed and headed down for breakfast and there was Ana, dressed in a bright bicycle jersey and sipping tea from a giant cup. She greeted us with a cheery smile and an enthusiastic, “Good Morning!” Her instructions were to meet in the hotel lobby at 8:30 am to start the tour. Not wanting to be the last to show up, we were in the lobby in our cycling gear at 8:20 – a little sleepy, slightly nervous, and ready to ride. As we waited, Peter arrived, waving his passport in the air. He quickly stored his luggage, changed into his cycling clothes, and joined us.

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana, Split, cycling croatia, cycling tour europe, Dalmatian islands, Hvar,  Dubrovnik, Korcula, Ston, Sucuraj, Jelsa, Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vela Luka, Mljet, Prizba, Brna,  Smokvica, Pupnat, Dale FehringerWe were off – through the city to the coast and along winding country roads toward Hvar Town and Stari Grad. We enjoyed views of the sea and surrounding islands, and noted mounds of rocks, in rows, lining the hills from top to bottom. Over the years, generations of Hvar residents moved those rocks by hand to clear the land for crops, where today, rows of lavender and grape vines grow between the mounds.

Hvar is also known as "Lavender Island" because the graceful plants grow in profusion.  Vendors sell it in packages, soaps, and oils and we bought some from a stand in Stari Grad. That night the pleasant, comforting scent filled our room.

We had an excellent thin-crust cheese pizza for lunch in the plaza at Hvar Town, and then rode north to Stari Grad and east to Jelsa.

Dinner that night was in the village of Jelsa. We sat at an outside table, ate local seafood, and challenged Ana to call us by name. She did well, correctly identifying 14 of the 16 of us. She seemed pleased with herself, and shrugged off her two misses.

On to Korcula

We were getting used to seeing Ana at breakfast in the morning with her giant cup of tea and cheery smile. She seemed genuinely glad to see us and eager to get on with the day’s ride.

The second day was cloudy and cool – just right for cycling – and we rode through the walled city of Jelsa, enjoying sweeping views of the surrounding bays, blooming wildflowers on the roadsides and hills, and gardens of peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes.


The morning ride was easy, but after lunch the weather turned misty and cloudy and the route was mostly uphill. I rode with Ana, straining to keep up while we talked about our lives and anticipated the “brow” of the hill and a downhill coast.

At Sucuraj we took a ferry to Dubrovnik and another to Korcula, our home for the next three nights. On the ferry we drank beer, told stories, and listened to Ana and Boris sing traditional Croatian songs. We didn’t understand the words, but the harmony was nice and the bittersweet meaning of the lyrics was clear.

As the ferry approached Korcula the views were amazing – a 600-year-old city surrounded by ancient stone walls that looked as durable as they had been for hundreds of years.

Fresh Mussels on Mljet

Our tour schedule indicated a day off from cycling in Korcula, but Ana offered us a side trip to Mljet as an alternative. We took her up on the offer and she arranged for a local boat to take us (and our bicycles) to the island.

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In ancient times, the small island of Mljet (pronounced Mee-yet) was the holiday resort of wealthy Romans. They built villas amongst its beautiful tree-covered hills and calming salt water lakes. Today, it is accessible by charter boat from Korcula, Split, and Dubrovnik.

After breakfast we put our bicycles on top of the boat and headed across the bay for the 2½ hour ride to Mljet. We docked near the small fishing village of Pomena, and then cycled around two salt water lakes. The waters are incredibly clear with pools of azure and swirls of teal.

Lunch at a small seaside café in Pomena consisted of mussels pulled directly out of the bay then cooked for us. They were amazingly fresh and delicious! After lunch, we reloaded our bikes on the boat and sailed back to Korcula.


Marco Polo’s Home Town

Korcula is one of the longest islands in the Adriatic Sea and we spent two days exploring it on our bicycles. The island is hilly and covered with forests of pine, cypress, and oak. It has been populated since prehistoric times, and has been occupied by Romans, Byzantines, and Venetians, among others. Our ride started in Vela Luka, passed Prizba, Brna, and Smokvica, and through the scenic village of Pupnat, where we had a fabulous lunch at a small café consisting of huge platters of antipasto and three desserts – a chocolate cake, flan, and deep-fried local pastry.

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana, Split, cycling croatia, cycling tour europe, Dalmatian islands, Hvar,  Dubrovnik, Korcula, Ston, Sucuraj, Jelsa, Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vela Luka, Mljet, Prizba, Brna,  Smokvica, Pupnat, Dale Fehringer

After lunch we got back on our bikes and rode to the town of Korcula, where we shopped and explored. This ancient walled city is home to Marco Polo, and the house he was born in is being turned into a museum. Walking through the narrow streets and passageways feels like passing through history, and you can sense the presence of centuries of townspeople, soldiers, and royalty.

One of Ana’s “ducklings” was missing at dinner (he decided to go out on his own) and Ana was so concerned that she waited for him for nearly an hour, then walked all over town until she found him at an outdoor cafe. She scolded him (for not letting her know) and she was still upset about it at dinner.

After dinner, she calmed down enough to entertain us by singing a romantic local song. It was a softer side of Ana that we hadn’t seen before, and I thought I saw a hint of tears in her eyes as she sang.

Korcula to Ston

www.korculainfo.com

The ride from Korcula to Ston consisted of three parts – a quiet morning jaunt on narrow gravel roads, a ferry ride to the Peljesac peninsula, and an optional afternoon ride to Ston on a hilly paved road.

 

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana, Split, cycling croatia, cycling tour europe, Dalmatian islands, Hvar,  Dubrovnik, Korcula, Ston, Sucuraj, Jelsa, Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vela Luka, Mljet, Prizba, Brna,  Smokvica, Pupnat, Dale Fehringer

Half of the group did the afternoon ride, which was 12 miles, mostly uphill. It was tough, and Ana rode with us, straining against the hills and cursing the wind. As we rounded the last curve and coasted downhill into the ancient walled city of Ston we cheered and gave each other high fives. It had been a tough ride, and we were proud we finished it.

Ston is a unique city. More than three miles of stone walls, built prior to 1000 AD, surround the old town. The walls are in amazingly good shape despite being bombed in 1991 and hit by an earthquake in 1996. They are some of the largest man-made structures on earth. After lunch in Ston, Boris loaded our bikes onto the trailer and drove us to Dubrovnik.


The Old Town of Dubrovnik

Cycling the Dalmatian Islands with Ana, Split, cycling croatia, cycling tour europe, Dalmatian islands, Hvar,  Dubrovnik, Korcula, Ston, Sucuraj, Jelsa, Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vela Luka, Mljet, Prizba, Brna,  Smokvica, Pupnat, Dale FehringerFortunately, we had been forewarned about the throngs of tourists in Dubrovnik or we might have been disappointed in this otherwise beautiful and hospitable city. It’s a popular tourist destination, renowned for its monuments, beautiful and generally-intact walls, and welcoming atmosphere. During the day, cruise ships anchor in the harbor and discharge thousands of tourists, who mob the streets and gift shops. But at night, it’s a different and much quieter place, and walking the ancient streets feels like walking through history.

We found a café outside the walls (and away from the tourists) and sat, enjoyed a peaceful drink, and admired the views of the city and the sea.

Saying Goodbye

It had been a wonderful week in Croatia and we were sorry it was coming to an end. Our group had gotten along amazingly well and the guides had been helpful, entertaining, and educational.

Ana saw each of us off, and seemed genuinely sorry to see us go. It had been a long and demanding week for her, but I think she had grown as attached to us as we had to her. And in many ways, we had been her family for the week. She gave us warm farewell hugs and whispered something special to each of us as she said goodbye. We miss her friendship and guidance, and I think she misses us too.

© Dale Fehringer

About the author:

Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer, editor, and documentary video producer. Dale is a regular columnist for Competitive Intelligence Magazine and his articles have appeared in a wide range of publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Italian Tribune, inTravel Magazine, WomenOf.com, American Legion Magazine, Road & Travel, and Western RV News and Recreation. He can be reached at 415.602.6116 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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