Virtuoso Life September 2018 Great Bike Trips: Slovenia and Croatia

Great Bike Trips: Slovenia and Croatia

Take the slow road into Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
Take the slow road into Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
Photo by Primoz Sutak
Dramatic mountains and coastlines, dueling cultures, and the ever-present wind in your hair link up for a great bike ride through Slovenia and Croatia.

There’s a T-intersection in Slovenia where you can feel the climate shift. It’s a few hours’ ride from the Lipica Stud Farm’s oak-lined pastures, home of the famed Lipizzan horses, along a less trafficked two-lane through one-gas-station towns, where truck drivers transferring beehives fuel up with diesel and espresso.

The change happens gradually, of course – the trees growing more scrubby and squat in deference to burly bora winds as you approach the ridge – but it’s here that you fully turn a corner. The breeze blows a bit warmer and carries a tinge of salt. Sunlight reflects back a touch more brightly, and the terrain trends downhill all the way to your first glimpse of the blue Gulf of Trieste, which the Adriatic grabs hold of and runs with to the horizon. Speeding past in a car, you’d likely miss it. But on a bike, as you place foot to ground for an engine winding up around the bend, it’s exactly the type of moment you notice.

Alpine life in Triglav National Park.
Alpine life in Triglav National Park.
Photo by Stipe Surac
Bike touring is full of such discoveries, cogs that link up to power a more intimate and visceral appreciation of place. Cycling sharpens your focus out of necessity – the tire-hungry crack or hissing badger (?!) mid-lane, the bark of a dog in pursuit, a thunderhead’s march off your flank, subtle topographical changes under wheel and in the distance. In this heightened state of awareness, you’re ready to capture the smallest of pleasures when nature winks.

Day three of Backroads’ new cycling tour of Slovenia and Croatia is transition day, from mountains to coast. We awoke in the resort town of Bled in the shadow of the Julian Alps, and, after a shuttle to Lipica and a tour of the horse farm, mounted our titanium steeds, scattering across the windswept Karst Plateau toward that ridgeline near fourteenth-century Socerb Castle, where things grew warmer by the pedal stroke.

The six-day trip kicks off in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (lyoo-blee-AH-nah), and spends two days in the rugged mountains and foothills near the country’s northern border with Austria before jumping south to Istria, the diamond-shaped Adriatic peninsula it shares with Italy and Croatia. I’d been angling to see more of Croatia ever since a Dalmatian Coast road trip a decade ago, and I’ll hop on a bike for nearly any reason – year-round commuting, family outings, fitness, century rides in the Pacific Northwest. How inspiring is the pairing of Slovenia’s widely varied terrain with a less touristy side of Croatia? Ask the guy who was smiling at 6 am spin classes in the run-up.
All smiles after a steep descent in Triglav.
All smiles after a steep descent in Triglav.
Photo by Primoz Sutak
"I don’t call myself a cyclist, but I like to ride a bike on these trips,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Mary Walker of Keller, Texas, who frequently recommends Backroads to active clients and families. That’s the kind of line I heard from a few in our fit group of 15, who ranged in age from 26 to early 70s, go-getters to sunny-day riders. It was the first multiday cycling outing for some, and a preferred way of traveling for others: One, a New Orleans attorney and grandfather, had 15 trips in the saddle with the tour company – which is impressive, but he was bested by a retired tech entrepreneur and rock climber who counts his in the 20s. Uniting us all was a love of the outdoors, the confidence to take on a crowded café while clad in Lycra, and a belief that the best vacations involve breaking a sweat.

“You don’t have to be Joe Biker,” says Walker, whose fifth cycling vacation is coming up. Want to attack days like you’re on Le Tour? Have at it – there’s likely at least one other person ready to hammer it too. But for many, bike touring with Backroads, Butterfield & Robinson, and others is a chance to ease off life’s frenetic pace for a week. “In Provence, I’ll be digging into southern French culture, drinking great wine, learning about lavender aromatherapy, and exploring clifftop villages,” Walker says.
Setting out from Socerb Castle, which has commanding views of Istria.
Setting out from Socerb Castle, which has commanding views of Istria.
Photo by Primoz Sutak
Throughout the week, days rolled along with a familiar cadence, with flexibility as a main theme. After breakfast, team leaders Ted and Primoz explained each segment’s mileage, elevation gains, and scenic highlights; passed out Garmin bike computers with preprogrammed directions; and encouraged everyone to ride as much or as little as they wanted, which for most of us averaged between 30 and 50 miles daily. Or none at all – on day five in Croatia, one rider opted to take a break from the road for more pool time, a walk to the beach, and a massage. Once ready, everyone set off at their own pace, meeting up for lunch, coffee breaks, a truffle-hunting demonstration, and other activities. Some then called it a day; others snapped helmets back on and struck out for the evening’s hotel. The one constant throughout the week: It takes a few miles after a big midday meal for things to click back into gear.

"How did they put this route together?" someone asked on the first day. After starting a few miles outside Ljubljana, we’d made our way to Bled via a series of smaller and more out-of-the-way roads through meadows rippling with lanky wildflowers and cattle lowing on hillsides out of view. Makeshift shrines marked the intersections of lanes that led between farmhouses, where grill smoke and kids’ laughter seeped through the fences. Stretches with heavier traffic inevitably cropped up, but one of the best discoveries throughout the week was just how backroads things were.
Hay racks in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
Hay racks in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
Photo by Stipe Surac
That first night at dinner, the group buzzed about the ride and the freedom of supported cycling. Out on the road, one team leader rides, while, in vans, the other and a third support-staff member hopscotch among the front and rear riders, setting up refueling stations and checking in on the group. You hop off the bike for lunch, and a spread of local specialties arrives. At hotels – which, on this trip, ranged from one of former Yugoslav dictator Tito’s summer residences (still a bit spartan and communist in style) to the stately Kempinski Palace Portoroz and a Relais & Châteaux wine estate – you hand your bike off to the guides, who clean and tune it if needed, and head straight to your room.

One thing on everyone’s mind was the next morning’s journey into Triglav National Park, the most challenging ride of the trip, and whether anyone planned to tackle the longest option: 80-plus miles and three imposing mountain passes. “We’re not going to talk miles and elevation gain at dinner,” Primoz finally said with a smile after some persistent peppering. “But I’ll say this: Of 100 people I’ve taken on the big loop, only two completed it.” That, in recreational-cycling- guide circles, is what you call a conversation stopper.
Hilltop Motovun.
Hilltop Motovun.
Photo by Stipe Surac
The approach to Triglav, Slovenia’s sole national park, starts with an eight-mile climb, the latter half of which rises a thigh-burning 2,500 feet. About half of the group took advantage of the shuttle to the top of the pass; along with an e-bike option, “boosts” like this are one of numerous ways Backroads ensures families and couples with different riding abilities can enjoy days together. Triglav opens with Bohinj Basin, one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever ridden through. A few months earlier, more than ten feet of snow buried the road, but in late spring, as the Julian Alps jacked up around us, sunbeams filtered across a spectrum of greens that would set the most stoic Irishman’s heart aflutter. On the far side of one meadow, a deer cautiously picked its way down the tree line, while in others, open-air hay racks and wood cabins’ steeply pitched roofs announced alpine settlements of as few as a dozen residents. With your phone tucked away, you could mark time by the hourly tolling of village church bells until you arrived at the country’s largest natural lake, Bohinj, which proved even more scenic and peaceful than Bled’s.

A cold rain set in as we regrouped beneath a cheesemaker’s hay rack for hot soup, salads, “a friend’s” sausage, and homemade cheese that were typical of our lunches at agriturismos – family establishments licensed to serve regional dishes such as handmade pasta with truffles or wild asparagus and pancetta, home-cured meats and pickles, pâtés and rillettes, and true “house” wine from ingredients the family grows or produces. After a tour of the one-room cheese factory, we headed out on the down-valley cruise along a river, villages tucked hard against cliffs leading the way back to Bled.
A cheese-maker with a wheel of Bohinj cheese. 
A cheese-maker with a wheel of Bohinj cheese. 
Photo by Stipe Surac
The contrast between Istria and inland Slovenia comes at you like a train. Within a few hundred feet’s descent of the Karst Plateau’s face, the traditional border between Italians and Slovenes, the Mediterranean takes over. Once off the plateau, we hugged the coast south to join up with a repurposed railroad bed that disappeared into a stone tunnel. Sunlight flooded the exit, which, eyes adjusted to the dark, I blindly burst through to find myself coasting along a narrow valley of microfarms planted in olive, fig, and fruit trees, and tidy rows of sweet peas, cabbages, and tomatoes.

“I’m Slovenian, but I consider myself Istrian,” Primoz, who was born about a few miles from this point, had mentioned earlier in the trip. We were discussing how, socially and culturally, he has more in common with neighboring Croatians than with his inland countrymen: a shared official second language (Italian), seafood and pastas in place of potatoes and hearty meat stews, coastal traditions, a warmer climate, better wine. We confirmed this last fact that evening with a tasting in his hometown, the fishing village of Piran, whose more than 500 years under Venetian rule are still clearly evident today. In a courtyard above an old cistern used to store water during sieges, a winemaker from Steras Vineyards shared vintages that included a rosé (a bit sweet) and two reds, which some of the group ordered by the case for delivery, while tourists walked by with looks of “How do we get in on this?”

Piran is one of the few spots on the trip where groups are on their own for dinner. Among the ten or so recommended restaurants, take Primoz’s advice and head to his friend’s place, casual Pirat, where eight of us ordered double portions of nearly half the menu to share: calamari; mussels in a garlicky white-wine sauce; pasta with grilled lobsters; a fish platter with shrimp, squid, and whole sea bream and sea bass; and more – hands down one of the best and most fun meals of the trip.
Cyclists taking in the abandoned Croatian village Zavrsje from afar.
Cyclists taking in the abandoned Croatian village Zavrsje from afar.
Photo by Primoz Sutak
The next morning, aside from an on-bike passport check, you’d be hard-pressed to know you’ve crossed into Croatia for the final two days. Terraced vineyards and tall Italian cypresses line the way to fortified medieval hill towns such as Motovun and the artists’ enclave of Groznjan. The hard mark of history pops up in unexpected locations, such as the tumbledown ruins of Dvigrad, a ninth-century town abandoned in the 1700s and now nearly consumed by forest, and, more dramatically, in the heart of industrial Pula, where we ended the ride in the shadow of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheater, built around AD 80.

Hours later, we gathered at sunset on a patio carved into the rocks a few feet above the Adriatic in Rovinj, which stands out in a region flush with scenic towns. Plates of caprese, prosciutto and cheese, and the day’s catch landed on tables, while some patrons sat on bare rock, glasses in hand, their toes dipping down toward the sea. A crisp breeze slacked off, conversations grew louder, and, as the stars brightened, Venus and a crescent moon worked their way down to the horizon. It was one of those big-picture moments when quiet Istria shouts, “Hey world, top this!” – a silent pronouncement, of course, but no one, cyclist or not, could miss it.

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