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On Assignment Dispatch 2: The Balkans

This is the second dispatch sent in by Evan and Bo from their ride across Europe to Armenia, on assignment for Rodeo Labs.

The Balkans. Have you heard of them? Can you point them out on a map? The Yugo and Burek and Rakija. Do you know how important these things are to modern day Europe? Have you heard of Tito? A leader, peacekeeper, hard nose, and uniter of nations that stood up to the US and the USSR during the ColdWar. Six weeks ago I knew none of it. In my advanced placement world history classes I never heard the slightest whisper of it. But these mountains and nations stood in our way between Italy and Armenia, so through the Balkans we went. 

The Balkan Peninsula starts on the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea, and the Italian city of Trieste technically serves as the gateway. It stretches 1000 kilometers down to Greece and Turkey, and along this rugged peninsula, bordered by the Adriatic, Black, and Mediterranean seas, are ethnic groups as old as time that fight and hate and rage against each other. In our ride east we stayed several days in Trieste, and entered Slovenia on a small dirt road in the forest. We were worried about borders but found none on our first border crossing of the trip. We pedaled blindly, following a line on a map for the Slovenia West Loop and not looking too far down the map. What lie ahead was daunting. A very recent war and modern day political corruption haunt the countries of former Yugoslavia. Harsh language barriers, a brutal heat wave, long climbs and hard to understand infrastructure haunted our ride. How the two would overlap we didn’t know, but we had to go find out. We camped the first night in Slovenia on the side of a bike path in a canyon. It was an awkward introduction and in no way indicative of what was to come. We woke up early and pedaled on towards the Julian Alps still unsure of what was next. What we found? Heaven. 

The Slovenia West Loop is a 400 kilometer route connecting gravel mountain passes to bikepaths to cities and towns and long asphalt passes and steep, root infested hike-a-bike. It’s a route that lacks a feeling of symbiosis, but if you can accept that and laughat the awkwardness, the route is amazing. Slovenia is tiny, and this ~six day route shows you almost all of it. From Ljubljana, the beautiful and very modern capital city to the border region with Italy, to the freezing emerald Soka river, to the tourist hotspot of Lake Bled and through the Julian Alps. The Julian Alps are epic and tall and like all European mountain ranges, infested with motorcycle tourers. We took a couple days to get through the region and pedaled slow, sweaty hours up the passes. As always it was worth it- I always love the look a motorcycle tourer gives when you pedal to the top of a mountain they needed 200 horsepower to get up. 

We left the route in Ljubljana and met a man riding alone to a small winery in Southern Slovenia. We ended up riding together all day and camped in his garden. His friend came over and we drank local wine and ate Slovenian cheese and talked and talked. Luka also has his own honeybees and gifted us a pot of honey for the road that I now keep in my mug hanging on my saddlebag. It was our first real introduction to the very generous Balkans, and foreshadowing of what was to come. We were buzzing with joy as we left, so grateful to have met such a nice and interesting person on the road, and from there we connected small dirt roads to get to Croatia. Croatia was our first real border crossing as it was our first time leaving the Schengen area. We didn’t know what to expect- Every website seemingly says something else about tests and vaccine certificates and timelines you can go and stay. The road we were going to take across had a gate and barbed wire. We played charades with a group of construction workers nearby and they told us we needed to cross on the nearby freeway. It was the only place with border control and everything else was closed off last year. We pedaled around the corner and onto the freeway and were bounced from gate to gate until we got a very stern man with a cigarette and a border patrol unitard to check our passports. It took an hour to find the right person and he cleared us in less that ten seconds. We rode the freeway a bit more and got onto some Croatian back roads as soon as possible. The infrastructure was already so different than Slovenia. The roads were crumbling and the heat started to build and nothing seemed as developed as Slovenia. We rode to Zagreb and started to see bullet holes in the buildings. They would gather as we rode further south and serve as a constant reminder of the war here thirty years ago. We pushed through Croatia in two very hot and flat days and made it to Bosnia and began to learn a whole lot more about the recent war. 

Crossing into Bosnia was another surprisingly simple thing. Bo and I are both vaccinated, and the vaccine card holds a lot of weight in the eyes of the border control. Crossing into Bosnia was a crazy feeling though. It was in that moment the adventure truly began. We were exhausted and so dirty and somewhere a little nerve-wracking. Before this country Bo had been to all of them. I had at least known something about them too. But Bosnia…? I knew nothing about Bosnia. I never could show it to you on a map. The only thing I knew about Bosnia was there was at some point a war and the TV show Blue Mountain State made a joke about it that my friends and I would recite back in High School. It was humid and still hot when we crossed in the evening. We looked for a place to camp after the crossing and found two absolutely terrible spots that we were about to settle for. It had been a long day and we were exhausted and the sun was about to set. We rode down a small dirt road that the locals used as a dump and said no and then later found a small clearing with a table and a spring and a million ants and spiders. The hillsides were steep and lush and the singing of bugs and layers of sweat built up on my skin brought me straight back to riding in Uganda. We had crossed from the EU and into a jungle. 

We decided it was best to push on. I hiked up a hillside and was very glad to find a nice clearing in a beautiful forest with little bugs and a place for both the tent and hammock. No one was around and we cooked the mushrooms we bought roadside in Croatia with some pasta, a packet of soup and pancetta. Simple, bikepacking meal heaven. The rain came in waves and we awoke early yet again to ride down smooth gravel with long hazy vistas. Bosnia is bikepacking heaven. The small dirt roads and low traffic and endless mountains lend themselves to the gravel bike so well. 

But we still have miles to cover. We have to get to Armenia before the weather will turn sour on the backend of our two months there, so there’s no time to dilly around. We ride most of the day, but here the biggest obstacle to riding fast is the people. The next day we were riding a small back road and rolled over some sticks in the road. We looked up to an old lady on her porch yelling Bosnian at us, demanding we come over for coffee. Her children and grandchildren came out to talk and brought us dish after dish of local Bosnian food. Cookies and bread and yogurt and milk and coffee and watermelon. She holds up vegetables asking us if we want any- Almost everyone in the rural Balkans grow their own produce and it’s all so delicious. We’re stuffed and sit for a while talking with her son. He’s a journalist based in Sarajevo and an active runner. We talk about politics and Bosnia, the war, and bike touring. He promises us that one day he will go on a bike touring trip. We fill up on water, soak our shirts for the hot riding ahead, thank them and ride down the road until the next person invites us in. It happens multiple times this day. The locals are so kind and so excited we’ve come such a long way to their country. When I say I come from California there’s always a shocked look on their faces. 

Bosnia shares so much in common with Armenia that these last five days here serve as a great sample of what we can expect. Two relatively small land-locked countries with big, remote mountain ranges and a collective remembrance of a brutal recent history. Both countries are known for their religious devotion, great food, intense weather and unending hospitality. Bo and I have really fallen for Bosnia. It’s one of the best countries I’ve ever bikepacked in. I’m sad to leave but excited to head further east. We’re expecting a little more Balkan magic before we get to Istanbul, and a little further down the road we’re now expecting a whole lot more fun in Armenia. Stay tuned!

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