Two nights later I was in Opicina, Italy, sprawled beside my bicycle at a scenic lookout on the Carso, the high limestone escarpment above Trieste. The evening sun was low in the sky, the air sultry and scented with warm earth and pine, and the view lifted straight out of an old-style travel poster: picturesque Italian seaport, all antique browns and ochres, spreading below in perfect miniature and in the violet distance beyond it the great shimmering reach of the Adriatic, smooth as glass and burnished to a steely blue by the summer heat so that the cargo ships anchored a few miles offshore appeared to be hovering in the air.
And over there in the shade was the good old bicycle doughty that had brought me here, careened against a pine tree, jaunty, hopeful, its air of carefree abandonment touching a chord, calling to mind long-ago days skipping school and riding over to the lake. Here though was escape on the grand scale.
The descent through Slovenia was a treat, a two hundred-mile cavalcade of old-fashioned Europe: vineyards, forests, castles, mediaeval villages and purplish mountains in the haze, and the whole of it brightened by a delightful evening spent in the village of Loce, about a hundred and forty miles back.
I’d rolled in late in the afternoon, the day after my adventures in the Hungarian woods, weary after eighty, maybe ninety miles in the saddle but nevertheless looking to press on and round out my century. There was a fair bit of thunder in the air, though, and a hard look of rain in the hills up ahead and so I thought I might pull over in Loce for a spell, have a quiet drink and press on again into the evening after the storm passed.
I say a quiet drink, but the place was jumping that evening; they were holding some kind of farmer’s fete along the main street, with carnival rides and music, crowds and laughter and the air was fragrant with the smoke of sausage sizzles. Something about the festooned lights and main street cheer, set against the purplish backdrop of the storm, made me think of an Edward Hopper painting. I was just thinking this, assembling the elements in my mind, the juxtaposition of loneliness and cheer, when a man called out to me in English from one of the tables at an outdoor bistro a few feet away: “So how do you like Slovenia?”
He was a young guy, mid twenties for a guess, sturdy, blond, with an open friendly face, sitting at a table crowded with friends and strewn with bottles. Startled out of my reverie, I said I liked Slovenia just fine. It pleased him to hear it. A broad smile flashed across his face. “We’re a brand new country and we’re loving every minute of it. Why don’t you pull up a chair and have a beer with us?”
And so I did. His name was Boris. He was a policeman, originally from Loce, now living and working in the big city, Ljubljana. He and one of his best mates, Isidore, another policeman, also from Loce, had come home for a long weekend to visit friends and family and were having a grand time. They were clearly a popular pair, judging by the number of waves and greetings from passers-by of all ages, many of whom stopped to chat, some pulling up chairs and dragging over extra tables and joining the party, or else filling the seats vacated by those who had migrated to other tables nearby and were now chatting sociably over there, for a kind of homecoming atmosphere seemed to settled over Loce, everybody catching up with everybody else.
Boris paid for the first round, but when I went to return the shout, he wouldn’t hear of it. Neither would Isidore, nor anyone else at the table. “This is Slovenia!” they cried, as another round was ordered. Two or three beers later, feeling a little guilty and also aware of the passage of time, I managed to catch the waitress’s eye with a view to buying at least one round on the sly before taking my leave. But this didn’t work either. She brought the beers readily enough, but refused to take my money. “Sorry, but Boris already told me not to,” she laughed, as she placed a few empties on a tray. “And I do what he says!”
“Irena’s my girlfriend,” Boris explained brightly, clearly pleased that my ruse had failed. “This is on us.”
“Please. I’d like to buy at least one round before I go.”
He blinked astonishment. “You’re not thinking of going?”
“I’m afraid I really ought to …”
“Oh, no, no, no. We can’t have that. As a policemen I can see that you are far too drunk to be allowed on the roads. Don’t you think so, Isidore?”
“Oh, yes. Far too drunk,” he agreed.
“It is all settled. Irena and I have already talked it over and decided that you are staying with us tonight, at her mother’s house. There’s a spare bed. That’s what she and I were talking about a few minutes ago, except of course you don’t understand Slovenian!”
And so began my night in the custody of the Slovenian police. More beers were called for, Lasko as well as Union, to make sure I was fully au fait with the beer rivalry in Slovenia, Lasko being more the rural and working class brew, with Union favoured in the cities. A bottle of local red appeared from somewhere, and a plate of Slovenian sausages – the local patriots not wanting me to miss a thing – and thereafter the evening dissolved in a breezy and slightly surreal camaraderie that flowed on far into the evening before winding up in the homey spare bedroom at Irena’s mother’s place just around the corner, and then resuming the following morning over a ‘Boris special’ omelette and cups of hot rich Turkish coffee – acts of kindness and generosity that sped me on my way and move me still.
As with the Wachau Valley and Austrian reaches of the Danube, the storybook beauty of the Slovenian countryside drew me on and inspired another of those gloriously long cinematic days in the saddle, following the Sava River down through the forest to Ljubljana and then climbing through the hilly karst landscape southwest of there into the Dinaric Alps, along the ancient amber trade route, up and over a famous old pass known as the Postojna Gate.
Nearly a hundred and fifty hard and hilly miles passed beneath my wheels that day. I was knackered by the time I wobbled up to the edge of the escarpment in Opicina, with the afternoon having faded well into evening. But here was the payoff: watching that smouldering ball of sun sinking into the Adriatic and knowing I’d made it. This time tomorrow I’d be somewhere in Croatia, down amongst those vague bluish-violet hills I could see stretching away down the coast.
I pitched my tarp that night at a little Mom & Pop campground a stone’s throw from the view point, and early the next morning joined the eager rush of humanity down the escarpment and into Trieste. It was a helluva ride, more like a roller coaster plunge than a road. At twenty-two percent, it was steeper than the Cresta Run, the notorious bobsled course at St Moritz. Except there, at least, you’d have had the course to yourself. Here you shared it with lots of fast and erratic company: morning commuters, trucks, delivery vans, motor-scooters, all of them hell-bent to get to the bottom first, taking the hairpins high and wide and with suicidal élan, horns tooting, tyres screeching, and with the occasional slam of brake lights to test your reflexes.
I found myself slip-streaming a cherry-red Vespa at about forty-five miles an hour, my fingers gripping the brake levers with the rigid intensity of a strangler as we swerved in unison through the traffic.
It was a day for it, though. The air was warm working on hot, the sun bright and sparkling cheerfully on the Vespas’s chrome work, and I have an idea that the descent itself was pretty. Fleeting, corner-of-the-eye impressions came to me of the hazy blue Adriatic shimmering between the pines, glimpses of Trieste’s sprawl of domes and spires and rooftops, and then, lower down the escarpment, near the bottom, a blurry sense of rushing along narrow Italian streets, past crumbly old renaissance facades and green shutters and ornamental ironwork with shafts of strong sunlight bursting through in places, and violet shadows obscuring the doorways in others.
Then finally the run-out at the bottom, coasting along ever wider and grander boulevards, now and again pausing for traffic lights, until finally I found myself rolling along the harbour itself, at sea level, passing wharves and warehouses, shipping offices, and loads of travel agents with signs in their windows spruiking ferry passages to romantic sounding ports in Greece and Albania.
I reined in at one of those cheerful Italian sidewalk kiosks, the ones that are crammed with all manner of brightly wrapped candies, cigarettes, magazines, postcards, newspapers, notions and whatnot, and after a bit of thoughtful browsing bought a packet of chocolate wafer biscuits and a tourist map of the Istrian Riviera. I found a bench along the waterfront, parked myself in the sunshine there, opened map and biscuits and began to formulate some plans.
There were two ways I could ride south from Trieste: take the main highway to Rovinj and then follow its bold red line down the coast to Split and Dubrovnik and points south; or mosey down the Istrian peninsula, sixty miles along a curvy coastal road to an ancient Roman town called Pula, at the tip. From there you could hop a ferry out to a long skinny island called Losinj, from which more dotted lines sprang, more ferry routes to other islands further south along the coast. It was impossible to tell from just this little tourist map how far down I’d be able to island-hop like that, but every mile I didn’t have to ride along Croatia’s main coastal highway was all to the good according to some of the things I’d heard from Boris’s friends back in Loce.
One of them, who was both Croatian and a keen road cyclist, and who sounded like he knew what he was talking about, warned that it would be a nightmare of holiday traffic this time of year, with everyone heading for the beaches, aside from it’s being the main truck route. I hadn’t considered the summer rush when I’d decided to abandon the Danube in favour of the coast, but it was too late now; I was here and had to make the best of things, and the best of things seemed to be the road down to Pula and island hopping from there.
Sixty miles seemed an easy ask on a fine summery day such as this, and even with all the hills that were implied by that squiggly road along the Istrian coast, and allowing for traffic, I was odds-on to raise Pula by mid-afternoon – perhaps even in time to catch a boat directly out to Losinj that very evening, depending on how often they ran the ferries and when.
At any rate, I’d be sitting pretty for the first one out the next morning. And so with high hopes and great expectations I mounted up and joined the swim of August holiday traffic southbound out of the city, following a crescent of hot, hazy, brightly peopled beach towards the seaside tourist town of Muggia.
I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one of the great vacation spots for the millions crowding America’s eastern seaboard and so I felt I knew a little something about holiday crowds and traffic; how often had I seen our very own Route 16 chock-a-block with flatlanders swarming up from out of state; Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labour Day, leaf peepers and skiers; I thought I’d seen it all. God, I was naïve.
It was a madhouse down there: one long seething mass of traffic all the way down the coast from Muggia to Pula. And if I used to think Massachusetts drivers were crazy, Connecticut drivers dangerously fast, and New Yorkers rude and impatient, it was only because being a country boy and all, I’d never seen how they do these things in glitzy glamorous Europe.
Civility, along with the highway code, was tossed out the window, together with an endless stream of cigarette butts, beer bottles, soiled nappies and snack wrappers, as tens of thousands of Italians, Austrians, Germans, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, you name it, roared down the highway in a mad, high-octane rush to their fun in the sun, all of them red-hot to beat the crowd and be the first to throw down their towels.
I lost count of the number of times I was forced off the road – and by that I don’t mean merely squeezed or intimidated into the sidelines, but actually clipped by the wing mirrors of speeding cars as they whipped past my elbow. Or, if it wasn’t that, it was the maniacs coming up the other way, overtaking half a dozen cars in a suicide squeeze and heading straight for me, filling the lane, playing chicken at seventy-five miles an hour.
There was nowhere to go but the ditch. The highway lacked anything in the way of shoulders, its broken edges dropping straight down eighteen inches or so into the mud and weeds. And once you were off it was the devil’s own job to get back on again. There was no break in the traffic, just a steady whiz, whiz, whiz, whiz of cars hurtling by on their way to better places. Nobody yielded an inch. Why should they? With a year of lost living to try to cram into a few frantic weeks, who was going to give a damn for some no-mark slow-poke cyclist?
I was a wreck by the time I lurched into Pula late that afternoon, grimy with sweat and a filmy residue of car exhaust, and nursing a skull-splitting headache from not enough water, and too much heat and ozone and carbon monoxide. My neck and shoulders ached from the strain of wrestling traffic. I’d long lost interest in the idea of catching an evening ferry out to Losinj; all I wanted now was to call an end to the day. I spotted a sign for a tourist campground and rode around to a point of land south of town.
Like everywhere else along the manic coast, this place too was mobbed, a raucous sprawl of tents and campervans, screaming children, barking dogs, loud music, barbecue smells, litter, smoke and beer and sunburnt, unpleasant-to-see midriffs. I scored the very last tent site in Pula, and wouldn’t have had that but for the fact that some poor sod – no doubt caught in traffic – hadn’t turned up in time to claim his pre-booked space. I felt sorry for him, whoever he was, but not so sorry I didn’t grab his spot when it was offered. The town of Pula was packed that night – hotels, resorts, holiday lets, youth hostels, campsites, the lot, all of them full to overflowing.
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” the girl behind the desk told me as she handed me a numbered tag and a mimeographed map of the campground, on which she had put a dot in yellow highlighter to indicate my site. “To come down here like this without a reservation and get a site…” She shook her head at the sheer folly of it all.
“I’m starting to get a picture,” I sighed and since I had her attention, and she spoke good English, I wondered aloud and with a forlorn sort of hopefulness in my voice, if things might perhaps be a little quieter, less crowded, once I got out on to islands, Losinj and points south.
“Are you kidding?” she scoffed. “This is peak season.”
She filled me in. Apparently things were only going to get worse. Sure, I could island hop a short ways down the coast, but after that it would have to be the main highway. ‘Suicidal’ was one of the adjectives she’d used in characterising any plan to cycle it this time of year; ‘stupid’ was another. Based on the evidence so far, I was inclined to agree.
I slunk away to erect my tarp, gulp down an aspirin or three and sprawl in the shade for a quiet think – or at least as quiet a think as a body could manage amidst the competing radios, screaming children, crying babies, barking dogs and load brash beery laughter.
This wasn’t going to work. The thing to do, I decided, as the aspirin took soothing effect, was to write off this whole ghastly day, and indeed the whole idea of pedalling the Dalmatian Coast, and instead go back up to Trieste, call in at one of the steamship offices I’d noticed that morning along the waterfront and book passage on a ferry to Greece; skip this god-awful stretch altogether. I hated to cry uncle, but as Sir Ernest Shackleton said of his decision to turn around ninety-seven miles short of the South Pole and miss out on his chance at being its conqueror: better a live donkey than a dead lion.
That still left me with the sixty miles between Pula and Trieste, and as I thought over how I might make lighter work of that, a sudden inspiration came to me: perhaps I wouldn’t have to ride back up that hellish highway after all. What about those signs I’d seen for local coastal ferries from Trieste down to Muggia, that beachy town I’d passed on my way down here? Perhaps there was a service to Pula too. Certainly there was a ferry terminal here, at least for those ferries that went south to the islands. Why shouldn’t they run north to Trieste as well? On that happy thought I drifted off to sleep.