Riding the heat wave

It was like being at war.

Midnight thunder banged and crashed around the surrounding hills like bombs exploding, getting ever closer and louder.

Lightning flashed and cracked illuminating the dark interior of the tent, as the rain battered the roof – the sound magnified like machine gun fire.

We huddled beneath the walls – thinner than paper – waiting for it to pass.

Come morning, we crawled out after what had felt like an artillery bombardment, to find a beautiful clear warm day.

The hills and clouds looked down innocently as if nothing had happened the night before.

It was of course nothing like being at war – just a fiery thunderstorm.

Although it was scary when it struck in the middle of the night…

The Balkan’s area of Europe is unfortunately no stranger to actual war however, and that’s where we’ve been for the last couple of weeks.

The Balkans refers (most commonly) to the area of land that was formerly Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a country made of six republics that emerged after the fall of the Austro Hungarian Empire after WW1.

It existed in various forms until the early 1990s, when the country started to crumble for a variety of reasons. Now the region is comprised of six (debatably seven) independent countries, that are still arguing over borders. Read a full explanation for the break up here:

The six (seven, depending on your point of view) countries are:

– Croatia

– Serbia

– Montenegro

– Slovenia

– Macedonia

– Bosnia and Herzegovina

– (Kosovo) – declared itself an independent country in 2008. Recognised as a country by 115 UN members including US and UK. Not recognised as a country, but as a province of Serbia by 51 others including Russia and China.

We crossed out of Albania into Montenegro without incident. The border guards were uninterested as we waved our passports at them from our bikes, so we cracked on without delay.

We probably could have waved Pokemon cards at them and they still would have let us through.

The highlight of Montenegro was Kotor, a town situated in the Gulf of Kotor.

The Gulf appears to be a giant lake, but is actually made of sea water with a narrow passage leading out to the ocean. It is surrounded by dramatic mountains, and has a flat road that leads all the way round – perfect for cycling.

On the way round we checked out caves, and towns built on islands amid the calm blue waters, protected by the hills.

After only two days we left Montenegro and crossed the border into Croatia – the country that takes up the majority of the Balkan coastline.

We entered at dusk, the best time of day, high in the mountains – so our introduction to Croatia was a glorious descent through the forests and woods.

The most striking thing was the beautiful smell. The wood, pine and olive was so vivid it filled your lungs with each breath.

It was reminiscent of a posh new kitchen, with brand new wooden surfaces that smell as though someone has rubbed olive oil into them for months.

We camped in the forest that night with just the inner tent as it was so hot and with no chance of rain. Through the inner you can see the whole sky lit up with stars, and the trees towering overhead.

Next stop was the city of Dubrovnik where we had arranged to meet eight of our close friends from home who had come out to see us. We surprised them at the airport, and then raced them in their cab along the coast to meet them in the city centre.

We had some memorable nights out, and of course … Adam’s long anticipated boat trip!

In 10 months of travelling, eating street food with our hands, drinking all sorts of water and being exposed to hundreds of germs, neither of us had been sick once.

Adam’s boat trip (and no doubt some residual alcohol from the prior night) was enough to push Ewan over the edge however and he was sick for the first time since leaving home…

It wasn’t enough to dampen spirits however, and we all had a brilliant time together.

The part of Croatia that Dubrovnik is in, isn’t actually part of the Croatian mainland, so when working your way up the coast you need to cross a sliver of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It’s only 12km which makes it the second shortest coastline of any country in the world (the shortest being Monaco) so we crossed Bosnia in about 30 minutes.

There have been plans to build a bridge connecting the two parts of Croatia for over two decades. Construction was started in 2006, but stopped when Croatia ran out of money.

Here’s our one picture from Bosnia to prove we were actually there… albeit only for less than an hour.

Back in Croatia the coast wound up and down mountains with tough ascents and stunning descents. The sky and sea so blue they don’t look real. These pictures don’t have any filters or trickery on them.

The Croatian coast really is a beautiful place.

It’s almost an inevitability that anywhere so beautiful in Europe is going to be a popular tourist destination.

Every inch of coast is covered with tourists enjoying the sea and then sun, it’s no surprise given the landscape and hundreds of islands there are to explore.

The tourist industry is one of the most important for the Croatian economy – one in every six Euro’s generated by Croatia comes from tourism.

But for this reason it doesn’t really feel like we’ve seen the real Croatia, or got “under the skin of the place” as we have in others. After almost two weeks of cycling through the country, we don’t really have a clue about Croatian culture – only British/German/French/Dutch holiday culture.

Instead of people being interested and curious of us as they were across the whole of Asia – we’re now officially lumped in the “Brit’s abroad Tourist Category”.

Walking (cycling) money purses waiting to be wrung.

If you’re not spending money, you’re not welcome.

People often refused to fill up our water bottles from the taps in cafes – even in the 40 degree heat when we were clearly in need of water. A man told Katie to “f*ck off then”, after she didn’t buy fruit from his roadside stall.

We explained to a lady at a campsite all we needed was a patch of grass and drinking water – no electricity etc. The price was 50 Euros for a patch of gravel which we declined. She exclaimed:

“You tourists are always moaning about the price!”

There’s no reason why we should be treated any differently to other tourists just because we’re on bikes, we certainly don’t expect anything for free (except water when it comes out the tap) – and these guys have to make a living so it’s fair enough I guess.

But when you compare it to the warm and friendly attitudes of people in Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, Georia, Turkey, Thailand etc etc etc it grates a little bit.

As we’ve been on the road for ten months, our savings are running low… We’re scraping the barrel a bit on this last stretch through Europe.

The main drain on finances are accommodation, so we’ve been wild camping as much as possible. It’s like a daily game of hide and seek.

Finding somewhere that’s not private land, but out of view of the road or other people. Aside from the night with the thunder storm, it’s been fun camping in forests, on hillsides and on wild bush land.

Under the stars and moon with only the noise of the wind in the trees.

There was one other uncomfortable night. We were trying to keep quiet to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, but Ewan was suffering badly from asthma and couldn’t stop coughing.

At first it was possible to muffle it, but after an hour or so it developed into full blown wracking coughing that was impossible to stop. He ended up taking some strong antibiotics that we had in our medi kit which calmed it enough to fall asleep.

Thankfully no one heard the din!

Ewan’s not had asthma at all all year but it’s suddenly come on badly this last week or so. It’s never an exact science to nail down the trigger, but it could be correlated to the amount of smokers in Croatia.

It seems like everyone is smoking. Kids/adults/parents with babies – everyone.

There’s no such thing as a smoking ban (or if there is enforcement is non exsistent), so every café, restaurant, bar you go into is filled with smoke, as are the outside seating areas – it’s impossible to get away from.

Croatia has the 3rd highest smoking rate in Europe (after Greece and Bulgaria).

Coming here really made us appreciate how lucky we are to have the public smoking ban in the UK, and how disgusting being constantly surrounded by smoke is.

Our last day in Croatia was a gruelling 700m climb up into the mountains into Slovenia in the baking heat.

It’s been incredibly hot here, nudging 40 degrees regularly. BBC reported temperatures in Italy at the moment are 10 degrees hotter than this time last year.

The heat of Thailand and India has prepared us well however, so it’s not enough to stop us moving!

We ensure we took regular shade and water/salt breaks and worked our way up the climb, eventually crossing the border into our final Balkan country.

There is only a 30km sliver of Slovenia that separates Croatia and Italy so we ploughed through it in an afternoon, through beautiful fields, green trees and mountains.

The Slovenia – Italy border was actually non-existent, or if it did exist we missed it. We only realised we were in Italy when a text came though about roaming charges.

Italy is the penultimate country on our world trip so we’re incredibly excited to be here. A beautiful descent took us to the city of Trieste where we wasted no time in indulging in the local cuisine.

It’s been a beautiful few weeks back in Europe as we near the end of our trip. It’s quite emotional now we are so close to the end.

We hit a major milestone just as we were coming out of Croatia – 20,000 kilometres completed since we left London 10 months ago.

It’s a long way to travel on a bicycle – almost exactly the distance between the North and South Poles.

We celebrated with our two lucky mascot badgers who have accompanied us all the way round the globe in our bags.

They must be two of the most well-travelled badgers the world has ever seen…