A Case Study in photos: A Bespoke Group Tour of The Balkans.


In late September, eight of us embarked on the inaugural raid. Over four days, we rode 635km with 8650m of ascent, through Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro. It was a great adventure.

We had excellent weather: clear skies for three and half days; on the last afternoon, as we pedalled round the Bay of Kotor and crossed over the border back into Montenegro, a great storm blew in off the Adriatic and we got a royal soaking. Temperatures ranged from 25C in the middle of the day, to around 5C in the mountains at dusk.

The most significant, and glorious climb of the entire trip was into Durmitor National Park, over the Durmitor massif to Zabljak, Montenegro’s ski resort. We rode up through broadleaf woodlands, conifer forests and alpine meadows to reach the bare limestone massif where the rocks are contorted into extraordinary shapes. The highest peak in the park is 2,523m, but there are some fifty peaks over 2,000m on and around the massif. We topped out at 1,850m. The total ascent for Day 3 was 2,694m, our biggest day.

While vegetarians will waste away in the Balkans, the food on the whole wasn’t bad: it is simple, peasant fare – veal and pork supplemented with fresh vegetables and soups. The coffee is good, as is the beer. We managed to hook back a few bottles of Monengrin vino too – very passable.

We had no back-up vehicle and we all carried our own, light luggage. Horses for courses, some rode with a rear rack and small panniers; the rest of us used a combination of lightweight bikepacking gear.

Dubrovnik is a major tourist destination. On the first and last nights, we stayed in a large hotel beside the sea, a kilometre from the old town. We left the bike boxes here during our tour of the interior.Riding out of Dubrovnik, we had to brave the busy coastal/airport road for a few kilometres, before turning north into the hills towards Trebinje. Immediately, the traffic tailed off. When we then turned off the M-20, there were almost no cars at all, just tractors pulling trailers of coppiced oak and hornbeam out of the woods. We all had 27-35mm tyres, in expectation of some poor, potholed tarmac (I was also half-thinking we might ride the odd section of dirt, which didn’t happen.) In the event, the roads were consistently good – good enough to let it all hang out on the major descents.

At the end of day one, we arrived in Mostar as the sun was slanting into the horizon, softening the light on the Neretva river. We took photos of, and later walked over the famous Stari Most, ‘the Old Bridge’. The elegant hump-back bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, was a national landmark until it was blown up by Croat soldiers in 1993, during the recent war. It has since been rebuilt.

While there is a deep tranquillity in the pace of rural life, there are also reminders of the war that ripped the region apart – numerous roadside graveyards and the odd shot out building. The Balkan people seemed friendly, commonly exchanging our greetings with brio. Th  The Montenegrins were perhaps the friendliest. In Mostar, we stayed (via Air bnb) with the family of a history professor: they were particularly welcoming. On the other nights, we stayed at a rafting lodge on the Tara River and in a small hotel just outside Niksic. The rooms were spartan but clean.

There were several climbs each day; some were long, though never arduous. From Mostar, we ascended 1,000m over 15km or so, before dropping down to Nevesinje. The highlight of Day 2 was the descent through Sutjeska National Park, a pearl of Bosnia famous for a Partisan victory over the Germans during World War II and now home to chamois, bears and wolves. We flew down through a beautiful, 1,000m deep canyon, beside the Sutjeska river, in and out of pools of dazzling light beneath hillsides covered in ancient forests of pines and beech. At the end of a long day, we crossed the border into Montenegro in the dark.

Heavy mist hung over the Tara River at dawn on Day 3. We rode through this soup for an hour: when the mist burnt off, we realised we were in another staggeringly lovely canyon, winding back and forth across the Tara River.

On the last day, we followed back roads through central, southern Montenegro, chasing the clock and the impending storm. On the descent, on an amazing road through 25 hairpin bends to the Bay of Kotor, the clouds began to thicken. Curtains of rain then swept in off the sea as we thrashed our way back to the bright lights and the big city.

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