Schnitzel, mountains and seasides

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Senj and the Bura (Croatian for the winter wind)

It was difficult to leave the comfort of Wien—the city I have called home for two months and Meng much longer. The sophistication, art, brilliant cycling paths and countless other experiences that only the largest city in Austria can deliver will be missed, but we are slowly returning each day while we take the long way home.

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Waiting at the train station in Wien to officially leave on our trip

Often, enthusiastically imagined ventures do not mirror the dream when realized.Dreamers are regularly back-handed with this inconsistency. Calculated dreamers do their best to anticipate the struggles, or at the very least, the familiar emotions associated with challenge when attempting to achieve an idea. Really, you have to be adaptable if you want to avoid having your dreams crushed by reality on a regular basis.

No matter how many visions of success, bracings for failure or formulating potential outcomes, no one can predict the future—especially a future of complex emotions associated with challenge. So, imagine, calculate, prepare and train in advance, but embrace the hardest of facts: the future of you or anything cannot be predicted with any significant accuracy and as the complexity of a system increases, the probability of predictability decreases.

In regards to our present cycling trip we both imagined greatness with hardships along the way, but, of course, did not foresee the complete reality.

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As we reached Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, Meng was in the peak of a substantial head cold. I have an outstanding photo of her with a tissue lodged in her right nostril while riding the train, but I value my relationship so will not be posting it here. We decided to relax for a few days instead of starting a trip while battling illness. I, of course, was concerned for her well being, but was also doing my best to ignore the looming cloud of a likely contagion.

We found a great deal on a hotel room at the Doubletree in Zagreb. Most things in Croatia

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Doubletree in Zagreb

are cheaper than Westerns are accustomed to. Imagine staying in the heart of a major capital city at a 4 star hotel in the U.S. and only paying $80 per night (this was the most expensive room so far).

After 3 days of sleeping in, taking walks around the city, saunas, jacuzzi and swimming in the infinity pool at the Doubletree, we somewhat reluctantly got on our excessively heavy bikes. I should also mention that before our departure from Wien, Austria we had, at best, infrequently “trained” for the trip. I know that I was eating significant amounts of chocolate, cheese and pastries while spending many hours with the close relative of depression and laziness, Netflix. Meng was back and forth from Africa to Switzerland to New York to Austria, but aside from travel, work and passing a prestigious placement exam for the UN Headquarters was also not practicing any strenuous exercise. Dreaming of physical triumph is a far-cry from the doing.

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The view from our first lunch break

Leaving Zagreb was like cycling through most big cities without a major cycling infrastructure: shitty. We were filled with excitement though as it was our first day albeit naive to what was ahead.

Usually, I have cycling maps that are extremely detailed. They show mileages, elevation profiles, populations of towns, stores, campsites, hotels, etc… Essentially, they are a valuable resource in physical, logistical and mental preparation for every stage of a trip. At the beginning of this trip, we had a GPS, general maps (1:250,000 scale) and a destination in mind. My GPS is notorious for sending me down the worst possible “roads” at times so you have to vigilant and stop regularly to ground truth the prescribed route.

Our strategy was simple: head towards the coast, keep the mileage for each day reasonable and make sure we have food and plenty of water in case we get stuck camping on the side of a road—straightforward, realistic and safe. We were trying our best to accept that we did not know what the future would bring, but at least we were efforting maximum adaptability.

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The first day from Zagreb to Karlovac was just over 40 miles and less that 1,000 feet (300m) in elevation climbed. After we left the city, it was quite nice. A bit cloudy, but for over 30 miles we traveled through sleepy farming towns with, in respect to the states, miniature houses along tiny roads. I am still pleasantly startled by how close the homes in Croatia are to the road side. I assume that many places in Europe are the same.

I speculate that these towns existed much before large automobile traffic and the road has been widened to the absolute threshold without impeding on the private property of the home. In the U.S., we would likely invoke imminent domain and demolish the house, the lives and the history of a place in order to accommodate the unnecessary stupidity of the American elephantine automobile fetish. Because, as you know, the bigger your vehicle the more freedom and awesomeness you possess…oh, and the other thing too.

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We arrived and booked a room on a mobile with a “hotel” called “Rooms Bipa.” It was not a hotel, but it was a room. It took some doing to find it and the neighborhood left a bit to be desired. Honestly, when we arrived, I was reluctant to believe it was actually the location for it was just a simple house in a deteriorated area. Meng knocked and an elderly lady wearing a house dress, slippers and a quiet comforting wisdom answered the door. “Yes. Yes. Come in.” Meng turned to me a gave a nearly imperceivable shrug and walked inside as I stood in the driveway with a feeling of inert acceptance.

The room was humble, but sufficient and the property owner brought us cookies she had made; which caused any hesitations about the accommodations to dissolve along with the sugary jam filled sweets in our hungry mouths. Aside from there being walls and a roof over our heads, it was the polar opposite from the Doubletree we had slept in the night before, but regardless, we were happy and cozy in our temporary grandmother’s downstairs guest room with it’s ubiquitous doilies, 1970’s space heater, half a dozen undersized blankets and bowl of fruit flavored candy with the fizzy powered center from who knows what decade—I ate at least 4 of them and brought 2 with me the next day.

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As we left Karlovac, we knew that the next stage to Ravna Gora entailed some mountainous terrain, but without an elevation profile or any detailed map we were unaware of what would transpire. In the next 40 miles we climbed 4,803 feet and only descended 2,533 feet. Overcoming gravity twice as much as using it is always a challenge. In point of fact, I have rarely experienced exhaustion of that severity: tingling teeth, occasionally seeing erratic black spots, at times being restricted to 100 yards of travel until needing a lengthy pause and a mental state of startling uncertainty and ominous lingering fear.

If this stage would have happened at the end of a several thousand mile tour, dozens of conditioning mountains and months of excessive physical activity, I am sure it would have been less dramatic. However, on the second day of a tour that was preceded by more than a few weeks of lethargy and deteriorating muscle strength, cardiovascular stamina and mental conditioning it was anything but comfortable or building our confidence.

So there we were in the dark, low 20’s (-0 Celsius), wet, cold, out of breath even when barely moving, stopping what seemed like every 30 seconds to collect ourselves, having to push our bikes for riding was beginning to result in near falls and still miles away from our destination. As you can see from the map and elevation profile the end of this stage was almost entirely up hill.

karlovac_ravna_gora

While standing there in one of our many breaks, Meng’s bike fell over and a short, but directed expletive sharply punctuated the evening stillness of the small silent mountain village we were passing through. I felt every subtle texture of her frustration and to both of our surprise, this tortured voice was answered from the darkness by a foreign language.

We immediately started apologizing, believing that her justified vulgarity was understood and bothersome to a resident. “We’re sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Very sorry.” The still undecipherable voice came closer and was followed by a figure barely silhouetted in the misty evening by a distant light from an open basement door. As the woman approached we began to understand that her words and gestures were out of concern. Then, out of the beam of unknown utterance came “Tea?” She pantomimed drinking and eating then cycled her arm in the universal movement of “follow me” while still insisting—even though we did not understand anything accept “tea” it was rapidly becoming evident that this beacon of charity from the cold dark mountain side was not taking no for an answer.

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We entered her basement apartment and were cocooned in warmth from the exposed and massive industrial looking hearth that occupied at least 10% of the intimate space. The bare concrete floors and tattered throw rugs were centered around a simple and inviting wooden table with mismatched chairs. At the epicenter of this humble arrangement was a steaming pile of crepes. It was as if she was expecting us and knew that we had exhausted our bodies, minds and any ready-to-eat food we had with us. We briefly sat down on a blanket covered couch that could have easily originated from the back of an old car and were promptly directed to the table where the steaming food and tea resided. We were already fixated on the sustenance and happily moved in to position.

She said something that indicated a moment of pause and left the room and returned with a jar of what I could only assume was homemade preserves. We were overwhelmed with gratitude as she shoveled the delicious strawberry rhubarb spread into each crepe, rolled them and placed them on our plates. She repeated this action without pause and even though our two languages were not distinctly deciphered we conversed freely and with total comprehension.

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Climbing mountains near Ravna Gora

In addition to the warm food, she poured mug after mug of some spiced apple drink with generous chucks of the fruit in a rich opaque consistency. Our lively, yet foreign words, were reduced to primitive grunts and nodding of heads in sublime approval and satisfaction. At one point, in the midst of consumption, I traced a halo over my head followed by a playful fluttering of my hands as wings and pointed at her—communicating that she was an angel. She simply laughed and continued to feed these strange strangers of the night.

After some time, we patted our full bellies just under our glowing hearts and thanked her with our words, eyes, smiles and satisfactory exhalations. Meng and I pushed back from the table and I made my way towards this wonderfully hospitable woman with open arms. I embraced her as I would a kind relative I had known since birth. Meng followed with equal tenderness and admiration for this amazing and now permanent being of our consciousness.

After a brief confirmation that we were heading in the right direction, we straddled our bikes with renewed spirit and energy. At this time, even if we were forced to push with flat tires, our recent encounter made any continuing or new challenges lessened—the night seemed warmer, the mountain less steep and the town of our destination closer. A few more hills, hitting a dead end road mere meters away from our lodging and with the help from another superb resident we finished our day.

The following morning we both felt as if we had consumed copious amount of alcohol the previous night. We were glad that on this day we were able to rest and recover from our exhaustion hangover. After a few Ibuprofen, food and a lot of liquids and stretching, we began to feel rejuvenated and ready for the next day; which would only be 3,212 feet of climbing and a glorious 5,755 feet descending over 46 miles into the large coastal city of Rijeka.

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Entering Rijeka after a challenging, but not nearly as difficult as the previous stage, was a novel delight. For me, returning to the sea was outstanding as it had been 2 months since I had last seen the expansive shimmering blue. Soaring down the mountain side glimpsing the Adriatic for the first time of my life is certainly a cherished and lasting memory. Even the fact that there was no shoulder on this road and a constant stream of leviathan-sized trucks were rushing by our sides, I was still full of child-like excitement. I even exclaimed this to Meng—turning my head away from the road in front of me and yelling, “It’s the Adriatic Sea!!!” to which she replied, “Babe, be careful!!!”

When navigating the passages from the last mountain ridges into the center of Rijeka we were in disbelief of the “organization” of these paths. I refuse to label them roads as they were more like a constricted, randomly sprawling vascular system of a 2,000 year old intertidal crustacean that is the seaside city of Rijeka.

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The impossibly narrow passages were barely wide enough for a smart car and amazingly 2 way traffic was present as we cautiously bombed our way down these, at times, greater than 10% grade slopes. By the time we reached the bottom of the hair straightening labyrinth, our hands were sore from intensely clutching our brakes for the last half hour. Ultimately, we both found relaxation and a sense of accomplishment that we successfully, albeit a struggle at times, traversed the cold, wet, unforgiving yet ruggedly stunning terrain of the Dinaric Alps and had reached the warmer sea air and sunshine.

The following week contained the Christmas holiday and although we are both atheists and Meng’s first Christmas celebration was last year with me, we decided to secure a lovely room overlooking the Adriatic and enjoy the newly discovered coastal towns we fought to reach (Video of autumn on the coast of Opatija:

The Bristol Hotel was our home for 8 days and for those days we lived in a tiramisu existence layered with opulent breakfast buffets, rich deserts from the café next to the lobby, tender shank steaks from the Roko Restaurant, salty walks along shore paths and pebble beaches and sweet nights sleep on the top floor with a stellar view. It was indeed a lovely way to spend the holidays, rest and put on a few extra pounds.

After our lengthy pause we hefted our fatter selves back up on the saddles for another stage—this time we road to the Island Krk and the coastal town of Malinska.

Arriving in Malinska after another challenging day (not necessarily from terrain, but more so from a week of relaxing and minimal exercise), we found a simple apartment after quite a bit of hunting around a congested neighborhood where most buildings were rental apartments and all looked roughly the same. It is always fun at the end of a long day going around knocking on doors and sticking your head into stranger’s apartments in a foreign country.

We stayed in Malinska for 4 days and aside from the apartment being rather cold, we enjoyed the time on the island. The shinning jewel of our days there and one of the most memorable days on the trip so far was our cross island hike.

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We discovered a network of paths defined by shoulder-high stone walls constructed with the very earth relocated from the centuries old olive groves they enshrined. During our 10 mile hike through a labyrinth of moss covered stones we came across several villages sprouting up from the hillsides—likely built by the same ancestors who cultivated this land hundreds of years before. Some possess vocabularies of hard and mostly forgotten lives crumbling and being reclaimed by the vegetation they were once masters of. Others still alive and seem to defy the modernity that surrounds them in the contiguous tourist coastal developments.

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Currently, we are waiting in Senj for the “Bura” to subside before continuing South on the Magistrala (Adriatic Highway). The Bura is a winter weather phenomena that produces severe conditions—many times without warning and resulting in plummeting temperatures and excessively high winds. In 2012, a local news station reported that here in Senj there was a sudden snow storm when temperatures rapidly dropped to 6° F (-6° C) and the wind increased to over 90mph (150kph) that threw fish onto the shore where over 20 foot (7m) waves broke. In 2003, the Bura hit a record high wind speed of 188mph (304kph). That was recorded on a bridge in Maslenica that we will be riding across in a few days time. We have witnessed gusts upwards of 50-60mph if I had to guess and watched these bursts of pressure grate and virtually vaporize water off the frigid surface of the Adriatic Sea. Here’s a video of Meng and I trying to stand in the bura: 

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Next we are off to Karlobag, Seline, Zadar, Trigor and Split before crossing the Adriatic to Ancona, Italy. Our plan is to ride along the Eastern coast of Italy and over the Eastern Alps to Graz, Austria and eventually return to Wein. I am confident there will be several posts detailing the events encountered along our path. Until then, we will continue to pedal, breath, sweat and see our narratives evolve through this voyage and I will do my best to report the lessons and experiences encountered. Thank you all for watching and listening to our story. We hope to keep it interesting.

We Just got to Zadar and I had to share this video of the Sea Organ:

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4 comments on “Schnitzel, mountains and seasides

  1. Diane/Mom says:

    Great blog entry Jason, and, the photos are stunning. Good idea not to post the pic of Meng with tissue up nose:) The old stone buildings remind me a lot of the remote Bahamas. I know they are much older, but so simple and packed full of untold stories. You say one of my favorite clichés of life, “Go with the flow,” a little differently, “Really, you have to be adaptable if you want to avoid having your dreams crushed by reality on a regular basis.” That is so true. It shouldn’t stop us from dreaming but learning to accept the hand we are dealt and how it fits into those dreams is paramount to some form of success. Keep on keeping on and finding those Croatian Angels all along your journey.

  2. Dad & Judy says:

    ad·ven·ture. engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory. Looks like the two of you are living up to the definition of the word. Fantastic, and to experience it with a very special women, you both are so very blessed. Be safe and live life to the fullest.

    • observicuss says:

      We are, I am and thank for the recognition. Also, thank you for reading and commenting. Both the trip and the writing are a labor of love.

      We’ll keep generating stories and sharing some love and happiness.

      Love you guys.

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