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Submission Thursday: Balkanized

rustyco

[The following travelogue is a snapshot from a recent roadtrip in Croatia, and the penmanship and photography is by the inimitable Matt Harvey. Additional photos by Ales Zorko. -Antti]

We leave the highway at Karlovac about twenty minutes outside of Zagreb, taking the road south towards the Plitvička National Park. We’re a ragtag little convoy comprising a Croatian on a Kawasaki ER-6N, a wild, nomadic Finn and a Slovenian in a restored ’89 BMW 325i Touring with yours truly and another Slovenian in a 2004 Audi A4 1.9 TDi that has uprated brakes, suspension, sticky tyres and an engine remap. Like I said – ragtag.

It is the Sunday of the May Day holiday weekend, and so of course the roads are packed. While most of the traffic is heading home and therefore in the opposite direction, it still means overtakes are few and far between. The presence of the nimble bike up front able to radio back to the cars makes little difference; a stubborn native in a red van is slowing us to truly pedestrian speeds except on the straights where he boots it. The bastard.

Mid-afternoon and we pull over in Rastoke, a pretty spot with waterfalls and a bar perched on the edge of the river gorge. We stretch legs and take on fluids. “Don’t worry,” our Croatian host assures us, “It’s going to get better, in a little while.”

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Back on the road and for a time it seems this “while” isn’t getting smaller any time soon. Brazenly flouting the law about goods vehicles being off the roads on a Sunday a bright yellow, full length truck/trailer combo has been handed the baton by Red iVan and formed his own personal Conga line of which, more than a little reluctantly, we duly form the tail. Still, it gives us time to enjoy the view, which grows ever more mountainous and picturesque. New gorges, waterfalls, rolling hills and forests. Breathtaking.

After a time the trees bordering the road give way to green fields as the metal snake slides slowly downhill towards Korenica and the radio crackles into life, the message “Not long now guys” from the bike welcomely received by those on four wheels. Approaching the roundabout a few hundred metres into the town, we watch, as mercifully the big rig continues straight on, then one car after another until we reach the intersection and signal a right turn, which all other traffic has ignored. More crackling. “You ready? Then let’s go!

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Off goes the bike, a gentle right then a sharper left as the road starts to climb, the torquey, remapped Audi glued on behind and the little BMW doing its best to cling to our coat tails. More bends, hairpins, switchbacks and gradient as the road arcs its path up into the hills, the surface patchy in places but not enough to ruffle either the nimble 600cc Kwakker or the black Audi hunting it down. It’s a good car this A4, subtly enhanced into something that in the right hands can post a Bridge to Gantry time around the Nordschleife in the low 9 minute 30s, yet return over 50mpg Imperial at highway cruising speeds.

I’ve experienced ‘Ring laps in it myself both as driver and passenger. Either seat gives rise to interesting sounds; they lack proper side support for such shenanigans and like fighter pilots battling high Gs, grunting while holding a lungful of breath to help support the core on the tighter turns is followed by sharp exhalations on the short straights. I dubbed them ‘Ring Noises a couple of years ago – and suddenly we are both making them as we surge onwards, keeping the bike honest as the surface changes from patchy concrete to smooth, virgin asphalt.

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Now we’re really talking. No longer scanning for potholes, Ivan drops a cog, grabs a big fistful of throttle and gives the bike its head. Not to be outdone, Darjan shoves the gearstick forward into third and plants his right hoof into the carpet, leaving a precise gap between the rings in the Audi’s nose and the bike’s rear brake light.

He can use the latter as a sighter for the bends, but isn’t so close that we will turn our biker buddy into pâté should he come a cropper in a hairpin. He isn’t at full tilt though I’m sure, no pegs scraped here, and I’m sure he could easily leave us for dust but this is an experience to share so that’s what we are doing. Or trying to, as the little Beemer recedes gradually in the mirror; it’s having minor braking issues so best we leave Aleš and Janne to appreciate this road at their own pace. This road isn’t yet perfection, that is to come later, but as appetisers go it’s gourmet stuff. Kilometre after deserted kilometre blurs past us as we grunt along it, a rictus grin plastered on my mug as I declare it better than any roller coaster on the planet through firmly clenched teeth.

Suddenly a car in front of us, a damned silver Prius with Dutch plates and a roof box, trickling along like wheeled drizzle, but it matters not. The road straightened and levelled a minute or so ago and from the open countryside blossom small villages and then the town of Gospič. We’ve had our fun, for now.

Regrouping at a Pizzeria and Grill we share our opinions with each other and the wider world as phones emerge from pockets and we mooch on the free Wi-Fi. I bait a friend who has done the Transfagarasan and the Davos to Stelvio thing, declaring them better than either even from a passenger’s perspective. He responds in kind, calling me clueless. We’ll see. Ivan phones home, wife and baby await and work beckons for him in the morning. He will join us to the summit of the next section then head home on the motorways. Food arrives. Pizzas and čevapi, Croatian kebabs served in a homemade flat bread vanish in short order; hungry work this fun malarkey and ‘though it’s now late in the afternoon, the surface has barely been scratched. Best leave room for dessert of a twisty kind.

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By now it’s almost 5.30, the bike needs fuel, the BMW needs oil and the A4’s windscreen looks like a moth mausoleum so while levels are topped off I make with the squeegee to give the onboard camera a crisper view. A stunning blonde goes into the garage store to buy cigarettes. Departure inevitably delayed until she emerges and we are transfixed. We don’t get out much.

It’s the reverse of the way in, as the town melts into hamlets then single farms before trees close in on either verge, a guard of honour for this most royal of roads. We pass a sign for some holiday lets – Camp Bungalows! “Aren’t they all?” observes Darjan – but the road remains resolutely empty bar a man on a pushbike. Long straights are punctuated by mid-range bends, elevation changing slowly, progress definitely on the fun side of adequate.

Finally at the end of one such straight I can see the gradient changing and we fill the airwaves with cliché. “You ready?” crackles Ivan. I assure him that I was born that way and Janne calls me a bad dog twice from behind in the white BMW. My turn.

Like before Ivan keeps it at about 7/10 as we scamper into the hills, the grins and the grunts reappearing as I get to enjoy the stunning topography from behind the wheel. Since the A4 isn’t mine I don’t go quite as hard as Darjan; he knows his car well and managed to elicit more than a few chirrups from the front rubber on the tighter radii of the previous leg. Saying that, I’m hardly restrained and it isn’t long before I get into the rhythm of this road, my eyes darting around as I seek out the perfect line for every bend, trying at least to kiss every apex if not get its number and the promise of a second date. The surface here is smooth perfection all the way even as the trees give way to scrub and rocks and the road is more exposed to the elements. I’m zoned in now, eyes locked onto the back of the bike, rolling the Audi into and out of every bend like an anti gravity downhill skier. “’Ring Noises!” squeaks my passenger and I grunt back in agreement.

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All too soon the summit at Ljubovo arrives but Ivan keeps going. Why stop now? We may be on a plateau here but this road is still delivering. I catch my breath on a longer straight, exhaling like a model steam engine:“Pffffff-pf-pf-pf-pf-pf-pf-pf.” Some more gentle bends connected by longer straights, right-left-right-right until we hit a section that must be at least a kilometre in length and I can check the mirrors for the BMW. Long seconds tick by before it comes into view a good distance behind, which we explain away to each other by cracking in-jokes about torque and weasels.

A long, voluptuous left-hander then hello, what’s this? “Open your windows,” commands Ivan over the radio as he slows almost to a crawl. A short tunnel opens its maw and he canes the bike through it, the noise reverberating from the smooth concrete walls. I follow suit with utterly underwhelming sonic results but by now we are both going too quickly to react to Darjan’s pleas of “Oh, look, stop, stop, stop!” and we go hammering past a viewing point with ample and deserted parking before Armco barriers announce the edge of the world.

Expletives are duly gasped and the descent begins, the swooping esses of the climb replaced by short straights and hairpins with handy signs suggesting the maximum safe speed around each. It’s tempting to ignore them completely but they do offer a useful guide to which gear I need; divide kph by twenty and I’m about right. Eyes remain focused on the lines; I’m not good with heights and some of those drops look like they are harbouring murderous intentions. A few kilometres down and halfway along a straight Ivan pulls over into a gravelled lay-by. We follow suit and I kill the engine as he uses right hand and left leg to spin the bike around in its own length and point it towards home. It’s just now I realise while avoiding vertigo I’ve missed the fact the Adriatic has hove into hazy sight and he obviously wants a few lungfuls of sea air to revive himself before the relative tedium of the ride home.

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We all stretch tired limbs as the E30 pulls in behind us. The brakes are definitely not playing to their full strength and Aleš is taking things even more carefully on the way down, but Ivan informs us it’s not too far now to the coast road at the bottom. “That’s much more gentle than these roads,” he assures us, “it’s really easy, just a little swoopy in places and you’ll be able to relax there and take it easy.”

With that there are bro-hugs all round, then he swings his leg over the bike and pulls on his gloves. We can hear bike engines getting close from down below and as they grumble into view we wave our final goodbyes. He’ll have some company for part of the way at least.

  • Great story and great to see some stuff from the Balkans. Also, if you have not tried Cevapi, you have not lived.

    • Darjan

      It was his first time. We were supposed to get some lamb čevapi after he touched down at Zagreb airport, but the flight was delayed several hours and we were running late, so we had to skip it. The ones we had at the grill place were quite good, too. Next time, we’ll introduce him to kajmak. 😉

      • Nice, I pay dearly to my local importer for Kajmak. You also have to take him to try some proper palacinke

        • Darjan

          Had that for breakfast the day we left for this awesome trip. 😀

  • CapitalistRoader

    The best pizza I ever had was in a wood-fired place in Dubrovnik.