[Ed. note: Continuation from Balkanized, Part 1. If you haven’t read the first part by Matt Harvey, I recommend you do that immediately. Photos by Darjan Platinovšek –Antti]
Ivan and his new chums climb away out of sight and the burble of their engines dwindles to nothing. For a few seconds there is silence, not a breath of breeze to sully it as we drink in the landscape. Only a few seconds. We still have a good distance to go before we get to our digs just south of Rijeka with an hour and a half until sunset, just enough time to milk this road dry.
Pulling back onto the tarmac we resume the descent alphabetically, Audi first, BMW second, clear air in third. A few more bends and short straights and Darjan spots another lay-by, this time right on the apex of a sharp left-hander but with the promise of rewarding vistas. I slow as hard as I dare, mindful of the sticky master cylinder a few metres behind before easing the A4 over a lip onto an oval of gravel the size of a tennis court.
Aleš tucks in next to us as we reach for phones and cameras to scan the horizon and the islands in between and capture a few slices of the view. Shunning selfies, Darjan grabs his tripod from the trunk and declares it’s time for a group shot as I realize my right foot is resting on a boulder about 18” high. Rock Woollarding it is then! He sets the timer and jogs over to take position before the shutter clicks…
The exit from the viewing point looks like it might have an appetite for front valances so it’s a quick three-pointer for both cars and we leave the same way we entered. This puts the E30 in front and as we feel like we are near the bottom I don’t worry too much about it but then it becomes apparent we’ve still a way to descend.
Aleš’s “My brakes are shit!” over the radio is all the encouragement I need to dive past him on the next short straight and once more it’s hairpins and sheer drops. Certainly not the sort of infinity we want to be going beyond. I’m not too worried though; every bend instills more confidence in this very capable car and even after a fairly brief time behind the wheel I’m beginning to know it more and more. It’s a joy to thread down this incredible road and I’m even managing brief glances at the view.
A few kilometers and numerous bends later the vegetation starts to grow thicker and the scrappy bushes are replaced with more sturdy looking trees. Back to back hairpins and I proclaim this stretch to be worth the price of my airfare all by itself. “Better than the first section?” enquires Darjan.
“Yes, because the surface is good all the way and halfway along you get these views,” I reply. He concurs, adding that we get two for the price of one, a sentiment with which it’s impossible to argue. I suspect he might be coming back here before too long. I know I plan to.
Suddenly a 40kph limit sign and we’re down at Karlobag, the T junction with the coast road ahead of us. We slip into a restaurant’s deserted parking area to wait for the BMW and teeter on the brink of simply turning around and doing it all again in the opposite direction. It’s sorely tempting.
Aleš and Janne appear then sail by. Mindful of Ivan’s description of the coast road we tag onto the back of the BMW to start the drive north towards our digs near Rijeka. On this terrain it should be easier for Aleš to cope with his less than perfect brakes. Soon however it dawns on me the fun isn’t over. In high season this main coast road is chock full, choked by motor homes and tourist traffic with nothing for it but to admire the views and accept your fate. Right now on a Sunday evening out of season it’s not totally deserted but it’s as close to that as makes no odds. And it bears a strong resemblance to the previous stint, just ironed a bit flatter.
I start looking for a chance to get past the E30 and go at a pace I want, but freed from the steep gradients, Aleš is having fun and not giving anything away. With the Audi snuffling at his back bumper like a pig after a truffle, the white line in the middle of the road remains resolutely solid and I decide that discretion is the order of the day.
Suddenly two local cars in front of us and we have to slow right down. Didn’t these guys get the memo? Even worse, the first one is a black Suzuki whose plates proclaim its origin in Rijeka. Damned if we’re spending the whole drive behind him. It’s a less than ideal situation, but one I am confident we can torque our way out of. It takes a few moments, this section of the road goes left-right-left-right-left-right like it’s in basic training, but eventually it stands resolutely to attention and first the BMW then the Audi slam by. We resist the temptation to wave a cheery digit at the elderly driver. It’s not just the cars with impeccable road manners.
Now to set about the little Beemer. It may be going as fast as its driver is comfortable but I know we aren’t. High on adrenaline and dopamine I want to wring every last drop of goodness out of this road before dusk. He’s not giving in though, the monkey, and even over wind and engine noise I hear his tyres squeal on an uphill right.
Finally a couple more cars ahead and my best chance. On a long, lazy left with clear sight lines I signal “All Ahead Full” to the engine room and scorch past our mates in the E30. Seconds later I’m behind a blue Megane and a red Audi, but they aren’t in a particular hurry and are dispatched in quick succession on the next two straights.
A sign – Rijeka 107km. Sweet Jesus, another 60 miles of this? “You’re not going to be doing all of it,” says Darjan, “we’ll be swapping at some point.” That’s what you think, mate. At this moment, on this road and in this car I will allow my bladder to explode before I relinquish the wheel.
Ah yes, the car. It may be an 11 year old, diesel saloon first supplied to a cement salesman but with a few minor upgrades it really is a hoot to drive. All those clichés about understeery Audis with oil-fired stoves up front shoving the nose wide simply melt into thin air. Through every bend, whatever speed and whatever radius, its Vredestein Ultrac Sessanta shod rims, with a supporting cast of Vogtland springs and Bilstein shocks grip this excellent asphalt like lovesick limpets, so it goes precisely where you want it to, the RSR engine remap catapulting it out of every corner. I do my best to unstick it, especially on those seemingly endless corners that make us feel like we could disappear up our own exhaust, but round and round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows…
And the road? The scenery reminds me of the French Riviera but that’s where the similarity ends. Les Français have tamed their coastline, blasting tunnels through high bits and cantilevering the rest from cliffs before charging everyone for the privilege. Progress is swift but sanitized. Here the road-builders have embraced the Baroque nature of this stunning coastline. Like virgin olive oil onto a salad they’ve simply drizzled asphalt over the landscape so that it ebbs and flows, ever involving and rewarding.
I’m involved right now, that’s for sure, perfectly tuned into to the car and the road, settled into a comfortable, high tempo rhythm. We catch the odd slower car here and there but each is swatted away in seconds and we continue apace. My cheek muscles ache, face full of lactic acid from the grin etched deep into it. I so don’t want this to end.
Of course it has to end, as all good things must. Just south of Crikvenica the landscape starts to become more built up with the associated lower speed limits. Just the sort of time and place where local law might lurk to catch the unwary traveler and that’s not the kind of encounter my wallet wants right now. We text Team BMW for suggestions for a rendezvous. “Stop at the first gas station after the turning for the bridge to Krk. We’re about 5 minutes behind you,” is the reply.
We join the back of a line of traffic, content to follow the file of red lights at more sedate speeds for the last few clicks. I don’t mind so much. It’s now dusk and I’m feeling the effects of focusing hard as far ahead as I can for this long. Nice to ease back and let the eyeballs unsquash a bit. The good parts might now be behind us but the effects linger like the taste of a good meal after the last mouthful. Still smiling.
Gradually the cars in front melt onto the main highway to Zagreb and once more we are alone on the road, passing three cops who ignore us completely, smoking and laughing at the side of the road. The bright lights of the gas station appear and we park by its Café Bar. The five minutes become seven by the time Aleš and Janne appear in the 325i to find us comfortably installed at an outside table, beers in hand.
Rude not to, really. I’ve just had the drive of my life. Cheers!