26th AUGUST 2018
For my final breakfast in Sarajevo I notice the hotel owner has loaded my plate with tons of extra bread and cheese. At first I think he’s being especially nice by providing me with enough energy to tackle today’s hills, but then he shamelessly asks me if I can write him a good review. Still, I’m happy to scoff down all the extras in addition to my standard tea, EuroSpread and omelette-looking scrambled egg.
I take the absurdly steep hill back down towards the city, with my fingers pulling furiously on the brake levers for the entire descent. However, Sarajevo sits in a valley, so I’ll have to climb another sharp hill on the other side to get out of the city. This slope is a particularly nasty one, especially after two days off and such a massive breakfast. If a bystander on the hill was watching my efforts, they would never believe that I’ve been cycling solidly for the last two and a half months. Today I feel like I’m a complete beginner again, and need to stop four times to rest on the way up. Each pause has me straddling my bike at the roadside and gasping for air like a fish out of water. Throwing up or having a heart attack seems a far more likely outcome for me than reaching the top at this rate. Fortunately, other circumstances are in my favour – a quiet and cloudy Sunday morning are exactly the conditions I would have chosen to leave the city.
After struggling up that awful hill and getting out of Sarajevo, I’m immediately met by a sign that welcomes me back into the Republic of Srpska. So now I’m returning to the Serbian part of this complicated and unusual country. It really feels like Bosnia and Herzegovina has been divided into two separate states, based on the twin stumbling blocks of religion and ethnicity. I don’t pretend to understand the full reasons for the country’s divisions, but this odd arrangement is certainly preferable to the war and hatred of the nineties.
A few kilometres out of Sarajevo the road begins to slope upwards, gently at first, before rising sharply through dense green forests and hairpin bends. My ears actually pop due to the elevation on the ascent. By the top I’ve made it to 1,200 metres above sea level, which I can confidently say is the highest altitude I’ve reached on the trip so far. I’ve been climbing doggedly for the 40km since Sarajevo, but after the summit I get to enjoy an easy, freewheeling descent for the remainder of my day. I’m happily speeding down one hillside, expending no energy whatsoever, when I see another cyclist pushing his bike uphill in the opposite direction. The poor bugger is still a long way from the top, but is already bare-chested, grimacing and sweating like he’s in a sauna. If he’s trying to reach Sarajevo today, he’ll be cycling in the dark by the time he gets there.
I make it to the quiet village of Brod, which is set in a steep green valley and find that the local restaurant also does ‘Rooms.’ It’s a picturesque spot, with an outdoor seating area that overlooks a fresh, alpine river. Its slow-moving turquoise waters seems almost too blue to be real. The woman who checks me in says just to leave my bike unlocked in the outdoor seating area, and they will put it safely inside the restaurant once they close. I can’t leave my bike unlocked though ! It just feels wrong. In the end I chain it to a thick wooden post that supports the restaurant roof, and plan to unlock it later so I can leave it in the restaurant overnight. What I don’t plan on is my five minute power-nap turning into a five hour slumber. By the time I wake it’s dark outside and all the restaurant staff gone home.
The next morning is overcast and cool, with mist clinging to the hillsides above the village. I have my breakfast outdoors, taking on tasty calories as I sit overlooking the river. I’m served an almost gourmet plate of fried eggs, bacon, chorizo, tomato and three kinds of cheeses – one hard, one soft and one sour. I’m going to need the energy as today will be another day spent climbing.
I leave Brod on a quiet, bumpy road that follows the river upstream. Before long I’m climbing higher and sharing the road with cows that have tinny sounding cow-bells clanking around their necks. The road sometimes deteriorates into gravel track and has now soared far above the river and the valley floor below. I keep thinking about that ‘Road of Death’ jungle track in Bolivia, as there’s only a few guard rails protecting me from a sheer drop that looks absolutely hideous. I pass a number of roadside memorials, presumably for drivers that have perished after going over the cliff. As I get further into the hills the road quality worsens, until it’s not much more than a single track with loose, gravelly edges. The only other traffic seems to come from a handful of white water rafting camps that dot the riverbank way below me.
I’m so distracted by poor roads and sheer cliffs, that I’m somewhat surprised when I round a bend and see the Bosnian border post ahead of me. This checkpoint is fairly remote, so there’s only two cars waiting to get through before me. The Bosnian border guard is friendly when I leave and asks me where I’m travelling to. He looks amazed when I say I’m cycling to Sarandë in Albania. I tell him that it’s about 500km away, to which he can only reply ‘I don’t know, but it’s a LONG way.’
I cross a wooden bridge to the Montenegro side, where a steep hill takes me up to the border post and a queue of about ten cars. A bus full of teenage schoolkids pulls up in the lane beside me, one lad giving me a Thumbs Up sign. The crossing is a formality, and once again I’m stamped into a country as having arrived by car. The first thing that greets me in Montenegro is a seven percent gradient, lasting for a few kilometres until I reach an abandoned complex which looks like it may have been the previous border post. I don’t really mind the hill, as this road is now luxuriously smooth compared to the bumpy track I left behind in Bosnia.
My route continues to slope gradually upwards, until I find myself cycling along the walls of the narrow and steep-sided Piva Canyon. At first I have high, rocky cliffs on my left and a sheer, vertical drop to an aqua blue river on my right. Then I have to cross an exposed-looking bridge to the other side of the canyon. I’m not brilliant with heights at the best of times, but cycling onto this bridge gives me the worst feeling of vertigo. To begin with I’m a complete pussy, sticking to the middle of the road just to keep me away from the railings and the horror of having to look over the edge. Then I stop my bike halfway across, lean it against the railings and try to force myself to become (slightly) more accustomed to my surroundings. I walk towards the edge, clasp my hands tightly on the railings and peer slowly over the side. It’s a fearsome, yet beautiful sight – I’m looking straight down on a fast flowing, turquoise river that’s fully one hundred feet below me. After a while I do get a little more used to the height, but I’m still happy to get off the bridge and over to the other side. Now I have the cliff face on my right and the scary drop on my left. This makes me feel a lot better as I’m riding on the right hand side of the road and not quite so close to the chasm.
I continue pedalling up the canyon, through a series of rocky tunnels that have been bored through the cliff face. It’s only when I reach the massive Piva Dam that the road begins to level out a little. My route crosses over the top of the dam so I persuade myself to pause once again for yet more photos and stomach-churning views back down the canyon. Behind me is Piva Lake, which was created in 1975 by damming the Drina River, and is now the second largest lake in Montenegro. I can see where the high water level would be if the dam was full, but the current summertime level looks to be about five metres below that.
Although I’ve now left the canyon, there are still dozens of tunnels to cycle through. The shorter ones are easy as they let in enough natural light to illuminate them, but the longer ones are unlit and pose more of a problem. My rear light is useless as it’s obscured by all the gear on the back of my bike, and my front torch is hiding somewhere in my panniers. I know I could stop and look for it, but in the end I just can’t be bothered. This laziness leads to the strange scenario of me riding through some tunnels in almost total darkness. On occasion I’ll have the lights of a passing car to help me, but otherwise I simply aim for the middle of the road and take my chances. This method involves a lot of guesswork, and I seem to be drawn to bumps and potholes like a magnet as I cruise along blindly in the dark. It’s a surreal sensation, like one of those sensory deprivation tanks, as I have no point of reference to tell me that I’m actually moving.
I notice that a clever car mechanic has painted his phone number at the entrance to each tunnel and also numbered them. This way if someone breaks down they can call him and tell him exactly where they are. There are a total of fifty-six tunnels between the border and Pluzine, my destination for today. By the time I reach town a fresh breeze has picked up, to the point where I feel a little cold for the first time in two months.
I check into Guesthouse Zvono, which is quite a funky establishment with views over Piva Lake. My accommodation is at the lower end of their sloping garden, which unfortunately means I have to transport my bike and gear down in installments. It’s worth it though, as I’m shown to a large, clean room set in the middle of a colourful pear orchard. The Wi-Fi in my room is practically non-existent, so I have to wander up to the guesthouse restaurant where their Wi-Fi is excellent. It’s the perfect ruse to get customers into the restaurant. Normally I don’t mind falling for this, and I’m quite happy to sit with a meal or drink while I catch up with things. This place is comfortable too, with welcoming, friendly staff. The only downside for me is that it plays nothing but jazz. The marmite of music. Constantly. At first I sit there, attempting to be as open-minded as I can, and trying to treat the sounds as if they were just background music. But it’s no use. Bit by bit, the jangly, grating randomness starts to seep into my consciousness and soon it becomes downright annoying. It sounds like five different musicians playing five different songs at the same time.
I decide to stay an extra day in Pluzine, as it’s a beautiful setting and the guesthouse has a nice feel to it, despite the jazz. I’ve also managed to give myself some breathing space with the number of days I have left to finish the trip. In Poland and Lithuania I took very few days off, putting in some big distances, and now I’m reaping the reward for that effort. With around 500km to cycle in my final two weeks, I’m looking forward to some shorter, easy rides and a few extra days off. Well, that’s the plan anyway …