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Balkan Voyage

Balkan Voyage

Bikepacking through Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro

We write quite a lot about Bikepacking and traveling by bikefor the fact that there was not yet a single real travel story on our blog... High time, therefore, that you can experience firsthand what you can experience on a bikepacking trip. And perfect timing that Paul, photographer and bike lover just took an adventurous tour through the Balkans and was willing to share it with us. Drum roll please for: Balkan Voyage by Paul Marschner.

When I finally hold the train ticket to Zagreb in my hands six weeks before departure, I realize: I'm really doing this! I had spent long evenings in front of the laptop, browsed through maps and travel reports, created at least 5 routes and pestered just as many friends with questions of all kinds. One thing is for sure this time: less kilometers, more photos, more coffee, more ice cream, more food, more immersion in the unknown. According to the planned route, I will cycle from Zagreb via Banja Luka to Sarajevo and from there to the Durmitor National Park, then once across Montenegro to Kotor, pretty straight and coastal back through Bosnia, there are a few sections of the "Transbalkan Race" in Croatia I still want to take and I want to experience a bit of urban flair in Ljubljana. Then over the mountain again to Villach before it goes back home by train. 20 days, about 1,700 kilometers and almost 25,000 meters of altitude.

1. Preparation is everything, or is it?

I love planning, I thought. On this trip, however, I let myself loose a little more for the first time. Whether that was due to arrogance, age-related composure (that's what my grandpa would say), experience from previous Bikepacking-trips or a wild mix of all - I do not know. But what is certain is that my only planning this time consisted of a train ticket and a huge Komoot file. Nothing more. 

The evening before departure, after everything is packed: doubt, excitement, fear about sleeping alone outside too. So I do a short Internet research and the calm returns: The accommodation prices along my route are affordable. So there would be a plan B, a way out. I feel relief, but at the same time I now find even more reasons not to sleep outside. The prospect of showers in the evening and less weight on the bike are enough to throw my tent, sleeping bag and Isomatte back in the cellar. And I finally come to some sleep. 

The next morning, the nostalgic-looking train sways with me and my - now much more minimally packed - bike on board towards Croatia. To avoid the rain, I take the train again the next morning to the Bosnian border. There I spend another three hours in the waiting room of the station, before my newfound composure begins to seem strange to me. I use the first rain-free window that presents itself to me, press "Start" on the bike computer and roll loose.

2. Bosnia and me, similar at first: restrained.

I enjoy the sunrise over Banja Luka with coffee in hand on my artificial grass balcony, shortly thereafter I am already on the first of two long climbs and my frustration tolerance lets me down faster than usual. In the subsequent descent, the sign "Motel Kanjon, 500m" flies past me and before my head has a chance to decide against a break, I already order coffee and omelet. After a short conversation with a stranger, Bogdan, strengthened and also a lot more soulful, I crank up the second long climb. Arrived in Travnik, I watch, freshly showered, the hustle and bustle on the street from a café and take pictures. The next morning during the first stop at a supermarket I watch, still a little sleepy, the melon supplier and then a granny who routinely knocks off all the melons, shakes her head and leaves them on the left - eating my melon ice cream I grin to myself.

Shortly thereafter, my newly acquired and enduring composure is put to the test. It becomes clear: I need to readjust my gearshift. In the next town, a supermarket owner lets me use his Wifi, so that the Internet hopefully helps me conquer my lack of technical and mechanical craftsmanship. Without success. In Sarajevo, 60 kilometers away, I am fortunately helped in a very friendly and competent manner at the Ciklo Center, where I get a Coke and shortly after switch gears like a World Tour pro. The rest of the day I let myself drift through Sarajevo, eat mango ice cream and watch grandpas play chess - life is sweet.

3. Uphill I do not need a front brake. Downhill neither. 

Today is THE day, not even my 04:24 alarm clock can spoil my mood. Finally the time has come: We are going to the Durmitor National Park! At 04:52 I push the bike out of the wooden hut, want to use the front brake for a short time - nothing. The lever hits the handlebar. In me, the emotions rage, I have no logical explanation for this and no solution either. 

However, I am quickly sure that I can survive the first 60km with 1,700 meters altitude very well with only one brake. I do not want to spoil the day, roll off and hope for a miracle. Past the line of cars to the border post - passport out, passport in - I pass the iconic wooden bridge to Montenegro and in me glows anticipation. Euphoric I rush along, exulting with joy I test my echo at each tunnel passage. The following climb, a dream, the light even more, the condition of my legs terrific, the missing brake forgotten. 

Shortly before the end of the climb I see another cyclist in front of me, old behavior comes up: I won't take a break until I have caught up with him. During the break I meet Victor, who started at home in France. We get each other, talk about photography and about my front brake and ride the next ten kilometers together before Victor wants to stop for coffee, but I - again on old behavior - think I to have to continue. In the climb I find peace, ponder and when my mental debate ends, I stop shortly before the end of the climb at a ramshackle trailer for Arabic coffee and wait for Victor. "He was quite nice, that guy," I think. We spend the rest of the day together, taking pictures, and on the descent I envy him for his working rim brakes. In ŇĹabljak, Viktor cooks in the "city park" or rather the 5x5m lawn that it is, while I drink Fanta and find out the location of my accommodation. As we part, I realize how glad I was for the company and am satisfied to have suspended old behavior patterns for once.

4. Heat exposure or ardent affection?

I'm beginning to realize how I arrive more and more on this journey. On departure the next morning, my bike computer shows me a solid 70 km/h and as I remember my limited braking options I pull both brakes out of habit and - both brake. Wait what? As mysteriously as they were lost, they're back. I scream of joy and can feel the corners of my mouth on my earlobes for the first time. Nothing can stop me today, neither the heat nor my whimsical accommodations. The next morning, the continuing euphoria still makes me get out of bed and then float across the asphalt, I do a few pull-ups on the side of the road - just because - and fly up a few extra meters of altitude - just because. No 30 km later I sit in a ruin on the roadside. Exhausted.

It's 42¬įC, a refreshing wind is blowing through and my bike leans perfectly against a wall. I seize the opportunity to take a few photos and to catch my breath. Until my bike, almost in slow motion, falls over and lands directly on the circuit. Fuck. Five deep breaths, dirty hands and one replaced gear shift eye replaced later, I leave frustration and the ruin behind me. The Skadarsee passes by me and I glance at it, perceive it as if I was stuck in a fever dream, it is 47 ¬į C. I focus my energy on the kilometer display, which promises me ice and cold drinks in five kilometers.

The next day begins as the previous one ended, uphill with a thunderstorm interlude. Three hours, sitting out the thunderstorm, I spend in a café, where I watch the janitor paint and the still-alcoholized friends of the café owner playing cards and smoking in the tiny interior. Somehow a bizarre scene, I have to stifle a laugh several times. 4h later I sit again, this time however staring into the void at the roadside. Sweat beads down on me, the full throttle escape from the Bay of Kotor takes its toll. I know what I need, but unfortunately not where to get it - ice cream and Fanta. Twice more on this day I manage to find my saving elixir before I can finally whiz down to Trebinje. On the descent, the beauty of the panorama grabs me, one of those indescribable moments, everything but the whirring of the tires I no longer notice, the heart is full.

The day after next, my legs are through. It's day 10 and I can't reach them anymore, no connection at this number. I torture myself on the bike, debate with myself, long for comfort, but then still manage one more pedal rotation than expected. The moment I am physically up to speed again, the rear tire quits its service just in time for lunch break. A cordial two-wheel mechanic, a coffee and a cool Radler beer are my rescue and make it possible for me to reach the last wild horses of Europe just in time for Golden Hour. Their disinterest in this absurd adventurer on the bright orange bike that I am fascinates and grounds me. Impressed by their strength and autonomy, I enjoy these quiet moments to the fullest.

5 Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

The day after I meet my host in a caf√© for an hour-long conversation about God and the world (Google Translate makes it possible) and apart from the perfected Burek routine, nothing else happens today. The next morning it is then much too early and with a heavy heart I say¬†DovińĎenja Bosnia and the tailwind pushes me towards the Croatian border, which already awaits me with gray rain clouds, as if it knew about my current mood. This wet gray accompanies me for the rest of the day and from the second round of dressing and undressing my rain gear I notice more and more how uncomfortable sitting is today. And that it unfortunately does not get better. In the evening in bed, I am full of hope that everything will calm down overnight and I can continue cycling normally the next morning. That remains nothing but a pipe dream.

After waking up, I fight the obvious, but still get on my bike and by the end of the only climb, it's clear: This is not going to work. I do not want to admit my failure yet. Taking pictures feels like documenting my failure. Stubbornly with a dose of shame, I consume and preserve the last impressions in my head. As the behavior changes from unconscious to conscious, I have trouble holding back my tears. My legs, my head, my lungs, my heart, all still have so much to give. For it to fail because of seating issues feels so wrong. I've never faced seating issues before, previous problem solving strategies don't work here. And the new one - give up, surrender, admit defeat - still feels so wrong. 

When I admit defeat and find myself at the next station, I learn that the train for bicycles does not come until 00:30. It is 11:30. Spending eleven hours in a random tiny town is not really an option, so I torture myself another 50 kilometers to my booked accommodation, sleep a few hours and stand there in the middle of the night at the station to start my return journey by train. At least I have a 4h stay in Ljubljana, can soak up the expected urban flair and celebrate my Burek routine one last time. And with the last Burek, the serenity comes back. My head slowly but surely starts to review the experience, I am already reminiscing and already planning the next tour in my mind.

What remains for us from buycycle now? First of all, a big thank you to Paul for the effort and love he put into this text and for sharing his experience. If you've been bitten the travel bug now and you can't wait for your next (or even first) bikepacking adventure, we at buycycle definitely have the right bike for you. Take a look at buycycle.comand discover our over 15.000 road, Gravel and mountain bikes and find your next dream bike. For questions about bikepacking or our bikes is our team is always there for you and more articles on the topic of bikes awaits you on the blog. Until then we wish you, as always: Happy browsing, happy cycling!