The Longest Ride

 Hercegovacka Gracanica, Serbian Orthodox monastery – atop the Crkvina Hill – two kilometres away from Trebinje town centre  David Bugeja (c) 2018

Cycling day and night

I fronted up at the Hotel Leotar in Trebinje town centre on August 16, 2017 at 2.15 am.

Just shy of two hundred cycled kilometres from Medjugorje in southwestern Bosnia.

I had crossed the border into Croatia at Metkovic, then trekked solo along the Jadranska Magistrala all the way to Dubrovnik before I quit the coast and headed back inland into southeastern Bosnia on the lookout (desperate) for a place to stay the night.

I had gone almost twenty-four hours without sleep and had been on the road since 6.15 am of the previous day.

Ten and a half hours in the saddle and a five hour stay out of the sun stopover (11.30 am – 4.30 pm) at Ston on the Croatian coast plus three wasted hours (8.30 pm – 11.30 pm) ditched on an idiot’s search for accommodation in Dubrovnik and a final two and a half hour ride to Trebinje (11.30 pm – 2 am):

I hugged the edge of the two, three, four hundred metre cliff drop coast road and wound round an endless sequence of hairpin turns on this steep rising, pitch black Croatian highway – jaw-dropping scenic if cycled by day but death wish treacherous if stranded out there still in the saddle by night – ending my journey with a pitch black twenty-five kilometre  stretch of  road on the Bosnian M20 motorway.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik broke my spirit.

9.30 pm. Honk! Honk! Honk! The madman jammed the horn down hard and swerved to the right and over to the kerbside almost ramming me into the high brick wall at the roadside as I  veered in real tight and close to the kerb – away from being mauled  by the sick nut behind the wheel and evading the sudden danger by a hairline as the guy sped past yelling a string of curses out the window. What was that all about? What a vile, callous, evil man! Why on earth did he do that for?

The incident crushed my exhilaration of barely half an hour ago:

I had just crossed over the west pier of the cable stayed half kilometre Dr Franja Tudmana Bridge racing along the bridge’s concrete deck – a hundred metres into the air – at thirty-five kilometres an hour flat.

Gulping in greedy deep breaths of the cool perfumed Adriatic breeze and clearing the bridge in under a minute and twisting to the left and descending along Batahovina ulica to the drugged lull of the twilit, opalescent sea below.

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Most Dr Franja Tudmana (Dubrovnik Bridge)  David Bugeja (c) 2018

Everywhere full

Never front up in Dubrovnik at night without a solid, double checked and confirmed accommodation booking if you don’t want to end up roaming the streets all night.

Everywhere I turned up was chock-a-block full. No private rooms were available nor even one empty place in the dorms of hundred plus bed hostels, even kilometres outside the city centre.

The cruise terminal port area and Lapad hotels that I did care to check out – the least pretentious looking and what should have been the lowest priced – all turned out to be insanely expensive and of course full.

At least I wasn’t fool enough to consider trying my luck for a place in the Old Town.

Asking the locals on the street for advice didn’t help one bit either.

Locals don’t frequent Dubrovnik’s hotels, period.

Dubrovnik hotel accommodation is priced far too high for the limited resources and modest wages of most people who call Dubrovnik home.

It’s the well heeled tourists armed with several months advance bookings who throng the hotel lobbies of all the decent two star plus establishments. Spend anything less than one hundred Euro a night for a single, tiny room in July or August and you’re bound to end up in some wild and seedy stay up all night because of the racket sort of fleapit, cursing the moment you decided to persist and hang on in town instead of giving up the search and quitting Dubrovnik out of hand.

The genial night receptionist at the three star Hotel Ivka (also full) in Lapad summed it all up:

“From January 31st to August 31st it’s impossible to find accommodation in Dubrovnik without a reservation, and if you want to come here in August reserve one year ahead!”

He was one of the very few people who really tried to help me – when a flurry of rapid fire telephone calls to a number of hotels in the surrounding district drew a blank (everywhere was full), he didn’t give up on me but managed to nail down one place with a seventy-five Euro single room still available – the spartan Hotel Adriatik. But only for one night – I’d have to check out by 10 am the next day.

And it was already 10.30 pm.

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Out on the street again I had to decide – go to the Adriatik or?

Or what?

Was there any other sane option?

But something inside of me said no. I couldn’t go there. Not now. Not after having cycled all day and half through the night to end up in some grotty hotel and pay through my nose for suffering to do so.

That was the moment when I decided to leave Dubrovnik.

I had no choice but to get back on that pitch black coast road and slog it up the Jadranska Cesta’s seven per cent plus gradient slopes till I got to the fork in the road and cycle on to the Croatian checkpoint and the Bosnian border.

Construction trucks and luxury tourist coaches never let up from whizzing past razor thin close and incoming traffic hurtled forward out of the darkness glaring blinding headlamps straight at me forcing me to duck and stare at the tarmac and not look up and pray God to get out fast and arrive at the Bosnian border and Trebinje and please God please find one decent place to stay the night.

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View of the southeastern Croatian coastline and the Bosnian hills en route to Trebinje from Dubrovnik  David Bugeja (c) 2018

Croatian checkpoint and the Bosnian border

I limped into the Brgat Gornji checkpoint on August 16, 12.30 am.

Exhausted and knackered and utterly defeated.

Never had I failed so miserably in finding a place to stay the night.

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There was a time when had I been anywhere close to such a predicament as now, I’d just have unrolled my tent or sleeping bag in a field or by a stream or lake out of sight of the roadside. The Croatian/Bosnian border is wild and rugged country and should have presented no problem at all with dossing down safely for a few hours till my mind cleared and dawn broke. But after melanoma I lost most of that old ease and nonchalance:

I had been on the road for over eighteen hours and had been wearing SPF 50 layered clothing most of the time – full length shirt sleeves and pants and knee length trekking socks and I could whiff the acrid stench of sweat on my shirt and feel my still soaked vest clinging wet and clammy to my back and chest and I could not lick away the salty, sticky taste in my mouth and I was parched.

Camping rough in such a state was out of the question. I needed a shower and a bed and something proper to eat real fast.

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After switching route from the Croatian coastal highway and turning off down the fork in the road in the direction of Brgat Gornji I had cycled past the eerily silent PGM Ragusa concrete quarry at Dubac.

No rock crushing or grinding or separation of construction concrete aggregate but the overwhelming silence of spotlit frozen conveyor belts criss crossing amongst defunct silos and shut and sealed tight workers’ quarters sheds.

I was now cycling on the D223 motorway, only a few kilometres short of the passport control checkpoint, weaving around blind curves bereft of crash barriers with only inches of tarmac separating my front wheel from slipping off the edge of the several hundred metre high escarpment on my right.

I had to force myself hard to focus on the road and steer away from the edge lightning quick each time my addled concentration dropped and the front wheel started sliding ever so slightly out to an angle and rolling dangerously close to the roadside.

The many falling rocks road signs alerted me to the other danger across the road on my left – crumbling boulder and scree and soil slopes rising straight up from the tarmac and with not a trace of safety steel mesh netting in sight.

But at last there it was – the Croatian checkpoint at Brgat Gornji!

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The place looked abandoned but the gates were open and right at the moment that I thought there might be no one around and could just cycle through unchallenged a police officer strode out into the road a few metres ahead and asked me to present my passport.

Zero traffic.

Except for a scruffy mongrel stray with a rear limp I was the only other form of life trying to get across the border into Bosnia.

The young officer turned out to be a real gentleman, concerned enough to help by immediately accepting to refill my two litre water bottle at no charge. He also made it clear that I could sit  there for as long as I needed to calm down and relax before I slogged on to the Bosnian checkpoint half a kilometre up the road.

And the road still rising steeply.

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The Bosnian police officers were just as helpful and treated me to another two litres of chilled mineral water – they sure weren’t taking any chances that I should risk going thirsty.

I sat down again to rest and snatch a bite of the bread only baguette I had bought less than three hours ago from a Lapad bakery on my way out of Dubrovnik.

I had no appetite but had to eat and I was not thirsty but had to drink.

One of the border guards was busy on the phone checking for any free accommodation close to the border.

But everywhere was full, even in Bosnia!

Trebinje, twenty kilometres away, was my only chance of finding a room.

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Sunset two days later – View from the M20 motorway linking the Bosnian border with Trebinje David Bugeja (c) 2018

 Hotel Leotar

No road lighting. Pitch black M20. Lightning streaks at 1 am. Oh Lord not now, please not now!

But the storm didn’t hit me and one hour later I cycled into Trebinje.

Past the landmark Nis Petrol service station and cafe/bar (still open for service) at the town’s western outskirts.

And along the main thoroughfare leading into town:  Hercegovacka  and Trebinjskih Brigada  and Dusanova right to the doorstep of the Hotel Viv and my hard earned rest at last.

Or so I thought.

The night receptionist could speak no English but I understood enough to learn that the hotel was almost full and that the only empty room was available for just one night – I’d have to checkout in less than ten hours from now!

No deal. I needed to get exactly what I wanted even if it meant drawing out my pain  further.

But I knew I was close to finding somewhere – Trebinje is full of accommodation options even in August, even at this time of night. Hold fast and keep digging.

A hundred metres down the road I ran into a boisterous, boozing party at an all night bar/cafe.

Shrieks of laughter and disbelief – the twenty year old something guys and girls couldn’t quite fathom what they were looking at as I appeared out of nowhere with my kitted for touring road bike and my face and neck plastered white with sunblock, wearing a long sleeved shirt and long pants and sporting an Australian Treadley fuchsia beret over my helmet.

I braved their  laughter and ridicule and asked them for help.

One of the men was sober enough to yell out Leotar.

I took the hint and trudged away uncertain if I was on the right track and turned round and yelled back at them – was this the right path? Yes, they said, just straight on and turn to the right.

And there it was – Hotel Leotar.

Pavle, the night receptionist said the hotel was full.  I couldn’t believe it.  Now even this hope seemed dashed and I had no more energy and no more strength to carry on.

But Pavle was a good man – he instantly understood my dismay and asked me to wait for him at the reception desk. He’d be back in ten minutes.

Dead quiet except for a toilet being flushed somewhere deep down the corridor leading to the ground floor hotel rooms.

Pavle was back in ten minutes with a mound of laundry stuffed under his arm.

I could have my room with breakfast. Even for a whole week!

I felt I was home.

 All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2018

   

 

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