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

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valletta to Medjugorje by Bicycle after Skin Cancer – Ride across Sicily

Last day in Sicily – 5 am Sunrise over  Calabria, as I ride from Acicastello to Villa San Giovanni before the day’s heat and sun start to kick in.  David Bugeja (c) 2018

July 9, 2017, Sunday, 11.35 am  I  push on down the street and force a heavy step forward and grasp the slipping string handles of two recycled grocery bags (one in each hand) tight and sweaty, as I  trudge back along Via Scalia to Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele in the forty centigrade heatwave gripping Pachino.

The heat has settled in and is here to stay till summer’s out.

Drained and dejected and worried about the sun. Should I be doing this after melanoma?

Only my second day on the road and I already feel that I should turn back and give up my hope of cycling all the way to Medjugorje.

My predicament kicked in yesterday after I cycled into Pachino at 10 am – my first ride and what should have been an easy 28 kilometres on the flat from Pozzallo port.

But I never rode easy in the Italian summer heat ever since I pulled back and started recovering from skin cancer:  forced to cover up with high SPF factor long sleeved shirts and pants all of the time when out in the sun, cycling or not, and forced to slop sun block on exposed skin, and forced to scurry for scanty shade whenever caught out on the road and with too many kilometres still to cycle (in spite of my meticulous route planning) each time I overstepped my early morning cycling time window.

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Still chipping away at the kilometres after my early stage debacle in Sicily – Cycling the Croatian coast  en route to Broce and Medjugorje in full SPF armour.  David Bugeja(c) 2018

Perhaps I shouldn’t have cycled out to Portopalo and Marzamemi yesterday afternoon, less than seven hours after having checked into bed and breakfast Tasca Pachino.

That’s were the trouble really began:

Noisy crowds crammed and thronged Marzamemi’s village centre, transforming what should have been a  quaint maze of spotless winding streets (a delight to explore in the dead quiet off season) into a cluttered and littered holiday fairground with gangs of catcalling, macho, young men fooling around – booze happy, sun bronzed and incorrigible, strewing crushed beer cans and left over chunks of ketchup burger and chips in oil stained wrapping plus half nibbled ice cream cones for dessert onto the cobbles.

I never believed I’d manage to pull through and keep on cycling – no matter how challenging my circumstances – that evening in Marzamemi.

How to go on? Turn back? Stop here in Sicily even though I should be going on to Calabria, Basilicata, Croatia and Bosnia for another ten weeks?

Fear.

Exasperation.

What of the expenses and preparation for my journey? Wasted and unravelled and all for nothing?

The heat had unnerved me.

My shoulders and back stung and burned hot for being covered up all of the time.

Was I getting sunburned even through all off the protective layers I was wearing to protect my skin from the sun?

Such thoughts, fears and doubts came rushing through my head all in a tangle and all at once as I got back into the saddle and cleared out of Marzamemi, cycling back at sunset to Pachino via the Portopalo road.

I struggled to nail my focus on the road ahead but I was exhausted, afraid and confused.

Only one a half hours of snatched nervous sleep before embarking yesterday’s 5 am high speed catamaran, Jean de La Vallette,  from  Valletta to Pozzallo

My outbound journey fatigue and this new paralysing fear of what I might be letting myself into struck hard as I took stock of my situation and what felt like a very slim chance indeed of cycling on forward rather than turning back home.

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But I pushed on and shot this sunrise over Acicastello only five days later – I never once more considered turning back after that.  David Bugeja (c) 2018

I could have gone back but I didn’t.

It was the priest’s words this morning at 8.30 am Holy Mass service that started to change things. How I needed to hear his words!

“Il signore sostiene quelli che vacillano e con il signore si scopra e si supera i propri limiti, scoprendoli perche uno sia umilo come Lui ha detto di se stesso – Io sono mite e umile di cuore e il mio peso e leggero.”

Right then as I heard those words I felt that I too by being humble and trusting in God could go on beyond this hard present moment in time, and by keeping my goal of cycling all of the way to Medjugorje clearly fixed in my mind I could yet make it there soon.

Very soon.

 All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2018

Medjugorje after Melanoma

Sunrise over Kruzevac (Cross Mountain), Medjugorje  David Bugeja (c) 2017

Melanoma challenged me.

Pick up the pieces, adapt to the new status quo and get back to a life worth living.

But do get back and never let any doctor, any friend or anyone else for that matter tell you what you should do or can do or ought to be doing.

Oh yes, after cancer struck, I was forced to overhaul my summer cycling routine, especially since I was determined to keep on with wandering across southern and Balkan Europe during the torrid summer months, when average UV index levels hover above the 11+ mark.  I teach chemistry and summer is the only time I get the chance to leave Malta  for many weeks at a stretch and do my thing.

The time I cycle, the gear I wear, even the type of bike I ride and the sum total of luggage I could now afford to carry along with me had to change.

But hey, I still was cycling and I still was riding alone as in my life before cancer.

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A sharp stabbing pain shoots up my left shin as I lose my footing and half stumble, half fall over the slippery scree ledge weathered to a polished marble lustre glaring white in the  early morning light.

No one around and I’m first up the hill! Kruzevac. Or the Cross Mountain.

I stop to catch my breath and squat down tight, crossing my arms on my knees whilst sending up a prayer thanking God and the Virgin that I made it this far.

Relishing the fleeting silence before the Catholic hordes storm the hill and sweep up the slopes in their hundreds and thousands – there’s never more than a brief interlude to the excited babble and chatter of straggling rosary toting barefoot pilgrims reeking of sweat and clustering up close and tight around so that you  could almost taste the sour stench and want to spit it out but dare not since this is holy ground.

That pain  again lancing through my leg – 

And I’m in that room, with the crutches propped up at the bedside. Alone.  Alone but for the fear and shock and all of the effort it takes to make just one trip to the loo and back to bed. Two years ago now since it all began. Six weeks to get back into the saddle after the wide excision surgery and six months for the last of the inner sutures to break through the skin and slough off into a hot water bath. 

Good to be back again yet once more at the top of Kruzevac.

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Medjugorje on arrival – 10.45 pm  David Bugeja (c) 2017

I got into Medjugorje late, arriving at Pansion Brajkovic – a couple of hundred metres on past St James Church in the direction of Kruzevac – at 11 pm.

Vicka, never tiring of her smile though looking so worn and exhausted, but still up and waiting for me in spite of having to be back on her feet by  6 am for yet another too hectic, too long summer day.

Each time I return it’s a genuine homecoming – Vicka’s warmest welcome and the spotless quiet room and the death silence of night only broken once by cicadas chirping at dawn.

Valletta to Medjugorje. 1100 cycled kilometres. Three weeks solo on the road.

I did it.

All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2018

 

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