Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Island

"Jordan Two-Delta, you're moving the Island. Transported to the world's last paradise."

But first...

The word "Brussels" in Brussels South Charleroi airport must refer to the fact that Brussels is the capital of Belgium, because Charleroi is nowhere near Brussels. They may as well have called it Liège South Charleroi airport. Whatever. It's the place where you catch budget flights to various parts of Europe, and it's definitely a budget airport. But it works.

I was travelling to Slovenia's capital Ljubljana via Wizz Air, which I'd never heard of. The return ticket only cost me €62 so I couldn't complain. If it crashed, then I probably couldn't complain either. They've obviously thought of everything when it comes to customer service. At least the inflight magazine was entertaining: I could read about the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Wales, catch up on what Gdansk has to offer to the thirsty tourist, or sleep. In the short space of an hour and a half, I managed to do all three.

It was dark when I got to Ljubljana, where I was met by Primoz and his lovely daughter Spila, who had nearly died of an asthma attack when she came to Deutschlandsberg in Austria. Fortunately, she did not, and is currently pursuing a career as a journalist in Ljubljana. We drove to Primoz' apartment in the centre of the city, where I met his wife, youngest daughter (budding bike nut) and a rabbit, whose name was often mentioned in conjunction with dinner. Fortunately, the rabbit was OK for another night, as we had chestnut soup, pasta and meat with chestnuts and rocket. And wine.

But there was no tarrying chez Primoz. We had to find a bar and meet some people, first stopping via the hotel Antico, in which I ended up staying for two hours and 40 minutes. We went to the Konoba first and I met Slovenian long distance legend Marko Baloh (winner of the Race Across America), Mitja Smid Bricelj, the jovial press officer from the Tour of Slovenia, and a couple of others who would be joining us on the island of Hvar.

A couple of beers later, and we were on our way to another bar, first getting a tour of Ljubljana by night. It was quite beautiful and bloody cold, as the temp had dropped to three degrees. It was warmer in the Cutty Sark, which was styled in the manner of an English/Irish pub. One client of the female persuasion was having a good time dancing fairly provocatively in front of (and around) other clients of the male persuasion, but whenever one of them made an approach, she would push him away with the skill of a very practised hand. We stuck to drinking beer, as it was less risky.

We finished up at midnight and I made my way back to the hotel, setting my alarm for 2:40. It would have been a nice hotel to sleep in, but I was not afforded that luxury. I did not enjoy getting up, even though the beer had worn off a little. By 3:00am, eight of us piled into the Radenska Rog team van, driven by Mr Gorazd Penko, and we set off for Croatia.

Looking sharp at 3:00am
© Jeff Jones

Unfortunately, instead of the highway, we decided to take a short cut for the first hour and a half and again, I did not enjoy it. It was an up and down, twisting and turning road, and my stomach could not take the abuse. I almost made it to the motorway, but not quite... After that, I only had a headache, and it was appropriate that our first point of call was the Croatian city of Split, where we boarded a car ferry that was to take us to Hvar. Two cappuccinos and a croissant went part of the way to improve my general well being, as did a bit of sea air. By the time we got to Stari Grad in Hvar, I was ready to rock (after another cappuccino).

Lining up for the ferry in Split. Ours is the green van.
© Jeff Jones

Borut on deck
© Jeff Jones

Stari Grad, Hvar
© Jeff Jones

A pleasant ride

It was rather a pleasant day and still before noon, so we kitted up and got the bikes out to ride from Stari Grad to Hvar and then back to our apartments. I got to ride a brand new Wilier Triestina Mortirolo, which was a damn sight better than my Flandria. We started with a 6 km climb and a 14 km descent, and it was such a pleasant change to gain a bit of altitude again. I chatted to Andrej Hauptman, arguably one of the most consistent Slovenian pros with several top five finishes at the World's and Olympics, and he explained to me that he was coming back to racing next year after having heart arrhythmia problems that required three operations to fix. The doctors only found out what was wrong after two operations.

The Mortirolo was pretty good considering I wasn't used to it, and I enjoyed the long descent into Hvar. I had my fourth cappuccino of the day there and realised why this is such a popular tourist destination in summer. It had nothing to do with the coffee - it's just a beautiful place and a long way removed from what I've been used to. Sort of what I imagined Greece to be like, except I was assured it wasn't. Sort of Mediterranean, except it was in the Adriatic. Details, details...

On your bike
© Jeff Jones

© Jeff Jones

Gorazd and Miroslav lead the way
© Jeff Jones

Andrej Hauptman at the top
© Jeff Jones

The Wilier Mortirolo that I got to ride
© Jeff Jones

Now I see why Hvar is popular
© Jeff Jones

Downtown Hvar
© Jeff Jones

Having a beer/water/cappuccino with Hvar in the background
© Jeff Jones

I rode back along a different road with Andrej the Wilier bike shop owner, and Borut, who was on a brand new Specialized Tarmac with new Record and carbon Edge wheels. Very trick. They both enjoyed the descents, while I was still a little nervous on the new roads. We got to another town called Jelsa and waited for the rest of the group, and after a while I decided to turn back and see where they were. Bad move, because after 10 km I couldn't see them, and when I got back to Jelsa, Andrej and Borut had gone as well. Oops.

I thought we were staying in Jelsa so I cruised into town but couldn't see any signs of anyone. Eventually I just sat next to the main road until Robert Hajdinjak came looking for me in the car. He explained that his group had taken a different road and I was nowhere near where we were staying. My mobile phone didn't work so I was fortunate that they found me and took me to the apartments at Ivan Dolac.

The important thing was I didn't miss lunch, which had been prepared by Nikita and his family. Seafood is the staple here, and we had octopus done with lemon and garlic and potatoes, as well as various quantities of wine and bread. Pretty fine. A short swim in the chilly sea was followed by sunset and dinner in that order. We had small fried fish, sea frog (big fish, tasty) and tuna, with bread, salad, wine and pancakes. It was a great way to finish off a very long day and I was in bed by the shockingly early hour of 10 pm.

Look at all that serenity
© Jeff Jones

A wet day

Friday dawned overcast and cool, with a stiff wind blowing. The plan was for eight of us to ride to the other end of the island (Sucuraj) and back - about 120 km total. After a big brekky, we climbed out of Ivan Dolac and up to the Tunnel. This is the only way to get through to the other side, and it's scary for the inexperienced. It was built by the military and is 1.4 km long, dead straight and flat, but with no lighting at all. There is a traffic light at each end, and the trick is to wait for a car to drive behind you so that you can see where you're going. Even though you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel, going through without a car or a decent front light is suicidally disorienting. The first time I went through it, I thought I was going to be attacked by Gollum or Shelob.

Leaving Ivan Dolac on a cloudy morning
© Jeff Jones

Waiting for our turn at the tunnel
© Jeff Jones

There was a fast descent with some narrow roads on the other side, then we hit the intersection at Jelsa where I had waited the previous day. The road to Sucuraj was tough: up and down all day on fairly ordinary roads, with a headwind blowing. After we climbed 5-6 km up to the plateau, we crawled our way along into the wind. Fortunately there was the prospect of a tailwind home and some more beautiful scenery. It's a stark place and all the cars are 30 or more years old. The houses are all made of stone and look as though they've survived a few gales. We could also see the Croatian coastline to our left, some parts of which rise 1700m out of the sea. I've never seen anything like it.

The wind was relentless and everyone was starting to feel it by the time we neared Sucuraj. We parked ourselves at a convenient cafe and had cappuccinos, colas, beer...whatever. My ride almost ended in total disaster as I'd propped the Mortirolo up against a sturdy mooring pylon next to the water. I didn't count on the wind, though, and was startled by a sudden splash and the absence of one Wilier Mortirolo from my field of view. Cue Goon Show "fallen in the water". Luckily, I was fast enough to drag it out, but could not rescue my sunglasses. There was surprised mirth from the Others.

The cafe owner was a Croat who had lived in New Zealand for 34 years, and when he realised I was from Sydney he asked me if Kings Cross was still the same. I told him that it had gone slightly upmarket over the years, and he nodded a little disappointingly. I grabbed a donut and a Kitkat from the grocery store and set off in pursuit of the rest. Mr Penko had left already as he did not want to be late for lunch. That left us with the two Andrejs, Borut, Miroslav, Robert and Dule.

© Jeff Jones

Having a beer/water/cappuccino in Sucuraj
© Jeff Jones

We climbed out of Sucuraj and it started to rain, Belgian style. It was pointed out to me that it hadn't rained for a while, so the roads were likely to be very slippery. I proved this to myself when I was pushing along at 40 km/h with Andrej the mechanic and the bike suddenly flipped from one side to the other on the gentlest of bends. Fishtail? I didn't think I'd caught any fish in Sucuraj. After that, I let some air out but didn't trust the tyres, which were a brand I'd never heard of.

The descent into Jelsa was awful. Dule had good tyres and gapped us all near the top, while I went down with both the Andrejs. I could follow Mr Hauptman for the first half (he was taking it very, very carefully) until he decided to catch Dule and I did the rest by myself. On these tyres, the corners were treacherous in the wet and I was shaking - not just with the cold - by the time I got to the bottom. I caught up with the Andrejs and Dule, then we caught Mr Penko on the last climb up to the tunnel. He and Andrej H didn't bother waiting for a car and rode straight through - no lights - bloody hell. I waited for Dule and Andrej the mechanic, who had a light, and we had an easier time of it. The last descent had four really steep and rough switchbacks, and it was still pissing down. We were happy to get home intact.

That evening I had an idea to check the alignment of the stem and the front wheel. They weren't quite aligned, which explains why turning left had seemed a hell of a lot easier than turning right!

The tunnel again... It was wet, and people were in a hurry to get home. Wait for me!
© Jeff Jones

After that ride, lunch was welcomed, although I probably shouldn't have had two shots of schnapps straight after! The scampi soup, cheese, bread and salami was very warming anyway. Andrej the mechanic just asked me for chocolate, so I gave him my untouched Kitkat and he promptly collapsed in bed for two hours. I went for a wet and slippery walk around the rocks for some reason, then 12 of us piled into Andrej's van and went to Jelsa for a drink. I had a cappuccino and nursed a sore head, while the Others had beer. Dinner was as good as lunch but my head was still spinning and I called it a night very early.

Primoz (c) and others at Jelsa that evening
© Jeff Jones

Argghh, fresh Scampi!
© Jeff Jones

A recovery day

11 hours sleep! And my head still wasn't that great in the morning. I blamed the schnapps but I suspect a few other things had contributed. After another big brekky, I felt semi-human enough to wash the bike and set off to Hvar again with the rest. We took the reverse route to the first day and once again I enjoyed the spectacular scenery that Hvar has to offer. We rode up the old road through the olive groves. Robert explained to me that Hvar has some amazing olive and lavender oil. Bits of it even reminded me of Provence, and supposedly, French perfumeries get lavender oil from here.

Hvar is a big exporter of lavender
© Jeff Jones

Having more drinks in Hvar
© Jeff Jones

The nth cappuccino of the week was consumed in Hvar (it does you good to have a fling occasionally), and we rode up the long climb that we'd descended on day 1. On the way up, Lucija explained to me about how all the old houses and villages will probably get modernised soon, given the increasing tourist influx in summer. From a historical point of view, it'd be a damn shame, but then again, I don't have to live in them.

I stopped to take a few piccies at the top so I could really fang it on the descent. Although I was still a bit uncomfortable with the braking (left and right were swapped compared to what I'm used to), I caught most of them before the bottom. I reckon with some decent tyres, that Wilier would be a very good handler, as it turns on a ten cent piece.

Andrej the mechanic having a chuck(le) at the top of the climb
© Jeff Jones

A little bit of Provence?
© Jeff Jones

Once final time through the tunnel and I still managed to escape Gollum. Perhaps he didn't consider the Mortirolo to be preciousss enough. His loss, I reckon. We made it back to Ivan Dolac in time for...lunch! More fried sea frog (much nicer than it sounds), prawns, anchovies and sleep. I've never had fried sleep before but it had a refreshing taste. It was refreshing enough for me to pile into the van again to go to the next village for a few beers. Then back for some schnapps and massive amounts of octopus risotto and barbecued fish. The company was good, and it was a great way to finish off.

These three fish are going to provide some nourishment for up to 20 hungry bike riders
© Jeff Jones

Gathered around the pre-dinner table for some drinks and joviality
© Jeff Jones

Borut and Miroslav contemplate the fish
© Jeff Jones

These hands can skeletonise a piranha in minutes...
© Jeff Jones

Everyone was in good spirits (or vice versa) at the dinner table
© Jeff Jones

Roman and moi after skeletonising a fish or two
© Jeff Jones

Home again, home again

Three days doesn't sound like much of a holiday, but it was enough for me and it was all I could afford in terms of time. But I'll be back. I left with Bostjan and Branko early Sunday morning in time to catch the 7:30am ferry back to Split, then a long and very wet drive to Ljubljana along the impressively deserted motorway that links the inland with the coast. It was built a few years ago thanks to a massive loan, and is a very well serviced dual carriageway road.

Along the way, Bostjan explained to me the bits of the country that were fought over by the Serbs and the Croats not much more than 15 years ago. Most of the country didn't look to be worth it, and it would have been a horrible place to fight a war. They should have just stuck to the coast and the fertile inland. Maybe that's why Croatia looks like a horseshoe.

It stopped raining by the time we got to Slovenia, and I even had a cappuccino sitting outside in the sunshine at Ljubljana airport. That must have been my n+1th cappuccino of the week, meaning that by that great mathematical principle of induction, I could prove that drinking cappuccinos was true for all values of cappuccino.

Luckily it was raining when I got back to Liège South Charleroi airport. Reality hits again.


Hugh Jones said...

I'm glad that SPRODJ is not nearly as downmarket as that depicted by the famous Belgian.

miroslav said...

I think that you will be BACK on this island,a?

Jeff Jones said...

Miroslav, I think I will be back. Please let me know when the next expedition is planned.


Anonymous said...

I think you will be back next year.
Willier Amfibia waiting for you.


very nice pictures