Highs & Lows: Off-Roading in Croatia
Following two excellent trips to Dubrovnik and the enchanting islands of the Dalmatian Coast, Croatia sits in top spot on my list of favourite European destinations. In my experience, a laid-back country steeped in medieval history with a coastline lapped by turquoise waters studded with pretty islands and home to smooth tarmac roads that make for a very pleasant cycle ride.
This time however, would be different. I was here to try some serious off-road mountain biking and put our brand new itinerary through its paces!
I knew very little about this part of Croatia before I left; Velebit National Park was definitely not on my radar. In fact, the only national park I’d heard of in Croatia was Plitvice Lakes, a UNESCO-protected park renowned for its 16 colourful lakes that cascade through towering limestone karsts.
The first day’s ride took us there and it more than lived up to expectations; staggering scenery, great weather and comfortable cycling all combined to make a very pleasant day. This however, was only the tip of iceberg. It was to be the next three days that would deliver the most memorable cycling experience of my life so far.
The initial introduction to Velebit was relatively tame; great twin tracks through forests which cloak the foothills, gentle inclines followed by declines; all very straightforward. However the 18km climb to the Zazvian mountain hut was what confirmed that we were on a ‘proper’ mountain biking trip after all.
Gasping for air at the top, our tough 1,100m ascent rewarded us with a view over the national park spanning as far as the islands punctuating the distant seascape. Here, the highest point of the trip, we spent the night in a humble mountain hut. Communal dorm – check; cold shower – check; simple food - check. Thankfully to be the only night of ‘roughing it’! In fact, all other nights of the trip are spent in relative luxury.
After a questionable night’s sleep, the day started with an exciting 13km downhill track through the forest. Returning to tarmac for a short but steady climb, we traversed the edge of the mountain range on an off-road track skirting the imposing valleys before diving down through a few switchbacks.
After another punishing ascent, the sublime vistas of winding valleys engulfed by towering jagged peaks once again make it all worthwhile. Although by far the toughest day, by the time we were supping our hard-earned beers we were already recalling it through rose-tinted cycling specs.
The third day through the Velebit mountain range started perfectly given the previous day’s exertion; a gentle ride along blissfully quiet roads winding parallel to the mountain range for about 40km.
However, before long the gradient changed and I was having to dig deep on the 10km twin track mountain climb. The rewards were jaw dropping at every bend of the gravel track. Snaking round the monolithic stone towers, I marvelled at the powerful beauty of nature from my two wheels.
Stopping at the edge of the range to draw breath, I took a moment to check out the route down from the mountains to the ocean. An exhilarating 90-minute descent lay before me and I was soon tearing over rough twin tracks in a real test of control and nerve. Eventually, the terrain changed and I felt the welcome relief of tarmac under my tyres. The sweet smell of sea air filled my nostrils and a warm sense of achievement started to emerge.
This feeling was short lived; it was to be another gruelling 30km before I reached the sanctuary of my comfy bed at the seaside hotel in Novigrad. You have been warned!
By Exodus’ Marcus Nicholson, Sales Consultant