Biking The Balkans
Kody Block is the Content Creator on the 2023 The Odyssey Cycling Tour. In his second report, he reflects on cycling the Balkan countries
As we cycled into Split, Croatia, the 18th riding day of The Odyssey, it was hard to believe we were already halfway through our journey. Over the previous two weeks we had cycled 1,036km through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia. Heading into these countries, my knowledge was quite limited, but I was excited to experience the unique languages, landscapes, and history that awaited us.
Crossing the border from Greece into Albania was a nice introduction to the Balkan states. The landscape changed immediately from boundless mountains to vast, rolling green hills. Our route took us directly through the middle of two of them and as we cycled through the valley, we saw deserted bunkers scattered along the hillside, serving as a reminder of the Balkan war that lasted from 1991-2001.
Moving deeper into the country, we glimpsed our first stretch of the Adriatic Sea on the second day in Albania. Although I consider myself to be much more of a mountain person than a beach person, I was in awe at the colour of this water. The dark, rich blue paired perfectly with cool, turquoise undertones of the waves crashing to shore. Cycling up the coastline, we had the Adriatic Sea to our left, and the Ceraunian Mountain range to our right. Australian Rider Janice Lanyon exclaimed, “As soon as we crossed the border the landscape changed so much! We went from these steep, rocky mountains to a big, open field with hills all around us. It was really beautiful to see such diversity.”
This landscape made for some breathtaking rides. One such day was our journey through Montenegro, where we followed a winding road that included 59 tunnels carved into the mountain-side. All of the elements combined perfectly on this day. The deep canyon and mysterious blue water that followed our route was mesmerizing. I was flying my drone to capture photos as our cyclists crossed a bridge overlooking this canyon, and I thought to myself, “This is the most picturesque place I’ve ever been.” It was an experience I’ll never forget. Canadian rider Rachael Cook spoke on her experience cycling through Montenegro, “As you’re coming down the hills, through the tunnels, and having the cliffs on either side, that looks pretty epic. And with the clear blue water in the canyons, that was really beautiful as well.”
We cycled through Montenegro in two short days before crossing into Bosnia/Herzegovina, a country that has a tragic and not-so-distant history. One of the most contested locations of the Balkan war between 1991 and 2001, remnants of conflict could be seen throughout the country – bullet holes in the sides of buildings or land mine warning signs on the road. The cyclists were actually advised not to venture off the cycling route at all during this stretch. It’s estimated that over 80,000 mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance still remain in the forests. The riders had a rest day in Sarajevo, the city in which WWI began after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
We rounded out our Balkan experience by cycling into Croatia, a nation best defined by scenic pebble-beaches and crystal clear waters. Our journey through Croatia began inland as we covered 96 km and gained nearly 1400 m in elevation, cycling towards the sea. It was quite a challenging day, but the climb was well worth the effort. The reward was a stunning descent, spinning along winding roads that hugged the cliffside, overlooking the crystal clear waters.
When you think of traveling to Europe you might, like me, think of visiting countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. While those countries are undoubtedly beautiful, it’s evident that the Balkans also have a fascinating story to tell and contain many gorgeous undiscovered places waiting to be discovered from the seat of your bicycle.
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