CIRCLING THE ISTRIAN PENINSULA
At the head of the Adriatic Sea between the Gulf of Trieste and the Kvarner Gulf lies Istria, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. Its history books are filled with demographical and cultural changes and it is currently shared amongst three countries (Croatia, Slovenia and Italy). For those of us living and cycling in the inner regions of Slovenia it represents a place where we can retreat to in the winter. When the temperatures drop below zero and the sun hardly ever penetrates through the city fog, the sight of empty roads connecting the old hilltop towns of Istria and the vineyards that surround them, tempts us to escape the city rush. By the end of December 2016, this temptation convinced Klemen and me, to finally fulfil our long postponed dream of circling the peninsula on our bikes. Despite being completely out of shape we decided to do it in three days, the apartments were booked and it was time to hit the road. When we returned home I printed a diary-type memoir of an unforgettable bike ride that set the tone right after an uneventful and unsuccessful year that was just coming to an end.
December 25th, 8:30 in the morning.
No wind, no cars just silence. The church bell starts to sing in Italy and it’s getting louder and louder as we move towards the border. We hear the final BANG as the road becomes narrow and the gradient gets steep. Eyes focused on the wet road, fingers pulling on the brakes, everything else… a blur. In a blink of an eye we’re in the suburbs of Trieste, trash lying all around the place, unappealing architecture and the scent of gasoline in the air. Once again the empty border disappears behind our backs and my thoughts drift back for a dozen years, to the long lines of cars waiting to cross the border and most likely trespass something across. The past doesn’t make sense any more… the times are definitely changing.
If it weren’t for the road signs I wouldn’t even notice being back in Slovenia with all these Italians everywhere. There’s a lot less thrash lying around though… the coffee was good and the croissant was better. Time to hit another border! By now I’ve lost track of time, I left my watch back home, never had a Garmin and the Iphone is nicely tucked in the frame bag. It’s getting warmer so I guess it’s around noon, it’s definitely warmer than it should be in the end of December… The border control doesn’t even look at us, they wave us by and probably think how pathetic we are to be cycling in this time of the year. The road goes up for a while and then it goes back down, kind of like this year… can’t wait to reach the finish of both. We agree that we made the right choice by escaping south and that there’s nothing better than what we’re doing right now. As it always happens, the body starts to feel tired, the end for today is near but it wouldn’t hurt if it were closer. There are two more days of going up and down in front of us, it’s 5pm and our legs are tired.
December 26th, 7:45 in the morning.
We can smell the sea as we’re leaving Vrsar and it looks like everyone is still asleep. There are dogs barking in the distance and there must be hunters all across this valley on a day like this. By the time we reach Rovinj it warms up and there’s no need for our wind jackets. The coffee is decent and the toast is amazing, the pain in my left knee becomes bearable all of a sudden and the road ahead looks better. Our progress is slower than yesterday as the road meanders around the bay and the climbs are long with short descents. It reminds me of Tuscany and I wish that Jure would be riding with the two of us. The silence is accompanied with the nicest sound known to a road cyclist, the hummm of bicycle tires hitting the smooth paved road. It feels like we’re flying.
We left Pula as soon as we could, there was traffic and it smelled like sewage from the start to finish of the town. One of the reasons for going to Istria was to find peace away from the festive city craze, not to become a part of it in Pula. The road kept going and our wheels kept turning, I thought about the past and I thought about the future, I started thinking about the broken frame that I’m riding and that it might be a good idea to check if the crack is getting bigger. Is it possible that it got smaller? I pushed the thought aside… the bike will do it’s job and it will get me to the end, no doubt about that. Feeling fatigued and with the dusk quickly approaching we decide to shorten our ride and go directly to Labin. My front light dies as soon as we reach our destination, it’s a good thing that we did a detour. Tomorrow we’ll head back to Slovenia to end this adventure and start planning the next one. It’s 6pm and our hosts welcome us with full plates of food and a mug of local white wine, the day could hardly go any better.
December 27th, 7:30 in the morning.
The left knee still hurts, in fact, the right knee started to hurt as well. Klemen complains about it too and we keep adjusting our saddles to repair the damage… What’s done is done. At around 9am we start climbing our way towards one of the nicest stretches of road on the peninsula and the sun warms up the surface as soon as we get to the top. The light is spectacular, the sun reflects from the Adriatic Sea and hits the haze above it, there’s nothing like it. I remember driving on this road in July, the heat was about as unbearable as the traffic and there where cars parked all along it. I probably said something like “I never want to cycle this road in my life” to Nina, and I’m sure she agreed. Our progress is good today and it’s not long until we turn our backs to the sea and start riding inland towards Slovenia.
As usual, we’re over packed on this trip and we’re carrying enough food to skip stopping at a grocery store. The border is just around the corner and so is the easy main road to Kozina. We make a couple of left turns and opt for the hard, cold and empty side road as if riding for three days in a row and being out of shape isn’t hard enough. We almost run out of food, curse the road, try to illegally cross the border and get turned around. We admire the road for its solitude and beauty, and then curse it again for the roughness and the wind. The second border is open and we’re eventually allowed into our homeland, fanfuckingtastic. The final ten kilometers are like going through hell, strong and direct winds, a winding and rising road in front of us, hunger and thirst creeping in. It’s 3pm and we’re finally in Kozina, we’ve finally circled Istria after all those years of thinking about it, exhausted/pleased.