A spot on the Dalmatian coast

Croatia

Paul Jennison takes a Tiger 800 on tour in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina

Who’s Riding?

Paul Jennison (pictured third from right) lives in Bristol and retired as a police motorcyclist just over two years ago after 30 years on the force. He now likes to travel on his BMW R 1200 GSA or his F 650 GS Dakar motorcycles when he’s not writing reviews and articles in ABR. It’s a hard life!

For me, embarking on any new adventure begins with the planning stage, sussing out where to go, what routes to take, and where to stay along the way. Organising a tour with all the logistics involved gives me a sense of great satisfaction once I’m on the road and everything’s falling into place – and if things don’t work out, well, that’s all part of the adventure, too.

A lot of riders either don’t have the time to plan a trip or prefer to have everything planned out for them as part of a package, so they can just rock up and enjoy their well-deserved break. So what would I make of an organised tour where all I had to do was get on a plane and meet up with my guide on arrival?

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

I can now see both sides of the organised tour debate having recently tak en part in a newly devised adventure ride with Austrian-based Company Edelweiss Bike Travel, exploring parts of Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. The added bonus, as if I needed one, was that I got to do it on a Triumph Tiger 800, a bike that I admire but hadn’t had the chance to ride till now.

A bit of history

Not so very long ago, a bloody conflict saw the former Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia dissolve and the former countries in that region became embroiled in a bitter fight for their independence. At the time, the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ were bandied about by the media as a generic catch-all for what was happening in the Balkans, so much so it became a household phrase as hundreds of thousands of people from varying religious beliefs were either killed or had to flee for their safety. Since 1995, the region has been at peace and its people have set about rebuilding its economy. Tourism is now one of the biggest sources of revenue to the area.

I’d been toying with the idea a Balkans tour for the last few years, but there were always other places I need to go to first. I know a few riders who’ve journeyed to this region and, according to reports, all their experiences have been positive, so when the opportunity arose to explore this part of the world by bike I jumped at the chance to see first-hand how much it’s changed since those awful 90’s television pictures.

As luck would have it, the only flight I could get to Split, which was to be the base for our tour, saw me in Croatia’s second largest city a day early. This was great as it gave me time to explore parts of the city I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, in particular the Old Town, which has history dating back two millennia to the occupation of the Romans.

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

And we’re off!

The tour began with the guide from Edelweiss Bike Travel, Stephan, briefing us all on the week’s itinerary and handing over our individual bikes for the week. The Triumph Tiger 800s were relatively new with only about 620 miles on the clock. Paperwork done, we all sat down together to get to know one another a bit. The group demographic was quite varied: six Americans, four of whom were two couples with the wives riding pillion, one Israeli living part time in the UK, and two full-time Brits. The average age of the group had to be somewhere in the low 60s, but the enthusiasm for the trip was abundant. Most of them had done bike tours before and their excitement was contagious.

We met the next morning on the hotel terrace for the daily ride briefing. Stephan warned us that we’d have to negotiate the crazy traffic in Split to begin with, and every morning for that matter, to get out of the city and onto the routes we’d be riding. Forearmed is forewarned, but I’m pleased to report that the traffic is no worse than a lot of cities I’ve travelled in, and compared to the riding in, say, Casablanca, Split is like a Cotswold country lane bimble!

Once out of Split via the ‘motorway’ we found ourselves on quiet roads that took us through the historic town of Sinj and then into the countryside where we were treated to our first taste of Croatian back roads. These loose gravel tracks are used by all traffic, which was thankfully scarce that day. The dust flew as we cracked on. The gaps between riders increased to allow everyone a clear view of the stunning scenery as lakes and mountains sprang up around us under a clear, blue sky. We had a brief photo stop at the impressive waterfalls of Slap Krcic over the source of the river Krka, and then rode on to the nearby town of Knin, which is overlooked by a centuries-old fort. This place has seen its fair share of turmoil over the years, including acting as the main Serbian stronghold in the early 1990s during the Croatian War of Independence. It’s easy to see why it was chosen as the site for defences as it commands impressive views for miles around, and we stopped here for lunch to enjoy the vista.

After a break in the shade of the fort, (just as well as the temperatures were hitting the mid-30s) we made our way back towards Split via some interesting country roads. I say ‘interesting’ because they were a mixture of roads and narrow lanes with 180-degree switchbacks, which climbed and descended the many mountains in this region.

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

We arrived back at our base hotel hot and sweaty after a great day’s riding and some 150 miles of stunning and technical roads. Now it was decision time: shower followed by cold beer, or cold beer then a shower followed by more cold beer? For me and fellow Brit ABR Mark Murray, this was an easy one. The latter won through, of course, and set the trend for the rest of the week as our fellow bikers puzzled over our British thought process. That said, they did join us for beer after they’d washed off the day’s sweat and grime. Priorities!

Off-shore recount

Day two took us to the island of Brac (pronounced Bratch) which is a 50-minute ferry ride from Split harbour. Croatia has well over a thousand islands off its coastline, of which just over 60 are inhabited. Brac is the third largest of these islands at 25 miles long and nine miles wide. Guide Stephan described the road around the island as the Croatians’ race track, so it was fortunate that the route for the day didn’t take in too much of it. Instead we headed inland and explored more twisty, technical roads as we climbed up to Vidova Gora, one of the highest peaks on the Dalmatian islands at 778m. The views from the top are truly staggering, looking down to the seaside town of Bol on the south of the island where we’d planned to stop for lunch.

Before we attempted our descent, Stephan revised our planned route to Bol as the original involved gravel tracks with switchbacks, which would have been too technical for some members of the group. The tarmac roads were demanding enough, especially for those who were two up! This was a bit disappointing for me, though, because I would have liked to have tackled more of these off-road tracks, but this is one of the drawbacks of travelling with a tour group; your riding is restricted to the capabilities of the weakest rider. After lunch and a swim in the Adriatic, we enjoyed more great roads before hopping back on the ferry to Split and the obligatory cold beer.

A couple of falls

Day three took us on a shorter ride up the coast road before heading inland to the Krka National Park. Croatia has many national parks and the one in the basin of the Krka River, with its countless waterfalls, is one of the finest. The order of the day was to take shorts and walking shoes as we’d be parking up the bikes for a couple of hours, to explore the wooden walkways that traverse the falls on foot – something I’d highly recommend as the views and photo opportunities are stunning. It was also a welcome break from the heat of the day, which combined with the heat from the engine, was threatening to cook us alive.

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

The ride back was again interesting with the now-customary mix of tight mountain switchbacks and fast straights. One of the group decided to try a shortcut on an uphill 180-degree hairpin, coming to rest about eight feet up in the shrubbery. He couldn’t touch down either side from there, so barrel rolled back down again with the Tiger on top of him (well, he is a retired pilot!). Thankfully, no harm was done except for a few scratches to the bike and we were back on the road with enough material for a good story over cocktails!

Bosnia and back

Day four saw us leaving the hotel and heading for a night stopover in Mostar, Bosnia. The temperatures were in the high 30s and the heavy coast road traffic made it hard going. A welcome deviation took us on the Biokovo Toll Road up Sveti Jure. Virtually traffic-free, we decided to set off at good intervals so we could ride the fast uphill straights and tight hairpins individually all the way up to the summit at over 1,700m. After a coffee stop at the top, we came back down again for some more coast road fun until lunch and a welcome, cooling swim.

After lunch, we headed inland and crossed uneventfully into Bosnia. The landscape changed as we rode towards Mostar. Compared to Croatia, which has recovered well from the war, Bosnia is still some way behind its neighbour. A lot of the buildings still bear the scars of conflict and these are startling reminders of the violence and turmoil that happened in the country’s streets.

We rode into Mostar in 40-degree heat. Add to that the engine temperature, which wafted up when the fan all too regularly cut in, and it was with welcome relief that we parked up flopped in our air-conditioned rooms.

The evening was spent at a local restaurant under the shadow of the Stari Most (‘Old Bridge’) in Mostar’s old town. This part of Mostar has been restored to its former beauty, which is more than can be said for the rest of the city, but it’s getting there.

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

Fond farewell

Day five saw us returning towards Croatia riding for most of the morning north through rural Bosnia Herzegovina with unspoilt villages and more good biking roads.

The border crossing was a more formal affair than on the previous day and we had to wait in long queues  to have our passports processed. A question relating to our nationality was asked of each of us (where are you from? etc), but the strangest was the border guard’s line of enquiry, who after ascertaining that Mark was English, asked him if he knew where the Stadium of Light was. Being a Rugby man, he didn’t know, and suggested that it was a football ground in the UK. He was quickly dismissed by the unimpressed official. English footie is obviously popular in the Balkans!

More fabulous roads opened up before us as we rode back in to Croatia and towards the hotel in Split. There was more clear evidence of the Roman occupation two-thousand years ago with mile after mile of arrow-straight roads cut through the dramatic mountain backdrop. These were broken up with sections of challenging twisties follows by yet more straights. Another dose of adrenalin for the heat weary ABRs!

We finished off our trip with a final farewell meal and a chance to relive the best bits of the week with some now-good friends. We had visited some beautiful parts of the Balkans, ridden some simply stunning roads, breathed in breathtaking scenery, and for my part, learned a little more about this lovely bit of our small planet.

Will I return? You bet I will! Having had a taste of what the region has to offer and seeing how well it’s recovered from its war-torn past, I’m eager to return and explore more. Planning is currently underway.

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

The bikes

As a Triumph-sponsored tour you can choose from the standard Tiger 800, the 800 XC or the new 1200 Explorer. The 800s were perfect for the roads we travelled – even the off-piste tracks weren’t a problem. I was very impressed with mine. It had everything in equal measures, smooth power delivery and handling, and was light enough to negotiate the twisty back roads with impunity. Maybe the only downside would be tank range as I hit reserve after only 150 miles; luckily we were just pulling into the fuel station around the corner from the hotel at the time. There was one 1200 among the fold which was ridden two-up, and it coped well, but was maybe a bit on the lumbering side for some of the tighter roads.

Want to do this?

  • How long does it take? The Edelweiss Triumph Balkan Adventure (www.edelweissbike.com) has five riding days and covers approximately 620 miles. If you want to take your own bike down there then Dover to Split is roughly 1,200 miles’ riding.
  • When to go? Edelweiss runs its Triumph Balkan Adventure tour in June. Croatia enjoys Mediterranean summers with temperatures to match. The winters on the coast are cold and wet and the mountains are even colder!
  • Get there: Most major UK airports fly into Split with Easy Jet being the cheapest at around £350 return.
  • Fly or hire? If you just want to fly in, rent a motorcycle and do your own thing then there are hire companies based in Split and prices vary depending on your choice of bike. A BMW F800GS costs around €120 (£94) per day. For more, see www.motorcycle-rent-croatia.com.
  • Accommodation: The Edelweiss Triumph Balkan Adventure includes stays in two four-star hotels, the Hotel Park in Split (www.hotelpark-split.hr) and Hotel Bristol in Bosnia Herzegovina (www.bristol.ba). There’s an abundance of hotels, hostels and camp sites all along the Dalmatian coast so you can choose according to your budget.
  • Paperwork for you: A full UK licence is all you require to ride in Croatia. An International Driving Licence is not needed. No Visa is required to enter the country.
  • Paperwork for your bike: If you’re taking your own machine then all the usual relevant documentation is required to get it into the country including V5C and insurance. You will need to inform your insurance provider of your travel plans and possibly obtain a green card as Croatia is not part of the EU – yet . There’s no need to obtain a carnet to take your bike into the country.
  • Is it for you? The roads are great and the scenery is stunning. Get away from the busy coast up into the mountains and the twisty back roads and you’ll really have fun. If you fancy it there are plenty of off-piste tracks, most of which are easily navigable for a novice. There are also some are more technical routes that are well worth exploring if you have some experience
Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

Diocletian’s Palace

Diocletian was elected Emperor under the Roman occupation of the Balkans in the third century AD and oversaw the building of the palace on the coast, which is now the focal point of the Old Town in Split (above).

Following his death in 316AD the palace became an administration centre for the region until early in the seventh century when refugees from a nearby town took up residency in the many buildings that make up the palace. This practice is still followed today as the palace, which is one of the largest intact buildings that still exists from Roman times, is still home to many people.

Tour company or DIY?

As I mentioned, it’s horses for courses. I personally like to arrange my own tours, so I can be as flexible as I want, change a route to suit, stay at one place a bit longer or move on when I’ve had enough of a place. I also like that I can take my own bike and kit. In my experience, it can be a lot cheaper doing things yourself and you can have the option to camp if you prefer.

I can see the rational for an organised tour, especially if it would be difficult to get your bike overland to your chosen destination. You’re also guaranteed to stay in good-standard hotels and eat in restaurants that have been sounded out in advance, which is also a bonus. Plus, with everything in place, all you have to think about is getting yourself there and enjoying the luxury of being guided around by someone who knows where they’re going.

Croatia
Photo: Paul Jennison

A good guide will know the routes, probably because they discovered them in the first place, and will also know the history behind the places you’ll visit. A really good guide is someone who also understands the group demographic and can adjust the route plans to suit the individual needs of the riders on the tour. Bear in mind that when travelling in a group, discrepancies between riders’ abilities and experience can affect other group members travelling with you. To avoid disappointment or discomfort, be sure you have a clear idea of the kind of riding that’s in store for you before you book any tour.

Edelweiss Bike Travel has been organising and running motorcycle tours all over the world for more than 30 years. The Triumph Balkan Adventure is a new tour and prices start at just under €2,000 (£1,567) per person excluding flights and personal expenses, like fuel and food. For more information, see www.edelweissbike.com