EPIC Group Travel Writers: Croatia spins body and mind

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    Cycling on Hvar Island, Croatia.

    Here is another contribution from the EPIC Group Travel Writers, who meet at Savvy Traveler. To learn more, visit www.epicgroupwriters.org

    Where’s the shade?” I call out, sweat funneling down my back. Twenty bicyclists disperse into a thin line and I am near the end. My lungs are chastising me; the curves of this 28-mile day on the island of Vis keep coming. It is a heart-pounding 10 percent grade. The intensity of the hot afternoon is rising up from the asphalt to smack me down. I pedal a counting cadence — it’s come to that.

    I feel my 70-year-old body teetering on the pedal of success or failure. My husband and I are in the gorgeous Southern Dalmatian Islands, off the coast of Croatia (this past September). Trust me, we didn’t think it would be this hilly. He skipped this day — well, OK., he had been in the hospital just two months ago for falling off a dirt bike and had his own head complications in the summer. Aging and playing — it gets trickier.

    Split, Croatia

    But, I see someone stopping ahead of me. Such sweet timing. I join Kim for a swig of water and deep breaths. She is a decade younger and full of shimmering energy.

    “Look at that view!” she exclaims, pointing to the harbor below. How can she be so damn chipper? But we eventually mount the plateau together — pedaling past ancient olive groves and fortresses on hills. Soon we are whizzing down to the turquoise seas. Reaching the port is the most satisfying of this three-week trip. Feeling quite alive, we join the younger ones to guzzle a cold one. I don’t feel so 70 now, but a glorious 60.

    Although my wise husband stays on the boat that afternoon — paddle boarding and kayaking in the warm Adriatic Sea — we later wander the markets where fishermen sell tuna, sardines and squid. The local wines, fish and olives are consumed on warm-evening patios with new friends and tourists who also heard about Croatia — the jewel of the Mediterranean.

    We’re loving this bike/boat combo. A Canadian company, Pedal and Sea, does the preliminary arrangements: lodging on a boat for a week, two daily meals, and choice of bikes. They pick out safe road routes; and the company spices it up with river rafting, historical tours and a beekeeper visit.

    All it took was friends discussing this adventure last winter. Visit someplace new? Heck yeah. Makes working out at Harbor Square in our aging bodies more meaningful when there’s motivation: Don’t be last. Flying that far, we retirees decide to rent a car for the next two weeks, exploring Istria, northern Italy, Slovenia and returning to Croatia.

    Our boat on the tour.

    Every day we wake up on this trip and find our passports and cellphones still in the same place, it is a thrill. We remark out loud where we place things. Aging and traveling abroad, where the destination is far and not direct, and the lodging varies every few days, it gets more complicated. But that’s why we’re here: to squeeze in more affordable adventures that keep our bodies moving.

    We never imagined being here, but expectations evolve after 43 years of marriage — from staying at past spartan dives to recent home-stays, an old parish house, and little apartments away from tourist meccas, where the nearby grocery stores are delightful adventures of their own. Almost every stay is enhanced by cycling local trails because of my bike pre-arrangement with the proprietors. Packing improves by using Savvy Traveller’s and Rick Steves’ compact containers and squishing bulky raincoats into small plastic bags.

    Now we appreciate blended vacations — let a group tour organize one area, and then be free to enjoy another. When David and I jump into our rental car in Trogir after the boat trip, the freedom is palpable. Our new independence opens up the odds of serendipity: pull over at a local market, take a nap when we want, or attend a last-minute concert. Throw the map aside and take little mountain roads. The sweet commodity of time.

    Lovely Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia

    Before long, challenges erupt as we head to the Istrian peninsula of Croatia. What’s this ahead? The autopista near Trieste is closed for repairs and the mountain range severely limits our choices. Grumbling, we drive far away from our destination, down the beautiful coastline to go all the way around. Road closures continue and our nerves frazzle. We are now four hours later than our innkeeper expects us. I roll down the window upon arriving at a little hill town.

    A woman leans in and grins. “You are lucky! Follow that motorcycle on gravel — it’s Sunday!” she advises in good English.

    We stare ahead as dust fills the windshield and the little car shakes us silly. But when we reach the village of Buge in northern Istria, the innkeeper waves his hand aside at our lateness. He carries my bag, brings out tomato and basil bruschetta, and recommends two local beers to tame us. The warm evening on the patio ends with black truffles in risotto. What were we worried about?

    Two days later — the time expected to drive from a young couple’s farm in lovely Vicenza to Mezzacorona, Italy is two hours 40 minutes. We conquer in five. Eyes glued to photo-taking, I forget to watch the trusty arrow on our Maps.me app. Oops — we missed the turn hours ago. David is not speaking to me. Oh dear.

    Leaning over, I try to sugarcoat, “Going back on the same road provides new perspectives!” But he’s not buying. Travel is hard. We eventually arrive — our marriage unscathed. Journalist Norman Cousins once said, “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.”

    Upon arrival in the lovely wine district of Mezzacorona, we re-bond, clinging together in an old cable car shooting straight up a cliff —these are the towering Dolomites! Such a delight, bicycling through endless vineyards, orchards, and sharing the paths with tractors. The next day we treat ourselves by renting e-bikes up through Tyrollean villages to Lake Moveno — molto bella.

    Four days later, we’re driving through Brenner Pass in Austria, home of the greenest alpine pastures. We sing “The Hills are Alive” too many times. Upon reaching the captivating Lake Bled, Slovenia, we walk up to the famed castle and leave in a meditative trance — perhaps feeling the turn toward home. The slow-moving atmosphere in old Slovenian villages keeps us in an unfettered phase. As we patiently await a farmer hauling potatoes to turn off the country road, we know  — this is our mojo.

    — By Rita Ireland

    Rita Ireland has been traveling ever since she left the farm in Iowa. She and David are locals and have been married for 43 years, with two kids. She taught for many years in nearby schools. They continue to look for adventure, especially on two wheels.

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