Surprises Await on the Dalmatian Coast

Don't Forget '93 painted on a rock

Mostar was under siege for 18 months. After more than 60 shells hit the bridge, it finally collapsed on November 9, 1993. The residents of Mostar still mourn what happened in their city in 1992‐1994.

In Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, the walking bridge ahead is steeply arched. Large stones cover the bridge surface like steps. Cresting the bridge, the rapid current of the frigid Neretva River flows below. I shiver recalling the photos leading to the bridge of young men jumping from the top. Descending to the other side, I stop in my tracks. Directly in front of me, a large poster of this exact spot looms, shown from the air in 1993. This beautiful bridge is completely destroyed—bombed to nothing—not even stone supports. Nearby walls are scarred with bullet holes and mortar blasts, the surrounding town in rubble. How? Why?

Americans know the countries that made up old Yugoslavia as torn and filled with human tragedy. Yet the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea and the Dalmatian Coast to the south is one of Europe’s hottest vacation spots offering incredible roads, spectacular scenery, historic landmarks, old world charm and people filled with an indomitable spirit. A dozen motorcyclists will soon have our eyes and hearts opened to an overlooked beauty.

The Ducati Multistrada Touring with its two side bags in the chase van, was a perfect bike for riding in the Dolomites.

The new Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Touring bike expresses no complaints as I ride it north from the factory in Bologna to Venice to meet the rest of the group. For the next ten days we taste the Italian Alps, ride east to Slovenia and down the coast of Croatia to Dubrovnik. To close the loop, we head inland and north through Bosnia and Herzegovina to Zagreb, before a long day on the Autostrada back to Italy. Thinking ahead to that 350 mile return, I’d stopped the previous day at the Ducati dealer in Padua, Italy when I asked if he carried an aftermarket cruise control for my Multistrada 1200 S Touring bike.

Finally understanding my broken Italian/English he responded, “Ah, you are from America, you don’t understand. Ducati only go righta, then lefta, then righta, then lefta … no straighta. No, no straighta.” All the while making snake‐like moves with his right hand.

Leaving Venice was only complicated by their “no motor vehicle” rule. In truth, a logical prohibition: the streets are too narrow for cars to fit, much less park and, while motorcycles or scooters may be small enough, the density of pedestrians limit anything greater than walking speeds. A water taxi brings us and our bags to the bikes and we pack them up in a traffic circle. We point the bikes north and are soon following roads every bit as thrilling as a state fair roller coaster. With our mounts rapidly oscillating from side to side, we climb into Italy’s dramatic rooftop, the Dolomites.

sign with a bicycle frame on one side

The sign to the restaurant at Passo Giau also works as a weather vane. This pass is one of the highest passes in the Dolomites.

The Passo Giau is one of the highest passes in the Dolomites at 7,336 feet. Cool, thin air greets us as we look eastward and admire the majesty of steep rock faces, favorites of skilled climbers from around the world. A large parking lot crowded with motorcycles of all kinds, classic touring cars, SUVs and a few dozen bicycles includes room for a few more, so we head to lunch. The restaurant sign is a bicycle on a pole top, doing dual duty as both sign and weather vane. After Croque Monsieurs (ham and cheese sandwiches) and cups of hot chocolate, we head east into Slovenia and the Hotel Cubo in Ljubljana. Our tour has been arranged by MotoDiscovery. Skip Mascorro has been organizing and leading international tours since 1981. For this Venice‐to‐Zagreb ride, Skip has partnered with Kaz Uzunoglu and Kaz’s older brother, Ayhan (meaning Moon King in Cyrillic), of Kazoom MotoAdventures. Istanbul is home base for Kaz and his tour company.

The English‐speaking staff at Hotel Cubo bend over backwards to make us feel wanted. The duc waits to resume the trip.

Mascorro consulted his book of “Really Cool European Boutique Hotels,” to find the Hotel Cubo as well as the other lodgings on this trip. The English‐speaking staff bend over backwards to make us feel wanted, tucking our wet bikes into a hidden, vine‐covered courtyard in the back of the hotel and serve us hot chocolate so thick, it feels like Hershey bars in a cup.

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is a pristine and picturesque home to less than 300,000 friendly, upbeat people. Once you learn how to pronounce the name of their city (like this: lube‐blee‐ anna), you find you want to say it over and over.

The Ljubjanica River flows slowly under the Triple Bridge in Ljubljana’s historic center city.

The Ljubjanica River drifts slowly through the center of town at the base of a hill. It was a natural moat in ages past for the castle at the top. On our way to dinner in Ljubljana’s historic old town, we walk cross the Triple Bridge and admire architecture influenced by both Germanic and Latin cultures. Musicians, dancers and painters pepper the streets where no one seems in a hurry.

The Park of Military History in Pivka has a remarkable collection of military machines on display. A cut‐away cross‐section of a T‐55 tank lets you see how it all works.

Next day, on our way to Opatija in Croatia, we stop at the Park of Military History in Pivka. The region around Pivka, also known as the Gate of Italy, was one of the most important strategic territories in Europe, resulting in a rich military history. If you like tanks and military vehicles, this is the place for you. The renowned T‐34, the M4A3 Sherman medium battle tank (the main Allies’ tank on the Western Front) and the M47 Patton (over 300 of these tanks entered the Yugoslav with the American military in the 1950’s) are all in the first pavilion. The Patton tank’s main weakness was its drinking habits. The 810 HP engine went through 700 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers, or about a third of a mile per gallon. The T‐55 battle tank is displayed in cross‐section. Because it’s open, you can inspect the insides of the tank and see how cramped it was for the four person crew: driver, gunner, commander and loader. The loader has the worst job. Every eight seconds he opens the breech, inserts a 78 lb. shell, closes the breech and locks it again to fire. They manufactured over 100,000 copies of this bad boy. If war tools are not your thing, a tour of this well‐assembled group of exhibits will have you scratching your head in wonder at all the creative engineering men have put into creating better and more effective ways to kill each other.

As we reach coastal Opatija, that we’ve entered a resort area is obvious, with miles of luxury hotels and massive villas along the rocky and picturesque banks of the Gulf of Kvarner on the Adriatic. After checking in at the Hotel Milenij, we wander a boardwalk past the sorts of establishments found in every beach town in the world: ice cream shops, T‐shirt vendors, more jewelry stores than you can count, souvenir stands, art boutiques and, of course, restaurants for every food imaginable. Gyro sandwich, anyone? Opatija reminds us of much a much less expensive version of towns on the French and Italian Riviera.

Unlike our dinner in Ljubljana, a traditional Slavic feast (lots of meats, stews and wiener schnitzel flavored with black pepper, paprika and garlic), here on the coast the influences are more Greek and Roman with modern Mediterranean cuisine mixed in. This means more seafood, pasta and vegetables, flavored with olive oil, rosemary, bay leaf, oregano, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Across the board, food on the trip ranged from just excellent to outstanding. It was easy to play it safe with familiar fare that was always well prepared, but adventurous diners were rewarded with new and exciting flavors.

Roads hug the coastline, winding and twisting thousands of feet up the cliffs to reveal panoramic overlooks. Then they plunge down again to the banks of the sea, through turn after turn after turn.

Next morning’s ride from Opatija to Zadar along the luminous waters of the Adriatic is pure heaven. We’re late enough in the season that the traffic is sparse. Roads hug the coastline, winding and twisting thousands of feet up the cliffs to reveal panoramic overlooks. Then they plunge down again to the banks of the sea, through turn after turn after turn.

After dropping from the cliffs, we ride on roads that wind close to the bays all along the shore. Vacation homes dot the hills, quite densely in places.

As we enter the Zadar region, the northernmost part of Dalmatia, the topography changes. Contrasting colors of vivid blue skies with deep greens of pine and olive trees grab your attention until you finally see the bright white Dalmatian stone. The Dalmatian breed of dog does indeed get its name from this region of Dalmatia, where they were used as guard dogs and sentinels. In areas of the ground where the Dalmatian stone pokes through in slabs or boulders, it is easy to see the similarity with the dog’s characteristic white coat with black spots.

After an overnight in Zadar, where we were serenaded by a sea organ built into the cliff so that lapping waves create harmonic tones through a natural pipe organ of stone, we continue down the coast to the ancient city of Split. Before dinner, we head off to explore Diocletian’s Palace, built by the Roman Emperor at the turn of the fourth century AD. He built it as his retirement home. The place is massive, today filled with shops and restaurants and even a church. Parts of these ornately carved fascia seem familiar. Could I be the reincarnated spirit of an ancient Dalmatian? I dismissed that idea when I learned that scenes from the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones were filmed here.

Before arriving at the medieval walled center of Dubrovnik, we cross into the city on a gorgeous new suspension bridge.

In the morning we ride south along the sea to Dubrovnik. Easy route, head south and take every road that goes to the right. We get rain, however, and learn that taking a detour on a ferry out to an island, riding across the island and then catching another ferry does not keep us any drier.

Any disappointment in the weather was dissipated by the splendor of Dubrovnik. Wow! No wonder it’s called “The Pearl of the Adriatic.” This is one of the best medieval walled cities in the world. Small glass‐bottomed boats offer harbor tours. While the view of the bottom is ho‐hum, the views in the bay are sublime. I imagined it was hundreds of years ago and I was on a merchant ship full of goods, entering this bay for the first time and seeing the stone fortress of Dubrovnik spread out in front of me. What a thrill that would have been! Some of the group goes down to Montenegro and ride through this beautiful mini‐nation around the large inlet that feels like an Alpine lake and leads to the historic town and castle at Kotor.

The thoroughly modern and ultra‐deluxe Croatia Rixos hotel in Dubrovnik is a remarkable engineering feat. You enter on the top floor with amazing views of the Adriatic, then take elevators down to your guest room.

Later we wander the city’s polished stone streets, peek in a couple of ancient churches and enjoy the evening crowd. Assumption Cathedral, in particular, is packed with frescos, statues and ornate alters.

Departing the next day, we pause overlooking Dubrovnik and say goodbye to the Adriatic as we head inland. On the way to Sarajevo, we stop for lunch in Mostar and come across the Old Mostar Bridge. The city, with just over 100,000 inhabitants, is divided by the Neretva River and made up of a thriving community of Bosniaks and Croats with the bridge connecting them. Designed by Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin, it took nine years to build and was completed in 1566. A magnificent structure, it stood for 429 years without fail, until 1993.

When Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, ethnic tensions escalated as Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats fought for independence and territory. The war was characterized by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, mosques and churches being demolished, ethnic cleansing and mass rape. Mostar was under siege for 18 months. After more than 60 shells hit the bridge, it finally collapsed on November 9, 1993. The bridge had no strategic importance so its bombing was deliberate cultural property destruction. The bridge had always been a symbol of how ethnic groups could get along and live in peace, which they did for hundreds of years. This act was one of “killing memory,” in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co‐existence was deliberately destroyed.

The Hotel Central in Sarajevo has been totally redesigned and updated. It’s a great place to stay in a superb walking city.

As one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most recognizable landmarks, and one of the most exemplary pieces of Islamic architecture, the bridge was reconstructed by the Mostar people with collaboration and support from UNESCO and the World Bank. It was reopened in July of 2004. Citizens on both sides of the bridge continue to work at rebuilding, not just buildings, but at the trust they once shared. It is so symbolic that it now enjoys status as a UN World Heritage Site.

The Hotel Central in Sarajevo is a massive structure. Clearly built many years ago. It has recently been totally redesigned and updated. The makeover, however, was not “encumbered” by any overarching design theme.

In some areas it is hip and modern and other parts exudes old‐world charm. The exercise room is remarkably arty while the front neon lighting has a Vegas‐strip feel. But it’s a fun place to stay and our room was huge and the service was attentive.

Sarajevo is a great walking city, interesting buildings and parks, good restaurants and at least one excellent Irish pub.

The Esplanade hotel in Zagreb is an elegant and historic palace of a hotel. With its formal look and manners, it blends in with the surrounding government buildings, statues and monuments. Our motorcycles were allowed to park at the front of the hotel.

Our last leg is a ride to Zagreb and the Esplanade hotel. We take back roads for most of the trip, winding through mountains and valleys with small to mid‐ size towns. Finally, we enter historic Zagreb with its nearly one million people. As the capital of Croatia, government buildings and artifacts (parks, statues, and memorials) abound.

My riding companions turn in their rental bikes and we have our final dinner together. The next morning I miss the drama of one of our members feigning a cerebral hemorrhage and mumbling about his flight back to New York during breakfast, only to find out it was not a joke and he was in need of hospitalization for a minor stroke…luckily not on the ride.

But I’d already begun preparing for my own long and lonely ride from Zagreb to Bologna. Given how far I have to travel (550 kms) and the need to get the bike to Ducati before they close, there is only one practical route and that is the Autostrada – Europe’s equivalent of an interstate highway.

Unfortunately for me, the A1 and A4 are “All straighta—no righta, no lefta, no righta, no lefta—only straighta.”
Sempre Diritto

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