Turning Points

I want to write about turning points in this blog, both personal and historical.

When researching this trip, both Steve and I did what I think most people think of when they consider planning a trip: we made a list of “must see” sights and destinations and started planning our ride, with the idea that we’d incorporate changes along the way.

All the way from Portugal through Italy, we did incorporate small changes to our route, but mostly followed along the route and major cities that we’d planned to see. Our routine upon arriving to a city was to get showered and comfortable and then look at our check list of sights and activities, sometimes even looking on TripAdvisor or Google Trips for ideas. Then we’d hit the city and start checking things off the list.

This might work okay for a 2-week vacation, but doing this again and again quickly became exhausting. Whenever you go to that “must see” sight that your friend said you can’t miss, we’d find ourselves surrounded by the same people (other tourists from various other countries), the same suvenir shops selling the same trinkets made in China, the same over priced crappy restaurants with pushy greeters trying to get you in, and the same over-worked disgruntled staff. I don’t want to sound ungrateful for our friends for making these recommendations because many of your recommendations have been amazing and really are things we will never forget. But we were trying to do too many of them!

The turning point came when we realized we aren’t exactly tourists in the traditional sense; we don’t pop in and pop out of a spot. Because we go so slowly and ride through all the places in between, we flow through areas that tourists never go. It is more like we are living in each of these countries, with occasional stops to see the tourist attractions. So why, then, are we acting like tourists who got plopped in a city from a plane ride and then shuttled off to the next attraction in a hermetically sealed air conditioned bus with a limited time frame?

Since we’ve entered the Balkans, we’ve begun to change how we are touring, and it has made our trip so much more exciting, enjoyable, and I think real. Here’s what we’re doing differently:

  • Rather than planning our route based on the places that other people have said we “have to see”, we’ve been looking around at other things nearby on the map and asking, “why wouldn’t we want to go there?” So far this has included Zagreb, Croatia; Novi Sad and Belgrade, Serbia; and Tuzla and Sarajevo, Bosnia. Of course we make sure it’s possible to get there and that it’s safe; most people’s perceptions of safety is seriously warped by the way; Sarajevo is many times safer than San Francisco for example, on almost every single crime statistic that you can find. But yet no one ever told me to “be careful” when I moved to San Francisco, but many do when they hear I’m in Bosnia.
  • Before we get to a place, instead of reading guide books about what to see, I’ve instead been reading history articles and books to get an idea of the recent history and culture. Oh and of course, articles about local food!
  • When we get to a place, rather than rushing to the “must see” spots, we try to find an area where locals hang out and grab a coffee, beer, or a meal there, and just people watch to get a feel for the place.
  • Once we feel comfortable, we look for a free (tip-based) walking tour, which most European cities offer, and we join it. These are awesome because the tour guides are usually very passionate locals, and we can meet and connect with other like-minded travellers.
  • After we do these things, then maybe we have some things we want to see, or maybe we just spend some more time people watching or exploring neighborhoods randomly.

And that’s how we’ve ended up in Sarajevo, on the important Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Walking out of our traditional Saray home rental in a residential neighborhood, heading to the old town for dessert, we heard the echoes of people praying from the many mosques in the city and in the hills, signaling the end of Ramadan, the month of day-time fasting that many Muslims observe. The holiday starts precisely at sunset based on a lunar calendar, and suddenly the streets were packed with thousands of well-dressed cheerful locals, celebrating the holiday and enjoying the perfect warm, clear evening.

So that is our personal turning point; we will probably continue to evolve our style of travel, but so far this has led to some great experiences that were never even on our radar.

Today we have visited a museum that focuses on another much more serious and important turning point, the war crimes that precipitated the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, particularly the genocide at Srebrenica and Žepa, where thousands of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were killed, prompting the international community to step in to help end the war.

And here are some other photos.

There are many landmines still left from the war; this sign has “MINES” written in Cyrillic. They are well-marked from the road side, and the recommendation is not to leave the pavement even for a pee break.

A view down one street in Sarajevo; it’s beautiful to see the homes in the hills from almost everywhere in the city.

One of the cemeteries above the city

An Orthodox Church along with a monument celebrating Sarajevo’s multi-culturalism.

Very many buildings have plaques attached commemorating residents who died in the war.

An abstract of a Jewish synagogue in the old town area

Buildings on the Miljacka river

The Latin Bridge, where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering World War I.

I believe this is the oldest mosque in the city (has been restored recently, so it looks quite new).

The Sarajevo brewery was important during the war because it is built on top of a natural spring, where the city could get fresh water even during the siege.

And here is some of the quite tasty beer from the brewery!

I swear, I lived

This trip for me has been about experiencing everything I possibly can, and over the past few days, (with apologies, but also thanks, to One Republic), I owned every second that this world could give. The song has been in my head a lot.

From the fear of being run off the road by crazy Serbian and Bosnian truck drivers, to the amusement of being handed a menu completely in Cyrillic and trying to order, to the happy “dober dan” greetings and responses from bemused locals as we ride by, to the disappointment-turned-relief for the shop owner who almost refused to give us water but then said okay, to the enjoyment of the stunning views of the Bosnian countryside, to the friendly honks and waves of cars passing us, to the angry honks of trucks trying to pass us, to the sweltering 40°C temperatures on 15% gradient climbs on dirt roads that our GPS claims are paved, to the fresh mountain breezes as we zip down through tiny villages, to the pleasant sound of a gurgling river that we follow for 50km almost to its source, to the kids who say “hello macho!” as we ride by up a climb, to the amazing rich and tasty cevapci, burek, and salads, to the mystery meat (some kind of bird roasted on a spit, I think?) we somehow ordered accidentally at the restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the mountains with no menu and owner who knew no English, to the cycle tourist we saw on the road in Serbia and stopped to say hi and it turns out we knew him from WarmShowers, to the amazingly friendly Serbs and Bosnians who ask where we are from and where we are going and whether we need help with directions, to the high school kids at the table next to us at lunch giggling and stealing glances at us, to the ringing of Christian church bells followed by the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the cities, to our aching legs and butts, to our crazy tan lines, to picking up a beer 2km before we get to our guesthouse, to the sound of crickets chirping at night, …

All of this, in just the past 3 days! And I can say that from all of this, with the ups and the downs, I swear, I lived! I have tried the past few years to live by the philosophy (inspired by Zen Buddhism) that pain is inevitable, but suffering is our own choice. This trip has really forced me to live that, because if you let the uncomfortable parts get you down, you miss the amazing wonderful things always happening around you.

Okay enough blabber, here are some photos.

Sunflowers in Serbia

The menu in Cyrillic. Ćevapči again!

Bosnian countryside. Some of the roofs have some kind of reflective coating that glistens in the sun at the correct angle.

Goof balls (we were kind of lost here, happily lost at this point, but a bit less happy when the pavement disappeared)

More Bosnian countryside

My lunch companion… Pretty sure this wasn’t the mystery meat, but who knows?

Meat burek for breakfast? Sure, why not? Would have been amazing with a fried egg on top…

The view from our aptly-named guesthouse, PanoramA, in Bosnia

Although on average, the highway infrastructure is quite poor, there are some new construction projects to improve the roads and add tunnels in many places (I think some of these infrastructure projects are partly funded by the US?? Someone correct me if I’m wrong; definitely some have EU signs next to them, so the EU funds a lot, probably more than anyone else). Unfortunately they don’t think much about cyclists, but at least there is a sidewalk to walk on, and the tunnels minimize the climbing through the mountains.

Steve cycling through the Bosnian mountains

This looks like a happening place!

We see farmers making haystacks all over Bosnia. From what we understand, they are to feed the livestock throughout the year.

Cycling Serbia

Serbia was not on our original route plan until sometime in September, but because of our side trip to Zagreb, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the somewhat nearby cities of Novi Sad and Belgrade. It’s been a great experience and even though we leave Belgrade today headed towards Sarajevo and back to the Croatian coast, we’d both like to return here. Here are a few things we’ve loved… (Sorry these are a bit out of order, the WordPress app chose a strange order for my photos and doesn’t make reordering them easy.)

The scenery: here is the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, a geographical trait that makes Belgrade distinct amongst major cities.

The diversity in the cities of the architectural styles and street art.

Novi Sad is known for its music festival; this year the Killers (a band I like from Las Vegas) is headlining in a few weeks.

More street art in Belgrade:

Ice cream rolls! I first tried these amazing things in Thailand, and apparently they have them in Belgrade too.

Sending some post cards!

Apartment buildings in Novi Sad:

Oldest mosque in Belgrade from 1575:

I ordered “French toast”, and this is what I got. It was really good but I think a bad translation!

The best cevapci we’ve had so far, yum! We went back twice.

More apartment buildings in Novi Sad. You can rent some of these units for 130€/month for a one bedroom flat.

We mostly followed the Danube River in Serbia so far, and there’s a EuroVelo route here, so we ran into probably a dozen other cycle tourists, which was a great treat, having seen relatively few other cycle tourists recently. Hung out for one day in Belgrade with two fun German guys who we’d meet at a road-side fruit seller outside Novi Sad. Was fun to share some meals and beers with them (and some rakija!).

These were painted all over Belgrade, but I’ve yet to see any vegan options on any menus.

Interesting hotel in Belgrade:

Incredible baklava:

We ran into this wine festival in Novi Sad and I had a great time wine tasting and ended up buying a big bottle of rakija that I then carried 100km on my bike to Belgrade! Worth it, but it won’t make it further than Belgrade.

Orthodox Church in Belgrade:

Food porn burger at a porn-themed restaurant… Other photos are NSFW…

Tesla transformer at the Nikolai Tesla museum in Belgrade:

Okay and now we head towards Sarajevo. Today will be our longest ride yet, 169km. Time to get ready, see you soon!

Slavonia and the Homeland War

On our way through Slavonia, the north east region of Croatia, we saw a number of reminders of the very recent Croatian War of Independence. We chose to ride north out of our way a bit in order to see some of the cities more impacted by the war, including Osijek and Vukovar, though we saw many empty buildings and artillery fire damage even within 100km of Zagreb:

In Osijek, this particularly powerful monument marked the Croatian resistance where a car was parked in front of a tank in defiance. Of course it was crushed, but this more imaginative recreation of that incident portrays the fact that Osijek was never captured.

Vukovar was the hardest hit city in the war and was almost completely destroyed. When we were in Zagreb, we spoke with a woman who, as a child growing up in Vukovar, found herself and her family hiding in their basement for many weeks until tanks began firing at their barracaded front door until they were forced to come out and be captured as prisoners of war. The city has been rebuilt and even though it still shows many signs of the conflict, it also shows the resilience of the Croatians and the reconciliation and reconstruction that has begun.

We’ve really enjoyed the cycling through this part of the country as well! A few random photos and comments.

Interesting architecture in Osijek, near the park where we ate our meso burek for lunch. A local came up to us to ask about our trip, welcomed us to Osijek, and was excited to hear we were from California.

We followed parts of the EuroVelo 6 cycling route which goes from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Because of this, we saw at least 6 other cycle tourists, including an interesting solo cyclist from England headed to China, who we rode with for a little while and hope to meet up with again in Belgrade.

Our first glance at the Danube River, which we will mostly follow until Belgrade:

We cycled through hundreds of kilometers of gorgeous farm land in Slavonia. It’s impossible to capture the vast peacefulness of this area:

One night we stayed with a delightful French woman with an amazing farm in a town that even Croatians don’t know the name of, complete with peacocks, sheep, chickens, ducks, and two-week-old baby kittens. She rents out rooms, hosts cycle tourists, and takes in work-away guests who help out on the farm.

Finally in Eastern Europe we have found cheap prepaid SIM cards that are cheaper than our current roaming plan, so we’ve set up a hotspot using this unlimited 7-day 4G card:

All through Croatia are road-side shrines like this one. Some are simple statues or crucifixes, and some are full-fledged parks with Virgin Mary shrines, benches, and landscaped gardens.

And next, we are on to Serbia towards Novi Sad and Belgrade, before returning to the Croatia coast through Bosnia. Stay tuned!


Tomorrow we leave Croatia to take a side trip to Belgrade, Serbia, followed by Sarajevo, Bosnia, before returning to the Croatian coast.

We have been learning about the recent wars here, and today we visit Vukovar, one of the hardest hit cities in the Croatian War for Independence that has since been rebuilt. But more on that in a future post.

One of the challenges we will have starting tomorrow is the swapping of the Roman alphabet for the Cyrillic one. The Croatian and Serbian languages are phonetically similar, but Croatian uses the Roman alphabet, and Serbian uses Cyrillic.

Except for two days in Russia 7 years ago, I’ve never had to read Cyrillic before, and so we are practicing! Wish us luck.

There’s something about this city

It’s hard to describe exactly, but there’s a feeling that Zagreb gives me that makes me feel comfortable, like I’m in the right place. Maybe it’s the perfect sunny weather we’ve had, maybe it’s the birds chirping everywhere, maybe it’s the eclectic friendly people, maybe it’s the comfortable cafe culture where you can sit for hours and people watch anywhere, maybe it’s the unexpected sense of optimism and growth, maybe it’s the delicious food (amazing burek and pizza!) and drink (locally roasted coffee, craft beers, and cherry liquor), maybe it’s the almost complete lack of tourist hordes and the local openness to outside visitors, maybe it’s the buzzing city center with trams zipping along next to people going about their daily lives, maybe it’s the locality of the rural country side, with farms, hiking/biking trails, and mountains so close to the city, maybe it’s the artistic culture with street art everywhere (the best artwork is hidden, but we found it with our amazing tour guide on the Secret Zagreb tour).

Whatever it is, this is a city that I don’t want to leave. It’s been a difficult decision to get riding again tomorrow, but there are still many places in this world that we want to see. Dovidjena, Zagreb! I’m certain we will return.

Single speed through the mountains

So for a while on Friday, I was riding my bicycle as if it were a single speed. I couldn’t shift into most of my gears. After playing around with it, I realized that the derailleur cables had become unraveled and were sticking in the tubing. On a normal bike ride, this could end up being a serious problem (unless you’re used to riding a fixed gear, like my friends on Team Cretins!), but we carry 4 extra derailleur cables and 2 extra brake cables, so after 15 minutes, I was as good as new. Huge shout out again to our friend Robert for teaching us how to do this repair and insisting that we practice. It paid off!!

Darning our socks

Let’s see how long this lasts…. I used regular sewing thread and my sunglasses hard case as a darning egg. They still fit…

Donning our socks

Our Icebreaker socks have a lifetime warranty, but unfortunately we can’t find a dealer in Europe to replace them. Any tips on patching holes in socks like this? ?

Zagreb or bust!

We’ve learned that a friend will be in Zagreb this weekend, so we’ve left the Istrian peninsula and are making our way over the mountains towards the country’s capital to arrive before the weekend.

As beautifully scenic and historic the Istrian coast is, we are quickly falling in love with the countryside with the barely touched landscapes, smiling friendly locals, well-paved roads, and a complete lack of tourist crowds (though we did stop to chat with two other cycle tourist couples and at dinner met some women from Vancouver celebrating their graduation with a hiking trip through Croatia.

It’s too bad we are rushing a bit to get to Zagreb (today’s ride will be our longest so far: close to 160km, 100 miles), but we’ve resolved that we will come back to enjoy the countryside of Croatia, perhaps venturing east into the rural Slavonia region before doubling back through Bosnia towards the Plitvice waterfall lakes, Croatia’s gem of natural parks.

Ferry heading to the island of Cres, where we will definitely return.

Our view from lunch at a small road side restaurant with just one dish on the menu.

Top of the mountain marker after a long day starting at Sea level in the Gorski Kotar mountain region.

Where we started the climb near Rijeka on the coast