An Istrian Iydll …

We are spending our third night on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula at the coastal resort town of Rovinj. The ancient town was originally an island, but is now joined to the mainland. The old streets are paved with flagstones that are shiny with age and the passage of generations of feet. The steep, narrow, streets speak of a bygone age.

An old back street in Rovinj – managed a shot with no people!!!

Our route from Buje was very lumpy, the terrain reminiscent of Tuscany, with old hilltop villages looking down over vineyards and olive groves. It was quite an effort to cycle up to Grozjan (lots of day trippers) and Oprtalj, but well worth the effort to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the views.

Grozjan

Last night’s stop was just short of Motovun, another of these fabulous hilltop villages. We had a room in a private house, with glorious hillside views, run by a lovely Croatian lady who welcomed us with wine from her own grapes. Very good it was too. Because it was there, and to avoid Gavin getting FOMO (fear of missing out), we naturally had to do the 30 minute climb up to the old town and circumnavigate the its ancient defensive walls. Sipping a refreshment, sitting on the wall with feet dangling out to infinity was a bit scary but a fitting end to our day.

Hilltop town of Motovun

Going underground…

So beautiful is the area around Divaca, we decided to stay another day and have a look around some of the sites.

In the 1850s a group of explorers were surveying the Raka river in order to provide a water source for the city of Trieste. They followed the Raka downstream only for it to disappear deep underground through a limestone gorge. This led to the discovery of a series of caves at Skocjan, now a world heritage site. We joined many others, of all nationalities, on a 2 km trek through the caverns. The oldest stalagmites and stalactites, formed over the past 250,000 years are huge and magnificent. Some have joined up to form vast columns. The many steps and levels were like taking a hike through an Indiana Jones film set.

Returning to daylight after touring the Skocjan caves. No photography was permitted underground.

A few miles further on we stopped to admire the beautiful lipizzaner horses at Lipca, which gave them their name back in the 1500s when the original stud farm was established. Although the horses can be bay in colour, the majority are grey once they have reached maturity. The foals are born black, with their coats fading into grey over the first 6 years of their lives. They are very sturdy strong horses standing between 15 and 16 hands high, with great longevity. They were famed as carriage horses for the Hapsburgs, and are the beautiful horses used by the Spanish riding school in Vienna.

Lipizzaner mares and foals at the Lipca stud

Heading south west out of Divaca, this morning (Monday) had a long, fun, downhill followed by a 300 meter climb with gradients of 18%+ in places, gruelling! From the top, the glorious views down to the Adriatic sea, in the bay of Trieste, are amazing.

A good number of the minor roads, marked on maps of the area are not paved. Whilst it makes for safe peaceful cycling, as cars and lorries avoid these roads, it does make the going somewhat more difficult. The bonus is that you get to see local life, currently farmers are busy grape picking on the many vineyards in this region.

View over the Bay of Trieste – Adriatic Sea

This afternoon we crossed back into Croatia to begin a mini tour around the beautiful Istrian peninsula. Tonight, we are staying in the hilltop town of Buje in an apartment annex of a private house overlooking olive groves and vineyards to the sea beyond. A spectacular sunset tonight. Our hosts are lovely, he speaks to us in Italian and his wife in Croatian, let’s just say sign language seems to work best! They are lovely people, we received coffee and cake on arrival and were later presented with a bunch of grapes straight from the vine.

Furniture made from wine barrels at a bar where various wines are dispensed from a vending mechanism straight into a glass

Capital …

Saturday’s 50 mile ride from Lasko (A) took us out of the Savinja river valley, over some lumpy hills to follow the Sava and Ljubljanski rivers into the Slovenian capital Ljubljana (3). The first half of the ride was on busy roads without much shoulder, a bit scary at times. A coffee stop and peruse of options using Kamoot, a cycling and hiking satnav app, saved the day finding us a quiet alternative on the other side of the river. A short section of bumpy, unpaved path was a small price to pay.

Lovely buildings of Ljubljana with the Castle on the hill

Ljubljana is first mentioned in the 1100s, it sits on the Roman city of Emona. The city straddles the Ljubljanski river, the banks connected by a series of old and new bridges. The smallest capital city in the EU, it is home to just 200,000 people, roughly one tenth of the Slovenian population. It is a vibrant place, well worth a visit.

Door to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Bronze 3D Relief of former Bishops

Heading south west out of Ljubljana on, largely, good cycle routes we were treated to 20 very flat miles over the Barje, an area full of drainage channels, much like the Somerset Levels. The fields are very green and lush. The final thirty miles to Divaca provided some sweeping, world class, downhills. Naturally, we paid our dues slogging up the other sides. As seems to be the case everywhere we have cycled, weekends bring out the motorbikers delighting in taking the bends as fast as they can, on machines with engines bigger than small cars.

Back to the hills …

We are progressing well with 320 miles under our belts. Having cycle through Austria, Hungary and a small section in eastern Croatia, we are now well into picturesque Slovenia.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was a short ride of circa 35 miles from Varazdin on the Croatian section of the Drava river to Ptuj, upstream in Slovenia. Leaving Varazdin on busy roads, and past a gypsy camp with rubbish strewn around the road, was not much fun. Once into open countryside, through a border control at Ormoz, into Slovenia more than compensated. Largely following a section of Euro Velo 8, The Drava River Route, the run into Ptuj, which claims to be the oldest inhabited town in the country, was particularly pleasant along the north bank.

A view over Ptuj to a dammed section of the Drava River

Today (Thursday) was a 56 miler to Lasko, home to Slovenia’s most famous beer, and reason for the hop fields we cycled past on our way. The first half of the ride was a wonderful, following the Dravija river, up its delightfully quiet valley, on smooth roads with a helpful tailwind.

There are no hedges here making views completely open as we cycle along. It is curious to see the different crops side by side, maize, pumpkins, vines, grass and strips newly cultivated in readiness for planting. As there are no field boundaries cattle are zero grazed, the smell of freshly mown grass overpowered in places by that noxious invader Himalayan Balsam.

A roadside tableau celebrating the region’s agriculture

The scenery, and gradients became much more Tyrolean as the day progressed, truly breathtaking both in terms of the views and climbing up some steep, switch-back hills. Sore legs this evening. Now in the valley of the Savinja river, tomorrow, we will follow it downstream for a short way before tracking it’s tributary, the Sava upstream into Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city.

Lasko on the Stavinja River

Country hopping & little pigs …

Since leaving Sopron on Sunday morning we have added another 174 miles to our bike tour. Sopran is a fine town with a ancient history dating back to Roman times with some of the old wall still visible. The town escaped the devastation wreaked on much of Hungary over the centuries. A graphic display on one of the old walls depicts the the awful conditions endured by the people of Hungary by the arbitrary drawing of the the iron curtain after the second world war, and sheer joy as the fences were torn down in 1989.

Sopran, Hungary

The route we followed meandered between Hungary and Austria, mostly through quiet rural, wine growing areas, interspersed with little villages and small towns such as Kozeg where we paused for our lunch. The town was largely closed down for a fun day, which included many of the children competing in a race around the old streets. Our bed and breakfast for the night was on the Austrian side of the border in the little town of Unterbildein, in the eclectic home of a Swiss couple and their three pet micro piglets, Lola, Jumpy and Stoney.

Inongruously large church in the small town of Kozeg. The inside was exquisitely painted with very fine stained glass windows.

Sunday night’s thunderstorm had cleared into a fine day as we ventured south, still following Euro Velo 13, the Iron Curtain Route. This 60 mile day was perfect cycling, well surfaced roads, virtually no traffic and stunning scenery, just reward for the constant steep (13%+) hills. The down hills were great fun and allowed our legs a bit of respite. Leaving Austria behind, the route weaved between Hungary and Slovenia, where the farmers are frantically harvesting vast acerages of maize and cultivating ready for the next crop.

Beautiful Slovenia, so tidy, with extensive deciduous forests.

No two days are the same on these tours, today’s ride from Marokfold in Hungary to Varazdin on the Drava River in Croatia, was no exception. Although similar distances, today gave way to more villages, busier roads (still quiet by Torbay standards) and hardly a bump in the road, let alone a hill. I find this cycling quite hard on the legs, there is no respite.

Varazdin Castle, Croatia dates back to 1100’s

A wet start to our VVV tour …

We can confirm, after a full day of testing, that Austrian/Hungarian rain is just as wet as the English variety. The saving grace was that it was neither cold nor windy, so two out of three ain’t bad.

Day one of our latest adventure saw us leave Fischamend, a small town next to Vienna Airport, for the Hungarian town of Sopron, some fifty miles south. The first leg of a circa 1,000 mile peddle through Eastern Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, down the chain of islands protecting Venice, and onwards to Verona, finally heading back to Venice Airport for our homeward flight.

Our route

Besides a decidedly damp start, we had to contend with a series of roadworks which had completely closed the path we were following. Fortunately, Austrian road menders appear not to work weekends so we managed to sneak through certain sections and detour around others; albeit somewhat muddy in places.

The fields are ripe with vast acres of maize, head-drooping sunflowers and vines, netted to protect their bounty from birds. Our sound track for the day was firework- like whistles and bird of prey calls set to scare off the feathered thieves. Several of the Austrian villages we cycled through are lined with small wine cellars, very reminiscent of those we encountered jn Czech last year. Very atmospheric.

A village street of wine cellars

Our route took us down the east bank of the Neusiedlersee following the Jubillaum ‘Radweg’ (cycle path) until we joined up with Euro Velo route 13, The Iron Curtain Route, as we entered Hungary; a country neither of us has visited before.

Entering Hungary

Our first experience in Hungary is delightful. The town of Sopron has many fine old buildings, beautiful, cobbled squares and ornate statues. Our visit co-incides with the annual wine festival, so plenty of street traders, music and locals enjoying the evening.

Gavin at the beer cabin

Journey’s end and Mardis Gras …

After 1,202 miles and a puncture apiece, we arrived in New Orleans at 2 pm on Saturday. The fifty three mile ride from the Rectory, our lovely B&B in Garyville, was mostly on the, paved, levee cycle route. However, due to a spillway being opened to divert water from the swollen river into a lake we had a three mile detour. There was much heavy industry, mostly petro- chemical related, on both sides of the river; being serviced by huge pipelines, cranes and shipping. It was good to see a big group of ducks in the water and an Osprey flying over the environmental impact can’t be too bad.

The Old Rectory B&B, Garyville, Louisiana

Our arrival into New Orleans could not have been more symbolic – blocked by the tailend of one of the many Mardis Gras parades taking place this week. The road was blocked by thousands of people lining the streets to watch the huge floats pass by. This necessitated another detour to get us to our hotel in Canal Street, one of the city centre’s main arteries.

Old Paddle Steamer, The Creole Queen sailing upstream – New Orleans

Our afternoon and evening was whittled away waiting for and watching one of the bigger parades with 37 enormous floats and numerous marching bands, mostly from schools, universities and colleges. The crowds were unbelievable, many people were already in situ outside our hotel when we arrived at 2.30ish; the parade did not start until gone 7pm. Quite a few were well and truly sloshed by then. Generally the atmosphere was very good natured. The floats and costumes are very elaborate and colourful.

One of the Mardis Gras floats

Unlike our South West carnivals each parade is just one ‘Krewe’ (carnival club), which may have thousands of members and many floats. Today, Sunday, there were three parades in the morning from some of the smaller Krewes with another, much larger, scheduled for this evening.

The parades are chaotic as the people manning the floats are continually throwing objects, mostly coloured strings of beads, into the crowd. It is a complete melee and the litter that is left behind has to be seen to be believed. The authorities did a great job cleaning up overnight. Any religious connection appears to be very tenuous indeed!

Best Mardis Gras decorated building in the French Quarter

Tomorrow will be our last day in Louisiana, just 15ish mile ride to Louis Armstrong International Airport for flight evening flight home.

High water and levees …

View of the swollen Mississippi River from our bedroom window just south of Baton Rouge
We made it to the 2nd longest river in the US, 2,350 miles (the Missouri is 100 miles longer). The mighty Mississippi starts in Minnesota, is joined by the Missouri, the Arkansas and Ohio rivers amongst others and flows south to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Due to heavy rain and snow melts way up stream the water levels are at the 4th highest since records began. Trees and telegraph poles are half submerged and fields are sodden. The photo below shows my bike on top of the levee near Baton Rouge. The river level is many feet higher than the road and land protected by levees. It is not hard to see why there is such wide spread flooding when the levees are breached.

Our cycle from Jackson into Baton Rouge became increasingly less pleasant the nearer we got to the State Capital, with heavy traffic, lots of debris on the shoulder, when there was one, and roadworks. To cap it all, we got caught in a thunderstorm and were very soggy by the time we arrived at our billet for the night, a casino hotel built right over the levee and into the river. The ‘house’ made nothing from us as our dollars remained firmly in our pockets.

Closing half the 100 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, our ride today started out closely following the river, the few places we could ride on the levee gave a wonderful view of the huge ships plying their trade. This area is very industrial with many oil refineries and chemical plants. Approaching the little town if Garyville, where we are spending the night in a lovely old house, the shoulder we were riding on suddenly turn into a quagmire of mud and sand, presumably from lorries pulling out of a unpaved road. It was like our trip along the Mekong all over again, the mud clogged up our wheels, covered the frames and our bags. Very fortunately, we were only 3 miles from our B&B where the first thing we noticed was a hose pipe!

A huge Shell oil refinery at Convent on the Mississippi
It was a bad day for Gavin’s tablet though, which has provided mapping and the ability to book accommodation as we travel along. In the first scare it got left on a post of a bridge we sat on to eat our lunchtime sandwiches. We had got about half a mile before it was missed, happily it was still there when we pedalled back. This evening it wasn’t quite so lucky when it accidentally fell from a table onto a wooden floor. Despite its now badly shattered screen it looks as though it will limp on to get us to New Orleans tomorrow.
On of the many Plantation Houses from 1800’s. Built with wealth from sugarcane and slave labour

Cows and camelias…

1,034 miles pedalled, roughly another 150 to do over the next three days and our cycling will be done. Today was our second longest distance, just over 80 miles and the hilliest; although pretty tame by Devon standards. Even so, we are both on the tired side and grumbling about sore knees and achy muscles.

That blue line represents 80 miles from Franklinton to Jackson in Louisiana

Tomorrow we will meet the mighty Mississippi River; heading south along its bank, we will spend the night night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s state capital. Friday and Saturday will be two more 50ish mile rides along the meandering river into New Orleans.

The past two days have been more delightful cycling along backcountry roads with very little traffic, bar the occasional logging truck. Once the early morning fog had lifted, this morning, we had a lovely sunny day, reaching 25°c. This clearly pleased the wildlife, with birdsong providing a sound track and scampering squirrels and little lizards comical interest. The fields abound with various denominations of beef cattle, this year’s crop of calves busily gamboling around their mothers. Many of the cows and horses we pass give us a good looking at.

A few drops of rain as we cross the Pearl River and enter Louisiana

Our accommodation has varied along the way, from formulaic roadside motels, some better than others, to a whole bungalow B&B in Poplarville. Our 88 year old host Bob, was a lovely man with a rich Southern accent, who had placed bowls of his home grown camelias especially for us.

Old Centennial Inn, Jackson, Louisiana

Tonight we are the only guests enjoying an historic, beautifully decorated, former Hotel now run as a B&B. As I write this we are sitting on an upstairs balcony enjoying the last of the evening sun listening to crickets chirping.

A Plantation House dating from 1870 near Jackson, Louisiana

No two days are the same…

After a couple of mammoth days in the saddle we are now back on track; 802 route miles done and just 265 left to get New Orleans on Saturday. We crossed into the State of Mississippi yesterday and will be in Louisiana tomorrow.

Our brief journey through Southern Alabama, blighted by fog whilst on the coast, saw us pass some rather neglected looking cotton fields and extensively grazed beef cattle in the rural area east of Mobile Bay. The shore side of the bay was lined by many huge, mansion type houses with jetties straight out into the water.

At least seven rivers empty into Mobile Bay which makes the crossing tricky on a bike. We had to take a significant detour over several long bridges and causeways. The road out of Mobile towards Biloxi, on Mississippi’s Gulf coast was not much fun, lots of traffic and no shoulder for much of the way. It is not often that I am scared on the bike, but so many drivers came too close for comfort.

Muddy waters of the Pascagoula River, Mississippi

In total contrast, today was a real joy, 70 miles of quiet country roads, mostly through National Forest, to our selves and the few vehicles there were gave us plenty of room, often with a cheery wave.

We passed through many small communities today, all dominated by Baptist Churches, in immaculate condition, which looked far too big for the few immediate houses. We concluded they must serve a wide hinterland. There were no shops or even a petrol station the whole 70 miles, good job we stocked up for roadside picnics.

In between the forests there were a few areas that had been cleared for farming, all pasture land, mostly with beef cattle, a few horses and one flock of sheep. There were a couple of ranches with very impressive gates and fences leading up to huge houses – some serious wealth. Again, in stark contrast, many people live in trailer or pre-fab homes, some with some vicious looking, free range dogs which could have been a problem had we not brought along a gadget which emits a high frequency sound, this usually stops them in their tracks – thank goodness.