Before we left Sarajevo I enjoyed the first dark beer of the journey. Goulash, the first Gnomes in gardens, and now this sign of our progress north. There are also distinct gestures. Not since Turkey has the handshake had its own peculiar mannerisms. It begins with an open palm displayed by both participants. But instead of coming together, the hands are drawn apart in a pendular arc that can reach as far as 1 o’clock. The greeting is primed and the hands return down and into a quite violent collision and the beginning of a vigorous shake.
The city sits in a bowl. It is a stiff but short climb up and over, and within a few kilometres we are riding through farmland. The landscape is flatter than either of us can remember for ages and the cycling easy. The village of Visoko, and just outside, one of the wonders of the known universe, Bosnia’s Nessie or a total con, depending on which bit of the WWW. you want to quote. Three 8,000 year old pyramids or the work of a publicity seeking loonie. We decide that it is a strangely angular hill.
It has been a harmless day, a gentle day, an easy ride of just 350m of climbing. Easy on the eye and legs. We turn off the main road at the village of Busovaca, and head down a minor road in search of a spot to pitch the tent. We do not quite expect so many houses. Each has a thriving vegetable plot, and there is work to be done now the day is cooling. There are people everywhere, most with hoes or forks in hand. It is looking hard to find a place to slip away from the road unseen. A car pulls up and we have the offer of a place for the night. Already, we think we could live here and be quite happy.
We are told that the village is Croatian and mostly Catholic. Such things matter here. It looks perfect in misty warm morning light, viewed from our tent. We ride back to where we left the main road along the villages other road.
The gentle nature of the route does not last much longer. We pick up the E761 to Travnik, and we are on a very busy and narrow road along with most of the trucks in Bosnia. It is hard on the nerves, and requires total concentration with the crumbling road edge there to catch your tyre. The sign says ‘ 8% ‘ and we begin to climb. It is no more than 6%, and we make height easily. I have not seen a dead snake for ages. Which of course means that I am jolted awake as I pass the nose of large and very live one. I am close enough to hear it hiss as it pulls back away from the bike. The adrenalin helps, I make the 917m and the top and feel fresh.
The descent is a joy. The truck drivers are waving, people turning the hay crop are waving and it is wonderfully peaceful. The burnt out houses and bullet holed buildings are in every village and yet it is idyllic. It is a Constable painting and the England of 60 years ago or more. It is without doubt, a perfect place to tour on a bike.
We end the day, the only people on a cheap campground just off the road. It rains heavily over night. The sounds of the river and rain hitting the shell of the tent, few things are better. It then starts to thunder and comes overhead. The tent is lit brighter than day, and nerves are on edge.
We are late away, but cloud still hangs low in the valley. There is water everywhere, and the sound of streams unseen running by the road. The town of Jajce is famous for its waterfall and Old Town. We have done little more than 20Km, but it is impossible to find a safe place for the bikes while we dash around. We take a hotel and give ourselves time to look around.
The mosque in front of our hotel has just been rebuilt. It was amongst the finest in Bosnia before being destroyed in the Balkan war. We go up to the castle. Like most of the towns and villages here, Jajce sits in a wooded landscape of rounded hills. We poke around the town, looking at Ottoman bits and Austro-Hungarian bits.
We find the ‘ old road ‘ out of town. Always a good idea to take the old ways. This runs by a series of lakes and waterfalls that are so perfect they would be mobbed in any part of more northern Europe. Here, we have them almost to ourselves. Pond Skaters do their improbable walk across crystal clear water. It would fur up your kettle in a week it is so full of calcium. We wonder where this all meets the sea – is it the Med?
Sunday, and things are a little calmer when the old road joins the new one. The landscape is Tolkien. But not the harsh and dangerous bits that New Zealand deputized for as part of middle earth. More the shire, beloved of Hobbits and intended by Tolkien to be the perfect English landscape.
At the end of the day we find a pitch by a river a little way from the road. It rains heavily, big solid drops that soak everything in moments. Steam rises from the surface of the river and now the sky is doing it’s very best to close the gap with the land and seal in the damp evening. We have been riding on highway 5 to Bihac and will head North East towards Croatia.
The morning is cool, with low hanging and rather threatening clouds. We have taken a right turn and are on a minor road. There is absolutely no traffic at all, and within a couple of kilometres we find out why. The surface turns to scree and rut.
The road runs at the bottom of a steep valley, so thickly wooded that not a patch of earth is visible between the trees. Branch touches branch in complete cover. There is a concert of birdsong and Raptors are turning circles overhead. The map is wrong and we never work out quite where we are. The gps shows that we are going in the right direction, and more importantly, it is not a dead end.
Where there is enough land to work a field or two, then there is a house. But without exception, they are all gutted and abandoned, with many showing blast marks and bullet holes. All have been set on fire.
The road ends at Vrhpolje after 25Km of off road riding. It is the strangest and most chilling valley we have ever biked through and yet one of the most beautiful. The landscape is now softer, with more easy angles and rounded edges. It is one colour from horizon to horizon, green. There are bright white tooth pick marks of minarets punctuating, but nothing else stands out.
We stop for coffee and ask about the valley. It lost all of the people in the war and there is a large cemetery near. It is all too sad. We ask about mines, ” There are some, but not as bad as other places and there is a plan to remove all of them within the next 5 years “.
At the town of Prijedor we make a change to our route. It involves a stiff climb, but we want to see the national park. The flattest day of our journey has a bumpy late profile done on tried legs. We begin to talk to a family selling melons and other fruit. Many here took refuge from the war in Germany or have worked there at some time. We are amazed how many speak German.- ” I did a bit of German at school 20 years ago ” and off they go.
We end up camping on their land. The sound of a sythes rhythmic cutting and the dance of firefly as the light fades. Lightning lights up the sky, catching the top of the clouds. We have just 13Km to ride in the morning to be in our 30th country – Croatia. We have enjoyed Bosnia hugely, it has spoken to our heats. A great place to ride a touring bike.
We turn up at the border check and are turned away. It is no longer an international crossing point. Our map is wrong once again. Back we go, and then a long stretch into a headwind and the new border. The road passes over the River Una and into the flat land of Croatia. Building still have the bullet holes and blast wounds and the roadside has the memorials to lost lives of war and accident that we have seen for hundreds of Kilometers now, it is just another country.
A wild camp; our first in country 30. It is peaceful enough by the lakeside until just before sunset. Then the frogs start. They stay with the calling all night, particularly the two nearest our tent. In the morning, the pollen scumed lake is mirror still, disturbed only by the sporadic jump of small fish.
We head out onto highway 47 and turn towards Lipik. We manage to find every possible hill and rise in what is quite a flat landscape. Again, home after home is burned out and abandoned. An old man is harvesting the fruit in the garden of one of the gutted houses. There are military graves and flags and roadside memorials. It is all impossible to understand.
Lipik was a thriving Spa town. Very prosperous and with amazing architecture. Almost all was destroyed in the conflict. We take a hotel and do a handwash of bike kit and clothing that has been in muddy fields. Then we take a walk around. It was devastated. We thought we had got used to the sights of conflict, but here it is everywhere. We speak with the cafe owner. He worked 10 years to rebuild from the rubble what is now his business. He sells great ice creams, cake and fine coffee. There is optimism and excitement at E.U. membership just a few days ago. You have to hope that it all works out.