EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT 2: Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie

Here is the second in a series of extracts from the soon-to-be-published book ‘Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie‘. If you haven’t done so already, you may want to read extract 1 (which was all about cycling day 11 in Albania) by following this link.

Tuesday 23rd July 2013

Cycling Day 19: Skradin to Pag, 128km

It was to be a day of contrasts and a long chat with Zorin about the realities of life in Croatia kicked it off. Far from being an evil James Bond villain he was as charming as his English was fluent;

“I’m an engineer and I used to work in a Deutsch Telekom factory near Split but it closed and I’ve been unemployed ever since. I spend most of my time in Split with my wife – she’s also unemployed – and my seventeen year old daughter… but during the summer months I come here to Skradin to help my mother rent out these rooms.”

It was a bit of a reality check for me as someone who had been travelling along the coast for many hundreds of kilometres. It was easy to equate busy restaurants and beaches with a booming economy but the high rate of unemployment – it was 17% in July 2013 – was proof that not everyone was benefiting from the tourist cash. Zorin, a skilled worker, was making the most of his situation but he didn’t seem positive about the future;

Yes, we are now in the European Union but what we need is for companies to stop closing factories. I’m an engineer and here I am cleaning rooms for my mother!

He smiled as he said it but it was impossible for him to mask his frustrations with not having a job to return to in Split.

I kept thinking about Zorin as I trundled through the first 40km of my cycling day in the direction of Benkovac. It was the kind of ride that I had been hoping to experience on the previous day; pretty countryside, quiet roads sloping gently up and then down and friendly locals who waved at me as I passed (although I think the two blokes who were knocking back beers for breakfast in one particular village would even have waved cheerily at the Grim Reaper had he been passing on his bicycle). It was everything that your average touring cyclist would have wanted and for a few hours it was exactly what I was getting.

Things were, however, about to change. Since leaving Skradin I had been travelling along a road that although parallel to the coast was around 20km inland. The quiet villages and farmers fields were charmingly rustic with the occasional tumble down house just waiting for the next property developer to come and snap it up, renovate it and sell it to the highest urban bidder. And then I arrived in Kašić. The first thing I noticed was a derelict house but unlike the other ruins that I had seen up to that point this house was not old. It’s walls were made from reinforced concrete – I could see bars of metal sprouting from the top of the building – as was the flight of stairs leading down from the first floor of the building. There were large rectangular holes in the walls where the windows once fitted but there were also several irregularly shaped holes; this was a building that had at some stage in the past been shelled. It was the first physical evidence that I had found in Croatia of the conflict of the early 1990s and I suddenly felt uneasy. I had seen television footage of buildings like this being fired upon; Martin Bell’s vivid reports came to mind immediately. It was certainly a place I hadn’t wanted to visit when I watched it on TV yet here I was, 20 years later with only a few metres separating me and tangible proof of the events having taken place. I continued to cycle along the road where I found two more derelict houses. In addition to the shell damage, these two dwellings were both riddled with bullet holes. I felt uneasy about taking photographs in a place like this so I put away my camera as a mark of respect. Brand new houses had been built in the village close to the war-damaged ones which had been left untouched. Was it because the previous occupants had been ‘displaced’ or, to use the expression that we heard so often at the time, the area ethnically-cleansed? Despite the new constructions, there was an over-riding atmosphere of sadness in Kašić. Much of the Croatian road network upon which I had been cycling had been recently rebuilt or at least resurfaced. Not in Kašić it hadn’t. Potholes were dotted along the crumbling surface. The fields were unkemped, there was rusting farm equipment in the yards and most chillingly, despite the presence of new houses, the village was empty of people. The only sound was that of a distant dog barking.

Just outside Kašić was a memorial containing the names of thirty-five people. They were all male and all had died in 1993, mostly in their early twenties. Their years of birth ranged from 1960 to 1974. Five of the men had, like me, been born in 1969. As a French teacher I have escorted children to war cemeteries in northern France and Belgium many times over the years and it is sad, very sad to see the lists of names of soldiers who have lost their lives in conflict. But when the list of the dead contains the names of people born in the same year as you, there is an extra special meaning. When I had been a baby, they had been babies. When I had been a teenager, they had been teenagers. But when I had left university and was finding my feet in my first proper job, those five people born in 1969 had been killed in a war that was not of their making. I survived the rigours of life as a trainee account in London. They died fighting for their country. The names on the monument were of Croatian soldiers but there is no doubt another monument elsewhere with the names of soldiers who were killed on the Serbian side of the political divide. All of it was senseless, all of it so horribly sad. I never shed a tear, either out of joy or out of sorrow during my long cycling trip from Greece to Portugal but I came closest at that memorial to the dead in the small village of Kašić.

I spent the next couple of hours in a daze of melancholy but was cheered somewhat by the realisation that I had covered 70km by the time I stopped for lunch in a non-descript town called Posedarje just west of Novigrad. It was a supermarket job; bread, full fat Philadelphia cheese spread (I usually choose the extra low fat stuff when back at home; it has the taste and nutritional qualities of white mud when spread on your bread), a couple of bananas and one of those ‘duo’ Snicker things (does anyone actually buy them and think “I know what, I’ll save that one for later”?) all munched in the shade provided by the exterior awning of the supermarket. The other customers walked past and looked at me in horror;

“I can’t believe that guy is eating full fat Philadelphia cheese!”

My cousin Richard (much more of him when we arrive in Spain) had texted suggesting that I stay at a campsite on the island of Pag that he himself had visited a few years previously. He explained that Pag was linked to Croatia via a bridge at its southern end and that further north I could take a short ferry journey that would bring me back to the mainland. That sounded like a plan. I estimated that the distance from Posedarje to the recommended campsite was about 50km so after licking the remnants of the cheese spread from my lips I continued my journey north towards the island of Pag.

I imagine Mediterranean islands to be very green with vegetation stretching from coast to coast. That said, the only Mediterranean island that I have ever visited is Corsica so it is perhaps an untenable extrapolation to assume that all such islands are similarly verdant and I was about to be proven utterly wrong in my assumptions. Pag appeared to have been shaven by an extremely fine razor. It was as bald as an island could be. It was rock and nothing else. This was initially a little disconcerting as, well, why would anyone come to spend their holiday on this barren patch of land? Why would anyone set up a campsite? Why would anyone operate a ferry service from here to the mainland? Surely no one lived here let alone holidayed here. It was a complete contrast to the scenery that I had been experiencing since my arrival in Croatia but hang on! Wasn’t I looking for a change of scenery? The answer was, of course, yes.

The high bridge linking Pag to the mainland spanned a gorge that at some point in ancient geology had created an island out of a peninsula. It was a spectacular setting for a bridge complete with derelict castle, lofty cliffs… and a fast food joint. Along with the other sightseers I stopped and wandered over to the edge of the mainland to gaze across the narrow gap and marvel at how the bridge builders had managed to construct something some strong yet so elegant. On the other side of the bridge was the moonscape of Pag. I turned to check that Reggie was still standing where I had left him but my eyes were drawn towards a young couple that had just pulled up in a black convertible Mini. He was balding and quite stout, probably a little older than his companion. She was tall, blond and wearing a short cut-off t-shirt and even shorter pair of hot pants. On her feet were the tallest black stilettoes that anyone could possibly wear without actually toppling forward. “This should be fun…’ I thought as she made her way, very gingerly, towards the stony ground between the road and the cliff edge. Her partner helped support her but I could foresee trouble ahead. She was carrying a large camera, which, when they both arrived at the top of the deep precipice, she handed to her friend. He let go of her and she teetered… this could be the end of a beautiful relationship. To my relief (and no doubt that of her boyfriend although I’m not discounting the possibility of it being part of a scurrilous plan), she regained her balance. He moved away with the camera to ensure she filled the frame and started snapping. It was riveting stuff; one gust of wind could turn their trip into an unforgettable one for all the wrong reasons. My own camera was poised should evidence be later required by the investigating authorities.

Fortunately she survived to hobble back to the car. I glanced down at the registration plate which read ‘LJ TEXY’. How much they must have wanted to replace the T for a S. As they sped off they cast a glance at Reggie and me. I looked down upon them for their tacky clothes, her tacky poses by the cliff and the tacky car registration but it was highly likely that they were also looking down upon me for my scruffy clothes and my own choice of transport. This day of contrasts was continuing.

I crossed the bridge and started the long cycle to the northern end of the island, a journey of around 30km. The road was flat and again, good quality which made me wonder why the pain in my lower back had returned. Perhaps it was simply that it was being kept rigid in the same position for a lengthy period of time. Whatever the exact reason, I needed some pain relief and it came in the form of a bus shelter. I remembered the few hours I had spent dozing on the low wall back at the campsite near Split. I needed a similarly hard, flat surface upon which to lay and after passing several deserted bus shelters I came to the conclusion that they may be the answer to my problems, in the short term at least. So I stopped at the next shelter. It was along a very quiet stretch of the road although there were a few houses just opposite. I couldn’t see a bus coming – there was very little traffic – so I lay down and immediately felt the relief of my back being flattened by the concrete floor. What’s more it was shady and cool. I wondered why anyone would go to the expense of hiring a masseur when all they needed was a concrete bus shelter. It was one of those moments when you don’t care what people think as the relief being dished out was worth any amount of embarrassment. My only concern was whether Miss LJ TEXY might come and join me to get a bit of relief from her high heels. I stayed motionless with my eyes shut for at least half an hour before eventually returning to the bike and continuing to cycle. My bus shelter therapy had done the trick.

In due course I arrived at the town of Pag and paused for an ice cream. Croatian petrol stations seemed to be staffed by rather average looking people behind the counter taking the money assisted by two or three very attractive and often scantily-clad women in their late teens working the pumps. There’s a Freudian thing in that no doubt. It made me wonder if any spotty, potentially overweight male Croatian teenager has tested this dubious employment practice used by the petrol retailers in the European Court of Justice. I’m sure they would have a rock-solid case. Anyway, I asked one of the girls at the petrol station in Pag whether she spoke English. She did.

“Are you aware of the fact that your employment here is probably in contravention of some no-doubt complex piece of European Union legislation?” I didn’t, but was tempted to ask.

“Which is the best route to continue my journey in the direction of Novalja?” I did ask.

I had noticed from my online map that although the main road continued all the way to the northern end of the island, there was an alternative route that ran along the eastern side of Pag before joining up with the main road further north. Staying on the main road would also mean having to climb the not inconsiderable hill that I could see ahead of me.

“It’s very up and down. It would be better to take the main road” she advised.

OK. Local knowledge wins out. The town of Pag was the first place for quite a while that had 3G mobile coverage so I used the opportunity to check Twitter. Fellow cyclist Sean Bennett who was following my GPS track and who had cycled along the same route as me the previous year had tweeted the following;

“@CyclingEurope When you reach the town of Pag, don’t follow the main road which switchbacks up a hill. Hug the water on the east.”

“@CyclingEurope It’s a beautiful trail which will take you all the way to about 10km from Novalja.”

Local knowledge from a teenager who looked good with a hose or cycling knowledge from a man who had recently travelled my route? I went with Sean.

I missed a subsequent tweet that included the information that there were “…a few unpacked stretches” so set off with high hopes of completing most of the cycle along a track that was free of traffic, had stunning views and would have me merrily whistling all the way to my destination. The track was certainly traffic free and the views were indeed stunning but I wasn’t doing any whistling as my mouth was too busy cursing Sean. Most of the track was made up of large stones that would have challenged an experienced mountain biker. Reggie’s tyres were sturdy and wider than those of a road bike but as they ploughed their way through the ‘few unpacked stretches’ (which made up around 80% of the journey) my back pain returned with a vengeance as I was thrown in all directions on the bike. I winced at the thought of a spoke snapping. I’d had big issues with spokes on the cycle to Italy three years previously. I didn’t want a repeat of those events.

Over 10 bone crunching kilometres later I stopped to take in the view properly.  The route I had been cycling along had followed a contour perhaps 40m above the shore. I looked down the slope and could see a settlement of some description. I knew it wasn’t the campsite recommended by my cousin but could it be a possible alternative? I had cycled well over the 100km target distance and for the sake of my lower back needed to stop soon. As I approached – it was about 200m away at the bottom of the hill – I could make out caravans and tents. It looked idyllic. Brilliant! What luck! I began to forgive Sean as at least his track with its ‘few unpacked stretches’ had brought me to this point that otherwise I would have missed. I cycled down the hill towards the campsite.

The reception of Camp ‘Sveti Duh’ (or ‘Holy Spirit’ in English) was in a caravan some distance from the campsite itself. On the side was written ‘Recepcija Camp Sv. Duh’ so I knew I had found the right place. The caravan dated from the 1970s and was showing its age. The large window on the forward end had been boarded up and an old car tyre had been slung over the trailer attachment. I wondered, dubiously, if the site had ever been in with a chance of winning an award from the Croatian Tourist Board. The door was closed so I knocked. There was a sound of movement inside and after a while a bleary-eyed lad opened up. We exchanged a few words, he gave me a ticket and explained that I would need to pay my 40 kuna at the ‘spirit bar’. Two days previously I had paid 138 kuna (around £15) to stay at Camping Stobreč-Split. At least it was cheap.

I pushed Reggie along the coast to the point at which the campsite appeared to start for proper. A few people were swimming in the sea in the early evening sun, others were wandering in and amongst the tents and caravans. I found the ‘spirit bar’ at the end of the site. Several scrawny dogs were sitting outside as I tentatively made my way inside. The few men who were smoking and drinking at the bar stared at me in the same dismissive fashion that the dogs outside had done. I showed the piece of paper to the barman and was escorted into an office area round the back where I paid my money and was given a few instructions by the lady in charge. I couldn’t get out of my mind the thought that this place was just masquerading as being a campsite and that in reality it was hiding some dark secret. At that point I didn’t really want to find out what it was.

I chose the middle of the three fields as a place to erect the tent mainly because I could see three people who looked vaguely normal in the process of setting up lots of tents similar to my own in neat rows underneath some netting. I borrowed one of their mallets and they explained that all the tents were for Czech people arriving the following day to attend a music festival taking place the next evening. That was a lucky escape.

It was a warm evening and many people were still wearing their beachwear. The men mainly in Speedos, the women in… hang on. A woman in her fifties was approaching the tent and she didn’t appear to be wearing anything. She was carrying a cat and behind her she was trailing a dog on a lead. She smiled as she walked past. Not being accustomed to seeing naked strangers I didn’t know where to look so I just smiled and stared at her pussy.

Further evidence that I might have inadvertently stumbled upon a nudist colony came in the wash block that was in dire need of both repair and cleaning. I undressed in the shower cubicle although my modesty was severally compromised by the ‘door’ consisting of a small, torn shower curtain. As soon as I had finished my shower and dressed I returned to the communal area to brush my teeth only to find Peter Griffin – the lead character in Family Guy – naked in front of me. His stomach was so round I could have plotted a round the World cycle trip on it let along one around the northern Mediterranean. He too was smiling and looking in my direction. It was all rather disconcerting. I hastily cleaned my teeth with a speed that only the most incompetent of dentists would approve and went to hide in the tent.

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