My Croatian MTB Adventure, by Victoria Holt
Looking back on my Istrian MTB adventure
It’s not often the opportunity to join a private trip comes along, but at the start of this year, Catherine asked a wonderful group of friends if they would mind an extra rider in their group, and luckily for me, they said yes!
Roll forward to September and my bike was packed, my suitcase was far too full (no one needs 18 t-shirts and an outfit a day for a week long trip, in case you were wondering!) and my nerves were bubbling over, but I was finally on my way to join our mountain biking adventure in Croatia.
I met with two of our amazing local guides, Dani and Matej, on what was a very misty morning and made the drive with them to Zagreb to meet the group. I needn’t have been nervous – I could not have wished for a more welcoming and friendly bunch of fellow riders to have gatecrashed! Van fully loaded, it was time for the trip proper to begin…
First stop: Medieval Motovun
We made it to our destination by late morning, and were excited to build bikes ready for our first ride. Fuelled by fruit picked that morning from Dani’s garden, the bike set up didn’t take long and we were rewarded with lunch under a lush grapevine canopy, which included our first taste of the famous Istrian truffles.
Tummies full (possibly too full, but we are on holiday after all!) we saddled up and started to make our way to the Parenzana Trail. It was a nice steady climb, and as we winched our way up, we had a quick breather and met a group of American riders on their way down, who cheerfully told us to enjoy the rest of our ‘In-cla-nado’. We took this to mean that we still had a way to go, and the phrase was promptly adopted and would be used daily the rest of the trip!
The inclanado was a steady one, and the whole way we were greeted with beautiful views across the valley with the sun casting dappled light through the trees. We eventually reached a hidden drop-in to what would be our first taste of the web of enduro style trails that peppers the area around Grožnjan – steep, fast singletrack through the forest, with tight, twisting turns on a carpet of pine needles to add a certain extra spice to the corners, and we weaved our way gracefully (some more than others!) down to the valley floor.
The sun was gradually starting to set as we pedalled to our first accommodation – a delightful converted castle at the very top of the hill where Motovun town is perched, but the more we pedalled, our goal didn’t seem to be getting any closer… We finally reached the start of the last push – a narrow, cobbled street, flanked by cute shops and restaurants, and the road kept getting steeper! Just as the sun dipped before the hills we made it, and celebratory beers were in hand before the last bikes were stashed for the night.
Time for a quick freshen up before our first dinner together, which was a local feast – it felt like the food just kept on coming, and more truffles with each course. How much truffle is too much truffle you ask? We’ll find out…!
Rocks, more rocks, and the smallest town in the world
After jumping out of bed just in time for sunrise and a little explore around Motovun, we had soon gathered in the courtyard raring to go, bikes ready and waiting for us! As last night we had to ride all the way UP the cobbles, today we got to start by descending the gorgeous little streets, down the steep (cobbled!) stairs and to the waiting vans. We only had a short drive to our start point today and had been promised a mix of everything, and we certainly got that!
We had a varied climb to start off with, featuring everything from gravel tracks, to forested singletrack, to some decent, chunky, rocky trails to really work our bikes and pick our way through, working up an appetite for our lunch stop! We then came to what felt like a secret bikers playground in the forest – it looked like manmade, hard packed sand dunes, and we had some time here watching the braver ones among us whizz over the ridge lines!
After a short battle through some brambles, Dani told us ‘just one more little climb’, and we soon reached Hum, officially the smallest town in the world! I think I said the phrase ‘It’s so gorgeous here’ a least ten time a day, but it really is gorgeous! We walked through the town, through the one main courtyard where we were greeted with a local playing the guitar, took far too many photos, then settled in for lunch with stunning views across the valley. Did I have more truffles? Of course, this time in cheese, and there were also some dubiously named beers for those who agreed the sun was ‘up over the yardarm’.
As we’d spent most of the day so far climbing, this surely meant it was downhill all the way back? Not quite, as Dani had plotted ‘just one more little climb’ for us to work off some of that cheese, then we enjoyed a couple of hours of descending along super fun rocky and forested trails, a couple of river crossings for good measure, and some steep, loose sections that definitely had us all grinning, finally making it back to Motovun in time to relax with a sundowner before dinner, and packing up ready to move on tomorrow! It’s worth noting that tonight’s dinner included chocolate truffles, with truffle. Yes, really!
Croatian Tuscany and the Guinness Book of Records
It doesn’t take long to see why Istria is called the Croatian Tuscany – with its beautiful vineyards, olive groves and lush rolling hills, it’s a thing of beauty, and today we were heading to the 12th century town of Grožnjan, another fairy tale town that is famous for its art. This would be our base today for taking in some of the enduro trails that criss-cross over the hill sides here.
I’m not going to lie – I was nervous before every ride, but tight singletrack through the trees and switchbacks really aren’t my forte! However, when you’re surrounded by a group of riders who always have an encouraging word to say, I was ready to give it a whirl! I’m so glad I did – riding a couple of these really fun trails, I was happy to tick off a few features I usually wouldn’t have attempted, but thanks to the people around me, always boosting each other on and really building up everyone’s confidence, it worked wonders!
We then had the choice to keep riding or to relax and enjoy the town and check out the art shops, so everyone was kept happy and had their fill of riding, whether that was more flowing trails, or technical riding for the front of the pack. I opted to ride up to the town and it was wonderful having the chance to explore, try some of the locally made olive oil from a family that has been there for centuries (of course some came home with me!), and then we all met up for an al fresco lunch, the sun shining down on us as we took in the views from another picture perfect terrace.
Once everyone had had their fill of riding for the day, it was time to load up and head to our next accommodation, another wonderful hotel in Bale, set on the coast. We were quick to freshen up so we could have a wander around, and ended up at an old school jazz bar down one of the cobbled alleys, before we were treated to another fantastic meal. I am a foodie at heart, and I was yet to be disappointed – everything was delicious, the wine was local and chilled, and the company was perfect.
Waking up to another clear morning, (Dani and Matej seem to be able to conjure sun regardless of the constant rain that was forecast!), today we were in for some coastal riding along the Kamenjak Peninsula – a day we were all looking forward to! From start to finish it was so much fun – weaving in and out of the forest, up and along rocky hiking paths, stopping to take in the gorgeous views wherever you looked, and even exploring some caves to find fossils! (Oh, and watch out for the dinosaurs that are loose on some of the trails too…)
Working our way down to the water’s edge, we stopped for lunch at a beach shack, which just so happened to serve up some of the best calamari I’ve ever had, all while over-looking the Adriatic. Plates licked clean, it was time for a dip in the sea! There was a small, rocky and forested outcrop jutting out which provided the perfect open air changing room, so swimsuits on, we padded our way onto the beach and had our first swim in the sea! Squeezing back into chamois afterwards and trying to not get pine needles here there and everywhere was a challenge, and we saddled up again for the scenic ride hugging the shore line back to the vans. The day’s treats weren’t over yet though – Dani and Matej pointed us in the direction of a gelato shop, and it was here we met Alberto. A (probably) self proclaimed entry in the 1999 Guinness World Book of Records (for what, we don’t know!), Alberto served each of our orders with a show and much fanfare that left us all giggling like school kids, and I’m still fondly remembering his ‘interesting’ creations!
Sweet tooth’s sated, we stopped off in the town of Pula where there is an incredibly maintained Roman amphitheatre, before heading back to our hotel for a quick change and then onto the old trading port of Rovinj for dinner. This was the one and only time where the weather gods, Dani and Matej, didn’t quite get it right, as we were caught in a torrential downpour, leading to what seemed like a slip ‘n’ slide to try and get about this beautiful, coastal town. A couple of us opted for the much safer option of pre-dinner drinks, before we waded to our stunning restaurant, perched on the cliffs. Seafood lovers and wine connoisseurs will certainly be happy here – it was a fantastic choice by the team, as they all had been so far this week. I found myself getting excited for dinner as soon as I had finished breakfast!
Island Hopping and Blue Sheep
This morning it was time for us to move on again to where we would spend our last two nights – Krk Island. We arrived to another perfectly chosen hotel, complete with a pool, spa, lovely gardens to explore and overlooking the marina. The team could sense some of us quite liked the idea of a spa day, so a few made the most of the facilities, and the rest of us saddled up for rock n rolling ride!
We rode straight from the hotel and climbed, and climbed a bit more… Our aim was the second highest mountain on the island, so we had a way to go! A mix of gravel, road, and super rocky trails eventually led us to our goal, and I can promise you it was 100% worth it! The view was endless, stretching far across the island and the ocean below, but it was WINDY! A gentle breeze of 60mph was whipping around us at the top, so of course this was the perfect time for the Swiss mountain goat, Marlies, to climb onto the cairn for a photo… Safely off said cairn, a few of the group rode right from the top on the ‘trail’ (Dani told us there was one, but it was a case of pick a line somewhere and go for it!), and the rest of us brought up the rear, weaving through the rocks down the hillside – it was brilliant! It led us into an even rockier, chunky single track, but it’s hard to keep your eyes on the trail when all around you are gorgeous views, and as we were heading into autumn, the colours were incredible everywhere you looked.
By the time we popped out at the bottom, our arms and legs were feeling it for sure, and we had a gentle pedal along the water front, straight into a little bar for a well deserved cold drink and snacks before getting back to meet the group and heading out for dinner near the marina. It was yet another great foodie spot, and I highly recommend the seafood pizza if you make it here. Bear in mind they do come in two sizes (I was a bit late to realise this), small, or huge, but if you’re the Labrador of the group like me, always go big!
For our penultimate day we were off to another island, this time, Rab – the ‘happy island’! Once again we alluded the bad weather that was forecast and could sit outside as we sailed across, learning the history of some of the other neighbouring islands – they certainly have quite the past! Rolling out from the ferry terminal, we warmed up on a trail that took us through the fields before starting the climb to the top on sheep tracks and forest paths – keep an eye out as you’re riding, as you may even spot the lesser known Blue Sheep of Rab! (Either that or a local farmer had an issue with a spray paint can…)
Soon enough we peeled off onto a singletrack pathway which started to weave through the forest and slowly winched us up to the highest point and eventually we popped out of the woods, high above the ocean. Now, I knew what trail was ahead of us, and I’ll let you into a secret – I am utterly awful when it comes to even the slightest hint of exposure. Having tried to hide this on the way up, it finally crept out, but this lovely lot were straight on it with copious amounts encouragement, and Matej came to the rescue and somehow coaxed me down, and with some ‘gentle persuasion’, even had me riding corners on this trail which I never thought I would have done. I was thrilled to get to the bottom, greeted by whoops from the others, which made this usually quite unemotional person, quite emotional! The trail certainly won’t seem like much to many others, but it was a big win for me and an experience made all the better by those I was with.
Adrenaline having peaked, I was happy that we were given the option to either go for a dip in the sea or do some more riding, so no prizes for guessing which option I chose! A few of us branched off, the sun fully ‘up over the yardarm’, then enjoyed the crystal clear waters and went for a swim before the ferry was back all too soon to sail us back to Krk.
Tonight was another new spot, the main Krk town. It was possibly my favourite dinner spot (although it really is hard to choose), and we had chance to wander around, exploring castles, little shops, climbing on trees (no names mentioned!), and then Dani and Matej led us to the Secret Garden, where cocktails were definitely in order tonight! Dinner afterwards was at a ‘locals’ favourite, big benches, big portions, and lots of laughs – perfect way to end the day!
The Final Countdown
Looking back, I still don’t know how the last day of riding came around so quickly, and there was definitely a certain vibe in the group that we all felt a little sad knowing our last ride was upon us. But what a ride to end on it was! Straight out the blocks we were climbing from Baška Bay, climbing above the coast line on what (for me) was another exposed trail, but with my new found confidence and support from yesterday, felt much better riding up and even stopping to take in the gorgeous views below us.
The trail then led us through the woods before eventually reaching the plateau, aptly named the ‘Moon Mountain’ due to the vast expanse of land scattered with limestone rocks in each direction! Well versed in rocky riding by this point, we split into two groups, one opting to do some extra loops, and the rest of us enjoying a steady pedal across the plateau, taking in the views as we rode towards Veli Vrh Peak.
Reunited with the others once again, we dropped into some technical singletrack, hoppping off to walk some sections that would test the most skilled riders, before we ended up in a valley with the perfect backdrop for a quick photo shoot. It turns out the men love posing just as much as the ladies – I have the shots to prove it should they be in denial! It was at this point where we felt the first rain on trail of the whole week – and it lasted for all of 60 seconds!
Back on the bikes, our final descent awaited us – fun, fast singletrack sweeping through the lush valley, a few puddles here and there ensured our bikes which had stayed clean the entire week, were now covered in clay right before we had to pack them. The trail took us all the way to the valley floor with an cool-down pedal through the fields and along the river, and once again led us to the shimmering coastline and the cutest cafe stop you can imagine – just how many riders can you fit around a table? Lunch was soon devoured, and we were back on the bikes for the last time and on our way back to the hotel to give them a good clean and pack them up for their journey home.
The team had one last treat in store for us though – tonight’s dinner location! Bundled into the vans, we peeled off the main road onto a dirt track which kept going, and going, and going… Where were they taking us?! A light then came into view, illuminating a (you guessed it) gorgeous farmstead, overlooking the valley below. We just made it to the entrance just before the heavens opened, seemingly releasing all the rain in one go that had been forecast for the past week! We were ushered to two huge wooden tables as the thunder and lightning kicked off around us, and were soon tucking in the most fantastic local food (some cooked over the vast open fire in the courtyard) and wine, toasting to the past week’s adventures and wishing it wasn’t over!
Waking up the next morning and having my last Croatian breakfast (don’t expect to lose weight on this trip!), it definitely felt strange knowing we weren’t about to head off on the bikes again. Instead there was some magic done in fitting all the luggage, bikes and people into the mini bus that was taking us back to Zagreb – but it should be known that this was no ordinary mini bus. A friend of Dani’s was driving us back today, and fondly calls it his ‘party bus’. We started off with Abba’s Dancing Queen, which anytime I hear it now immediately takes me back to this trip, and then the others kindly let me play DJ, meaning we had a rather eclectic mix of tunes until we reached Zagreb airport, and the end of my journey. It’s hard to sum up the emotions I felt on this trip – I was certainly nervous beforehand – joining a group of friends who were great riders and already knew each other, in a country I didn’t know, but throughout the entire trip, the support, encouragement, kindness and good times provided by everyone was unbelievable. I left having gained so much confidence in not only my riding, took a million photos that will remind me of the amazing places we rode and explored, and I feel like I have gained a new group of friends, who although are scattered around the globe, still keep in touch over our shared journey in beautiful Croatia.
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