Cycling in Yugoslavia

9 Dec 2023

An Anonymous Member, these days only recognisable by his bike.

In the 1980’s things were not quite the same as today. No internet, mobile phones, indexed gears, STI levers or Garmins. The political map of Europe looked somewhat different and there were some very dodgy haircuts.

Against this background three young handsome lads found themselves with six weeks spare between finishing college and starting their careers. They decided to get on their bikes, as Norman Tebbit advised, and see where it would take them. Eventually two of them would end up on the south coast of Turkey having had many adventures, triumphs and disasters along the way. 

One of the more interesting episodes was passing through Yugoslavia - what is now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. The country was still communist. General Tito, who had just about held the country together despite strong ethnic tensions, had only recently died. 

We crossed the Austrian Alps over the Grossglockner Pass and entered the county via Villach and onto Ljubljana. It was a grey city, with soulless blocks of flats, devoid of any character. 

Carrying on to the coast we found a complete contrast:  stretches of package holiday resorts providing a playground for Northern Europeans. Such was their influence that the accepted currency was not the Yugoslav Dinar but the German Mark. 

Progressing down through Zadar and Split it became quite tedious so we struck inland to discover the real country, and also aware that we wouldn’t be able to enter Albania. 

Here it began to get really interesting. The roads became smaller and rougher. The traffic changed from family cars to old trucks and horse-drawn wagons. The scenery turned to dramatic hills and desolate plains. 

Away from the tourist coastal strip capitalism was no longer embraced and things reverted to a more communist model. Each town would have an approved hotel where foreigners were expected to stay and no one else was allowed to offer accommodation, in case they became corrupted by westerners. 

For us penniless ex-students such expensive hotels were out of the question. However, through the kindness of locals, and asking discreetly in shops etc, we always managed to find somewhere to stay.

Our lodgings included spare rooms, a caravan, barn, and even a garage floor. The people we stayed with were gracious, thankful for the small amount of money we brought them and for the opportunity to practise their English, but always insisted we told no one we had stayed with them. 

On one occasion we were invited into a wedding reception and joined in with the dancing. We presumed it was a Muslim celebration though to be honest it was difficult to tell. For an officially atheist country we found orthodox churches and mosques appearing to exist peacefully together. 

One morning we were preparing to leave the small town of Ivangrad (now Berane) but first had a problem with one of the bikes. While we were struggling to explain to the bike shop what we needed a lad, about our age, appeared and set about translating and helping us. He was on a road bike, the first one we’d seen since the coast. By the time the issue had been fixed time had moved on and it was too late to depart. 

Our new best mate found us a place to stay and took us for an evening out, eating and drinking with his friends. The next day he accompanied us up the first part of the Cäkor Pass before giving us his remaining water, wishing us well and turning for home. 

For a few years we kept in touch via the odd letter and Christmas card, as we both entered the same profession in our respective countries. Then came the Bosnian war in 1992. The letters abruptly stopped and I never heard from him again. It’s really hard thinking about what might have happened to him. 

The crossing of the pass turned out to be one of our hardest days. The broken tarmac and concrete soon gave way to gravel as we struggled up in the heat. The only accompanying traffic was the occasional overloaded truck or horse-drawn cart. Eventually we reached the summit and rested with some young boys who were shepherding some goat herds. 

On the descent down to Pec things got really interesting. The heavens opened and the track turned into a thick quagmire. There was no way we could make it in daylight as we were forced to push our bikes through large sections of mud. As we contemplated our options a passing German family in a 4x4 took pity on us. Bikes and bodies were lifted onto the roof rack and off we drove, at a somewhat scary speed, down the mountain. Once again we’d been saved by the kindness of strangers. 

Eventually, after being refused entry into Bulgaria, we headed south through Greece and Turkey, entering into Asia across the Dardenelles. That’s another story, but we will always remember the kindness of the Yugoslav people, especially set against the background of the tragedy that was to befall that country just a few years later. 

Riders out: 3
Riders back: 3  
Distance: 978 miles
Ascent: yes.
Average Speed: who cares? 
Mechanicals: a couple.