Typically when traveling between cities since working remotely full-time I’ve had to board a flight due to the distance between cities. Now that I’m in control of my own itinerary, I’m choosing my own cities and intentionally looking for ones that are located relatively close together. You may or may not already know how I feel about flying. My current itinerary that’s lasting from March to September has me visiting a number of neighboring countries over a span of several months (with the exception of Barcelona, the city I started in), so all of my travel will be by land. In order to switch things up a little bit, as I made my way from Croatia to Montenegro I took a detour to Bosnia and Herzegovina and travelled part of the way by bicycle.
I’m always on the lookout for interesting ways to combine the historical aspect of sightseeing with an active, adventurous or unusual element, and bike tours can be a great way to do this. When a bike tour joins two cities on an historically important but largely unknown route then you’ve nailed it in my opinion.
The Austrian-Hungarian Empire ruled much of this region for several hundred years. In the late 19th and early 20th century they built a network of narrow gauge railways to connect southern Adriatic ports with inland cities of Central and Eastern Europe. Much more than just a physical connection between countries, the movement of people and goods through this region enabled rural life and culture to thrive.
After the collapse of the Empire, and as the region became more integrated with the rest of Europe, the narrow-gauge railways fell out of disuse and were replaced with standard-gauge rail lines, as well as roads. The decline of traffic through the region led to an inevitable decline of life in the towns and villages that had cropped up along the rail line. The train tracks were uprooted and largely covered in asphalt so that people in the area still had a way to travel between villages.
In a joint effort between the European Union and the tourism boards of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, the rail line that connected the coastal city of Dubrovnik with Mostar, formerly known as the Ćiro line has been revitalized as a tourist route and intended as a bicycle trail.
The distance of the route between these two cities covers 150km at its shortest and with 3 days you can comfortably travel from one city to the next by spending your mornings riding and your afternoons with a combination of sightseeing and relaxation. There are a number of sights along the way that can be added to this if you have the energy and inclination. I didn’t have 3 days to spend to do the entire trail by bike so I worked with the great people at Only Croatia to put together a sort of hybrid itinerary.
I had been in Split, Croatia so they sent a driver to pick me up and take me to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would be my starting point for what is typically the first leg or day of biking the Ćiro trail. This region is rife with natural beauty and abundant resources so on the way from Split to Mostar so we incorporated a wonderfully scenic drive along part of the Dalmatian coast, combined it with a visit to Kravica waterfalls and added a wine tasting at a local, award winning winery. Upon arrival to Mostar I had a nice guided walk around the Old Town and the main streets of the rest of this relatively small city.
The next morning after breakfast my driver and guide from the previous day, Ivan was waiting for my at my hotel with the bicycle I would be using for the day. After a brief description of the route, an explanation of what I could expect to encounter along the way and the establishment of a meeting point about 40km away, I was off with nothing more than a bottle of water, a small snack and my phone.
Starting the Ćiro trail in the centre Mostar, the first 2 or 3km takes you along a main road into a small industrial park. A few short kilometres later sees the factories give way to a fertile river valley. For most of the way the trail is nestled between the Neratva River and the newer railway that has replaced the Ćiro. With the exception of a couple of short stretches of gravel, the trail is covered in asphalt and is predominately flat.
While I found Mostar to be a fascinating city and its Old Town intriguing, it didn’t take long for its image to fade as I became enveloped in the countryside and transported to a different time. I passed through tiny settlements comprised of no more than a handful of houses, each with a good-sized garden patch and many of them with either olive trees or grapevines. I crossed a few bridges, both belonging to the original trail and more newly constructed. I encountered 2 other groups of cyclists heading in the opposite direction – one a family of 4 and the other a group of about 10 school-aged children. I met a few locals going about their daily business by car. And aside from that I was completely alone in a land that time had largely forgotten for more than a century.
It was the first week of May and the mid-morning temperature was already in the high 20’s. There were a few sections of river that had nicely cleared areas along its banks that make for nice rest areas. I had been watching the clear waters flowing beside me for a couple of hours but given that was still only May and considering it hadn’t been long before that the water was actually snow, as tempted as I was I couldn’t bring myself to brave the frigid temperatures.
After about 2 and a half hours on the trail I met up with Ivan at our arranged meeting point in Čapljina. I still felt like I had some riding in me before stashing the bike and continuing by car so we went to visit the nearby ruins of the fascinating, fortified city of Počitelj. I had seen the impressive fortress ruins earlier on the trail so it was cool to explore them up close. After this we headed back down to Čapljina and left my bike at the hotel that most people stay at on the first night when they’re biking the entire trail from start to finish. My hard work was done for the day and the rest of the way to Montenegro by way of Dubrovnik would be done from the cool comfort of the passenger seat in Ivan’s car.
We still managed to incorporate a couple of interesting elements of the 3-day journey into the rest of the day. We had lunch at Hutovo Blato nature reserve. We visited the hotel that cyclists usually stay at on the 2nd night of the 3-day journey. I found this hotel fascinating because it’s housed in a former rail station on the Ćiro and has been immaculately converted into a modern hotel with many original elements incorporated into the design and décor. The cellar of the hotel restaurant has some excellent local wines and I was able to do a tasting (and a buying, obviously). Our last stop before reaching Dubrovnik was one of the more important train stations and towns during the time of the Ćiro. This town was actually quite badly ravaged during the homeland war of the ‘90’s and there were stern warnings painted on the buildings reminding us that there could be unexploded landmines nearby and not to stray too far.
I had a fascinating day and it was definitely one of my best and most memorable transition weekends to date. It was a bit of a shame that I wasn’t able to bike the entire trail from Mostar to Dubrovnik. Bookended by two cities on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and with beautiful nature, ancient ruins and world-class wineries in between, it was amazing to be out exploring it in the open air. It’s really nice to know that creation of this tourist route will breathe new life into the region. Family-owned and run restaurants and hotels like the one in Ravno will thrive. Local farmers and wine growers will have new markets for the fruits of their labor, and an important part of history will be preserved in this fascinating and largely undiscovered region.