Tag Archives: Croatia

Mi Smo Tako Sretni – We Are So Lucky!

It was on the Island of Korčula that two opposing visions began to converge.

While we were cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, one of our riding companions began to exclaim at every opportunity, “We are so lucky!”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

“Look at us,” Heather would say. Here we are, riding on this beautiful island on a warm September day. Friends, all in good spirits, surround us. Everywhere we look, there are stunning vistas. We get back to our luxurious yacht for a fine meal, and first we go for a swim in this clear, warm Adriatic ocean. The roads, the villages, and the countryside are so peaceful. Think of all the people who aren’t able to be here and enjoy this right now. “We are so damned lucky!”

While I couldn’t fault Heather’s logic, after hearing this several times a day, it began to grate on me. So I asked one of our guides for a translation into Croatian. “Mi smo tako sretni,” he said. It had a ring to it – once I got the pronunciation right – so I began to prod my shipmates with this from time to time. “Mi smo tako sretni!” The phrase began its work while we began to absorb some of Korčula’s history.

A small-town church on Korčula

A small-town church on Korčula

While today, this island of anglers, vignerons, and hosteliers feels pretty laid back, it was not always so. The history of invasions and takeovers reads like a “Who’s Who” of the continent.

Between 1000 BC and 900 AD, Korčula was invaded by the Illyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Slavs, and the Byzantine Empire. Then the pace picked up. Over the next 500 years, the Island’s rulers included the Serbian kingdom of Raška, the Slavic kingdom of Zahumlje, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice, the Croatian kingdom of Krka, the Hungarian monarchy, the Republic of Genoa, Venice (again), the Kingdom of Hungary (a couple more times), the Kingdom of Bosnia, the Serbian Kingdom of Zeta, and finally ended up back under the thumb of Venice in 1409.

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

In 1571, the Islanders repelled an Ottoman Turkish attack, and then – except for frequent attacks by pirates – things settled down. However, in 1797, a new series of takeovers began, including the Hapsburg Monarchy of Vienna, the French under Napoleon, the Kingdom of Montenegro, France again, the British, and finally ended up under the rule of the Austrian Empire in 1815.

During WWI, the Island was caught between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italians (after they switched sides.) Italy won out in 1918, but in 1921, Korčula became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. For the first two years of WWII, the new central authority was the Banovina of Croatia, but between 1941 and 1944, the Island fell under the control of Mussolini’s Italy, then the communist Yugoslav Partisans, then Nazi Germany, and finally the Allied Forces.

Close call.  Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

Close call. Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

After 1945, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was in charge, until Croatia declared its independence in 1991. The war for independence largely bypassed Korčula although most of the nearby Croatian coast was less fortunate. However, it would seem that the Islanders have had to endure a considerable helping of violence and upheaval over the past three thousand years.

As the reality of this history began to sink in, I began to see our good fortune in a new light. Because my grandparents located in a relatively peaceful part of the western hemisphere – one that was to become quite prosperous – I have not had to grow up in the shadow of war and cycles of violence. Instead, I had the opportunity to become better off financially than the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants. We can afford to cruise the Dalmatian Islands on a well-appointed yacht, and have our every need catered to. As our friend Heather said, “Mi smo tako sretni.”

Mi smo tako sretni - we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

Mi smo tako sretni – we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

As we toured a number of other areas in Croatia and nearby, the contrast between our good fortune and the recent suffering of others kept bubbling up.

It started in Dubrovnik as we sat with our friendly Airbnb host on his balcony, admiring the spectacular view of the Old Town spread out below us. Not twenty years earlier, our host had been unable to venture onto the balcony for fear of sniper fire from Yugoslav forces on the hilltop above. At age 13, he was stuck inside with his grandmother, while his parents worked as medics in a nearby war zone.

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

Later, on top of that same hilltop – Mount Srđ – we could see the view the gunners would have had as they shelled the city of Dubrovnik below. Built as protection from medieval forces, the famous walls were of little use in protecting the citizens from late-20th-century armaments. Srđ now hosts a sobering museum filled with photographs of taken during the siege of Dubrovnik. As you wander the streets with thousands of other happy tourists, it’s hard to imagine the pain and destruction of the 1990s.

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

In the Islands, there are echoes of slightly more distant wars. The Island of Prezba, adjacent to Lastovo, was a Yugoslav military base during the Cold War. With the Italian coast less than 200 km distant, this area would have been part of the front-line in the 45-year standoff between East and West. Now, fortunately, the island flora is reclaiming the fortifications. Up the coast, similar tunnels dug into the base of Mt. Velebit will become a new tourist attraction next year. Perhaps Tito intended to hide out here if the Russians and Americans started lobbing nukes at each other.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

In the middle of our week of cycling, our tour bused us all out to the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar is famous for the Old Bridge (Stari Most) after which it is named. The bridge, now a UN Heritage Site, was built in 1566 when Bosnia was under Ottoman rule. During the ethnic fighting that took place in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the bridge was destroyed. In 2004, the bridge reopened, having been reconstructed from original plans and using original material that had fallen into the river during the bombardment. It now serves as a symbol of peace.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Still, the signs of the recent war are all around in Mostar. Plaques in the market read, “Never forget 1993.” A cross on the hill above town commemorates some of the victims of the war. Here and there between the tourist shops are the bombed out shells of buildings that have yet to be reclaimed from the fighting. In the part of town that divided Croat from Bosniak ethnic groups, apartment buildings are still pockmarked in shrapnel wounds. It’s sobering to imagine what those years must have been like. Over 100,000 people died in the Bosnian conflict. Today however, the only visible conflict seems to be among tourists for open-air tables or the best views of the young men who once again jump off the new Old Bridge.

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

The week after our cycling trip, we traveled to Croatia’s famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. This is a unique region of unparalleled beauty, where calcium-laden rivers of unbelievable shades of blue create a “Land of Waterfalls.” It’s impossible to convey the scope of this landscape with a single picture. As you walk down the trails and boardwalks, it’s as if you are right in the middle of the cascading falls. Between the falls are peaceful lakes, and the entire scene is surrounded by forest.

Our home for five nights would be right in the park, in the small village of Korana, nestled on the banks of the same river that sculpts the waterfalls. Just a handful of houses, Korana boasts one of the few still operating water-powered grain mills. Our accommodation in a private home had no WiFi. The valley walls blocked cell phone reception. As we walked along the bank of the river that first early Fall evening, the smoke curled peacefully up from the woodstoves. The tranquility carried with it a soothing balm for the soul. But there is pain that lies beneath.

Our home at Korana Village - peaceful once again

Our home at Korana Village – peaceful once again

Our host explained to us that most of the homes had been destroyed during the Croatian conflict. All the men had spent a year in prisoner-of-war camps run by enemy militias. “If they seem a little strange now,” he said, “perhaps you’ll understand why.”

Right in the beautiful park at Plitvice were fired some of the first shots of the conflict that would rage for three years. Plitvice was the centre of the area of Croatia known as Krajina, which stretches in a big arc along 40% of the Croatian-Bosnian border. During the Middle Ages the Austrian Empire encouraged large numbers of Serbs to settle in this area as a “buffer” against the Ottoman possessions in Bosnia. In recent times there were several hundred thousand Serbs living in this area, with some areas having more Serbs than Croats. In 1991, as the Croatian government prepared to declare its independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs in Krajina jumped the gun and declared their own republic independent of Croatia. When the war broke out, most of the Krajina Serbs sided with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav government. The fighting that ensued must have been brutal.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

As we toured the area around Plitvice, most notably in Karlovac and the surrounding countryside, we pondered the still stark signs of devastation. Almost every home in this region had been war damaged. Apart from ruins that had not been salvaged, numerous homes were still peppered with shrapnel damage, almost 20 years later.

In the countryside around Karlovac, we passed extensive areas that appeared to be reverting to nature, with trees and bushes growing up around the ruins of farmhouses. From time to time, signs warned of uncleared landmines. Some of these areas were formerly populated by Serbs, but several hundred thousand left Croatia during and following the war.

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Traveling through these areas really got me thinking about how hard many people have it. Meanwhile, Cheryl and I live in a peaceful, prosperous country. It’s not too difficult for us to afford a trip like this, where we can eat well, be well looked after, and have guides show us around or entertain us. We get to sail to beautiful islands on a yacht, or hike through beautiful national parks, or spend the day cruising the countryside on comfortable bicycles.

As our cycle guide explained it, “Mi smo tako stretni.” can mean either “We are so lucky” or “We are so happy.” Could this linking of “happy” and “lucky” offer a small insight into the Slavic temperament? Or perhaps we just need to acknowledge some of the good fortune in our happiness. “Mi smo tako jako sretni!” We are so darned lucky!

Related Posts:

If You Want to Follow in Our Tracks:

Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Our five-day stay in Korana Village in Plitvice was arranged by Huck Finn Croatia Adventure Travel. It’s a reasonably priced and somewhat different way to see this part of Croatia. Our guide, Zlatko, picked us up in Zagreb, and spent the next four days leading us on a number of activities around the area: the waterfalls of Plitvice Park, hiking on Mt. Velebit, cycling in the Karlovac countryside, and rafting on the Mrežnica River. Each evening we enjoyed traditional meals in the riverside cookhouse in Korana. Zlatko turned out to be an accomplished classical guitarist, and one evening played a selection of his own arrangements of Balkan flamenco from Macedonia. Our group definitely enjoyed Huck Finn’s Croatia.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

One of our most memorable activities in Dubrovnik was a visit to the galleries of War Photo Ltd. on Antuninska Street, just off the main thoroughfare. According to their promotional literature, “It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.” There are several photo exhibits about the conflicts in Croatia and other parts of former Yugoslavia, but there are also revolving displays on war’s human costs in Northern Ireland, Syria, Chechnya, Colombia, Israel, Lebanon, and other hot spots. We spent a sobering couple of hours there, and once more came away thinking, “Mi smo tako sretni!”

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Cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands

“Pshaw!” said Cheryl. “They won’t blame you.” I wasn’t so sure.

Our long-awaited late-September boat and cycle trip through the southern Dalmatian Islands was to begin the next day. After two previous European cycle trips on our own, Cheryl and I had invited members of our outdoor club to join us in Croatia this year. We’d hoped for half a dozen. When the boat sold out 11 months ago, we had 17 in our group. Fantastic.

The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.

The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.

Or was it? What if the trip wasn’t what we’d advertised to our friends? A mismanaged trip, or even a bad guide, and our names could be mud. The weather was threatening as well. We’d arrived in Dubrovnik a few days earlier only to wade through an unseasonal deluge that one fellow-traveler described as “biblical.”

This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.

This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.

We were also a nervous about the hills. This had been the biggest single topic of discussion among our group during the planning stages. While most of us were cyclists, we did range from late 50s to early 70s, so it made sense to be prepared. Like many in our group, Cheryl and I made sure to get several trips under our belt over the summer in the islands near our home – but they averaged less than half the heights we were expecting here.

Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs

Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs.

Departure day dawned with bright sunshine. Arriving at the Port of Gruž by bus, Cheryl and I were buoyed when we spotted the elegant and modern yacht, the Harmonia, with more than 30 bicycles arrayed out in front of her on the dock. It was time to meet our two guides, the crew of six, and our 30 fellow-travelers. Besides our own group members, arriving in Dubrovnik on various itineraries, there were another 15 from other parties.

Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.

Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.

Of the 32 passengers, there was one American, a few each from Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark – and the rest were Canadian. On the previous week’s sailing, the majority had been German-speaking. The crew and the ride-leader guides were from various parts of Croatia, and like many Croatians we met, they all spoke excellent English. A good thing, as we found Croatian impenetrable.

Cheryl and I unpacked in our air-conditioned stateroom, which was bigger and better equipped than some hotel rooms we’ve been in. After that, our guides, Petra and Neven, introduced us to our bikes. While many in our group had brought their own pedals or seats, Cheryl and I decided we would live with whatever we got. After a few test rides around the dock, we were all satisfied: comfortable, easy-shifting, almost new, and well-maintained. Two of our group and a few of the others had elected to reserve e-bikes, and they were promised a complete lesson before the first ride.

Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it.  Try to avoid the crowds.

Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it. Try to avoid the crowds.

Our first formal activity was a tour of Dubrovnik with a professional guide. For some on the ship, this was their first visit to the city. Even though others of us had already spent two or three days here, we saw new parts of town and learned more of its thousand-year history. After some free time in town, we enjoyed the first of many tasty shipboard dinners featuring Croatian seafood and other specialties. The first evening also included wine and schnapps on the captain. “Živjeli!”

Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.

Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.

The follow morning Captain Josip set course across an incredibly azure Adriatic towards the first of our island destinations, Šipan. This was our test ride: fairly level and about 45 minutes each way from the harbour to the small town of Suđurađ. Everyone would have a chance to iron out any kinks in their bicycles … or legs.

Neven gives a rider a lesson on the ebike.

Neven gives a rider a lesson on the ebike.

The promise of this ride was encouraging. The bikes performed well. The roads were quiet, and with a few exceptions, well signed and in good repair. Just in case, our guides had provided each of us with maps of the island, with our route hand-traced. Along the way, we passed vineyards and other crops, fascinating churches or occasional ruins, and figs and other fruit growing along the roadside. The quiet coffee stop at the picturesque waterfront town of Suđurađ was an excellent introduction to the many small island villages we would be visiting over the week to come. As we dug into our hot lunch back on the Harmonia, we got under way to our next destination.

Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan

Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan

About the only thing that had been missing from the Šipan ride were panoramic vistas. On Mljet, that would be remedied. We would pay for it in lengthy hill climbs and “undulating” roads, making it the “hardest ride of the week.” That turned out to be smart strategy on the part of the organizers, although some of the e-bike riders who hadn’t quite got the hang of their rides elected to sun themselves on the Harmonia as she sailed the length of the island to meet us. For the rest of us, as we contemplated the island summits each morning, we could always say, “Well, it can’t be as hard as Mljet!”

Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra.  Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?

Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra. Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?

The crew and the guides on these trips work long hours and hard. Yet somehow they manage to remain up-beat and friendly all the while. Besides three hot meals a day and the on-demand bar, great Croatian coffee was always ready before seven, and the last drinks were served after 10 pm. Once and often twice a day, the entire stock of 35 bikes had to be unloaded from the hold and readied for the next ride. (Those e-bikes are heavy.) There was always something interesting for us to do while the staff worked.

Even a boathouse for a PT boat sports that azure water

Even a boathouse for a PT boat sports that azure water

Before our ride on Lastovo, some of us toured decaying Cold War era tunnels on the small connected island of Prežba, until recently an off-limits military base. Others kayaked lazily around the bay, or sunned themselves top side, while taking in the spectacular scenery.

Succulents line this waterfront road on Lastovo.

Succulents line this waterfront road on Lastovo.

On Lastovo, we had another glimpse of the challenging job of ride leaders. As fifteen of us are in the same outdoor association, many of us have had experience leading bike trips of from ten to thirty individuals. We know how challenging it can be to provide suitable guidance, watch out for road safety, and still allow riders to set their own pace and enjoy the ride. When we arrived at the town of Lastovo, it came out during coffee and beer, that one of the riders had continued through town and not returned. His companions had become concerned when he didn’t show up, mentioning that he was “getting on in years.” Petra and Neven managed to spend a couple of hours searching the far end of the island, while coordinating others of us to help, and the rest to get back safely to the Harmonia. In the end, the wayward rider showed up unassisted at the ship, having spent a couple of hours drinking beer and discussing wines with a local farmer in his barn. All in a day’s work for our hard-working guides.

In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home's social status

In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home’s social status

There was a little bonus from the adventure. While Cheryl and I were out searching Lastovo with a friend of the missing man, we stumbled upon a tiny home-based winery, and were invited in for sampling and a mini-tour. Our companion was happy to buy a very inexpensive bottle of a very local wine. By policy, the tour company does not do winery stops in order to avoid dangerous afternoon riding conditions.

Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.

Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.

Our next trip was the first of two across the island of Korčula. Although the rides on Korčula were not as long as Mljet, they included some of the biggest hills of the week. A couple of them were more than five kilometers of uninterrupted climb, although never more than a 10 percent grade, and more often six to eight. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge if you aren’t used to hill climbing. Our club members all made it, but some of the other passengers sometimes pushed their rides, or made use of the e-bikes (which often meant they led the pack.) On most days, the guide who was “sweep” at the end of the group would start out with an e-bike so that they could swap if someone tired on their regular bicycle. This was not advertised, but it really showed the effort taken by Petra and Neven to ensure the trip worked for everyone.

How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica

How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica

Hey, did I mention the swimming? Most days, there were one or two opportunities for swimming off shower-equipped back of the Harmonia. It was impossible to resist. The water was stunningly clear, and that distinctive azure blue that characterizes the Adriatic in this area. It was also warm enough to get in and stay in. That despite the late September date following the “worse summer in decades.”

The water's great at Prigradica on Korčula

The water’s great at Prigradica on Korčula

After three days of hilly cycling, some of us were glad of a day off for a side trip to Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Others might have preferred not to break up the rhythm of the cycling. On the one hand, it was a two-hour bus ride each way, with lengthy stops at both Croatian and Bosnian customs in both directions. Mostar was hot, and rather overrun with tourists. On the other hand, it’s an iconic place, in terms of both its ancient and recent history.

A quiet moment in one of the mosques in Mostar

A quiet moment in one of the mosques in Mostar

Our guide, Senad, was interesting and informed, and I found it engaging to discuss with him some of the aspects of the recent ethnic conflict, together with his hopes for the future. With a little effort, we were able to visit places with fewer tourists, such as the interiors of some of the mosques that dot the city. In the quieter spaces, one could reflect on the significance of the cross upon the hill, or the war-damaged buildings. We could appreciate our return to our peaceful port that evening. “Mi smo tako sretni!” We are so lucky!

A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera

A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera

The entire tour had a satisfying cultural component. In addition to Dubrovnik and Mostar, we also had a professional guide in the old town of Korčula. For all the other islands and towns we visited, Petra gave an interesting historical or cultural presentation somewhere along the way. Although I’m sure she was well-versed in Croatian culture, it was obvious she put a lot of preparation into her job. Often, the guides went beyond the strict requirements of the job description. One morning, a half-hour Croatian language lesson lasted for 90 minutes; we were such eager students, she said.

"Good Morning!" While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.

“Good Morning!” While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.

One evening, as a special treat, Petra spent several hours giving us her personal view of some of the challenges of life in Croatia. The country suffered considerably during the multi-year war that followed its declaration of independence in 1991. Many industries have yet to recover, and the very personal scars of the war run deep. The country was hit hard again in the global crisis of 2008. Unemployment currently sits at over 17%, and the average gross income is less than $18000 per year. Petra had spent several years working as a nanny in the UK and the US before returning to the country she loved. As an independent guide in a seasonal industry, staying employed was always a challenge. Yet, she also knew that she was better off than many of her compatriots who would have to leave Croatia to find work. Croatia’s recent EU membership was not embraced by everyone. There have been some losers.

Like Croatia, Bosnia suffered horribly during its war for independence (photo taken near the bridge at Mostar)

Like Croatia, Bosnia suffered horribly during its war for independence (photo taken near the bridge at Mostar)

It was an engaging evening, and we definitely appreciated Petra’s frank and sometimes emotional delivery. We felt we were getting more than just the canned tourist spiel, and were grateful for it. Perhaps in return, we all opened up a bit more. On this trip, I learned things from some long-time friends that I’d never heard before.

Cycling hundreds of meters above the bay at Pupnatska Luka on Korčula

Cycling hundreds of meters above the bay at Pupnatska Luka on Korčula

Back on Korčula again for one of the longer rides, the hills no longer seemed so forbidding. They were just part of the journey, and we knew that each one led to views more stunning than the previous. At the end of the longest climb, it was a cool delight to encounter a roadside fruit stand, where we quickly demolished more than one juicy watermelon. Riding along the seaside into Korčula town that evening, I felt a little sad knowing we had only one more day of riding.

A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town

A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town

That last day, for the first time all week, we woke to gray skies and whitecaps on the water. Given all we’d heard about the eastern Adriatic’s “year without a summer,” we thought ourselves lucky to have enjoyed the past six days of blue skies and sun on our shoulders. Our final day of riding took us through the old town of Ston, a salt-drying region since Roman times. The surrounding countryside is protected by a huge wall, second only to the Great Wall of China. Leaving Ston, we had to make a decision on whether to climb the final hill, which, on clear days, would offer “the most spectacular view yet.” Just then, the sky darkened and we heard the rumbling of an approaching storm. Our guides explained that coming down the hill could be dangerous in the rain, and advised that we might do better taking a shortcut down the Split-Dubrovnik highway. What to do?

Thunder rolls ominously overhead as we decide to avoid the final hilltop climb

Thunder rolls ominously overhead as we decide to avoid the final hilltop climb

We broke up into groups of three or four, and cycled down the paved shoulder at two-minute intervals. It was busy, although not as harrowing as I’d expected. In the end, it was almost certainly the better option. The storm broke just as we reached the ship. Had we gone over the hill, we would have found ourselves right at the top just when the deluge hit. Although riding in traffic is something I try to avoid, the last half hour in traffic reminded me that, for the entire rest of the week, we’d had the roads almost to ourselves. We often rode for an hour or more without seeing a single car. I even wondered why they kept such well-maintained roads for so little traffic. Whatever the reason, this was one of the best weeks of cycling I’ve ever enjoyed.

A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads

A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads

I needn’t have worried about letting our group down. Comments ranged from “awesome” to “best trip ever!” September is a great month for riding here, and the best month for swimming. Apparently, this is true even in an off year. This was a well-organized tour; the crew and guides were personable and highly professional. A beautiful part of the world, with history stretching back for millennia, the southern Dalmatian islands are a great place to swim, boat, and cycle. Or just to sit in the sun, watch the world go by, and enjoy a coffee, beer, or ice cream – national favourites, all. Some of us will be back.

"This trip was awesome! When's the next one?" (aboard the Harmonia)

“This trip was awesome! When’s the next one?” (aboard the Harmonia)

Related Posts

If you want to follow in our tracks:

The tour company is Island Hopping, based in Germany. They operate similar tours in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, and Vietnam. Others in our club have been on a number of these; all reported great trips. Their organized approach is evident. As with our Dalmatian trip, Island Hopping charters local ships and crews, and contracts independent ride leaders and guides. Their tour list sounds like our bucket list.

Harmonia and friend await us for lunch and a swim

Harmonia and friend await us for lunch and a swim

We booked this trip through BikeTours.com (formerly Bike Tours Direct.) This is the second trip we’ve booked through them. You pay the same rate whether booking directly or through BikeTours.com, but we have done well going through a company we know, and in our time zone. The small team at BikeTours.com are all riders themselves – sometimes they’re spread a little thin when they’re out reviewing rides, but that’s the good news. They know a lot about the tours they sell. Simon & Richie did an excellent job of helping us coordinate the plans of 17 riders. (That may warrant a post of its own!) We look forward to dealing with them again. Meanwhile, here’s the tour: “Dalmatia from Dubrovnik

At the top, a placque commemorates the defence of Korčula from a Turkish attack in 1571.

At the top, a placque commemorates the defence of Korčula from a Turkish attack in 1571.

What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

A Time Thief is operating in our neighbourhood.

How else to explain that my mid-May promise to supply part two of my decluttering post has been outstanding for over three months?

Fittingly, a large part of the delay came from the very non-physical clutter I had planned to write about. My embarrassment at this irony led to further stalling. Could the death of this blog be far behind?

It took a nudge from this young blogger to get me back at the keyboard. (Thanks, Jen!)

While our decluttering project has inched desultorily forward this summer, we’ve been living the “No Pension, Will Travel” lifestyle on other fronts.

Half-way turn on the cycle leg

Half-way turn on the cycle leg on Cheryl’s new road bike.

We’ve continued with our kedges this summer. On the heels of Cheryl’s first half-marathon in the Spring, I joined her for a “sprint triathlon” in May – her third, my first. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and we both bested our targets. Unlike Cheryl, I’d done relatively little triathlon-specific training this year, but my overall commitment to exercising six days a week really paid off.

Synchronized Diving Event at World Masters.  The geodesic dome in the background is from Montreal's Expo '67.

Synchronized Diving Event at World Masters. Geodesic dome in the background is from Montreal’s Expo ’67.

Later in the summer, Cheryl swam her first three-kilometre open-water swim at the FINA World Masters Games in Montreal, Canada. She was thrilled to do this race for the first time ever, and even more thrilled to beat her target time, coming in 22nd in her age-group in an international competition. Along with about 15,000 other swimmers and supporters, we took the opportunity to sight-see in the second-largest French-speaking city in the world – after Paris. Through AirBnB, four of us arranged to stay in a stylish apartment belonging to a McGill University professor. Luxury digs in a great part of town for about a quarter the price of hotel accommodation.

Outdoor Chess near the Place des Festivals

“Montreal Chic”: Outdoor Chess near the Place des Festivals

Between swimming events, we explored the various parts of the Old Town, shopping districts, parks, squares and museums that Montreal is famous for. With unlimited passes for bus and Metro, it was easy to get around – and we were only a half-hour walk from the City Centre. Montreal in the summer has a vibrant outdoor cultural scene, and we found people friendly wherever we went. Everyone was willing to go along with our attempts at French, or switch to English when we got in over our heads.

Something that that stood out for us was the large number of cyclists in Montreal, both on and off the many dedicated bike lanes. Unlike our home town, helmets were in the minority. Those with helmets were more likely to be cycling up Mount Royal at 6am. Those without – often on shopping trips – were more “Montreal chic” – often on bicycles rented by the hour from the Bixi cycle network. We didn’t try it, but, in the summer, you can borrow a bike for free at some Metro stations. All this got us thinking more about a cycle trip through Quebec some summer. Cycle routes abound, and some say it’s like cycling Europe right here in North America.

"Montreal chic" - a member of Montreal's finest sports pink camouflage pants, a creative protest against changes to their pension plan.

“Montreal chic” – one of Montreal’s Finest sports pink camouflage, a protest against changes to their pension plan.

Our next big kedge comes next month, when we will tackle several of Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands by bicycle. We’ve been told to expect after-breakfast climbs to hilltops as high as 1600 feet above sea level, so we’ve taken every opportunity this summer to work on those leg muscles. With friends, or members of our outdoor club, we’ve tackled a number of areas with challenging hills of their own.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park: over 20 acres of outdoor art.

San Juan Island Sculpture Park: over 20 acres of outdoor art.

We started in June with a great couple of days in Washington’s San Juan Islands. No shortage of hills, but most were manageable. After we were forced to walk a steep hill in Orcas Island’s Enchanted Forest, we decided that Mount Constitution – all 2400 feet of it – would have to wait. We continued throughout the summer with several more island cycling excursions with our club, moving northwards into British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. One of those trips included some kayaking as well.

The beach at Sandwell Park on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

The beach at Sandwell Park on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

BC’s Northern Gulf Islands boast one advantage over their more southern cousins. In the summer, the water is often warm enough for swimming, especially after you’ve just cycled over the top of the island.. One thing about island cycling – every side trip down to a beautiful ocean bay necessitates a climb back up a hill. Putting in 1600 feet of vertical in an otherwise lazy day is not that hard to do. We’re feeling pretty confident about the hills of Korčula, Mljet, and Lastovo. I hope we’re not fooling ourselves!

Our annual coastal reunion with the Shedders often includes a forest walk along this peaceful lake.

Our annual coastal reunion with the Shedders often includes a forest walk along this peaceful lake.

We also got in some good visits with friends and family: a trip to the near-desert to visit the new home of friends who will retire this year; a visit from Cheryl’s brother and family on their way home from an Alaskan cruise; and our annual waterfront reunion with our friends from the Shedders. This year, we also got a chance to meet the third Shedder couple, if only for a couple of hours. Can an Australian reunion be far behind?

The gang from Shadowlawn, bracketed by two of the Shedders.  (Photo courtesy of Heather of the Shedders.)

The gang from Shadowlawn, bracketed by two of the Shedders. (Photo courtesy of Heather of the Shedders.)

We also took advantage of some serendipity to bring together three groups for a wonderful evening last month. Our investigation of shared-housing options had led me to discover “Shadowlawn” – the joint Pittsburgh residence of Jean, Karen, & Louise (JKL) featured in “My House, Our House.” I emailed them, and let them know about the Shedders – and vice versa. They must have recognized kindred spirits: before long they were commenting regularly on each others’ blogs. When JKL ended up vacationing in our part of the world at the same time as our friends from the Shedders, they arranged to meet up, and the five of them agreed to present to our “Free at 55” Meetup group at a special “Cohouseholding Corroboree.” It turned out to be one of our best events of the year. You can read Heather’s account of the day on her blog, as well as JKL’s account on theirs.

Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain

Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain (photo: The Bard Brawl)

We finished up that weekend attending a great performance of “Equivocation” by Bill Cain – one of the most engaging plays I’ve ever enjoyed. Heralded as “a play about telling the truth in difficult times,” it is most relevant to the times we find ourselves in this year.

With our weekends so long and full this summer, it was all we could do to pack our regular work schedules into three and four-day weeks in between. Not to mention a challenging one-week course on “interest-based” negotiation, giving our sons some assistance with consolidating their new careers and (for one of them) a new home, and regular chores around our house.

While in Montreal, we ran into this memory of John & Oko's "Bed-in" from the 60s.

While in Montreal, we ran into this memory of John & Oko’s “Bed-in” from the 60s. Still relevant today.

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” – Allen Saunders (via John Lennon)

Reflecting on this summer of friends, family and fun has led me to see something more clearly.

I had viewed our decluttering project as the next step on our full transition to “No Pension, Will Travel.” When it stalled, I began to feel as if nothing was moving forward. My perspective fell into a “holding pattern”, waiting until I had the time to start addressing the “big concerns.” I lost my motivation to keep this blog up to date.

You never know what you might find along the way: road sign on Denman Island, BC

You never know what you might find along the way: road sign on Denman Island, BC

In the meantime, life happened. A life to be grateful for. I need to remember that. By all means, make big plans, always have something new to look forward to. But don’t forget to enjoy the meandering path that life follows all the while. For the river of time keeps flowing.

What are Old People For, by Dr. William "Bill" H. Thomas

What are Old People For, by Bill Thomas

Over the summer, I read a couple of books by Dr. William “Bill” H. Thomas that gave me a new perspective on this ageing journey we’re all on. I first read his recently published “Second Wind”. Finding it both challenging and enlightening, I tracked down a copy of his now out-of-print “What are Old People For”. I enjoyed that one even more. These books alone merit a post of their own, but one important idea was that getting older offers us the opportunity to re-learn living in the present moment. As we plan the coming year – or two, or three – I also plan to heighten my enjoyment of life along the way.

So what’s ahead? What stories do we hope to post in the months to come?.

Later this month we embark on our long-awaited cycling trip in Croatia. It’s been a bit more organizing work than I’d counted on. Even though we’re signing on to a pre-existing tour, coordinating the plans of the 15 friends who are joining us has taken some doing. I’m hoping to share some of our lessons learned in a future post. But now that it’s close, we’re finally feeling the excitement. We plan to start our trip with a few days on our own in Ljubljana, the romantic capital of neighbouring Slovenia.

"Ljubljanica 01" by Mihael Grmek - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ljubljanica 01” by Mihael Grmek – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cheryl has been mapping out her schedule of triathlons, open-water swims, and half-marathons for the Fall and Spring. One thing she learned from her Montreal competition is that she enjoys the regular training more than the competition, but somehow enrolling in the competitions keeps the training on track.

We’re also thinking about our longer cycling trips for the coming year or two. Besides Quebec, we’re also considering is a trip across the three Baltic countries, passing through the town where my father was born. This would give us the opportunity to meet some of my second cousins for the first time. The family had been out of touch since WWII, and was only reconnected when I started building my family tree on WikiTree a few years ago.

Trakai Castle in Lithuania, by Marcin Bialek

Trakai Castle in Lithuania, by Marcin Bialek (Own work) [GFDL, or CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, we’re still working towards the next phase of our retirement schedule. This year, we struggled with the timing of quitting our current jobs. Somehow, a joint decision kept eluding us. But in recent months, a new plan is beginning to emerge. Cheryl’s employment situation has improved since June, and she’s more excited about staying on for a while. Since I’m the older one in this relationship, it made sense that I should be the first one to make the transition. While a staggered “retirement” creates a few new challenges, it has a number of advantages. Sounds great to me! Christmas would be a great time to give myself a present.

Echoes from the mysterious "old country": Dad & his family

Echoes from the mysterious “old country”: Dad & his family

As for the challenges – such as decluttering – I imagine they’ll be part of that life that keeps on happening while we’re busy making plans.

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  • What do you do to enjoy the present moment while working towards retirement?

Keeping Travel Alive between Trips

A couple of friends remarked recently, “Haven’t seen much about travel at ‘No Pension, Will Travel.’  Sounds like no pension, no travel.

Yes, it’s true.  I’ve been writing about almost every other aspect of our journey these days.  Cheryl and I were lamenting that – as we are still both working – all of our vacation time is spoken for this year, and our first trip longer than a weekend isn’t until late June.  So how do we keep travel alive when we’re not traveling?

There’s the usual travel-related tasks such as budgeting for the next trip – a lot more exciting than paying for the last one!  Or trying to find the cheapest way from Rome to Rio.  (If you don’t let the shenanigans of the airline and other travel sites drive you crazy!)  Planning a vacation is often listed as one of the top ways to improve your mood.  We’ve discovered quite a few others.

Canoeing in Croatia's National Plitvice Park - photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Canoeing in Croatia’s National Plitvice Park – photo credit Huck Finn Adventure Tours

Most of our upcoming trips are with groups of various sizes.  Following our resolution made on our cycling trip in Provence, we pulled together an ad hoc group of 16 people for a week of cycling in Croatia.  This has given us lots of excuses to get together with fun-loving people and talk about the upcoming trip.  Half of the original group of 16 decided to add on another week of exploring Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, so we met at the coordinator’s home for spaghetti, wine, and a little bit of travel planning.  With eight people, we have enough to make a custom itinerary cost-effective.  In the next month or so, we hope to get all 16 together for dinner as some of us have yet to meet.

Arranging accommodation through services such as Servas, Couchsurfing and AirBnB has given us another way to start a trip months before liftoff.  Once we’ve booked something, we often find the host happy to talk about our upcoming visit, offering us information and ideas, as well as just getting to know each other a little.  Recently we’ve been chatting with Sara, our upcoming host in the old centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia this Fall.  Nothing like connecting with a real person to make it feel like you’re already there.  We also stay in loose touch with hosts we’ve had on earlier trips – to Paris, Avignon, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Tuscany, and the Italian Riviera.  Add Mexico and Columbia for those we’ve hosted here.  Often it’s just Facebook, but special connections warrant something more.

Slovenian Sunday Brunch - photo credit EatWith.com

Slovenian Sunday Brunch – photo credit EatWith.com

Learning something about the culture of the countries we’re going to visit is another way to savour an upcoming trip, one that can also amplify the experience when we’re there.  We’re hoping to visit the local Croatian cultural centre before we go – in our city, there seems to be a centre for almost every ethnicity you can imagine.  Something we’ve yet to try is EatWith.com, billed as “Dine in homes around the world! Meet amazing people, eat great food and enjoy unforgettable experiences!  Besides using them when we travel, we could also find an authentic Croatian meal right in our home town.

Perhaps the most significant cultural undertaking before a trip is to learn something of the language. As Rita Mae Brown observed, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.  I’m just starting my Croatian lessons, hoping I can achieve a working knowledge before we arrive in Dubrovnik.  Travel has been the main reason that I’ve learned several other languages since leaving high school, although there are other advantages.  Sure you can get by with English in most countries these days, but bear in mind the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.

In the meantime, my volunteer work as an immigrant mentor has led to a number of invitations to meals and parties among the local Chinese community.  Most recent was an invitation to a house party to welcome in the Chinese Year of the Horse on January 31.  Definitely a cultural

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

40th annual Chinese New Year parade, Vancouver, Canada

experience, even if we don’t yet have a trip to China in the planning stages.  Even if you don’t have any personal immigrant connections, check out the public festivals celebrated by immigrant communities in your area.

There are lots of other ways to travel between trips.  As members of Servas and Couchsurfing, we also host overseas visitors from time to time.  This Spring we have a special visit in the works.  Through dabbling in my family tree on the great collaborative genealogy site, WikiTree, I’ve made contact with hitherto unknown second and third cousins in England, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Australia and Brazil.  Our current challenge is to choose between invitations to several countries.  A cousin from Brazil plans to visit us this year, and Cheryl and I are already making tentative plans to visit my new extended family in Florianópolis in the next couple of years.  It would be great stopover en route to learning tango in Buenos Aires.

If you keep your eyes open, there are lots of opportunities to experience the world within easy commuting distance.  In most cities, there are frequent “world music” concerts to expose you to new sounds.  I’ve been greatly enjoying my first attempts to learn Latin Funk Dance.  I’m pretty much off balance for the entire hour every week, but just think of all the new synapses I’m creating.  And with that Latin beat, I could be back in the main square of Santiago de Cuba.

Being “off balance” is a lot of what good travel is about.  As a dear friend recently reminded me in her post, “Out of the Blue”, travel “rattles our carefully-designed world view.”  If you have any doubts, check out one of the many Internet lists on how travel makes you a better person.  The truth is, however, that we don’t have to travel at all to live in “vacation mode.”

A Tree Drum - photo credit, Drumming & Health

A Tree Drum – photo credit, Drumming & Health

I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered an opportunity to join a “drumming circle” and bring along as many friends as I could muster.  The opportunity to join a drumming master, schooled for months in western Africa, and experiment with call-response rhythms on djenbe and other drums sounds like a great new experience.  I jumped at the chance, and invited 25 of my friends along too.  I was sure that they’d all leap at the chance to experience something new.  Yet, as the excuses started to dribble in – “I have to go skiing the weekend following.” – “I’ve got to do my tax return.” – Really!? – I began to realize that not everyone saw the value in jumping in to brand new experiences.  It’s a pity.  The evening was magical, and those who showed up were excited to invite others to a future event.

I think this points to the real way to keep travel alive even when you’re not traveling:  bring that attitude of open-mindedness, that stance of being perpetually a little “off balance”, to everything you do.  I collected some of the markers of my own travel attitude in a “vacation mode” posting a few years back: “Do only one good thing every day…  Talk to people for no reason…  Live with less material stuff…  Go outside even when the weather isn’t cooperating…  Spend time with friends and family that you enjoy being with…  Have sex any time of the day…”  You get the picture.

Under a Full Moon - photo credit, Meetup.com

Under a Full Moon – photo credit, Meetup.com

So, what can you do today in that spirit of exploring a brand new place you’ve never been before?  How can you rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity in familiar surroundings?  When you start to look, there’s no shortage of opportunities.  On Valentine’s evening, Cheryl and I joined a small group for a snowshoe hike under the full moon.  Snowshoeing is a fairly new activity for us, and this was the first time we’d ever been out after dark.  It was magical.  And, yes, it was romantic too.

What are you taking on in vacation mode?  How do you keep the travel spirit alive between trips?

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