This post covers our short stay in Croatia along the Danube river. We hope to return in the future for an extended period to explore more of this beautiful country by bicycle.
I've fallen in love Croatia. I've been here before - well, that’s if you can count taking a plane, a coach and a boat to a music festival on an island, and spend the whole time intoxicated on a beach or in bed sleeping. I’m happy to say that this time was much different. Even though we only had three days here, the country and the people made such an impression on us.
We had actually entered the country with some trepidation. It didn’t register with us until we handed over our passports at border control that England were playing Croatia in the World Cup semi-final that evening. We nervously laughed at the officer scanning our passports and cycled on through, imaging what terrible things the locals may do to us when (not if) England got through to the final…
Our first encounter with a ‘local’ was when we stopped to check directions opposite a very rural petrol station. Three men were in deep conversation inside the office, when one peered out and shouted: “Hello!…Deutsche?”. We looked at each other and hesitantly responded: “No, we’re from England”. This was followed with excitement from all men who stood up and stepped outside. One giddily shouted ‘World Cup, World Cup’ whilst gesturing football actions. We laughed, wished them the best of luck and kindly asked to refill our water bottles, which they did without hesitation. We cycled off feeling slightly more relaxed about the impending evening.
After a number of hills, we passed through a string of agricultural towns with charming, often dilapidated buildings. The landscape was certainly the most unfamiliar of the trip so far. However, the people only became more enthusiastic and interested in our presence. From people sat on benches in the street or in vehicles that passed us, almost everyone smiled and waved. Beeping of car horns was to grab our attention, followed by smiling and excitably waving out the window. We arrived at a modest-looking campsite in Kopacevo, sweaty and thirsty, and asked at the reception for a tent pitch for one night.
As we were handing over our ID, there was a group of people sat at a large dining table off to one side drinking and sharing a joke. One man came over to us and invited us to sit with them and enjoy a welcome drink. The man turned out to be Sr. Bels Baka, the owner or the campsite and mayor of the town! This little gathering was a sort of inspectors visit (we’re still not sure exactly of what) with plenty of alcohol. Again, we were asked where we are from and we awkwardly replied that we had travelled from England. Absolute uproar from the table ensued. I would even describe many of the guests as being dumbfounded that we have arrived here on the evening of the semi-finals. Friendly banter about the game that evening followed and bets were made with the owner that if Croatia win, we stayed for free. If England win, we paid for everything. The host warned that many of his friends were due to arrive to watch the game that evening and made us agree to pretend that we are in fact German…for our lives sake (he was joking, I think).
After the commotion we were offered our welcome drink, a traditional Croatia brandy made from plums. The owner explained that this drink is ‘free’ and lives on the table for anyone to enjoy as they please. We, along with the rest of the table, were poured a healthy portion. We all said “Zivjeli” (or ‘Egészségedre’ as half the table were in fact Hungarian) and knocked back our drinks. We were encouraged to drink more, which we did, and then found ourselves being presented with a large glass of beer on the side. And so it began.
After good conversation, the owner announced that we must be hungry after cycling all day. He brought over to the table a ginormous pan of mouthwatering meats cooked in a sauce and plates of salad, local hot paprika pepper and breads, and asked us to dig in. It appeared that everyone else must have already eaten and so we sat tucking in on our own, all eyes on us. It was divine. We were then encouraged to take as much of the homemade strudel as we liked - poppy seed, cheese or cherry strudel. Matt polished off half the tray before I gave him the eye.
Eventually after many more shots of local brandy, wine and beer, the guests started to peel off. We exchange emails and said our goodbyes, before tearing ourselves away to attempt to set up camp. Our bikes were still leant against the reception, having not moved since we arrived. Matt took responsibility of the tent whilst I stumbled around laughing at the last couple of hours. After a power nap, we had almost recovered when the receptionist came over to our tent and invited us, on behalf of the owner, to eat with him and his guests before the game started.
We wandered over and were invited to sit down once again at the table, with a new set of guests. We were again asked to share a welcome drink, which we do after some pleading from my part. We then helped ourselves to the homemade Croatian fish soup from a huge cooking pot and joined everyone at the table, keeping our identities hidden! The game started and I don’t need to go over this, as we all know what happened next. England obviously lost and the guests were obviously overjoyed, most of them by this point knowing our nationality. But of course they didn’t have any reason to kill us, so here we are writing this account. However, there was no better way to crash out of the world cup, under the circumstances of the day.
The next coincidence in Croatia happened later the next the day having left the campsite in Kopacevo. We left extremely late (1pm), due to the brandy hangover and took a quick detour to the Kopacki Rit Nature Park to clear our heads. With no accommodation in mind for that evening, we rode until we were tired.
At around 5pm and having not passed any wild camping spots, I was getting impatient and hungry. We stopped on the side of the road in Opatovac to search for a place to stay. A fully-leathered guy on a motorbike pulled up next to us and asked if we need help. We replied that we were looking for some accommodation and with an incredulous look he said he had a free guest house just up the road if we wanted to take a look. Sensing some apprehension, he lifted his helmet to reveal his face.
We followed Damir less than 200m from where we had stopped and turned into a vineyard, before stopping outside a quant property under a steep-pitched roof, behind a picket fence. He showed us around the place, which had a kitchen, bathroom, large living room and terrace at the back looking onto the Danube river. Upstairs in the bedroom was another balcony with an even better view of the river. We couldn’t believe our luck, particularly for €15 a night. (If anyone happens to pass through Opatovac, this place is a must. You can find the accommodation online or on Facebook: Kuca Za Odmor Apathy).
As we would be staying in the middle of a vineyard, I couldn’t resist but ask whether he knew where we could buy the local wine. He immediately got on the phone to a local producer, conveniently this was their peak time for production too. After the wine order was placed, he said we should have a - wait for it - welcome drink whilst we waited. He poured out a helping for each of us from a bottle on the table. You guessed it - homemade plum brandy. We toasted with 'Uzdravlje' (rather than 'Zivjeli’ this time, more suitable for toasting whilst drinking we were told). We enjoyed a good conversation about the football (took some banter about losing out to Croatia) and about the property, which he bought as a guest house because of the view of the river alone. Damir chatted proudly of his career as a policeman as we drank. After we finished the remains of the brandy bottle, he ran out to grab the wine and came back inside presenting us with a large 2lt bottle. “The first litre is from you and the second litre is a gift from me”!
Before he left, Damir recommended we wake up early to catch the sunrise on the balcony, to appreciate the view that he fell in love with when buying the property. We thanked him for his generosity and for stopping to help us by the roadside, and wished him good luck for the World Cup final. We enjoyed the evening in our own little private house, with good wine and the TV on in the background - a nice feeling of normality, which is rare when on the road. The day next we were headed for Serbia, so before heading to bed, we reflected on our short but eventful time in this wonderful country. We both agreed that the people had made the experience the most memorable of our journey so far. B
Total days on road: 48
Total rest days: 8
Total distance completed: 3,058 Km
Best meal cooked: Matt's homemade pasta sauce, of all things!
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