In this Meet The Cyclists feature, Cat from down under shares her experiences cycling from Montenegro to Spain along Eurovelo 8. Here's her story.
Eurovelo 8 Bike Touring
In 2014, Cat cycled from Montenegro through to Spain. Originally, she wrote her blog posts for the Meanderbug website. Due to a restructure of their pages, I was asked to keep her story alive by hosting her blog posts here instead.
This is something I was very happy to do! Her experiences are sure to both inspire and inform others planning a similar tour along the Eurovelo 8 route.
This then, is a collection of her stories and experiences while biking the EuroVelo 8. Below are excerpts from her posts, and there are also links to each original post. I hope you enjoy reading Cat's adventures as much as I did!
Starting the EuroVelo 8 bike tour
By Catherine Small
A close friend of mine left Australia some years ago to do something that to me was unheard of and totally awesome. He was going to explore Europe on a bicycle and sleep in a tent. I thought it was an insanely adventurous idea.
Three years later and countless stories from a surprising number of other bicycle tourists, and I’ve had a little internal voice persisting at me to do the same. Budget bike touring, here we go.
Sure, I haven’t had much experience with camping, and until last week, I’d never put up a tent entirely on my own. I also haven’t ever cycled exceptionally long distances.
But I have cycled a lot around Sydney and I know that when I’m on a bicycle, I feel entirely, dizzyingly, free. I have wings. Often when I’m riding somewhere really fast I’ll be smiling so much I actually just start laughing for the pure joy of it.
I’ve even been known to let out a few loud ‘wooohoooooo’s, throwing a fist in the air when coasting down mountains. Even when I get caught in the rain and drenched, when my toes are white numb and my fingers won’t release the handlebars, I love it. So long as I’m moving fast on two wheels I’m happy.
What will bike touring the Eurovelo 8 be like?
I figure those scary nights wild camping alone in countries that I don’t know will just be another exhilarating “holy $%*#… how on earth will I ever survive this” experience that leaves me a more confident and happier person. That little voice of mine hasn’t let me into irreparable damage yet, so I’m going to trust it. And fear aside, as Nike dictates, sometimes you’ve got to “just do it”!
So here’s the deal. I’m in Podgorica, Montenegro, hanging out with the great folk at MeanderBug.com while I prepare for the big adventure. Podgorica doesn’t fit it’s unflattering reputation. I’ve found plenty to see and do in the city. I’ve also found everything I need for my epic biking tour, all for well under 500 euros.
(Note: I’m not planning to do any cooking and I am not a bicycle fanatic so those factors helped keep the cost down.)
Bike Touring Gear
This is my list of equipment for biking tour budget, along with the approximate price of each item (in euros).
Local Bike Shop
143 – Polar Trinity mountain bike (Serbian made, seems to work fine to me, don’t know much about it)
105 – front LED light, back safety light, back rack, upgraded saddle, bell, bottle holder, seat bag, gloves, helmet, pump, repair patches, tyre lever, spare inner tubes
Fishing Gear Store
28 – tent
Local Sporting Store
(In Montenegro, Sports Vision is a gold mine.)
41 – North Face sleeping bag (at that price, I had to get it! I’ll treasure it forever)
Local Hardware Store
2.30 – torch
4.10 – pocket knife (swiss army knives were in the 20-30 euro range, I just looked around the knife section and found a much cheaper knife with all the same attachments – win!)
5 – bicycle lock
1.90 – 4 x occy straps (aka bungee cords)
3.30 – duct tape (yellow!)
1 – firestarters
2 – spare batteries
Local Plastic Shop
(In Montenegro, they have separate stores for all things plastic. Sneaky.)
0.80 – soap box, for when I have something to say to the world
Water bottles, wet wipes, garbage bags
Sleeping/yoga mat – to pick up from InterSport on the way out of the city.
Approximate total cost = 370 euros, or AUD 570. It’s not bad considering how cheap the rest of this bicycle adventure is going to be – camping or couchsurfing, and eating simple food.
Bike Touring Route
My approximate route will take me first through the cultural hub Centinje, where I’ll explore and camp nearby. Then heading northwest down a mountain road with spectacular scenery towards Risan, where I have a contact ready to take me in and show me around.
After a day or so there, I’ll jump on the Euro Velo #8 towards Croatia along the coast. I expect to take at least a month, if not more. Perhaps I’ll love it so much I’ll just continue cycling all summer!
Day 1 – Cycling Podgorica to Cetinje
After a false start yesterday, when it quickly became apparent that I had to use panniers to lower my centre of gravity before I’d feel steady on the road, by 10am I was off to a strong start in the sunshine.
Cetinje is about a 36km climb from Podgorica, and to a seasoned cyclist this would only take about two hours. It took me four! I haven’t been regularly cycling for some time so I spent much of the way pushing the bike. I’m ok with that though – it was day one and the important thing is that I didn’t stop! My bicycle touring rolls on.
Leaving Podgorica, the view was breathtaking. Looking down on the city, and later across mountains and water to see further white-capped mountains, the scenes were like colour-drenched paintings in perfect resolution.
I rolled into Cetinje just as rain started to fall. The old capital is picturesque and cultured, no half-finished buildings like in the new capital and plenty of pedestrians out and about despite the drizzle.
After a coffee and a bite to eat, I visited the palace of King Nikola. With half an hour till closing I smiled my way into free admission, feeling like a naughty child running around the rooms of this enormous extravagant home, snapping photos until the attendant found me and told me that photos weren’t allowed. She then amiably walked with me, discreetly escorting me out!
La Vecchia Casa
Despite having intended to avoid paying for accommodation, I booked a room at La Vecchia Casa. Without pre-arranged Couchsurfing, dusty and tired from my first day on the road, and in icy rain, at the wise insistence of my dear Montenegrin friend Zana I agreed that conditions weren’t ideal for my first night camping alone.
At only 17 euros a night for a single room, I think I got the cheapest room in town! It was certainly the most charming.
La Vecchia Casa means The Old House, and it is one of the houses in Cetinje remaining from King Nikola’s time. Hotels.com gives it just two stars, which might be because of the shared downstairs bathroom.
I’d give it two stars and five hearts for the spacious room comfortably furnished with a bed, dining table, writing desk, wood fire stove, large common kitchen, big bathroom with a bathtub that I made full use of shortly after arriving, and the friendly welcome I received.
Homely little touches like the complimentary toiletries in the bathroom, tea, coffee and breakfast, a soft dressing-gown and a pretty garden made it extra special. The business is run by a mother and son, Italian I believe. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.
Zana’s friend met with me later in the evening to direct me along the best route out of Cetinje. He spoke about as much of my language as I spoke of his, but with the help of Google Translate and lots of laughter, we shared stories of adventures as he drove to show me the way.
Day 2 – a beautiful, terrible road
An early start with my gear wrapped in plastic, again I rode and walked the bike up more mountains. Snow started appearing on the slopes and the air grew noticeably crisper.
I let my slow, steady pace beat a rhythm of perseverance as I was beginning to doubt whether this had been the best route to start out with – so much incline.
At about 11am I reached the top of the final peak of this Kotor mountain road. Bursting into sight was a glorious view of the valley, surrounding snow and pine covered mountains, and the Bay of Kotor beyond. In that moment, every ache and every push was worth it.
Read the full bike touring blog post here: Biking the Kotor mountain road
Day 3 – Risan and Bay of Kotor
I particularly liked a story that Goran shared with me.
Once there was an old man and a young man. The old man said to the young man, go to this place and you will see all of the beauty of the world. But here, take this spoon and let me fill it with water, and be careful not to spill it. The young man took the spoon, carried it to the place, and was so swept up in the beauty of the world that he forgot about the spoon, spilling the water. He went back to the old man with an apology, and the old man repeated the exercise. Again the young man went to the place, this time paying such close attention to the spoon that he didn’t see any beauty at all. He returned proudly with the spoon full of water. The old man still wasn’t satisfied. He sent him back again with the spoon full of water. This time the young man was able to enjoy all of the beauty of the world, while maintaining just enough focus to prevent the water spilling from the spoon. Finally when he returned the old man was satisfied.
I love the story – travelling (and living life generally) is all about finding that balance between enjoyment and focus.
Read the full bike touring blog here: Bicycle touring Risan
Day 4 – Backtracking to Kotor
After a lazy morning sleep in, I hopped on my vastly lighter leg-powered machine and flew along the 17 kms of picturesque bay road back to Kotor. This time I tied her up on the Perast side of the city, just before reaching the gates of the old town.
A number of stairways and paths zigzag up the mountain behind the old town to reach a number of buildings, including the ruins of the ancient St. John’s fortress.
Read the full bike touring blog here: Biking to Kotor
Day 5 – Resting in Dubrovnik
Today was Goran’s birthday, so he arrived at 7am, picked me up and set off along the coast towards Dubrovnik. Along the way we wove our way through a tiny old village to reach a park, climbed down a hidden walkway to land on the prettiest little white-stone beach I’ve ever seen.
Goran prides himself on knowing all of the secrets of the area, from where to eat, where to swim and where the most beautiful women are. This was his little Balkan birthday celebration. We would visit both Dubrovnik, Croatia and Trebinje, Bosnia. (This was a non-bike day on my tour.)
Read a post here – Camping outside Dubrovnik
Day 6 – Meeting Marko in Mikulići
Already I’ve noticed improvements in my strength and stamina, riding up more hills than before and covering far more distance. The lack of mountains is helping too!
Croatia must be secret code for beautiful country. Flowers and farmhouses, blue skies and greenery everywhere, tumbling white stones and wild flowers making gardens of every bit of road-side land.
I was expecting to make this my first night of camping, and by around 3pm was starting to consider whether to ask at a farmhouse or a church for permission to pitch my tent, when I came across Marko’s Flea Market in Mikulići, Croatia.
Marko is a Croat who has spent most of his life in Canada, escaping Croatia as a refugee. He’s travelled the world on a budget. Now in his 70’s, he lets the world come to him.
A painter by trade, he’s an ideas man who’s house and yard is a collection of rescued materials and inventive projects. What attracted me was the sign “W. Showers – tuz” and the old bicycle hanging from a tree. Warmshowers.org is Couchsurfing for bicycle tourists, so I almost fell off my bike at finding such luck!
I propped my bike up out front and wandered up to see if anyone was at home. Marko came out and invited me in, we sat and chatted and shared cigarettes and cake.
Hospitality on the road
He takes in hundreds of travelers, both from Warmshowers and otherwise. Often people will stay a while, help on some project and then continue along.
His rules are that visitors can stay as long as they like, provided that they don’t cost him anything. He showed me where I could sleep, a bed in his “office” where I could roll out my sleeping bag. Then he proceeded to feed me an absolutely delicious meal of pork stew, pasta and bread. I offered to contribute my supplies of spinach, tinned fish, and kiwifruit, worried that I was already costing him by eating his excellent food. He wouldn’t have any of it.
We sat up into the evening while he shared stories of his life. The reason he didn’t move to Australia when he was fleeing the problems in Croatia was because a friend told him that down under all we have is “poisonous snakes and no women.” So Canada it was, where he did everything from painting to boating.
Marko’s house is crammed with interesting things, pictures and postcards and prints plastered on every surface. On the kitchen cupboards are cutouts from a calendar, showing the history of flight through artists’ eyes. When you open the cupboard doors there are pinup girls. This is to help him wake up in the morning when he reaches for a coffee mug!
Day 7 – Cycling toward Cavtat
Today marks a full week on the road, if you count the three day stop in Risan. It would also be my first foray into bicycle touring camping.
At the start of the day, though, Marko and I shared kiwifruit, oranges and cake for breakfast. Then he sent me off with a hug and good wishes for my future.
If you ever are passing by on the coastal road from MNE to Dubrovnik, take a minute to stop in at Marko’s place and say hi. If I pass by again I’ll make sure to come loaded with something to share, something better than spinach and fruit.
Read the full bike touring blog here: Camping in Cavtat
Day 8 – More Croatia and a touch of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Around 6am I rolled out of my sleeping bag to find a chilly grey sky. I was pretty chilly too, so I quickly freshened up, ate a banana and some nuts, and packed up the camp.
Continuing my bicycle touring Croatia, I was actually glad of the steady incline along the coast because it got my blood pumping and temperature up.
After about an hour I stopped in at a little town hoping to get a coffee, but Croatia can be so expensive, the coffee was the equivalent of $4 AUD, so I decided not to.
Instead I bought an apple pastry from a supermarket and sat by my bicycle in the carpark to make use of a free wifi hotspot. Looking more and more like a penniless cyclist.
Day 9 – Freedom to explore
I write this entry lying on my stomach in my tent, facing the ocean as the sun sets. The moon is already brightly hanging in the sky. An airplane is drawing a comet’s tail as it falls toward a purple-pink horizon and all I can hear is the waves.
I found another off-season camp-ground down at the beach, just as I was wondering whether it would be possible to camp at the waterfront. I can’t access electricity but I do have running water and perfectly flat ground, five star comforts!
It seems to be a common thing, these unattended camp-grounds at this time of year. I’m going to start looking out for them as a free camping option.
Full post here: Balkan Wilderness Camping
Day 10 – Thoughts on camping
Camping is changing my sleeping schedule. I’ve fallen in a habit of finding a spot around 4pm, setting up and eating something by 5, doing the necessary things like washing and such, then writing and reading until the sun is gone. By 7 or 8 I’m lying in my sleeping bag, stretching my legs and meditating. Sometime shortly after that I’m asleep. I wake around midnight for a while, then sleep again until daylight wakes me around 5am.
Apparently in the days before electric lights and the industrial revolution, there is ample evidence to suggest that most people went to bed early and woke for an hour or two in the middle of the night, and then slept again. Funny isn’t it. Anyway, by 6:30am I was cycling around the edge of a cliff, looking out at the rising sun.
Read the full bike touring blog here: Balkan wilderness camping
Day 11 – Detoured experience
I’ve found that I’m enjoying the intermittent inland detours that the road takes. Often the slopes are gentler, and when there’s a river nearby the road is almost flat. Today, I sprinted along stretches of inland wilderness, reaching the bustling city of Sibernik just after lunch.
Day 12 – Wintery biking
Overnight there was a frost and the condensation inside the tent formed into little droplets lining the walls that rained on me and my bags. Needless to say, I wasn’t very cheerful when I woke around 2am, freezing and damp.
I wriggled until I could feel my toes again and tried to sleep at least until 5, when I got up and numbly changed into the least damp clothes I had, packed up the bike and ate a banana with red, swollen fingers. No matter how deceptively sunny the days are, it’s still winter.
Day 13 – Biking through Zadar
Jelena was the best host one could wish for, she kept me well-fed, entertained and relaxed. I’d been told that the people one meets on Warmshowers are unfailingly amazing, and this, my second experience being hosted, only confirms it.
Jelena also set out on her first bicycle tour alone, and it was the best thing she’s ever done. She’s an example of a woman who can maintain grace and femininity while retaining personal strength, guts and courage. I am lucky in the people I’ve met while traveling!
Day 14 – Exploring the moon
Maps can’t convey what landscapes hold in store for the traveller. If my map had been accurate it would have said “landing on the moon” when I crossed the bridge to Pag Island.
As far as I could see, the land was entirely made of creamy cracked clay and rocks. Nothing but the road broke the continuity. It was surreal and exciting. Except for the gravity, I could have been biking the moon.
Day 15 – Flexible Scheduling
One of the beautiful things about traveling solo is that you don’t have to follow anyone else’s schedule. You don’t have to feel competition. And you only ‘cheat’ if you break rules you decide are worth sticking to. It means there is a built-in flexible schedule.
So when I woke up this morning for the second time to a dripping tent and aching legs, when I growled audibly and swore at the mountains I had to climb, questioning my motives for doing it at all, and when the prospect of cycling 100km out of my way to see the ancient gnarly olive trees no longer appealed to me at all, I reminded myself that it didn’t matter.
More here: My flexible bike tour
Day 16 – Grays and Trolls
Today was big. I started the morning at 6am with an orange, was pushing my bicycle up a mountain by 6:30am, riding through troll country until 9:30am when I finally reached civilization in the form of Senj and had a proper sandwich with coffee for breakfast.
Troll country is mountainous desolation strewn with grey stones where I imagine monstrous mythical creatures the color of the rock live in caves and war with each other.
A grey sky and misty horizon added to the sense of being stuck in a monochrome film; silver grey, stone grey and storm grey. It’s not every day you go biking with trolls hiding all around you.
Day 17 – Biking to Illirska Bistrica
Next up is an example of why I love travelling alone and with only a very vague itinerary. About 8km from the Slovenian border I stopped at a roadside memorial to snack on some tuna and beetroot, when Zoran rolled past on his touring bicycle, panniers and all.
He slowed and asked where I was from, which lead to a conversation and exchange of details, along with an invite to stay at his place in the Slovenian town of Ilirska Bistrica, should I pass that way.
He’s a middle-aged dad who’s worked in hospitality and tourism all his life. A few years ago he decided to take a few months off work to enjoy life, and that worked out so well that he just kept on with it.
He’s a warmshowers and couchsurfing host, has travelled widely, often on a bicycle, and has done the Camino de Santiago trail three times, on three different routes. (biking Slovenia)
Day 18 – from Slovenia into Italy
It started with more of Zoran’s excellent cooking, prosciutto and eggs with coffee. He then rode with me almost to the Italian border. It was one of the best rides so far – cruising over 30 kilometres hardly breaking a sweat, on a gentle road following the course of a river, in the sun, with good company. Slovenia is a stunning place for cyclists. Hello Italy.
Week 4 – Idyllic Italy
I’m sitting in a sun-filled living room while three Italian guys play bongo drums to Bob Marley in a haze of smoke, two dogs dance, and a green-eyed girl whose name I can’t pronounce sits quietly typing away, sipping sweet black coffee.
I arrived to the big house in Padova with a messy yard and yelled “Ciao! Hello! Buenogiorno!” until someone came to the door. Salvo introduced himself and let me in, showed me where to stick my stuff, and invited me up to share in their delicious lunch.
Soft boiled cauliflower with olive oil and salt, fresh-baked dark bread, some strong cheese and a variety of preserved tasty things in jars. So Italian! (Biking Italy)
Week 5 – Looking for treasures in Italy
After a couple days in Padova, it was on to Bologna. Seven hours and 125km saw me arrive at my couchsurfing host’s place just a little late, with sore knees, hands and bum.
It was pretty much flat cycling. Italian roads so far are a dream, I actually didn’t change gears that entire day except to allow myself to stand and give my seat a rest. I was kicking myself for setting up such a rushed cycle because the scenery was gorgeous and I barely got to see it. On the upside, my leg muscles seem to have accepted their fate and weren’t even tired after such a mammoth effort.
Read the full bike touring blog post here: Week 5
Week 6 – Biking Florence, Siena, and Perugia
There are paintings of landscapes that I’ve often seen with vivid green hills with sprays of trees in shades of gold, brown and white, little brown houses flanked by two or three towering skinny dark green trees and bright flowerbeds. I’d always thought that they were idealised depictions of rural scenery, works of the imagination. And then I cycled through Italy and discovered that they actually exist!
Read the full bike touring blog here:
Week 7 – An unexpected turn
I’m afraid that in this week I’ve failed you all miserably. I haven’t seen any sights, I haven’t followed any of the recommendations of hosts or travellers to hike to wonderful places or explore nearby towns. I have very little to write about!
On the other hand, I have let myself relax, enjoying the care and company of my dear friend here, repaired my bicycle and made some key decisions. My change of plans will shape the next six months. So it’s not been a waste at all.
Week 8a – visiting Anne Mustoe
I’ve been reading a travelogue of the late Anne Mustoe who in her fifties left her headmistress job in England and cycled the world. She started on the ancient Roman roads, singing their praises.
She writes that the Via Flaminia is so delightful to cycle that when she retires she wishes to cycle back and forth along it endlessly. A sign directed me onto it and Ms Anne Mustoe was right, at least for the first five kilometres.
After that it disintegrated into a soggy dirt track, and then ended entirely, putting me back on the ordinary road. A little disappointing. She was riding about twenty years ago so perhaps it has not been well-maintained over that time.
Week 8b – biking Napoli
Easter Sunday was a big day. I followed the SS 4 from Passo Corese into Rome. Most of the way it was a beautiful ride through almost flat farmland and small villages.
In Rome I lost my way as I tried to find the beginning of another ancient Roman road, the Via Appia. I stopped at a shop for a minute and lost my sunglasses from where they were tucked at the top of my front pannier. I thought that was unnecessarily mean!
After finding the Via Appia Nuovo (Nuovo = new, the part leading out of Rome is new) I left the city. The road was awfully dusty, with bridge after bridge over smaller roads and suburbs, me picking my way through the gravel and broken glass alongside almost stationary traffic.
I took a small road to escape the dust and immediately got a flat tyre. Half an hour later I was back on the road, having patched the inner tube and reassembled the wheel myself. I’d downloaded a basic bike manual back before I started out in Podgorica, but somewhere along the way it seems to have disappeared from my iPad, so I was quite proud of myself for fixing my first flat tyre entirely unassisted.
Week 9 – bike meets ferry
I was exhausted by the time I boarded the boat and secured my bike, going up into the main part armed just with a bag of essentials, my sleeping bag and water.
I’d only bought a deck-passenger ticket which entitled me to move about the public spaces on the ship; the bars and restaurants serving overpriced junk food and that didn’t like loitering scruffy cyclists taking up residence on their couches, the cold windy decks, and thankfully a room filled with aeroplane-like seating complete with bony armrests where we cheapskates could take refuge.
Following the example of other passengers, after securing my shoes and bag to a footrest, I stretched out in my sleeping bag on the floor and slept soundly with my valuables tucked inside. I was feeling forlorn at that point, and certainly looked the part. (bicycle touring the Mediterranean)
Week 10 – Hello Spain!
There’s something in the air in this city, a freshness, a liveliness, I don’t know exactly what, but I connect with it. To put into words what attracted me about Barcelona is like trying to capture the grandeur of the Taj Mahal on Polaroid film, but I’ll try.
It’s a loved city. Clearly the local government and town planners are investing in maintaining and developing it as a place where people want to be, with well-preserved older architecture, innovative uses of space, lots of greenery (the tram-tracks are lush grassy strips!) and new art everywhere.
Every neighbourhood has a “rambla” – a pedestrian road with outdoor dining, art, and often big shady trees. People are smiling and expressive, they dress well with awesome hairstyles. Everywhere there are signs of a prevailing open and liberal culture.
I spent the day wandering around the city, through the historically-dodgy-but-now-intriguing neighbourhood El Raval, and of course, I checked out one of the Gaudi houses which was definitely dreamy but possibly nightmarish too.
Adela took me out for dinner that evening to her local Indian restaurant (palaak and dhal! my love!), delicious food and even better company, Barcelona has me hooked.
Retiring a bike
In the morning I fixed the flat tyre and packed up my stuff. Just as I loaded it all onto my bike and started to roll out of the bush, the rear tyre went flat.
Clearly I needed new tyres too. I repaired that inner tube and set out again.
This time I didn’t get lost, but when I was almost at the town of Sueco and AGAIN the front tyre went flat, I gave up. I pushed my bike into town and sat under a tree to think.
I had no patches left in my repair kit and new tyres wouldn’t be so cheap, let alone all the other bits and pieces. My dear little bicycle had been faithfully steady for over two months of heavy-duty work, and I had always intended to give her away at the end, and anticipated that she might not make it all the way through Spain.
So I unloaded her, tied my sleeping bag, mat and tent to my backpack, took what I needed from my panniers and left her next to a university with bags, tools, and even the keys sitting in the lock.
I’m sure some student will give her a new and easier life. Luckily there was a train station in Sueco so I got the afternoon train back to Valencia and booked an overnight train to Granada. (bicycle touring spain)
Looking back on my cycling tour across South Europe, it seems a little debrief would be helpful. Below are the items I packed and some of what I learned and would do next time related to bicycle touring gear.
I had many things that people who start out with the intention of traveling by bicycle don’t bring, such as the boots, the art materials, perfume and jeans.
I had enough space for everything and didn’t regret them because they brought a little indulgence and comfort to what can become a fairly austere lifestyle.
Since leaving the bike and travelling by foot and thumb I’ve culled a lot more because the backpack is too heavy. On the other hand, because I wasn’t planning my bike tour I only bought the bare minimum of gear that I thought I would need, and along the way picked up things that I found through experience really were useful, like the handlebar horns, sewing kit and padded cycling shorts.
My packing approach tends to be minimalist, but not necessarily austere. Minimalist to me means identifying the things that I get the most value out of – either because they are useful or because I enjoy them. So my paints and charcoals, makeup and hair product are included, and camping cookware isn’t.
Check out my post trip review of bike touring gear here: Bike touring gear review