It’s getting harder to find and shift into neutral. I’m worried. The clutch feels spongy due to a stretched cable. So before taking off, I trade a few messages with Dooby at Lobagola B&B in Zagreb, Croatia. He’ll order a new clutch cable for me and find a shop that can repack the muffler that’s increasingly getting noisier. I’ll explore Southern and Coastal Croatia for a week or then head to Zagreb for bike maintenance.
The ride from Mostar to Croatia winds around karst and limestone mountains and through small towns, and fertile valleys. The narrow road climbs over the hills and in places follows the bends of the Neretva River. It is rough in parts, with loose rocks, potholes, and graffiti-laced road signs. Mostly, it’s desolate. The weather today is mild, and when I ride through a break in the clouds, I feel the warm heat of the sun. There are few cars, and not much else, except scrappy low trees and shrubs and the occasional house—or remains on one.
I notice more Croatian flags than I see Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the first time in a week, I see a new license plate. It’s got the European Union circle of stars on the blue field, but here the country initials read “HR.” I wonder, is that Hungary? I’m wrong. It’s Croatia. I know that seems odd, but in the Slavic language, Croatia is the Republika Hrvatska, or simply Hrvatska (HR).
It’s no wonder there are Croatian flags here, during World War II Ustaše Croats declared the land I’m riding through as part of the NDH, or the “Independent State of Croatia.” Right now I’m just a few kilometers from the current EU recognized Croatian border.
The Ustaše Croats were barbaric terrorists. Founded in 1930 by Ante Pavelic, the Ustaše Croatian Revolutionary Organization dedicated itself to achieving independence from Yugoslavia and was motivated by a multi-pronged ideology that blended Fascism, Roman Catholicism, and Croatian nationalism. They dreamed of a “Greater Croatia” encompassing parts of modern-day Serbia and the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina—where I’ve been traveling the past few days.
After the Axis powers (Italians, Germans) invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Ustaše got their independent state. Sponsored by the Italians and protected by the Germans, the Ustaše were fiercely Roman Catholic. The group promoted a nationalist agenda calling for a racially pure Croatia and the extermination of Christian Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Romani populations. Ironically, they considered Bosnian Muslims to be ethnically Catholic who were forced to convert to Islam by the Ottomans.
As I pass through Capljina, a somewhat bustling town compared to the other settlements I’ve cruised through today, it occurs to me that I’m just a few kilometers from Surmanci, the site of one of the most horrific atrocities committed by the Croats during World War II. It’s a chilling thought, but I’ve no interest in visiting.
Overshadowed by the horrors of the Holocaust which it was also complicit, the Ustaše-perpetrated Serbian genocide and ethnic cleansing campaign is not very well known. The brutality of the Ustaše shocked even the Germans who had witnessed the atrocities. In a Gestapo Report sent to Heinrich Himmler in 1942 noted, “The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age but especially against helpless old people, women, and children.”
While the Ustaše committed the atrocities in several concentration camps throughout the country, the Ustaše also carried out ad hoc executions and led torturous death marches throughout villages in the Dinaric Alps. During the Summer of 1941, they massacred four-thousand Orthodox Serbs all in the mountains surrounding me.
As I continue to climb, the hills around get steeper, and the occasional glimpse of the river winding below makes me dizzy. There’s a feeble guardrail, but I can’t imagine taking a tumble down. Above me the clouds darken, it looks like rain.
Just a few kilometers from where I am riding, on August 6, 1941, the Ustaše executed most of the residents of Prebilovci, a small village of about 1,000 people. Family-by-family 650 were all pushed alive off a cliff into the Golubinka pit below Surmanci. They fell some 90 feet, slamming into an embankment and then tumbling down another 300 feet to their death—even young children, women and the elderly. To ensure they were effective, the Ustaše through hand grenades on top of the bodies. Today only about 50 people live in Prebilovci.
I wind down the mountain and circle the Hutovo Blato Nature Reserve and lose my GPS connection and miss a turn and find myself in the lakeside town of Svitava before realizing I’m going the wrong way. I find the very tight turn and climb up the mountains. In about thirty minutes I find myself behind a handful of cars at the Croatian border station. Border stops aren’t difficult in these parts. They do interrupt the flow of my journey—the ride. Sometimes there are long and hot waits like in Montenegro, or other times bureaucratically annoying like crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I pass through the only stretch of coastline Bosnia, and Herzegovina has on the Adriatic and the resort town of Neum before I get to the border. The three cars ahead of me were all stopped by the border control, and I witness the exchange of documents and some discussion. I’m ready to stop and get off my bike to gather my documents, but instead, I’m waved through. No documents, no discussion.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m in Croatia.
It’s not long before I come to the turnoff to the Peljesac peninsula and head to the tiny town of Ston. In Southern Dalmatia, as the coastal region here is known, Ston is home to the oldest salt pans in Europe and the longest to a medieval fortress that has the longest fortified walls in Europe. All of this in a town with a population of just two thousand.
I pass a long section of the walls and then pull into the driveway of Fort Kaštio, a massive castle-like structure that connects the walls at the Southeast corner of the fortress. A gate blocks the road into Ston, yet I can see a few cars inside and several cafes, an old church and a handful of shops. I park in front of the gate and walk around. There’s not a single hotel or guest house in the town, though I remember passing a sign for one a few kilometers back in Mali Ston, or Little Ston.
So I hop on the bike, turn the key on, and pull the clutch. The lever goes limp. It’s like shaking hands with someone who has no grip. My clutch cable gives out. Shit. I thought it would last longer. I’m too far from Zagreb. And the sun is beaming down, making me hot and sweaty. Can I ride the bike to Mali Ston?
I get the bike in neutral and start it up. Revving the engine, I stomp on the shifter and into first gear. The bike lurches forward, and the front wheel flies into the air—the biggest wheelie I’ve ever done! I grab all the brake I can before I enter the main road. A couple walking on the street, stunned, look at me with wondering eyes.
There’s no way I’m riding this bike. So I push it to the side of the main road in front of a souvenir stand. The owner of the stand doesn’t speak English, but the woman who works in the tourist information office next door does. The two of them chatter and tell me there is a mechanic nearby who worked on their scooters in the past. But he doesn’t answer when they call him.
They try calling an auto mechanic, but since it’s Saturday, he doesn’t answer either. It’s getting late; I have no choice but to stay here and solve this problem. I ask if there is a hotel or B&B. A man hanging around the souvenir stand offers me an apartment. He doesn’t speak English. I know I need a better connection here, so I pass on the apartment and ask if there’s a full-service hotel. A few phone calls later, they tell me that the owner of a hotel in Mali Ston will come to pick me up.
I move my bike to a safe place under a tree, pull my necessities off and cover it.
Moments later Mr. Željko Kralj, owner of the Hotel Ostrea and the Kapetanova Kuca restaurant where his wife Lidija is the head chef, shows up and takes me to the hotel. He tells me that there’s nowhere to get parts or someone to help work on the bike until after the weekend.
There is a new sense of urgency and a modest problem to solve. I need a new clutch cable and to continue this journey.