Scott Mercier: Family, food and cycling in King’s Landing, aka Croatia
Special to The Aspen Times
This summer, my sister, Lorraine, suggested our respective families take a joint trip to Europe. We both have kids in college and we thought a big trip would entice them to spend some time with us.
Lorraine thought it would be fun to do a cycling tour in Croatia and I was immediately intrigued. I’d never been to Croatia and I’d never done a cycling tour. I really didn’t know much about Croatia either, other than it’s home to King’s Landing — you know, from Game of Thrones — and that it recently emerged from a horrific war. The war lasted four years and tens of thousands of Croatian civilians died as they fought for independence following the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Since the end of the war, however, Croatia has enjoyed peace and is now a member of both NATO and the European Union.
The tour was a five-day, 144-mile, island-hopping ride from Split to Dubrovik with Cycling Croatia. My kids and nephews don’t ride, so I wasn’t sure how long each day would take. There was more than 10,000 feet of climbing and we were on hybrid-style bikes. Luckily, there were support vans, so if someone wanted to skip a climb they could jump in the van. Our group was 19 riders in total; the eight of us, plus three other families.
Split is home to Diocletian’s Palace, which houses one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Diocletian was the first Roman emperor to have retired rather than die in office. He spent the remainder of his days gardening in his palace.
Our first day was on the island of Bra. We took a ferry from Split and started riding just as the day was heating up at around 11 a.m. We only had 24 miles to ride, but there was a significant climb right in the middle of the route.
As we rolled away from the small port, I marveled at the turquoise waters and the green mountains. These islands have been settled and farmed for thousands of years and there were rows and rows of huge piles of rocks that had been cleared over centuries to make the land arable.
As soon as the road turned up, my son and daughter rode away from us. I said to my wife, “That little s&*t, he gets off the couch and leaves us like we’re standing still.” We didn’t see them again for several hours.
At about 2 p.m. we hit the main climb of the day. It was exposed and the temperature was hovering close to 100 degrees. I looked up, half expecting to see a dragon breathing fire down on us. We were, after all, on our way to King’s Landing. The heat was unbearable and I wondered how we were going to do five days of this.
Halfway up the climb we heard a soft noise and we got passed by Cecile. Cecile was an 80-year-old woman riding an e-bike. She passed us like we were standing still. Seeing Cecile on the e-bike offered me a different perspective on the e-bike phenomenon. I’d had disdain for e-bikers, but seeing her ride one and her obvious joy gave me pause. The e-bike allowed her to do this trip and get to see the country in a way that she otherwise would not have been able to. There is something joyful about riding a bike; the freedom to explore, the wind in your face, the thrill of a descent. These are pleasures that I take for granted, and the e-bike opened this opportunity for Cecile.
We finally crested the hill and stopped for lunch at an old olive oil museum. The lunch was amazing; freshly baked breads and local cheeses, olives and tapenades, salad and fruits, and a variety of cured meats. After lunch we had some rolling terrain and a fun descent back to the coast. The ride was as much about food and history as it was about cycling.
The next four days followed a similar pattern; most of the ride in the morning, a long, but amazing lunch, and then a short ride to complete the day. We had several ferry transfers as we went from Brač to Hvar to Korcula, and then back to the mainland and Dubrovnik.
Each of the following days also included an optional ride for those who wanted to add more climbing. My 20-year-old daughter, Mira, rode every optional mile on the route. Two rides in particular stand out for me. The second day had an optional ride over the top of Hvar. The climb was substantial: about 1,300 feet in four miles. Mira and I were the only ones to do this section, so we could ride at our own pace. The lower section of the climb was in a canopy of trees which shaded us. At the top we had a soothing breeze and unobstructed views of the island and coastal Croatia. And there were miles and miles of lavender; so much that you could smell it from the road. It was just my daughter and me enjoying a beautiful day.
The other memorable day was Day 3 as we rode along the spine of Hvar. My eldest nephew, Alex, my son Marius, Mira and I rode as a group. We kept the pace moderate and worked on climbing, drafting and cornering. They got tired of me saying, “Drink before you’re thirsty and eat before you’re hungry,” but none of them bonked that day.
And the descents! There is just something magical about descending to the coast. Any coast. But the Croatian coast is spectacular. Most of the roads were smooth and the descents were technical, but not dangerous, which made them a pure joy.
By the last day, we were all ready to get off the bike. I’d made the mistake of not bringing shoes and pedals and just rode in my running shoes and flat pedals. I figured our pace would be social and that I didn’t need them. But cycling shoes have stiff soles for a reason, and my feet were in significant pain by the end of the ride.
We ended the tour in Dubrovnik and it’s easy to see why Dubrovnik was chosen as King’s Landing. The fortress city feels like it’s from another time and place.
Croatia is magical. Great food, friendly people, beautiful scenery and amazing cycling. I’m sure I’ll be back, but it probably won’t feel quite the same without the entire family. That’s what I’ll remember the most — not the scenery nor the descents, but the people who kept me company.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a private wealth adviser in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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