Jeremy Head hops on his bike and discovers what Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia have to offer...
What do you do when you’re surrounded by naked Austrians? The answer, I guessed, was to get naked too.
Bad Radkersburg is famous for its spa waters and, after five days of cycling through four different countries, a soak and a sweat seemed like the perfect way to ease my tired limbs. As I stepped into the large sauna in my birthday suit, one of the occupants was swinging his towel around his head. I had to duck to avoid getting scalped as I shuffled to find a seat. He then stopped, took a bow – revealing rather more than I wanted to see – and everyone clapped and walked out. Was it something I’d said?
Learning the complexities of Central European sauna-etiquette was just one of the highlights of my cycling adventure around Slovenia and neighbouring Croatia, Hungary and Austria. Slovenia’s Prekmurje region in the country’s far north-east is yet to be discovered by tourists and it’s just made for cycling – sleepy roads weave through flat green plains, rural villages and grape-heavy vineyards.
I based myself in Slovenia, but with three other countries just a wheel’s spin away, I couldn’t resist pedalling across a different border almost every day, where different customs, languages and currencies existed mere miles apart.
I started in Ptuj, one of Slovenia’s oldest and prettiest towns, complete with a sturdy hilltop castle, medieval streets and a wide, smooth river running round its perimeter. After a spin round the block to test my bike – loads of gears, panniers, a comfy saddle – cycle expert Saso gave me a briefing. “Here’s a helmet and a puncture kit. Hopefully you’ll use one a lot and the other not at all,” he said.
Suitably kitted out, our conversation turned to the country’s recent adoption of the euro. “To me it’s like changing trousers,” Saso explained. “No big deal. I’ve known four currencies in my lifetime.”
I bid Saso and my bicycle goodbye for the day, deciding to keep out of the saddle and walk to the castle instead. The views made clear what a great vantage point it was, but the castle changed hands many times nonetheless. An oddly non-Slovenian coat of arms adorned one wall, an insignia of three belt buckles with the words ‘Grip Fast’ emblazoned above in English. The castle was once owned by the Scottish Leslie family, one of whom, so the story goes, rescued a lady who had fallen down a well using only his belt.
‘Grip Fast’ seemed an appropriate motto the next morning. I’d been on a bike before, but I certainly wasn’t used to cycling 55km a day. Would I get lost with no one to guide me? And would my legs – and bottom – be able to hack it?
The first stretch was a bumpy track alongside a reservoir and my knees rattled despite the bike’s shock absorbers. Ducks, frightened by my approach, flapped guffawing from the water. Reaching smooth tarmac, I felt a bit more stable and freewheeled happily through villages whose greens were covered with squadrons of dandelions. It was Sunday afternoon and the scent of steak and sausages was rich in the air as families barbecued their lunch.
I kept thinking about lunch too, but first I had official business to attend to. The Croatian border loomed up ahead and I scrabbled for my passport, ready for an interrogation. To my disappointment I was waved straight through.
The scenery was an anti-climax too – Croatia has many delights, but this nondescript road through brown fields was not one of them. Also, the signposts didn’t correspond with my map, leaving me confused. I was happy to hop back over the border after my short international excursion.
I approached the Croatian checkpoint – it was empty. I hesitated a moment – it was now or never. I freewheeled slowly onto the bridge and into no man’s land. Any minute now the cry would go up from behind; a single shot would ring out, shattering the quiet. (Roll credits; camera remains trained on upturned bicycle, back wheel still spinning. Fade to black.)
Actually, nothing happened. I pedalled on, my progress unchallenged. At least at the Slovenian side a guard asked for my passport. “English!” I exclaimed, rather excited. He looked disinterested in that way only border guards can and dropped it into my hand.
Back in Slovenia the scenery changed dramatically. The road from Ormoz north towards Ljutomer was a delight, passing through one of the country’s best wine regions – a gaggle of sleepy, vine-terraced valleys topped with pointy-towered churches. Heading left off the main road I hit serious contours as the track climbed steeply. It caught me by surprise and I got lost in my bike’s formidable selection of gears, feet spinning like Catherine wheels. To cap it all a big dog ran out of one of the houses, barking fiercely.
What is it with dogs and bicycles? Staring him out, I climbed off stiffly and walked. And I was immediately glad I had – the view behind was awesome, stretching back to the river and plains beyond.
I’d expected the tiny inn where I was staying that evening to feature quiet couples sipping wine and drinking in the views but the place was thronging. Huge tables of extended families laughed and ate with boozy gusto. In contrast, my gusto had gone – I was exhausted after my first day in the saddle.
However, a little later I summoned the energy for a gentle pedal to the small village up the road. It’s said the Crusaders stopped here on their way to the Holy Land and never left because the wine was so good. They decided to call it Jeruzalem – at least that way they could pretend they’d reached their final destination. Afterall, who needs to go marauding about in the name of the Lord when you can quaff a glass of pristine laski rizling and watch the sun set over vine-clad terraces?
The next morning I ate breakfast on the terrace – now tranquilly empty – and chatted to Sebastian, whose father owns the restaurant and adjoining vineyard. Sebastian showed me the vast, carved barrels in their cellar: “Legend has it when the Romans arrived here they discovered the rizling grape growing wild,” he said. “That’s how natural our wine is.”
The vineyard produces 170,000 bottles a year and their white is the one to go for; it’s aged in Slovenian oak barrels for six months and tastes rather good. I shoved a couple of the best vintages into my bag, which was ready to be transported to my next hotel for me while I put my feet to the pedals.
The views quickly made me forget my aching knees; a rollercoaster ride plunging down through breezy beech forests and back up among terraces of vines. You could stop every hundred metres to sample each cellar’s wines if you could stay upright in the saddle long enough.
The miles seemed to disappear as I relaxed into the rhythm of cycling. I ate my sandwiches in the shade of a blossom-laden apple tree at one of Slovenia’s oldest watermills, the river rushing near my feet. The huge wheel was mounted on pontoons in the middle of the river to get the fastest flow while, inside, the mill shuddered as if alive.
Over dinner that evening, I chatted with inn-owner Ines about a British invasion. Her sociology thesis will be about English people buying local property. “There’s a British guy married to a Slovenian who’s turned estate agent. He’s making a fortune,” she explained as I tucked into her mother-in-law’s mushroom and barley soup. “There are 200 British families here now. House prices are rocketing. Why here?” she bemoaned.
The next day I cycled 50km into Hungary and back, and I understood Ines’ lament. In Slovenia, garish new-builds had interrupted the flow of pretty, ancient cottages, but here there was no painted concrete or shiny tiles. And presumably no marauding Brits.
I cycled through sleepy hamlets, where multicoloured beehives dotted the gardens and piles of logs leant against the walls. On the air came the scent of freshly cut wood while larks twittered from pylons and storks sat in judgement on telegraph poles. Little old ladies weeding their gardens were bent so double I wondered if they’d ever get up again.
Pots on poles lined the street – it seemed every house had its potter. Hidden in a shed behind one building, I found Janos busy at his wheel, bowls sprouting between his muddy fingers. We communicated in broken German; he told me that he learned his trade from his father. I wanted to buy a pot but I had just six euros. This seemed a paltry sum, but it was enough to buy a purchase. Janos, delighted to make the sale, wrapped my vase in newspaper and I squeezed it into my panniers, already wondering if I’d get it home in one piece.
It was a steep pedal back to the border and I arrived puffing and sweating. A female official looked me up and down, asked for my passport and disappeared inside with it. Minutes ticked by. Was I about to be hauled in for questioning? She finally returned brandishing a large circular canister and motioned towards the bike. I had no idea what she meant. Then I realised – she was pointing at my water bottle and was offering to refill it.
As I pedalled across borders and wide-open spaces I was beginning to surprise myself – I was really enjoying the cycling. The sense of having sweated to get somewhere was immensely satisfying. I spent another day cycling through Slovenia’s fields of barley dancing in the breeze, then turned my handlebars towards Austria for the final push.
Here, things were more ordered, with smooth cycle paths – the push-bikers’ autobahn. Bad Radkersburg was beautiful; all perfectly restored medieval houses and squares. But, I wondered as I was pummelled in the ultra-modern spa pool, was it maybe just a bit too idyllic?
Much of the charm of Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary is that they’re still rough around the edges. The history feels more connected to those who live there; many continue lifestyles unchanged for generations. Making comparisons across borders had been one of the delights of this trip – and being on a bike enabled me to get that much closer.
In fact there was only one way to get more intimate.
I clambered stiffly from my saddle and headed for the sauna. It was time to get naked with a bunch of Austrians.