I am living and working in Croatia! Life as a bike guide is all or nothing: Working days are long and it is rare to find time to yourself. Time off, on the other hand, feels like a vacation! I just finished working 20 days in a row and now I have 10 days to relax, explore and rejuvenate. I have become good friends with a girl named Alina from Poland. She is my age and has been working for Backroads nearly full time for the past 5 years. She is the trip expert for the Czech/Austria trips and has an apartment in Czech that she enjoys on the rare occasions when she is not traveling. Like me, she is married, however she sees her husband even less than I do because he also has a job that takes him all over the world (he does backstage mechanical set up for Cirque du Soleil).
Alina and I met as soon as we both arrived to Croatia and we did our 'Fam' (familiarization to a new region) together. It was like a 4 day scavenger hunt from island to island. We rented a car and took ferries to all the places where our trips would go, visiting the restaurants and hotels and visualizing where to park and set up bikes and snacks. We drove the bike routes, noting the shuttle stops, hills, photo stops, hairpin turns, lunch and gelato stops, etc.
We also speed hiked the gorgeous coast line trail, passing small secluded pebble beaches that can only be reached by foot or kayak. By the time we started the 8 mile hike it was after 4pm, and I still had a family restaurant to visit along the way. Alina continued at her long-legged pace and my plan was to catch a taxi back to the car at the start of our hike and meet her at the end. I introduced myself to Mate and family of the restaurant Mate Tudor. They make fresh bread, veggies from their garden and fresh fish that they catch each day and cook it all outside in a wood fired oven. They also make homemade wine and rose and walnut Rakija (Croatian grappa/brandy). This is rightfully a favorite stop on the Backroads trip.
After talking to them and realizing that it would be difficult to get a taxi, I decided that I would run and catch up to Alina, that way I could see the entire hike as well. (I would worry about getting the car later). The waiter refilled my water bottle and I left, running down the trail in the scorching heat. I ran across small pebbled beaches where normal people on vacation were basking in the sun and swimming in the refreshing water. I ran up the hill along the wooded trails that branch off every which way, stopping to read the piece of paper in my hand with directions such as, "Veer right at the Y after the stone building" and "DO NOT follow trail to the left downhill". I felt like a contestant on Survivor! By the time I reached Alina I was a heaving, sweaty mess but I felt amazing! That was basically the theme of our trip, or of any 'fam' for that matter. We passed by so many beautiful places in a hurry. So many places we visited would be nice to enjoy at a more relaxed pace. But it's hard not to rush when you have to learn two different six day trips in just 4 days. On trip the pace slows, but as a leader you are doing so much work behind the scenes that moments of relaxation are few and far between.
Alina and I are opportunists, however, so we did manage to swim at the famous Zlatni Rat beach, go out to a nice dinner in Bol, enjoy the sunrise in Vela Luka, and stop for a lunch of mussels and oysters in Ston and watching the sunset with local wine at the rocky beach.
We even made it to a nice dinner with a view in Cavtat on Croatia's Independence Day (August 5th). Although it was very crowded and difficult to find parking, we managed to get front row seats at a restaurant overlooking the water with a beautiful view of the evening sky. It was one of the most vibrant sunsets I have ever witnessed (there also happened to be 30 beautiful men in speedos in the foreground). Could our luck get any better?!!
The next morning I was up early to prep everything for our trip. Prepping involves printing guest information forms, gathering directions and other information to give to guests, sending emails, making confirmation calls (pages and pages of them!), prepping bikes and equipment (and making name tags for bikes, helmets, water bottles and trunk bags), getting the vans cleaned up, gassed up and stocked with water, snacks, towels, equipment & loading bikes on top. In the states it also involves buying thousands of dollars worth of groceries for the many picnics we make. Fortunately in Croatia we let the Croatian chefs work their magic for us and our food buy is pretty minimal. (Although I did make lunch for everyone one day on the boat and turned green with all the rocking from the waves...but that is another story!) At any rate, prep day is A LOT of work and for most of us it is our least favorite part about leading trips.
After prepping for nearly 11 hours with very few breaks, I was ready to jump into the sea to cool off. I went with some co-leaders to the town of Cavtat (just a 5 minute drive from the house). It's a quaint yet lively seaside town with a variety of restaurants and a long winding promenade with plenty of places to relax on the rocky beach or jump in the water. We went to a little bar built into the cliffside, and from the terrace we could walk down the steep steps to the rocks and the water. Once again, we were treated to a beautiful sunset. It's moments like these that make us feel like we are on holiday with everyone else.
I have been squeezing in as much beach time as possible around the work that needs to be done.
The following morning I woke up early before my work day and went for a run to another hidden beach. My inner goddess dared me to strip down and go for a swim. I considered it but then brushed it off and started back up the rocky path the way I came. She dared me again and I stopped in my tracks. I looked back at the scene before me: Sun-drenched rocky cliffs, the beautiful fortified Dubrovnik in the far distance and calm water glimmering from the morning sun, teasing me to jump in. I knew I would regret not going for it. I looked around again and saw no life except for the birds flying above to catch their morning meal. I made my way back down the steps toward the rocky waterfront. I awkwardly freed myself of my sticky running clothes, thinking, "I can't believe I am really doing this!" As I tiptoed in the nude to the edge of the water I was suddenly interrupted by angry shouting. I looked up and two policemen were briskly walking toward me with at least 5 onlookers behind them. OMG! I am caught!
...Okay, so that last part didn't really happen. It's just what was going through my mind as I stood naked at the waterfront! Instead, I jumped into the refreshing water and let the waves of the sea carry my worries away. As I floated in the cool water I felt so alive and free and happy.
Twenty days went by fast. The work is tough and tiring but enjoyable. The moments of slowing down and taking in these new surroundings melt the stress away. I've also made a new discovery: This mountain girl has a newfound affinity for the sea!