About four kilometres northwest of the town of Makarska, the coastal foot- and cycle-path passes an angular grey shed standing beside a small pebbly cove. A boldly geometric construction with a pitched roof sheltering a small bench, it was clearly designed by contemporary architects with style in mind. A clue to the shed’s purpose is provided by a bouquet of spanners and screwdrivers, attached to the wall by steel rope. This enigmatic structure is indeed a bicycle repair shack, part of an EU-funded project to improve the infrastructure in one of the Mediterranean’s fastest-growing cycling destinations. Clearly, there’s a lot more to Adriatic tourism than just the beach.
With a lush coastal strip backed by grey mountains, the Makarska Riviera offers not just the perfect scenery for a cycling holiday but also a broad range of challenges, offering the kind of punishing mountain ascents that serious cyclists will be talking about for months afterwards as well as relaxed seaside pedaling that will suit a family day out.
The main target for ambitious mountain-bike cyclists is Biokovo, the rugged grey massif that rises imperiously above the coast. Protected as a national park, it’s a vast area and there are numerous ways of exploring it. Arguably the most challenging route is the 30km climb from the town of Makarska to Biokovo’s highest peak, the 1762-metre Sveti Jure. Making use of a mixture of bike paths and paved roads it’s a seriously gruelling climb, involving plenty of hairpin bends and some challenging gradients, especially near the summit. Even experienced, physically fit cyclists will need about three hours to get to the top, although they’ll be rewarded with exhilarating views of the Dalmatian coast and its islands. It will be chilly up there, so you’ll need to pack extra clothes.
If the Sveti Jure climb looks like a bit too much for you then there’s a wealth of alternative routes, taking cyclists above the coastal strip and into the weird Biokovo foothill-landscape of Mediterranean scrub and abandoned stone villages. The little-travelled roads immediately above Makarska and Tučepi are ideal for half-day cycling trips that involve a bit of climbing but also plenty of lateral coasting along the slope-hugging lanes. It is a strange and eerie part of the world, and cycling is the best way to explore it. Up above Makarska and Tučepi is the fascinating Biokovo Botanical Garden, where plants typical of the mountain region are arranged beneath steep scree-covered slopes. As you might expect, the views of the coastal strip are gorgeous.
There are further cycling alternatives to the southeast, with marked trails above Drašnice and Živogošće enabling cyclists to take in a coast-and-mountain circuit that involves seashore trails, hillside lanes and a stretch of preserved woodland too.There is another popular coast-and-mountain circuit above Drvenik and Zaostrog further east, with the beaches of Drvenik and the historic monastery at Zaostrog providing plenty of excuses to mix a bit of cycling with other holiday pursuits.
Whichever part of the Biokovo massif you chose to explore you’ll be treated to a fantastic range of landscape and flora, with a variety of rock-hugging alpine shrubs and flowers totally different to the palm trees and olive groves of the coastal strip.
Cycling up and down hills in a test of your all-round rugged-ness is far from being the only kind of biking on offer. The less demanding coastal rides can also be exhilarating, especially those heading east and west from Makarska town. With plenty of pebbly-beach stops and coastal cafes offering refreshments,they are perfect for families as well as being suitable for cyclists of medium stamina. Heading east from Makarska, the trail to Tučepi takes you across the wooded Osejava peninsula, criss-crossed by gravel paths. On the southern side of the peninsula is Nugal Beach, a famously beautiful pebbly cove.
Heading northwest from Makarska (and it’s here that we spotted that bike shed at the beginning of the story), it’s possible to cycle all the way to Brela, 15km up the coast, although the latter stretches of the route involve asphalt roads and it’s the earlier, wilder bits of the trail that are most interesting. Heading out of central Makarska takes you past busy stretches of beach as well as a string of uncommercialized coves backed by olive groves or forest. You will also pass the flying saucer-like form of the former children’s holiday resort at Krvavica, the pearl of modernist architecture that is currently standing derelict and awaiting an investor.
It’s important to note that these coastal cycle paths are likely to be busy with strollers and other cyclists, so it’s never really possible to pick up speed. The going is also quite rough in places, so you will need a proper mountain bike with good tyres, and even then you might have to carry it across the odd rocky obstacle.
Spring and autumn are the best times for cycling – which is good news if you’re travelling as a family because accommodation prices are more bearable at this time of year. Cycling through the countryside it’s important to bear in mind that a lot of rural inns will be closed outside the summer season – all the more reason to pack a bottle of water and some energy-giving snacks. Bear in mind also that the sun can shine hard from Easter right through to October, so headgear is essential as well as plenty of fluid.
Mountain bikes can be rented from the main tourist agencies in Makarska town, or from the seasonal, open-air bike-hire points behind Makarska’s main beach. Use of a mountain bike will set you back around 25kn/hour or 100kn/day, with discounts for longer rentals. Helmets will be supplied, and you may get additional back up (a tyre repair kit; a phone number in case you break down), so it’s always a good idea to ask when you make the rental.
The Central Dalmatia Bike map, available for free from Makarska Tourist Office, is your best guide to routes. Detailed route descriptions and advice on where to take a break are printed on the reverse side of the map. Indeed this map will more than suffice if you are thinking of exploring the coastal routes. If your heart is set on exploring the Biokovo massif, however, you are well advised to supplement the tourist office’s cycling map by purchasing a more detailed guide to the area such as the 1:25 000 Biokovo hiking map published by SMAND and available in local shops. Once you are out on the paths, waymarkers (consisting of a picture of a cyclist accompanied by a number and a colour code) will let you know you’re on the right path.