It had become routine, after a hard day’s cycling, to check our Bosnian wild camping spot for landmines. So I carefully tapped the area with a six-foot branch, as I’d been taught on a security course, to make sure the stubby grass was safe. Then I gave the all-clear to my companion, who bounded over – and straight into the path of an enormous black snake.
But we were used to surprises on the Ciro trail. The new 100-mile paved track, between Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast and the old town of Mostar in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, follows the route of the old Austro-Hungarian railway line. Closed in the 1970s after the abolition of the narrow-gauge railway, its proud station buildings stood empty until they – and the towns they linked – were obliterated by war in the 1990s.
Fighting – first between the Bosnian Croats and the Serb-run Yugoslav army in 1992, then between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims in 1993-4 – laid waste to the area the Ciro trail passes through. The track, which opened last December, is part of an EU-funded, cross-border drive to encourage tourists back to the region. It faces an uphill struggle, as there are still some 120,000 unexploded landmines in Bosnia. I was just being hyper-cautious: the minefields, which run alongside the trail for 12 miles between Ivanica, on the border near Dubrovnik and Ravno to the north, are marked and the trail itself, a mix of tarmac and gravel, is clear.
The Ciro website describes the trail as an “open-air museum”, because from the Croatian border it runs north through long-abandoned towns before ascending into the Dinaric Alps and the Vjetrenica caves.
We flew, taking our own bicycles – a tourer and a hybrid – to Dubrovnik airport, which is a lovely 10-mile coastal ride from the start of the trail, though it’s easy to hire bikes in Dubrovnik: try adventuredubrovnik.com.
The first hotel of the route, Stanica Ravno (doubles from £45 B&B) is a converted railway station about a third of the way along the trail. As well as great local food – such as wild asparagus foraged in the woods – it offers a chance to appreciate how splendid the old stations are.
The stretch between Dubrovnik and Ravno is remote – the towns almost all abandoned – so it’s essential to bring food and water. After Ravno, the trail drops through Hutovo into the Neretva valley, which is much more populated, and with plenty of shops. For those who don’t want to camp, there are hotels in ?apljina, 75 miles in.
At Hutovo there’s a chance to go off piste in Hutovo Blato nature park (a 13-mile gravel path over viaducts and through old railway tunnels).
The Ciro’s signposting, which had been flawless for more than 100 miles, petered out somewhat on the way into Mostar. But we were almost there by then, and explored its cobbled old town and famous bridge before setting off to ride back to Dubrovnik.