»The road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain’t nowhere else it can go, right?«Jack Kerouac, On The Road
In the summer of 2017, writer Bojan Krištofić set off on a month-long bicycle trip – a conceptual and poetic travelogue which begins in his hometown Zagreb, Croatia. Here, you can follow his journey in the four-part Bicycle Chronicles 2017 (1, 2, 3, 4). From Zagreb, the journey leads to an old Sephardic cemetery in Split, to the unique Tam Tam music festival on Hvar island, and further south. Bojan uses his thoughts about his home country, music, art, travel, politics, architecture, and its people to tell a different kind of story about his country, one that goes beyond banal, consumerism tourism. Following the pathways of Croatia, The Bicycle Chronicles 2017 are about the ordinary beauty and poetry of life.
Thursday, July 20th / Zagreb―Duga Resa―Slunj
The first hints of daybreak. I left Zagreb through the southern neighborhood of Zapruđe, to the tune of Hope Sandoval and Kurt Vile’s Let Me Get There. Hrvoje rang me up and told me he would catch up with me later. And so I set off on my journey alone, my only companions the timid morning roads. I made a couple of wrong turns, through force of habit rather than any real lack of direction; I love to pretend that I never want to leave Zagreb. Spurred on by my two-wheeled traveling companion, my own will was little more than an afterthought in our relationship. My departure was fueled by basic laws of physics; any reasons for it would be attributed later, in times of rest. If I had taken the time to question my reasons and motivations, I wouldn’t have left until the summer was almost gone.
The town of Jastrebarsko, and the trip’s first coffee. A chirpy, well-rested waitress managed to convince me to order some juice as well. Enthusiasm at seven in the morning – quite noteworthy.
Duga Resa. For the first time this year, I spent a couple of waking hours all on my own. I wrote, I made some sketches… I watched children play and swim in the Mrežnica river. The world was fresh. Supple. I ran my hand through the river mud, grabbed a handful and smeared it over my face. A swarm of flies quickly engulfed me, taking control. I gave in to their buzzing, to the incessant bursts of an alien tongue that, somehow, felt more like a caress than a sting. A bath ensued, almost ritual in nature. I made my peace with the insects. I waved to a boy playing with a red ball, and we played catch, knee deep in the shallow waters.
The rolling hills between the rivers Mrežnica and Korana. My attention was drawn by the tolling evening bells ringing out from little wooden churches, and the sight of the faithful flocking to mass on tractors. Jesus of Nazareth met me at every crossroads, with his warm skin and his wooden gaze following me into the woods. The forest is his kingdom, and he is its spirit, seductive and elusive. It is a legacy granted by his crown of thorns.
The towns of Slunj and Rastoke. A man wearing the shirt of the local chapter of the Croatian Democratic Union  volunteered to find lodgings for me somewhere in town. Of course, it all came to naught. I spent the night on a grassy beach on the banks of the Korana, with my travelbag as my pillow. Good thing I had a pack of wet wipes!
Friday, July 21st / Slunj―Plitvice―Korenica―Lovinac
Hrvoje finally showed up and prevented me from finishing an engrossing article on celebrity hairstyles. The heat was almost unbearable, making the leg of our journey heading to Korenica across Rakovica and the Plitvice National Park seem almost endless. I tensed up as I rode my bike – I felt uncomfortable, even fearful, not really knowing why. This bike ride was supposed to be liberating. I shivered every time a truck passed me by, honking and groaning. I never used to mind these things before, but this was obviously just a part of a larger fear that I needed to conquer. That was one of the reasons I had decided to go on this bike trip. Just outside the village of Jošan – a traffic accident! The mangled wreck of a car lay there, flipped on its back like a helpless turtle. Luckily, the chubby driver had survived. The paramedics were stabilizing him as we rode past them.
»This bike ride was supposed to be liberating. I shivered every time a truck passed me by, honking and groaning. I never used to mind these things before, but this was obviously just a part of a larger fear that I needed to conquer.«
I only calmed down when we got off that miserable road and took a turn toward Udbina. It was only then that I started really enjoying myself and truly absorbing the countryside of the Lika highlands. An almost desolate no man’s land, a Middle-earth whose majority population are sheep covered in dark and impenetrable wool, harsh and soft at the same time, just like the rare people who still live here. A land between the mountains and the sea, a highland where the sky meets the earth, an unfathomable Avalon where I nonetheless feel like I belong – mostly because of my grandmother; sensing that this was the source of her steadfast and brusque nature, but also her warmth, and her hidden, smoldering strength. The air was like her breath – refreshing and enthralling, inviting you to contemplate its purity. A cold and gentle night descended on us during our ride. As we entered the gentle area around the town of Lovinac, we were greeted by the barking of an invisible hound. We had been waiting for that greeting since the day we were born. Lovinac has a contemporary spirit, a model of what the entirety of Lika could be like.
Saturday, July 22nd / Lovinac―Mali Alan―Maslenica―Zadar
Crossing mount Velebit. One of the most beautiful, most spiritual experiences of my life. The mountain caressed us with its steep slopes, offering me a badly needed feeling of something more important, more permanent than myself, something I can trust in. It is no accident that ancient peoples thought that mountains were sacred and dedicated them to the gods, from Mount Ararat to Mount Olympus and beyond. Since it is in every way impossible to face off against a mountain, it helps you consider yourself in continuity, from timid beginnings to the inevitable, but not necessarily bitter end. Mountains give birth to us and raise us in their arms, and then inevitably cast us off, only to embrace us once again when they sense that they are the foundation of our joint existence. The vegetation of Mount Velebit enveloped me and my bicycle like quicksand, but a kind that rejuvenates rather than suffocates or drowns. The richly forested northern side of the mountain doesn’t swallow anything; rather, it spreads out over the land without conquering it, like an underlying force of nature which, together with mount Plješivica, forms the roots of the Lika region, like the intertwined fingers of the old lady I dreamt of last year. At the top of the saddle, we met an elderly man, who reminded me of my late grandfather. He had the same posture and stature; at first glance, a certain humility, which soon gives way to a sense of pride; pride, because of a life lived in harmony with his calling. That is all I can say about him for now.
In Zadar, we slept at Ena’s place, and spent most of our time in our own Neverland, the Nigdjezemska squat. We listened to a live show of a band called Lice mista, from the town of Preko on the nearby isle of Ugljan. The Adriatic rock of Daleka obala meets Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It is the sound of the maw of the sea releasing all the bottom-dwelling fish to the surface, facing humans with their glimmering eyes, the clutch of flashes gestated in the brood of their deep sea shoals. The show attracted a nice crowd, including a couple of Polish tourists; the crowd let go and danced the night away.
»Mountains give birth to us and raise us in their arms, and then inevitably cast us off, only to embrace us once again when they sense that they are the foundation of our joint existence.«
Sunday and Monday, July 23rd and 24th / Zadar―Čiovo―Split
Although we had agreed that we wouldn’t needlessly exert ourselves this time around, it turned out that that was exactly what we were doing all the time. In that vein, we decided on an overnight ride from Zadar to the island of Čiovo, even though we knew that we were much too tired for that and that our furthest goals should be Šibenik or Brodarica. But, naturally, there is something entirely irresistible about night rides; for example, the familiar feeling that the entire world is moving except for you, and there you are, sitting in a bubble, watching the endless spinning of the Earth, the Gordian knot of gravel roads, freeways and highways, heading, by accident, straight into its center. Should you even bother trying to untangle it? Since Alexander the Great cleaved the original, legendary Knot with his sword, you should simply ride your bike down the threads that weave together to form the ropes, all the way until you break through on the other side and realize that you have just pierced your own heart. That is the moment where you become aware of your own motion; faced with a camper or car that emerges out of the darkness by the side of the road and winks at you with their dull, inert eyes, briefly woken from their slumber while their owners are off making love somewhere on a beach or in the woods. The starlit sky hangs over you like a shroud of coarse, glittering salt scattered everywhere by the hands of those who live and die by the sea.
»Sv. Filip i Jakov, Drage, Biograd, Vodice… the towns flew by one after another as we raced by at amazing, surreal speed, helped by the smoothness of the asphalt and the fact that nothing in the world stood in our way.«
Sv. Filip i Jakov, Drage, Biograd, Vodice… the towns flew by one after another as we raced by at amazing, surreal speed, helped by the smoothness of the asphalt and the fact that nothing in the world stood in our way. When we got to the bridge outside Šibenik, I insisted on taking a short break, so that I could observe this town in which, by sheer accident, I had never lived, even though it belongs to me in every way, more than any other town in the Adriatic. In its panorama I saw my grandfather’s face, opening up into a thousand shuttered windows, like wrinkles that never forget anything. St. Michael’s Fortress shone like his forehead, and the dome of St. James’ Cathedral was as strong and sinewy as his shoulders were. Every face on the building’s front belonged to him as well. Thanks to Šibenik, I finally felt completely safe.
Still, we rode on, even though we found the trip harder and harder. Our only longer stop was just outside Primošten, in the town of Bilo – which is, incidentally, a Dalmatian slang term for cocaine, so naturally someone had written »Snort it!« on the signpost. We cooked some pasta on a beach while an amateur fisherman, moored in shallow waters just off the coast, folded his nets just as dawn was breaking. We somehow made our way to the marina outside the town of Trogir, where we discovered the largest agave plant we had ever seen, a giant among plants. Gently tapping one of its thick leaves was like trying to wake up a slumbering ancient beast. But the agave stayed silent. It hadn’t flowered yet, hadn’t begun to reach for the sun, to have its flowers burnt off like the wings of Icarus.
We reached Čiovo completely exhausted, so there was nothing else to do but stay at Tin and Toni’s place, waiting for our ship to Split. I lay down on a large rock jutting out from the sea and stared for a long while straight at Mount Marjan. The cypress trees reaching almost all the way to the surface of the sea made the hillside look almost like a household ornament, an ideal motif for an embroidery hanging over a double bed, reflected in the morning’s first coffee on those lazy mornings when no-one leaves bed before noon.
July 24th and 25th / Split
I last spent a night in Split over four years ago, when we set off on our first cycling trip. The context was completely different this time. Hrvoje and I met up with Nevena, and all three of us slept on a boat belonging to Andrea’s parents, moored in Zenta bay. It was the best possible solution for our lodgings; it had been a long while since I’d slept so calmly and plentifully, rocking carelessly on the surface of the lazy, dirty, but still fragrant sea.
A tour of the modernist architectural heritage of Split showed me a different, unfamiliar face of the city, quite unlike the usual tourist sights, demonstrating the achievements of self-governing socialism: a former retirement mansion of a Roman tyrant and tiny Mediterranean town transformed into something that at first seems even older, like a polis composed of retro-futurist Megaliths, swallowed by the sea back in the age of Atlantis, and now resurfacing again, covered in the patina of the deep sea but completely unblemished in form and structure. In reality, the audacious project of constructing a well thought-out and meticulously designed city, blended seamlessly into its natural surroundings and built primarily for its citizens can still be clearly discerned in there, in spite of all the recent irresponsible construction. It was simply planned too cleverly to be completely devoured by all these urbanistic tumors, however advanced.
A similar development, although much more extreme, has been happening in Skopje, which has in recent years become some sort of Yugoslav Las Vegas, but all this rampant imported historicism has failed to overshadow the fact that, following the devastating earthquake of 1963, the city was rebuilt and designed by the world’s best modern architects. A common thread between these two cities is the special relationship their buildings and city blocks have with sunlight, a subtle dance in which the light is allowed to reach certain spaces to varying degrees at varying times. It is an acknowledgment that, alongside the mountains and the sea – or river – it is one of the central demiurges of the lives of the locals.
»What the hell, we found love in a hopeless place.«
On our second day in Split, we had lunch at Fife’s famous restaurant, whose stuffed peppers and mashed potatoes were perfectly fine, despite the rumors that their meals have gotten worse – I guess that, after a couple of days of canned food and pizza slices, such minor changes are impossible to notice. We then took a walk around the Vela Varoš neighborhood, the home of legendary author Miljenko Smoje, and walked the maze of its alleys and open courtyards, all the way to the foothills of Mount Marjan. There, in an old house that used to belong to a Jewish family from Split, we found a luxury restaurant, filled to the brim with guests. In stark contrast, the old cemetery of Sephardi Jews, who came to the shores of the Adriatic fleeing Spain via Greece, Macedonia and Bosnia, stood empty and silent.
We walked among the pale gravestones trying to decipher their messages written in a script none of us could read, but discovered only that this is not a place often visited by tourists. The tombstones and mounds, devoid of flowers or candles but stacked with stones and pebbles, taught us about the moving Jewish tradition of commemorating one’s visit to hallowed ground and honoring the dead in this way. Strangely enough, even though my grandparents were not Jewish, one day we found such a stone on their grave at Zagreb’s Mirogoj cemetery. We never found out who had left it there, but we kept it there, for diversity’s sake.
Our trek back to our floating domicile was a systematic documentary insight into the twilight of our civilization on the beaches along the strip from Bačvice to Zenta, albeit in a fun, somewhat benign way. If you have never spent an evening in your early twenties vomiting into the sea or the bushes while your friends held you together, you haven’t really lived. What the hell, we found love in a hopeless place.–
Translated by Vinko Zgaga
Born in Zagreb in 1983, Vinko Zgaga graduated with a degree in Anthropology and English Language and Literature at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He teaches English language and translation courses at the Faculty’s English Department. In his fifteen years as a translator, he has translated everything from Tennessee Williams plays to speculative fiction to reality television, but his favorite professional challenge remains working with young Croatian authors, translating their work and presenting it to international audiences.
- The Croatian Democratic Union is a centre-right political party that has had a governing majority in state parliament since 1991, with the exception of periods from 2000 to 2003 and from 2011 to 2016, when the ruling party were its major opponents, the Social Democratic Party of Croatia.